Tag Archives: Public Art

Black History Matters

I recently checked out SEPTA’s “Portal to Discovery” art installation on view at the subway station closest to Independence Hall. When it is safe to go maskless outdoors, I will lead walking tours to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad. The starting point is right above SEPTA’s 5th Street/Independence Hall station so I was eager to see whether any of the historic figures that I talk about are depicted. I was happy to see many are, including Still, Jane Johnson, Frances E.W. Harper and Frederick Douglass.

My happiness turned to dismay when I noticed Douglass’ first name is spelled “Fredrick.”

Why didn’t anyone notice the misspelling before the mural was installed? As it turns out, Tom Judd learned about the misspelling in February. Judd then concocted a story that the misspelling was intentional so that he would not have to admit his mistake. In the midst of the national reckoning on race, a white artist effectively said eff it. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

Judd said he was upset about it. But he decided to let it go at that point because the error could be explained as “fitting into” a narrative that the chalkboard display had been written by a school student.

He voiced regrets for that decision. “I can see how it landed, like [it was] white people’s entitlement thinking that it [the misspelling] doesn’t matter,” Judd said.

For his “narrative” to make sense, the student’s teacher would not have caught the spelling error. To save face, Judd was willing to cast aspersions on Philadelphia’s teachers. This is white privilege in action. The real narrative is a story of indifference to Black history and the lack of diversity at the Philadelphia Art Commission which approved the design.

The misspelling has been corrected but “Frederick” sticks out like a sore thumb.

I recognize that 99.9% of those who view the mural will not notice the patch. But for me, it will remain a sore point. From the New York Times to student newspapers, misspelled names are routinely corrected. Yet a white artist, who was paid $200,000 in taxpayers’ money, apparently thought it was no big deal that he misspelled the name of a Black icon and seminal figure in American history.

The struggle continues.

Frank Rizzo (1999-2020)

Former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo was sued by the Justice Department for a pattern of police brutality that shocks the conscience. Rizzo died on July 16, 1991. He was born again eight years later in the form of a 10-foot monument commissioned by Rizzo family and friends.

#FrankRizzo - Still Larger Than Life - Philadelphia Inquirer - December 1998

The Frank L. Rizzo Memorial Committee decided to place the statue in front of the Municipal Services Building. They also decided it would be unveiled on New Year’s Day 1999 after the Mummers Parade, an event best known for clowns prancing around in blackface.

#FrankRizzo - NYT Blackface Clowns

Demonstrators protest ban of blackface in Mummers parade, December 19, 1963

Almost from the moment the hunk-of-junk was unveiled, African Americans and allies peacefully protested for its removal from the gateway to municipal services. Fast forward to 2017, Mayor Jim Kenney said it would be removed by May 2018. Then he said by 2021. Then Kenney said the statue would not be moved before 2022. On May 30, 2020, demonstrators tried to topple it.

#FrankRizzo on Fire

Realizing the jig is up, Kenney said the statue would be removed:

The way its engineered, it’s bolted into the stairs and under the stairs is the concourse where people get their permits and pay their taxes. We didn’t want to tear that up until we did the entire place. We’re going to move it, hopefully in about another month or so. We’re going to accelerate the removal.

The protests accelerated the removal. Rizzo was hauled away three days later. As for the concourse under the stairs, who are we to believe – Kenney or our lying eyes?

Frank Rizzo Down - Concourse - June 3, 2020

Kenney’s lie was compounded by his spokesperson Michael Dunn:

The statue is bolted into the infrastructure of the plaza, which is also the roof of the underground concourse. Removing it while ensuring the integrity of that infrastructure will be a complicated task.

It was such a complicated task the statue was removed under the cover of darkness.

#FrankRizzo - Cover of Darkness

For more on the take down of Frank Rizzo, check out my essay, “The Rizzo reign is finally over. Thank Black Philadelphia.”

In my op-ed, “3 Black Philadelphians whose statues should replace Frank Rizzo” published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I suggested a memorial to Philly native Billie Holiday, who was harassed by then-Police Captain Rizzo, would be poetic justice. In 1939, Lady Day told the world black lives matter.

Up Against a Brick Wall

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.

Portraits of Justice - MSB

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.”

#FrankRizzo - Philadelphia Inquirer Headlines

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.

Black Panthners Forced to Strip - August 31, 1970

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.

Portrait of Justice - Rizzo

Charlottesville: One Year Later

In the year since the deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, there has been a growing awareness that public art is about public memory. It matters whose story is told in public spaces. From Maryland to Texas, Confederate monuments have been taken down. It took Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh three days to send the Confederate monuments in “Charm City” packing.

confederate-monuments-baltimore6-ap-mem-170816_4x3_992

Conversations about public memory and symbols of hate were also held “Up South.” The Pittsburgh Art Commission voted to remove the monument to Stephen Foster, the “Father of American Music,” who is memorialized with a barefoot slave seated at his feet.

Stephen Foster
A task force appointed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the removal of the statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims, who operated on enslaved African American women to develop advances in gynecological surgery.

#FrankRizzo - Dr. J. Marion Sims2

In Philadelphia, calls grew louder for Mayor Jim Kenney to remove the monument memorializing Frank Rizzo, a former mayor. As police commissioner, Rizzo presided over a police department whose practice of beatings “shocks the conscience.” That was the finding of the U.S. Justice Department which, in 1979, filed an unprecedented civil lawsuit against the city over its abusive policing tactics.

#FrankRizzo - Justice Department Collage

On the eve of the first anniversary of Charlottesville, Kenney did an about-face and said the Rizzo monument would stay at the gateway to municipal services for at least two to three years. The Mayor claims he is concerned about “incurring additional costs” of $200,000 $100,000. Truth be told, the police department will likely spend at least $100,000 quarterly protecting a monument to police brutality, racial bigotry and misogyny.

Frank Rizzo Statue Surrounded by Police and Barricades

But get this: Kenney presides over a city government that spent $5 million on a computer system and has nothing to show for it. Also, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart recently reported the city cannot account for a whopping $33 million in taxpayers’ money.

The Philadelphia Inquirer called out Kenney on his flip-flop:

Mayor Kenney has taken pains to publicly underscore the value of our city as welcoming and diverse. That’s a message undercut by the delay in moving the controversial statue that for some stands for oppression. That it was confirmed so near the anniversary of Charlottesville is sadly tone-deaf — especially at a time when better listening is critical.

Meanwhile, Frank Rizzo Jr. said that if his father’s statue is removed, “there’s going to be a fight.” Listen up, Junior: It’s on.