United States vs. Billie Holiday

It has been nearly 62 years since Billie Holiday passed away. Hundreds of dissertations, books, films and documentaries later, she is a blank canvas onto which fans and detractors project their hopes, dreams and issues. I see a strong Black woman whose back did not bend.

From an early age, Billie was failed by the institutions that should have protected her. She was racially profiled and harassed by the FBI and hounded by the Philadelphia Police Department. From where Billie sat, the whole of the United States was arrayed her. But still she persisted. She didn’t give a damn what folks thought about her drug abuse, sexuality or string of no-good men.

Billie was a popular club artist and concert artist but she harbored no illusion about her audiences. She famously said, “They come to see me fall on my ass.” While there, she demanded their attention when she sang “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching protest song that took a toll on her livelihood and ultimately her life.

The Billie Holiday historical marker at 1409 Lombard Street piqued my interest in investigating her story beyond the marker. One of Billie’s Philadelphia stories is told in the new biopic starring Andra Day and directed by Lee Daniels.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is now streaming on Hulu.

The Black Church in America

I am not a church-goer but I fight to save historic churches from demolition (here and here). Regardless of the denomination, the Black Church served as “the foundation for [our] freedom struggle.” Built with the blood, sweat and tears of the ancestors, these buildings hold stories of faith, resistance and triumph.

Most Sunday mornings, I listen to spirituals and old school gospel music.

In his remarks at the 22nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts & Public Policy, Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center Wynton Marsalis said:

Those spirituals were the first body of identifiable purely American music art. … Slaves reaching across time to connect the Old Testament and the New, and Moses and freedom, and Jesus and freedom and made it all be right now. They couldn’t even read. But they knew. And I’m telling you these songs brought people together because singing gives a community purpose. And they put everything in those songs. And that music made us believe and it called us home.

On Tuesdays, February 16-23, 9:00 p.m. ET, I will be called home to the church as PBS premieres the two-part series, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, which retraces 400 years of the Black Church in America.

The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song will be available on PBS, PBS.org and PBS Video App. Check your local listing here.

Tulsa Race Riot@100

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. For two days (May 31-June 1) white vigilantes massacred Black residents, looted and burned to the ground “Black Wall Street.”

The riot took place in the Greenwood District, the heart of which was bounded by Greenwood Avenue, and Archer and Pine streets. Tulsa natives, brothers Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson, named their group The GAP Band in tribute to one of the worst race riots in U.S. history.

Goin’ Back to T-Town tells the story of the Greenwood District, the most prosperous Black community in the United States in the 1920s. Narrated by Ossie Davis, the film was first broadcast in 1993.

There will be an encore broadcast on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on Monday, February 8, 2021 at 9/8c. The film will be available on PBS, PBS.org and PBS Video App. Check your local listing here.

Trump Impeachment Trial

The article of impeachment for incitement of insurrection will be delivered to the Senate at 7 p.m. Monday.

In a letter to House Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote:

Monday, January 25, will be a momentous and solemn day, as the House sadly transmits the Article of Impeachment for Donald Trump to the Senate.

Our Constitution and country are well-served by our outstanding impeachment managers – lead manager Rep. Jamie Raskin and Reps. Diana DeGette, David Cicilline, Joaquin Castro, Eric Swalwell, Ted Lieu, Stacy Plaskett, Madeleine Dean, and Joe Neguse. I salute them for the great love of our country, dedication to our democracy and loyalty to our oath with which they have proceeded, as they ensure that no one is above the law.

The House has been respectful of the Senate’s constitutional power over the trial and always attentive to the fairness of the process. When the Article of Impeachment is transmitted to the Senate, the former President will have had nearly two weeks since we passed the Article. Our Managers are ready for trial before the 100 Senate jurors.

The Senate will begin Trump’s second impeachment trial the week of February 8. They call it “Stormy Monday.” For Donald John Trump, Tuesday and the coming weeks will be just as bad.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

From the cries of the enslaved to George Floyd’s anguished cry for his mother, Black people have sung “sorrow songs” of suffering and oppression.

For African Americans freedom is a constant struggle. From slave songs to freedom songs music is the glue that binds African Americans together in the struggles for emancipation, civil rights and racial justice. In an interview, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

A Negro song anthology would include sorrow songs, shouts for joy, battle hymns, anthems. Since slavery, the Negro has sung throughout his struggle in America. “Steal Away” and “Go Down, Moses” were the songs of faith and inspiration which were sung on the plantations. For the same reasons the slaves sang, Negroes today sing freedom songs, for we, too, are in bondage.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021, TV One will premiere UNSUNG PRESENTS: MUSIC & THE MOVEMENT, a two-part documentary of 400 years of “auditory dissent.” The film features interviews with artists, archival footage from memorable speeches, and live vocal performances.

Cathy Hughes, Chairwoman of Urban One Inc., said in a statement:

Music is the heart and soul of Black culture – giving life to our experiences, voice to our stories and growing power out of our pain. Every melody, lyric and rhythm artfully depicts the layers of Black diversity, scope of Black creativity, and depths of the complexity of our people. TV One’s Music & the Movement special pays homage to the music and music makers whose talents created a soundtrack of Black music during moments of political and social unrest throughout our history.

Robyn Greene Arrington, Vice President of Programming and Production, added:

Throughout history, Black music has been a clarion call to amplify the voice of our community and important social and political movements like the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements. After an unprecedented year of social, economic, and political turmoil, we felt MLK Day was a great time to chronicle the ongoing struggles of Black Americans along with those who tirelessly lend their voices to protesting injustice and instigating positive changes for our community and social justice movements.

UNSUNG PRESENTS: MUSIC & THE MOVEMENT will air on TV One on Monday, January 18, 2021, at 8 p.m. ET.

American Masters: How It Feels To Be Free

In a 1969 interview, Nina Simone said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians.”

The upcoming PBS documentary How It Feels To Be Free tells the story of six Black artists who reflected the times – Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Pam Grier, Diahann Carroll, Lena Horne and Cicely Tyson.

Michael Kantor, American Masters series executive producer, said:

These revolutionary Black women embody stories of courage, resilience and heroism. They fought for representation and economic, social and political equality through their artistry and activism. We are proud to share the stories of how each left an indelible mark on our culture and inspired a new generation.

Executive producer Alicia Keys added:

I am proud to be a part of such a meaningful, important project. Art is the most powerful medium on the planet, and I continue to be inspired by and learn from these powerful, brave and stereotype-shattering women who leveraged their success as artists to fearlessly stand up against racism, sexism, exclusion and harassment. I honor their courage by celebrating their stories and continuing the work they started.

How It Feels To Be Free premieres Monday, January 18, 2021 at 9 p.m. on PBS. Check your local listing here.

Black History Matters

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of William Still, father of the Underground Railroad. Still’s last place of residence was 244 S. 12th Street.

Still’s neighbors included abolitionist Henry Minton who lived at 204 S. 12th Street. While Still’s residence has been demolished, Minton’s former residence and place of business is still standing, for now.

In the coming weeks, New York City-based Midwood Investment & Development will demolish one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad. The road to demolition was paved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission which for an “inexplicable” reason ignored the unanimous recommendation of its Committee on Historic Designation. The sole vote for designating the Henry Minton House was cast by the representative of City Council President Darrell Clarke, the only Black man with a seat at the table.

The Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board wrote:

Critics like Faye M. Anderson, the director of a public history project to document Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz, maintain that the commission and its staff, which are predominantly white, do not advocate enough on behalf of preserving overlooked sites, such as Doctors Row, that are rich with Black history.

Consider the inexplicable 2019 decision to reject a register nomination for a 12th Street building once occupied by the abolitionist Henry Minton, a member of Philadelphia’s 19th-century Black elite. Anderson and other critics contend the commission gave too much weight to arcane technical specifications or architectural alterations — and paid too little attention to the role of the building in community life.

Demolition of the Henry Minton House is not the end of the story. Midwood has a conditional public art bonus that allows the developer to build more cookie-cutter apartments for “the demographic moving to Philly.” The zoning density bonus is site-specific and must be approved by the Philadelphia Art Commission. If the developer erases the history of the specific site, 204 S. 12th Street, the community will fight the issuance of a Certificate of Occupancy. Without a CO, Midwood’s shiny new high-rise will sit empty.

The struggle continues.

UPDATE: The Design Advocacy Group’s letter to the editor in response to the Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board op-ed has been published (full disclosure: I serve on DAG’s Steering Committee). The letter reads in part:

While we’re at it, we also can’t wait for a long-term solution to protect the house and restaurant of abolitionist and star caterer Henry Minton at 204 South 12th Street. The developers of the generic 36-story residential tower planned for that site have agreed to pay for a replacement for the mural honoring LBGTQ activist Gloria Casarez that they have already painted over. That’s welcome news. But they should also preserve the distinctive 19th-century façade of the Minton house. That will make their project more attractive—and it’s the right thing. It’s a win-win.

Read more

On the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Midwood Investment & Development began to demolish the Henry Minton House. The developer unwittingly exposed the lie that the alterations to the façade were irreversible. With little effort, the façade could have been restored to its period of significance. But properties associated with Black history must pass a Jim Crow historic integrity test that the Betsy Ross House and other properties designated “historic” could not pass.

This is what systemic racism in historic preservation looks like.

Help Preserve Historic Eden Cemetery

George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” In my youth, I took the long way to my high school rather than the short-cut through the nearby cemetery. Fast forward to today, when I pass a burial ground, I often think of Johnny Taylor who sang “people in the cemetery, they’re not all alone.”

Eden Cemetery is a 53-acre historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a site on the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, and a member of the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project. A stroll through Eden is “like walking through a book of Black history.” The lives of those interred span from 1721 to the present.

Under the CARES Act, taxpayers who don’t itemize their deductions are allowed to deduct an additional $300 for cash contributions to public charities this year. You can help protect Eden’s legacy and preserve African American memory by making an end-of-year donation here.

Your tax-deductible donation will ensure the graves of Father of the Underground Railroad William Still, Letitia Still, Henry Minton, Octavius V. Catto, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Marian Anderson, among others, will be kept clean.