Bessie Smith famously told us: “Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.”
I have made it my business to oppose the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s proposed Christian Street Historic District which would memorialize a small “light, bright, and damn near white” Negro elite. Cataclysmic events during the period of significance (1910 to 1945) include the Great Depression, the Great Migration, two World Wars, and the New Deal.
The Empress of the Blues lived on Christian Street. Her house is located less than 500 feet outside the arbitrary boundaries of the proposed historic district. The fact that one of the highest paid Black entertainers in the 1920s and ‘30s is excluded from the gentrifiers’ narrative about “Black wealth” tells you all you need to know about the merits of the nomination.
Bessie Smith shaped a fashion aesthetic for blues singers. Drexel University professor Alphonso McClendon, author of Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation, wrote:
Contrary to the sad lyrics they espoused, the blues ladies dressed in extravagant designs that articulated their growing wealth, as well as the changing attitudes of women. … In a publicity photo for Columbia Records , Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, captured the Oriental aesthetic, elegantly draped in a sleeveless net tunic embroidered with beads and floral appliqués that scalloped at the hem. Smith was known for her opulent headdresses that exploited beads, fringe and feathers, conceivably a strategy to emphasize the head as practiced by early African societies.
For info about the “Oriental aesthetic” and the Jazz Age, check out “Venus and Diana: Fashioning the Jazz Age” exhibition presented by the Fox Historic Costume Collection at Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.
The first enslaved Africans were brought to Philadelphia in 1639. Philadelphia was the center of organized resistance to slavery. A visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture shows that the African American story cannot be told without Philadelphia.
In a city with Black National Historic Landmarks and National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites, gentrifiers in the most gentrified neighborhood have proposed that six blocks – 1400 to 2000 Christian Street – be designated Philadelphia’s first “Black-themed” historic district. The notables who lived on this stretch of Christian Street are largely unknown but they lived in elegant townhouses. The 1300 block of Christian Street is not included in the proposed historic district because it is lined with basic rowhouses. The Bessie Smith House is located at 1319 Christian Street.
Philadelphia has a demolition crisis. Gentrifiers are exploiting Black history to preserve the historic fabric of the blocks from which African Americans have been displaced. If it is about Black history and culture, how do you exclude the Empress of the Blues? Download my statement on the proposed “Black-themed” historic district here.
Written and directed by Dee Rees, “Bessie” follows the life and times of legendary “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith (played by Queen Latifah).”Bessie” also stars Mo’Nique, Khandi Alexander, Charles S. Dutton, Mike Epps and Tika Sumpter.
The biopic will premiere on HBO on Saturday, May 16, 2015. For more info, visit BessietheMovie.com.
A stop on the “Chitlin Circuit,” the Standard Theater was owned by African American entrepreneur John T. Gibson.
In 1914, Gibson bought the Standard Theatre on the 1100 block of South Street. His timing couldn’t have been better, for in the following years, tens of thousands of southern blacks would pour into the city of Philadelphia as part of the Great Migration unleashed by the First World War.
Young men and women, with good jobs and money in their pockets, flocked to Gibson’s Standard Theatre to see a fare of “High Class and Meritorious Vaudeville,” stage shows, and popular music. The Standard became a regular stop for Black performers on their national tours: comedians Bylow and Ashes, singers Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, Erma C. Miller’s Brown Skinned Models, popularly known as the “Black Rockettes,” and jazz bands led by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.