Tag Archives: Bessie Smith

Gentrifiers and Black History in Philadelphia

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.

Bessie Smith: HBO Films

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.

Bessie Smith House

Bessie Smith moved to Philadelphia circa 1922. After her marriage to Jack Gee on June 7, 1923, she lived on Christian Street in South Philly.

The “Empress of the Blues” died in an auto accident in Mississippi on September 26, 1937. Her funeral was held in Philadelphia on October 4, 1937.

Bessie Smith2

The funeral was moved from Upshur’s Funeral Home to O.V. Catto Elks Lodge to accommodate the 30,000 mourners who filed pass her coffin.

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Bessie’s casket was taken on a slow tour of her South Philly neighborhood, briefly stopping at the Standard Theater where she regularly performed.

Standard Theater

A stop on the “Chitlin Circuit,” the Standard Theater was owned by African American entrepreneur John T. Gibson.

Standard Theater - Feature

Standard Theatre

From ExplorePAHistory.com

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.

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