Last week, Mural Arts Philadelphia unveiled Portraits of Justice, a public art project to engage ordinary citizens in conversations about transforming the criminal justice system.
Jeffrey Krimes and Russell Craig’s powerful murals overlook the statue of Frank Rizzo, a former police commissioner who had close ties with Italian mobsters and hung out at Black Mafia-owned joints on “The Strip” in West Philly. As mayor, Rizzo was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for a pattern of police brutality that “shocks the conscience.”
The murals’ bricks represent barriers to reentry. With their close proximity to Rizzo, the background brings to mind the former police commissioner gloating that his officers ordered Black Panthers up against a brick wall and forced them to strip naked in front of the news cameras. The August 31, 1970 incident is one of the many reasons Rizzo is loathed by African Americans.
The murals are designed to empower the public to reimagine a criminal justice system that is more than “just us.” To my surprise, they helped me reimagine a Thomas Paine Plaza without the Rizzo statue. The sheer size of the murals and the facial expressions are a silent rebuke to the monument to racial injustice. Tellingly, the family-commissioned hunk of junk has to be caged to protect it from the public.
After a night out on “the Strip,” folks would stop by Foo Foo’s Steak House to pick up a mammajamma sandwich to eat on the way home. The restaurant was located on the Strip in West Philly.
In his autobiography, You Only Rock Once, Jerry Blavat, “the Geator with the Heator,” shared memories of Sammy Davis Jr.:
I remembered how he would call me every time he appeared at the Latin [Casino] and ask if I would go to Foo Foo’s in West Philadelphia and get his “mammajamma” sandwiches.
The owner, James “Foo Foo” Ragan, was a numbers writer. From Black Brothers Inc.: The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Black Mafia:
Notwithstanding Ragan’s criminal history, he soon found himself as an extension of the Black Mafia’s racket. “The older heads like [Gus] Lacy and Ragan were given a choice: come in out of the rain or stay out there in the cold,” said one informer. “They hadn’t salted any money away and they were too old to take on the opposition, so they fell into line. The old saying used to be, “You can’t fight City Hall.” Now the saying is, “You can’t buck the system, and this is the system.”
A page from the “Black Mafia notebook” confiscated by the Philadelphia Police Department Organized Crime Unit shows Foo-Foo was being shaken down for a weekly “street tax.”
Source: American Gangster – The Philly Black Mafia
Located in West Philly on “the Strip,” Philly Groove Records was owned by Stan “The Man” Watson. The record company put out discs by First Choice, the Delfonics and other lesser-known local acts. A young Thom Bell produced some of the Delfonics’ biggest hits at Sigma Sound Studios and met a young singer-songwriter named Linda Creed while with Philly Groove. The Bell-Creed alliance hit it big in the ’70s with a string of hits they wrote and produced for the Spinners.
According to author Sean Patrick Griffin, the record company had ties to the fearsome Black Mafia:
John Stanley “Stan the Man” Watson owned Philly Groove Records, and employed the Black Mafia’s Bo Baynes from January 1968 until June 1971. Baynes’ stated position at Philly Groove was “road manager or promoter” and a PPD OCU [Philadelphia Police Department Organized Crime Unit] report states, “Reliable sources claim that Baynes did work for Watson. However, his position with Watson was that of an enforcer. Baynes’ primary mission was to intimidate disc jockeys to push certain records.
Black Brothers, Inc.: The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Black Mafia