Tag Archives: Civil Rights

Keep Gloria Casarez Mural on 12th Street

Thirty years ago, now-Columbia Law School professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.” Midwood Investment & Development’s demolition of 204 South 12th Street will erase LBGTQ history and Black history from public memory. The fight to save the Gloria Casarez mural intersects with the fight to save one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad.

Casarez was a civil rights leader and LGBTQ activist, and the first director of Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs. Her mural adorns one of the interconnected buildings owned by Midwood. The building to the right of the mural is the former residence and place of business of Henry Minton, a leading Black abolitionist and elite caterer whose guests included John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Frederick Douglass, the Father of the Underground Railroad.

Midwood plans to demolish the property and build apartments for the “demographic moving to Philly” (read: white people). In an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Erme Maula, a lifelong activist for justice and equality, wrote:

The Gloria Casarez mural at 204 S. 12th St. is scheduled for imminent demolition by Midwood Development and Investment. Midwood plans to knock down the former 12th Street Gym and build a 31-story building in its place.

Anyone who knew Gloria and her impact on Philadelphia knows that the loss of the mural is a massive loss for our city. The mural was erected in 2015 to honor Gloria Casarez, a local Latina activist who died of breast cancer in 2014. Gloria dedicated her life to civil and economic rights. She brought communities together to find common ground and common vision. As a student, she organized other students to push for affordable housing and an end to homelessness. As the city’s first director of LGBT affairs, Gloria led Philadelphia to adopt the broadest protections for LGBT people in the nation.

On Monday, October 19, 2020, there will be a “Keep Gloria on 12th” vigil in front of the mural from 5pm to 6:30pm, followed by a Town Hall via Zoom at 7pm. The town hall meeting will provide a space to “plan further actions to stop the erasure of our lives, our achievements, and our history that Gloria fought to preserve.” The vigil and town hall are open to the public. To register, go here.

Driving While Black

From the moment the first enslaved Africans were brought to British colonial America in 1619, Black mobility has been policed. Frederick Douglass had to carry a pass as he traveled across the country to recruit Black troops for the Civil War.

While white Americans were told to get their kicks on Route 66, African Americans had to put the pedal to the metal lest the sun go down on them in one of the sundown towns along the storied highway.

A two-hour documentary, “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America,” aired on PBS on October 13, 2020.

Gretchen Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program of the State University of New York, spent 20 years researching Black mobility. The documentary is based on her book, “Driving While Black: African-American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights.” Sorin, director Ric Burns, producer and editor Emir Lewis, and Spencer Crew, acting director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, recently participated in a forum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

A travel guide, The Negro Motorist Green Book helped Black travelers navigate racialized public spaces. For information about the Green Book in Philadelphia, go here.

National Black Voter Day

BET and its partners launched #ReclaimYourVote, a voter education and voter mobilization campaign:

This year-long, nonpartisan campaign — #ReclaimYourVote — will galvanize our community by educating, engaging and empowering action. BET will execute a high-energy campaign that lays out the biggest issues, breaks down otherwise confusing processes and highlights specific ways we can reclaim our collective power.

To register to vote, check your registration, locate your polling place, or information about vote by mail or early voting options in your state, visit vote.org.

As of this writing, Election Day is 51 days away. Get ready, y’all.

Historic Preservation and Racial Justice

All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson was recently interviewed by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The federal agency “promotes the preservation, enhancement, and sustainable use of our nation’s diverse historic resources, and advises the President and the Congress on national historic preservation policy.” The following is an excerpt from the interview.

What led you to your field?
I am a lifelong social justice activist. But I am an “accidental” preservationist. My interest in historic preservation was piqued by the historical marker that notes Billie Holiday “often lived here” when she was in Philadelphia. I went beyond the marker and learned that “here” was the Douglass Hotel. I wanted to know why Lady Day stayed in a modest hotel when a luxury hotel, the Bellevue-Stratford (now the Bellevue Philadelphia), is located just a few blocks away. The Douglass Hotel was first listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1938. The Green Book was a travel guide that helped African Americans navigate Jim Crow laws in the South and racial segregation in the North.

#GreenBookPHL Collage

How does what you do relate to historic preservation?
There are few extant buildings associated with Philadelphia’s jazz legacy. In cities across the country, jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was a stepping stone to the Civil Rights Movement. All That Philly Jazz is a crowdsourced project that is documenting untold or under-told stories. At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Whose story gets told? The buildings that are vessels for African American history and culture typically lack architectural significance. While unadorned, the buildings are places where history happened. They connect the past to the present.

Why do you think historic preservation matters?
For me, historic preservation is not solely about brick-and-mortar. I love old buildings. I also love the stories old buildings hold. To borrow a phrase from blues singer Little Milton, if walls could talk, they would tell stories of faith, resistance, and triumph. Historic preservation is about the power of public memory. It’s about staking African Americans’ claim to the American story. A nation preserves the things that matter and black history matters. It is, after all, American history.

What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?
Historic preservation does not exist in a vacuum. The built environment reflects social inequities. I recommend students take courses that will help them understand systemic racism and how historic preservation perpetuates social inequities. In an essay published earlier this year in The New Yorker, staff writer Casey Cep observed: “To diversify historic preservation, you need to address not just what is preserved but who is preserving it—because, as it turns out, what counts as history has a lot to do with who is doing the counting.”

Places associated with African Americans have been lost to disinvestment, urban planning, gentrification and implicit bias. For instance, the Philadelphia Historical Commission rejected the nomination of the Henry Minton House for listing on the local register despite a unanimous vote by the Committee on Historic Designation. The Commission said the nomination met the criteria for designation but the property is not “recognizable” (read: lacked integrity). Meanwhile, properties in Society Hill with altered or new facades have been added to the local register.

Do you have a favorite preservation project? What about it made it special?
Robert Purvis was a co-founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Library Company of Colored People and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. By his own estimate, he helped 9,000 self-emancipated black Americans escape to the North.

The last home in which the abolitionist lived is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The property has had the same owner since 1977. As the Spring Garden neighborhood gentrified, the owner wanted to cash in and sell the property to developers who planned to demolish it. The property is protected, so he pursued demolition by neglect. Over the years, the owner racked up tens of thousands of dollars in housing code violations and fines. In January 2018, the Spring Garden Community Development Corporation petitioned the Common Pleas Court for conservatorship in order to stabilize the property. The petition was granted later that year. A historic landmark that was on the brink of collapse was saved by community intervention.

Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
The John Coltrane House, one of only 67 National Historic Landmarks in Philadelphia, is deteriorating before our eyes. In collaboration with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition and Jazz Bridge, I nominated the historic landmark for inclusion on 2020 Preservation At Risk. The nomination was successful. As hoped, the listing garnered media attention. Before the coronavirus lockdown, several people contacted me and expressed interest in buying the property. The conversations are on pause. I am confident that whether under current “ownership” (the owner of record is deceased), new ownership or conservatorship, the rowhouse where Coltrane composed “Giant Steps” and experienced a spiritual awakening will be restored to its former glory.

Read more

Must-See TV: ‘The Sit-In’

For one week in February 1968, Harry Belafonte hosted “The Tonight Show,” then the highest-rated late night television show. Belafonte’s guests included Robert F. Kennedy, Bill Cosby, Lena Horne, Nipsey Russell, Paul Newman, Wilt Chamberlain, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Sidney Poitier and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A documentary about that magical week of interviews and performances, “The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show,” was scheduled to be screened at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. But along came the coronavirus. Variety reports:

It was 1968, war was raging and racial tensions in America were at a boiling point, dividing the nation. In February, Harry Belafonte stepped in for Johnny Carson to host “The Tonight Show.” It was a monumental moment in which an African American would be the frontman of the most dominant program in late night — and perhaps all of TV — for an entire week. Guests included Lena Horne, Paul Newman, Aretha Franklin, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

The doc was scheduled to screen in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, not far from where “The Tonight Show” was filmed in the ’60s, with an after-film discussion that was to have included Belafonte’s daughter, Gina. “We were so excited,” says Richen. “It’s a New York story, and I’m a New Yorker.”

But as with many eagerly anticipated independent films this year, the movie’s launchpad disappeared when the festival was canceled due to the coronavirus, making it a work about the events of yesterday informing today — trumped by the health crisis of the moment.

Read more

Blackfishing Marian Anderson

Easter Sunday marked the 81st anniversary of Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of 75,000. She sang outdoors because the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization of white descendants of Revolutionary War veterans, banned African Americans from performing at Constitution Hall which DAR owns.

Marian Anderson - Lincoln Memorial

Five days earlier, the National Endowment for the Humanities announced $22.2 million in new grants including $650,000 for a documentary about Marian Anderson. Michael Kantor, executive producer of American Masters, is the project director.

I was thrilled the civil rights icon was finally getting the American Masters treatment. The thrill was gone when I found out the Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society is not included in the grant.

NEH - No Funding

Jillian Patricia Pirtle, CEO and President of the Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society, was interviewed by Robert Rapley, a producer and writer for The American Experience. It is ironic the producer of The Abolitionists thinks it’s cool to pick a black woman’s brain for free.

NEH - Robert Rapley

This is Kantor’s second helping of taxpayers’ money for the same project. In 2018, NEH awarded him $75,000 for the “development of a script and trailer for a sixty-minute documentary film on the popular singer Marian Anderson.” This video is the grant product.

Marian Anderson was born and nurtured in Philadelphia. She first performed at Union Baptist Church. When her family couldn’t afford private lessons, members of the congregation pitched in and raised money for a voice teacher. I spoke up in support of preservationist Oscar Beisert’s effort to save the church. In 2015, the historic church was demolished to make way for luxury condos for gentrifiers.

Marian Anderson Church - 7.11.16

I spoke up when residents of Graduate Hospital, the most gentrified neighborhood in Philadelphia, floated the idea of renaming their community “Marian Anderson Village.” African Americans have been displaced but gentrifiers want the cultural cachet of the internationally renowned contralto without the people who look like her.

Graduate Hospital - Marian Anderson Village

Cultural appropriation or blackfishing has no bounds. Karen Attiah, global opinions editor for The Washington Post, observed, “It’s America’s obsession with blackness, and black culture – without black people.”

Blackfishing - Karen Attiah

Michael Kantor is awarded $725,000 for a documentary. Meanwhile, the cultural institution that preserved Marian Anderson’s South Philly rowhouse and keeps her story in public memory is starving for resources.

NEH - No Funding2

Legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini once said, “Hers is a voice heard once in a hundred years.” Sadly, blackfishing Marian Anderson is an all too common occurrence.

 

Mapping the Green Book in Philadelphia

Later this month, I will give a talk on the Green Book at the Paul Robeson House and Museum in Philadelphia. I first wrote about “The Negro Motorist Green Book” in 2015. That year, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture digitized Victor Hugo’s travel guide which was published from 1936 to 1966.

#GreenBook Collage

The now-iconic publication is experiencing a renaissance. Countless news articles, essays and blog posts have been written. A documentary, Driving While Black, will air on PBS next year. In June 2020, a Green Book exhibition developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service will begin a three-year tour. The first stop is the most famous Green Book site, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Lorraine Motel

Over the course of 30 years, dozens of Philadelphia businesses were listed in the Green Book. The businesses were clustered in South Philadelphia, then the heart of the African American community.

Mapping Green Book Philadelphia - Green Book Icon4

Almost 70 percent of Philadelphia’s buildings were constructed before 1945. So it’s not surprising there are 45 extant Green Book sites. A few are vacant; most have been repurposed. Five are in the same business including the Hotel Carlyle which was first listed in the Green Book in 1948 and is doing business under the same name.

Hotel Carlyle - Vintage Sign

Hotel Carlyle - William Shouldis

Hotel Carlyle - June 7, 2019

To arrange a presentation for your organization, university, school, etc., contact #GreenBookPHL Project at greenbookphl@gmail.com.