Women in Jazz Month 2019

March is Women in Jazz Month, a time to celebrate and recognize the contributions of women to jazz. As a lifelong activist, I want to celebrate women who used music as a platform for social change.

Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is well-known.

Ethel Waters’ “Supper Time” is not as well-known. Written by Irving Berlin especially for Waters, the song is about a wife’s grief over the lynching of her husband.

Ella Fitzgerald broke down racial barriers. On October 7, 1955, the “First Lady of Song” performed with the Jazz at the Philharmonic in Houston. The concert tour was produced by her manager Norman Granz, an ally in the fight for racial justice. The Music Hall had “Negro” and “White” labels on the bathroom doors. Shortly before the show, Granz removed the labels.

Houston’s segregationists were angry about Granz’s attempt to integrate the show by refusing to pre-sell tickets. Some whites asked for a refund rather than sit next to an African American. After the first show, the police stormed Fitzgerald’s dressing room and arrested her, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and other musicians on trumped-up charges.

Ella Fitgzerald - Arrested - October 1955

With the intervention of her friend, actress Marilyn Monroe, Fitzgerald was the first African American to perform at the legendary Mocambo nightclub.

Ella Fitzgerald - Marilyn Monroe

Nina Simone’s outrage over the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church emboldened civil rights activists.

Simone’s celebration of black excellence inspired a new generation of civil rights activists, including the writer.

Remembering Marian Anderson

Given the givens, some folks have called for a “do-over” of Black History Month 2019. I want to close out February on a high note by remembering Marian Anderson.

The name Marian Anderson has been part of my life from Day One. An older-now-deceased sister was named Marian. As a schoolgirl, I was puzzled when I would hear my teachers say her name. Of course I would later learn they were referring to the world-renowned contralto who inspired a generation of civil rights activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Marian Anderson - Lincoln Memorial

In a high school essay, 15-year-old Martin wrote:

Black America still wears chains. The finest Negro is at the mercy of the meanest white man. Even winners of our highest honors face the class color bar. Look at a few of the paradoxes that mark daily life in America. Marian Anderson was barred from singing in the Constitution Hall, ironically enough, by the professional daughters of the very men who founded this nation for liberty and equality. But this tale had a different ending. The nation rose in protest, and gave a stunning rebuke to the Daughters of the American Revolution and a tremendous ovation to the artist, Marian Anderson, who sang in Washington on Easter Sunday and fittingly, before the Lincoln Memorial. Ranking cabinet members and a justice of the Supreme Court were seated about her. Seventy-five thousand people stood patiently for hours to hear a great artist at a historic moment. She sang as never before with tears in her eyes. When the words of “America” and “Nobody Knows De Trouble I Seen” rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity. That was a touching tribute, but Miss Anderson may not as yet spend the night in any good hotel in America. Recently she was again signally honored by being given the Bok reward as the most distinguished resident of Philadelphia. Yet she cannot be served in many of the public restaurants of her home city, even after it has declared her to be its best citizen.

That was then. Ms. Anderson is now an American icon who will be celebrated in her home city with a new exhibition, “Marian: A Soul In Song,” presented by the National Marian Anderson Historical Society.

Marian Anderson Exhibit

The exhibition features a collection of the opera singer’s performance gowns, costumes and accessories, photographs, video and recordings. The exhibition runs from February 27, 2019 to January 1, 2020. For more information and tickets, visit the Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society.

American History 101

Black History Month is past the halfway mark. With the daily stream of stories about blackface in high places in Virginia, and Gucci and Katy Perry blackface merchandise, some are thankful February is the shortest month.

Katy Perry - Blackface2

Governor Ralph Northam’s assertion that the first Africans to arrive in Virginia were “indentured servants” shows his fundamental ignorance about American history.

It has been 400 years since “twenty and odd” Africans arrived at Jamestown. The Virginia governor, aka Coonman, did not know how African Americans’ ancestors got here so he’s reading up on American history. Fine, but here’s the “CliffsNotes” version courtesy of B.B. King:

When I first got the blues
They brought me over on a ship
Men were standing over me
And a lot more with a whip

Unmarking African American History in Philadelphia

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in colonial America. The first Africans arrived in Philadelphia circa 1639. Although the African American story cannot be told without Philadelphia, black history was largely excluded from public spaces. A chance conversation at a Kwanzaa celebration led me to sound the alarm about missing and damaged African American historical markers in Philadelphia.

There is power in remembering the past. Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, recently wrote:

You can tell a great deal about a country and a people by what they deem important enough to remember, to create moments for — what they put in their museum and what they celebrate. … Yet I would suggest that we learn even more about a country by what it chooses to forget — its mistakes, its disappointments, and its embarrassments. In some ways, African American History month is a clarion call to remember. Yet it is a call that is often unheeded.

In Philadelphia, we have heeded the call to ensure the ancestors are not forgotten. During Black History Month, we are checking on the status of African American historical markers.

Faye Anderson - William Still Historical Marker - Feb. 2, 2019

In an essay published in PlanPhilly, I wrote about the unmarking of African American history:

Philadelphia’s streets are lined with history. The blue and gold signs issued by the Pennsylvania Historical Museum and Commission mark everything from the oldest medical library in the U.S. at Pennsylvania Hospital to 300-year-old Elfreth’s Alley.

But before 1990, there were only two markers associated with African American history installed in Philadelphia: First Protest Against Slavery (1983) and St. Thomas’ African Episcopal Church (1984). To fill the gaping hole in the American story, in 1990 Charles L. Blockson, founder and then-curator of Temple University’s Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, launched the historical marker project. The project was funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation. In the introduction to Philadelphia Guide: African-American State Historical Markers published in 1992, Bernard C. Watson, Ph.D., then-president and CEO of the foundation, wrote: “The Philadelphia African-American Pennsylvania State Marker Project is a modest first step toward correcting one of the most egregious problems in Philadelphia public history. Philadelphia, the birthplace of our independence, home of the Liberty Bell, the first capital city of these United States, is so rich in historical detail that the absence of signs and signposts to recognize and commemorate the nearly 300-year presence of Africans and then African-Americans, has been especially troublesome. They, too, were and are part of our history.”

Then as now, gentrification was unmarking black history. Dr. Blockson wrote this about the origin of the project: “When the project began, it became apparent that Philadelphia, like other American cities, was losing places of historical significance through gentrification and neglect. It is our hope that through the installation of the African-American historical markers, we can preserve the remaining sites and revive memories of past events and citizens who lived before us and made positive contributions to our nation.”

Jessie Redmon Fauset was among the first wave of markers dedicated in the 1990s. Her marker was installed in front of the North Philadelphia house in which she was living at the time of her death.

jessie redmon fauset historical marker2

The February 18, 2017 issue of the New Yorker included an article by literary commentator Morgan Jerkins, “The Forgotten Work of Jessie Redmon Fauset.” The piece revived interest in Fauset’s literary work. However, the accomplished writer was never forgotten in Philadelphia. On its 150th anniversary in 1998, the Alumnae Association of the Philadelphia High School for Girls elected Fauset to their Distinguished Daughters Court of Honor. She was the first African American graduate of the prestigious public school.

Although former Sixer and NBA legend Charles Barkley played on a different court, he, too, honored Fauset by naming her a “Philadelphia Black History Month All Star” in February 2018. A few months later, Jacqueline Wiggins found an ugly patch on the sidewalk where Fauset’s historical marker used to be.

the-covered-patch-where-a-historic-marker-commemorating-jessie-redmon-fauset-once-stood.752.1337.s

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Black History Month 2019

In February 1926, Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, launched “Negro History Week.” Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, wrote:

No one has played a greater role in helping all Americans know the black past than Carter G. Woodson, the individual who created Negro History Week in Washington, D.C., in February 1926. Woodson was the second black American to receive a PhD in history from Harvard—following W.E.B. Du Bois by a few years. To Woodson, the black experience was too important simply to be left to a small group of academics. Woodson believed that his role was to use black history and culture as a weapon in the struggle for racial uplift. By 1916, Woodson had moved to DC and established the “Association for the Study of Negro Life and Culture,” an organization whose goal was to make black history accessible to a wider audience. Woodson was a strange and driven man whose only passion was history, and he expected everyone to share his passion.

This impatience led Woodson to create Negro History Week in 1926, to ensure that school children be exposed to black history. Woodson chose the second week of February in order to celebrate the birthday of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It is important to realize that Negro History Week was not born in a vacuum. The 1920s saw the rise in interest in African American culture that was represented by the Harlem Renaissance where writers like Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglass Johnson, Claude McKay—wrote about the joys and sorrows of blackness, and musicians like Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Lunceford captured the new rhythms of the cities created in part by the thousands of southern blacks who migrated to urban centers like Chicago. And artists like Aaron Douglass, Richard Barthe, and Lois Jones created images that celebrated blackness and provided more positive images of the African American experience.

Woodson hoped to build upon this creativity and further stimulate interest through Negro History Week. Woodson had two goals. One was to use history to prove to white America that blacks had played important roles in the creation of America and thereby deserve to be treated equally as citizens. In essence, Woodson—by celebrating heroic black figures—be they inventors, entertainers, or soldiers—hoped to prove our worth, and by proving our worth—he believed that equality would soon follow. His other goal was to increase the visibility of black life and history, at a time when few newspapers, books, and universities took notice of the black community, except to dwell upon the negative. Ultimately Woodson believed Negro History Week—which became Black History Month in 1976—would be a vehicle for racial transformation forever.

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#ThisPlaceMatters: Legendary Blue Horizon

After the Civil War, North Broad Street became one of Philadelphia’s leading addresses. North Broad was attractive to wealthy industrialists for two reasons. First, many of their factories and mills were located in nearby industrial areas. Second, the old money crowd in Rittenhouse Square snubbed their noses at the nouveau riche businessmen.

The brownstone mansions that lined North Broad were built to house the families of the industrialists. Between May 1912 and June 1913, the Loyal Order of Moose Lodge 54 acquired three brownstones to establish a new clubhouse. The buildings were renovated with the addition of an auditorium and ballroom.

blue horizon - vintage

In 1961, Jimmy Toppi Sr. purchased the property. Toppi renamed the buildings after “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” a song from the 1930 film Monte Carlo. The Blue Horizon hosted international, regional and state title fights. It was voted the #1 boxing venue in the world by The Ring magazine; Sports Illustrated called it “the last great boxing venue in the country.” The Legendary Blue Horizon closed in June 2010.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission added the Legendary Blue Horizon to the local register of historic landmarks in 2015. However, only the Broad Street façades were protected. Four years later, Orens Bros. is back before the PHC Architecture Committee to seek final approval of its design of the front façades. The developer plans to demolish the brownstones and construct a hotel.

blue horizon - front facade rendering

PHC staff recommended the Committee deny final approval of the design. And indeed it did. The Architecture Committee voted to send the developer back to the drawing board.

All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson provided public comment in support of the Commission staff’s recommendation:

The Legendary Blue Horizon is one of the few extant buildings associated with Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz. Before it was a beloved boxing venue, it was an entertainment destination. Duke Ellington performed in the ballroom that was added on by Philadelphia Lodge No. 54, Loyal Order of Moose. The members-only bar later became a nightspot open to the public. The Camero Room played host to jazz legends-in-the-making like trumpeters Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro.

The Legendary Blue Horizon holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Philadelphians as evidenced by its depiction on the Philadelphia Courthouse Mural commissioned under the Percent for Art Program. As you can see, the iconic stairs figure prominently in Philadelphians’ memories.

blue horizon - philadelphia courthouse mural

I posted the recent Philadelphia Inquirer report about the Orens Bros. proposal to All That Philly Jazz’s Facebook page. The post has gone viral. Why? This place matters.

The proposed hotel is appropriately named since it takes a lot of moxy to seek approval to cheapen a beloved historic landmark with modern add-ons, materials and signage. The proposed design erases the historic character of the front façades.

I agree with the Commission staff that the applicant’s design does not comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. It would make a mockery of historic designation if the Committee voted to ignore the standards.

I recognize that financing of the project is outside the purview of this Committee. That said, it is important to note that in an earlier iteration of the project, Orens Bros. received $7 million in grants under Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) for what was then an $18 million project.

Of the $7 million in state grants, Orens Bros. drew down $748,578; the balance of the grants expired. The applicant spent nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in taxpayers’ money and walked away without sealing the buildings. The historic landmark is now exposed to the elements.

The first round of RACP funding applications closes on January 31. I fully expect Orens Bros. will again rattle the cup for a public subsidy for its now $22 million project. If the proposed design is approved, Philadelphians and other taxpayers would effectively pay for the demolition and defacement of a beloved historic landmark.

Orens Bros. Real Estate does not care about the Legendary Blue Horizon, but this Committee can make them care. The application should be denied on the grounds the proposed design does not comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, specifically Standards 2, 9 and 10.

The applicant should go back to the drawing board and develop a design that does, in fact, preserve the front façades and respect their historic character.

Orens Bros. can appeal the Architecture Committee’s decision to the full Philadelphia Historical Commission. Or they can accept the “denial with hope” decision. Stay tuned.

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta. An HBO documentary includes scenes from his last birthday celebration in 1968.

dr. king - xernona clayton

dr. king - xernona clayton2

Xernona Clayton said she organized the office party to “cheer up” the civil rights leader. For information about King in the Wilderness, go here.

Happy birthday, Dr. King. We miss you but your legacy lives on in our determination to “keep moving.”