Tag Archives: Martin Luther King Jr.

Historic Preservation and Social Justice

Two years ago I launched All That Philly Jazz, a public history project that is telling the story of Philadelphia’s rich jazz legacy. In documenting the places where jazz history unfolded, I also want to contextualize the impact of jazz musicians and the jazz culture.

Fact is, the jazz culture was about “intersectionality” before the term was coined . As Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron notes in her column, “Ridge Avenue’s last standing jazz club,” gay performers such as the “Sepia Gloria Swanson” were an integral part of the scene.

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In a piece for PlanPhilly, I wrote about why historic preservation matters:

1409 Lombard Street helps tell the story of artistic greats like Lady Day, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Nina Simone and McCoy Tyner. It also tells the story of disruption and defiance. In remarks to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said jazz is “triumphant music.” If walls could talk, they would tell how the jazz culture broke down social barriers. The first racially integrated nightspot in Center City was a jazz club, the Downbeat. For the first time, blacks and whites mixed on an equal basis. Jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was “a steppingstone” to the Civil Rights Movement.

At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Who decides what gets saved and whose story gets told? The built environment reflects racial inequalities. Given African Americans’ socioeconomic status, few of the buildings associated with black history meet preservation standards regarding architectural significance. Although unadorned, they are places that tell a more complete American story. The stories of faith, resistance, and triumph are relevant to today’s social justice activists.

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Philadelphia Convention Hall

Philadelphia Convention Hall, also known as Municipal Auditorium, was located in West Philly near the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The venue played host to many events, including the 1940 and 1948 Republican National Conventions, and the 1959 Penn Relays Jazz Festival. Luminaries such as Pope John Paul II, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela spoke there.

On October 19, 1957, the Philadelphia Jazz Festival was held at Convention Hall. Jazz trumpeter and Philly native Lee Morgan was on the bill, along with, among others, trumpeter Miles Davis, pianist Horace Silver and organist Jimmy Smith.

Convention Hall was demolished in 2005.

Philadelphia Pyramid Club

Founded in 1937 and formally opened three years later, the Philadelphia Pyramid Club was a small, exclusive club for black professionals. Its mission was to foster the “cultural, civic, and social advancement of Negroes in Philadelphia.” The membership fee was $120, and monthly dues were $2.40.

The club hosted a wide range of social and cultural activities, including performances by Marian Anderson and Duke Ellington and, after 1941, annual art exhibitions for African American artists. It also hosted events with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. During the Pyramid Club’s heyday, its membership rolls were a Who’s Who of black Philadelphia.

The club was dissolved in 1963.

Pyramid Club Historical Marker

John Coltrane

John Coltrane was the son of John R. Coltrane, a tailor and amateur musician, and Alice (Blair) Coltrane. Two months after his birth, his maternal grandfather, the Reverend William Blair, was promoted to presiding elder in the A.M.E. Zion Church and moved his family, including his infant grandson, to High Point, NC, where Coltrane grew up. Shortly after he graduated from grammar school in 1939, his father, his grandparents, and his uncle died, leaving him to be raised in a family consisting of his mother, his aunt, and his cousin. His mother worked as a domestic to support the family. The same year, he joined a community band in which he played clarinet and E flat alto horn; he took up the alto saxophone in his high school band. During World War II, his mother, aunt, and cousin moved north to New Jersey to seek work, leaving him with family friends; in 1943, when he graduated from high school, he too headed north, settling in Philadelphia. Eventually, the family was reunited there.

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John Coltrane 1.13.15

Georgie Woods

Georgie Woods has improved, enhanced and inspired the lives of many throughout his multi-faceted career of entertainment and public service.

As “The Guy with the Goods,” Georgie Woods has entertained for five full decades on radio stations WHAT and WDAS. In 1960, Georgie became active in the civil rights movement as Vice President of the NAACP. Georgie became an outspoken advocate of equal opportunity and equal treatment for African Americans and joined the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cecil B. Moore in an ongoing campaign that took Woods from Washington, D.C., to Selma, Alabama. His other humanitarian efforts included a 17-day tour of Vietnam, as the first African American to entertain the troops.

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Georgie Woods Plaque