St. Peter Claver, Gentrification and Black History

First it was #PopeInPhilly. Now this: The Archdiocese of Philadelphia plans to put the oldest church for black Catholics on the auction block. St. Peter Claver Union was named after the “Apostle of the Slave Trade,” a 16th century Spanish Jesuit priest who fought against the slave trade.

St. Peter Claver Church Historical Marker

St. Peter Claver was an anchor in the community. Future blues legend Ethel Waters recounts in her autobiography, His Eye is on the Sparrow, that at age six, she was gravely ill with typhoid fever and double pneumonia. Her grandmother sent for Fr. Healey who baptized and anointed her.

In 1942, St. Peter Claver’s Catholic Church, Fifty Golden Years, a self-published history, was released:

It was also toward the end of the 19th century that a sizable population of blacks developed their own Catholic congregation in Philadelphia. Prior to 1886, black Catholics had worshiped in the parishes of St. Joseph, St. Mary, and St. Augustine in the city. In 1886, Holy Trinity Church, a traditionally German Catholic Church at 6th and Spruce, began holding a mass for blacks. The pastor of Holy Trinity, Father Hilterman, encouraged his black congregants to form their own union, which adopted the name St. Peter Claver Union, after the native of Catalonia, Spain, whose efforts in behalf of emancipation earned him the title, “Apostle of the Slave Trade.”

In July 29, 1889, Rev. Patrick McDermott, arrived in Philadelphia to take charge of the burgeoning black Catholic congregation at the request of Mother Katherine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, after she visited Holy Ghost College (now Duquesne University) in Pittsburgh, PA. McDermott’s congregation began assembling in a small chapel in the second story of a home at 832 Pine Street in 1889, but it soon became too crowded, and the group began to look for a large church home.

When in 1890, the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia offered its building at 12th and Lombard for sale, the congregation began to pool its resources to purchase it. When Patrick Quinn, treasurer of the Beneficial Savings Fund Society, one of Philadelphia’s largest banks at the time, died the same year, his will stipulated that $5,000 of his fortune was to go to the “proposed Colored Catholic Church of Philadelphia.” With donations from other well-to-do Philadelphians and loan from a bank, the congregation managed to assemble the funds to purchase Fourth Presbyterian Church at 12th and Lombard, which was dedicated as St. Peter Claver’s Church, Philadelphia’s first black Catholic church, on January 3, 1892.

Fast forward to today. The Archdiocese is in Orphans’ Court petitioning for the removal of racial language in the deeds that would rewrite history.

Arlene Edmonds, community historian and author of the African American Catholic Youth Bible, told Sabrina Vourvoulias of Philadelphia Magazine:

I feel a special connection because I’ve always been interested in historical sites, particularly the Underground Railroad and the sites that were built from by those enslaved Africans who creatively masterminded their escapes. Setting foot in St. Peter Claver one can feel it is part of that lineage. As a Catholic, so many of the earliest African connections to the faith have been overpowered by Western traditions after the faith was embraced by Europeans. Most American Catholic churches are centered around a Eurocentric interpretation of the faith.

Then you have a St. Peter Claver Church that was donated to the Black community for the purpose of evangelizing to African Americans. They lived in Philadelphia during the antebellum era, were among those who escaped along the Underground Railroad, or who migrated here later from the south as well as the Caribbean and Latin America. This was their church before there was an Archdiocese of Philadelphia [emphasis added]. It housed their history in photographs and artifacts. To have that taken from us is very sad. That is why many feel as I do, that others are trying to erase our history even those who say they share our faith.

I don’t share Edmonds’ faith, but I share her concern that gentrification is erasing African American history. Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church, is host of “Urban Insight” on 900amWURD. In an interview with Edmonds, Rev. Tyler observed:

St. Peter Claver is sandwiched between Big Wesley and Mother Bethel. The neighborhood is awash with great history of founding events in the black community. It’s an American story. We must help the Archdiocese find a different way to deal with this property.

Given the givens, I put my faith in Orphans’ Court. So I filed an objection to the Archdiocese’s Petition for Cy Pres.

Black Wall Street and the Blues

June is Black Music Month. This June marks the 95th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. For two days (May 31-June1), white vigilantes massacred black residents, looted and burned to the ground the most prosperous black community in the United States.

The riot took place in the Greenwood District, known as the Black Wall Street, the heart of which was bounded by Greenwood Avenue, and Archer and Pine streets. Tulsa natives, brothers Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson’s band name pays tribute to one of the worst race riots in U.S. history.

Black Wall Street, a hotbed for jazz and blues, was a stop on the famed Chitlin’ Circuit. Bandleader Walter Barnes was one of the most colorful characters on “the stroll.”

Walter Barnes and his Creolians

In his book, The Chitlin’ Circuit: and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Preston Lauterbach writes:

The tour [Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians] kicked off in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the week before Thanksgiving, where Barnes found “Black Wall Street” bustling. “Greenwood is the name of the colored district of Tulsa, and one can get anything here from a shoe shine up.” Barnes highlighted the stroll’s musicians, dance promoters, dance halls, and its dentists, barbers, pharmacies, cafes, cab companies, and lodgings, always stressing the up-to-date. “I stopped with my entire orchestra at the modern and exclusive Small Hotel” in Tulsa, “one of the best equipped in the country, having newest electrical fixtures, telephone in each room, bath in every room, and modernistic furniture.” The Kings of Swing played the Crystal Palace Ballroom, “the last word in beauty,” and hung around the Goodie Goodie Club, Cotton Club, and Del Rio. “There’s plenty niteries here.”

In 1940, Barnes was killed in a fire while performing at the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi. The tragedy was memorialized in tribute songs by blues musicians, including Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker.

Hot Jazz and Cold War

In his opening remarks at the International Jazz Day global concert at the White House, President Barack Obama said:

Jazz is perhaps the most honest reflection of who we are as a nation. Because after all, has there ever been any greater improvisation than America itself? We do it in our own way. We move forward even when the road ahead is uncertain, stubbornly insistent that we’ll get to somewhere better, and confident that we’ve got all the right notes up our sleeve.

That “honest reflection of who we are as a nation” became an instrument of cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. Jazz musicians-turned-cultural ambassadors toured in more than 35 countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Jazz diplomacy was intended to win hearts and minds and promote a positive view of America as the land of freedom.

The irony of being ambassadors of freedom was not lost on jazz musicians who were treated as second-class citizens at home and subject to racial segregation.

As part of Jazz Appreciation Month, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, the Public Diplomacy Council and the DC Jazz Festival presented a program on jazz and public diplomacy.

Dizzy Gillespie was the first Jazz Ambassador. The legendary Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was the catalyst behind the tour. His son, Adam Clayton Powell III, President of the Public Diplomacy Council, recently wrote:

Americans underestimate the impact of jazz on audiences around the world. And in a way that contributes to the power of international tours by U.S. jazz musicians, including and especially tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

[…]

During the Cold War, America’s most prominent “jazz ambassadors” included Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong – at a time when segregation was the law of the land in much of the U.S. and the civil rights movement was at its peak. And that created a conflict for many of musicians.

“You had people being hosed down with fire hoses and dogs sicced on them, and you had these reports going out across the world,” said [Willard] Jenkins. “So it did create a real issue for many of the African American musicians who were selected to make those tours.”

Then Jenkins read from instructions given to musicians by the State Department: “‘Remember who you are and what you represent. Always be a credit to your government.’”

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International Jazz Day 2016

All good things must come to an end. Jazz Appreciation Month is going out on a high note. On Saturday, April 30, America’s classical music will be celebrated across the globe, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

International Jazz Day 2016

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said in a statement:

Jazz was born in the U.S. and traveled the world as a music of tolerance, freedom and human dignity. This is why UNESCO created International Jazz Day and we are extremely pleased that in 2016 Washington, DC has been designated the host city for this global celebration, with a unique All Star Concert at the White House, hosted by the President of the United States Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. This event reminds us Jazz is more than music – it is a universal message of peace with rhythm and meaning.

Jazz at the White House - 4.25.16

UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Herbie Hancock added:

We are thrilled that President Obama and Michelle Obama are hosting the International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert at the White House, and are truly grateful for their commitment to jazz and its role in building bridges and uniting people around the world. Over the past five years, the innovation and creativity of Jazz Day has been a beacon of light to millions of people who find common ground and communicate through the values inherent in jazz. On April 30th, people of all ages in all corners of the globe will participate in International Jazz Day. A wide range of momentous events will take place in thousands of neighborhoods – and the streets will be alive with the sounds of peace and freedom.

The all-star global concert will air on ABC-TV at 8pm ET.

Cadillac Club

The Cadillac Club was located in North Philly. It was owned by Benjamin and Ruth Bynum. From Wikipedia:

[Billy] Paul recalled: “[The Cadillac] was a famous, famous club. Aretha Franklin worked there. Me and George Benson used to work there all the time.” Located at 3738 Germantown Ave. in North Philadelphia, the Cadillac opened in 1965 and was run by Benjamin and Ruth Bynum before becoming the Impulse Discothèque in 1977. Benjamin booked the entertainers, Ruth handled the finances, and their two young sons Robert and Benjamin Jr. worked at the club. Benjamin Jr., who with his brother followed in their parents’ footsteps and ran their own jazz club Zanzibar Blue [and here] from 1990-2007.

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2016 NEA Jazz Master Archie Shepp

The 2016 NEA Jazz Masters were honored at a tribute concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

This year’s class includes Archie Shepp who grew up in West Philadelphia. During an NEA interview, Shepp talked about jazz and Philadelphia:

The music that we call jazz has always been important in the African American community, especially in the poorer neighborhoods.

There was a lot of racism and prejudice, but a lot of music, a lot of blues and some good times. Music
was all over Philadelphia. You could go down to North Philadelphia and hear young John Coltrane or Johnny Coles, Jimmy Oliver, Jimmy Heath. I suppose that’s what jazz is all about, suffering and good times, and somehow making the best of all of that.

At the tribute concert for Benny Carter, I got a chance to spend some time with Shepp during the break. He reminisced about the jam sessions at the Heath Brothers’ Family Home. He shared that he learned how to play chords from Coltrane and Lee Morgan.

Truth be told, Philadelphia’s contribution to jazz is mostly an untold story. We must capture stories about Philly’s jazz scene while those who know the history are still here.

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