Tag Archives: Systemic Racism

Christian Street Historic District: Real Evidence of Colorism, Systemic Racism, Displacement and White Privilege

Philadelphia is in the throes of a demolition crisis. In #Demodelphia, nothing is sacred.

Gentrifiers in Graduate Hospital, the city’s most gentrified neighborhood, are concerned that developers are erasing the historic fabric of blocks from which African Americans have been displaced. To preserve their streetscape – and property values – they propose that a stretch of Christian Street be designated a historic district. They unilaterally determined the period of significance for Philadelphia’s first Black-themed historic district is 1910 to 1945. They blithely erased 271 years of Black history. The first enslaved Africans were brought to Philadelphia in 1639.

Tellingly, in “Philadelphia’s African American Heritage: A Brief Historic Context Statement for the Preservation Alliance’s Inventory of African American Historic Sites (2009),” Dana Dorman wrote:

Meanwhile, the large influx of southern blacks into Philadelphia and other northern urban centers helped spur a new flourishing of African American culture from the 1910s to 1940s. Encouraged to seek inspiration in their own history and experiences, artists like Jessie Redmon Fauset, Marian Anderson, John Coltrane and Paul Robeson helped to promote black self-determination and equality through their art.

Philadelphia is home to Mother Bethel AME Church, William Still House, Robert Purvis House, National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites, Marian Anderson House Museum, Paul Robeson House, Black National Historic Landmarks, including the Johnson House, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper House and John Coltrane House, and the Institute for Colored Youth, now known as Cheyney University, the first HBCU. Yet the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia nominated six blocks of Christian Street for designation as Philadelphia’s first Black-themed historic district. The character-defining features of “Black Doctors Row” were classism and colorism, a legacy of slavery.

Julian Francis Abele was an accomplished albeit little-known architect. Marian Stubbs Thomas was the founder of Jack and Jill of America. In Philadelphia: 1639-2000, Dr. Charles L. Blockson wrote:

Like other social clubs such as Jack and Jill, the Links and Girlfriends sponsored affairs during the year, the proceeds from which were to help worthy civil organizations. Nearly everyone who had acquired social prominence wanted to be accepted in these organizations. Until recently, a code of color with high standards was the rule of the day. These so-called “blue veined” organizations on most occasions did not admit dark-skinned persons. If they could not pass the “paper bag test,” that is, if the person’s skin was darker than a brown paper bag, they were not permitted to join. Sometimes dark-skinned people were accepted if they came from a family of wealth or accomplishment.

By the end of the 1920s, Bessie Smith was the highest paid Black performer. She lived on Christian Street but not on Black Doctors Row. The Empress of the Blues could not pass the “paper bag test.”

The Wander Inn was the last place where Bessie Smith performed in Philadelphia before she was killed in a car accident in Mississippi. The Green Book site was owned by Forrest White Woodard, founder of The Philadelphia Independent. Published from 1931 to 1971, at one point it was the Black newspaper with the widest circulation. Woodard was the richest Black man in Philadelphia in the 1930s.

Philadelphia’s Black elite dates back to the eighteenth century. Under Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition law, slavery did not end in the state until 1850. James Forten was one of the wealthiest men in antebellum Philadelphia. Was that “real evidence of progress?”

Dr. Blockson is the leading authority on Black history in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. His books include Philadelphia Guide: African-American State Historical Markers, Black Genealogy and African Americans in Pennsylvania: Above Ground and Under Ground. A search for “Black Doctors Row” on Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries returned no results. Apparently The Philadelphia Tribune is the sole source for Black Doctors Row. During the period of significance, the newspaper catered to “Old Philadelphians,” e.g., Bustills, Montiers and Bowsers. Kathryn Fambro Woodard was Philadelphia’s first female publisher. She took over The Philadelphia Independent after the death of her husband. In a 1984 interview, Mrs. Woodard said, “The Tribune was more of a sensational paper, and The Independent was more of a community paper.”

To be clear, some Black notables and professionals lived on Christian Street. However, many more lived on Lombard Street, and in West and North Philadelphia. The reference book, “Who’s Who in Colored America: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent,” was first published in 1915. The First Edition listed 17 Philadelphians, including Christopher J. Perry, founder of The Philadelphia Tribune who lived at 1319 S. 51st Street. Two lived on Lombard Street; none lived on Christian Street.

The Sixth Edition, “Who’s Who in Colored America: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Persons of African Descent in America, 1941-1945,” included 11 Philadelphians, two of whom lived on Christian Street – John Cornelius Asbury and Agnes Berry Montier, MD.

Asbury was a state legislator and lawyer whose office was located at 1504 South Street. He was married to Ida Elizabeth Bowser Asbury, the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Montier was the first Black woman to earn a medical degree from Temple University.

Realtor, civil rights leader and philanthropist Addie W. Dickerson was listed in the Sixth Edition of “Who’s Who in Colored America.” Dickerson lived in West Philly. Her office was located at 16th and Bainbridge streets.

Bainbridge Street is two blocks south of South Street which during the period of significance was the center of Black Philadelphia. The commercial hub and entertainment district has been the subject of song and story.

While the “light, bright, and damn near white” crowd was putting on the Ritz on Christian Street, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were putting on a show on South Street.

New Billie Holiday Documentary Now Showing

Billie Holiday is an international icon. She also holds a special place in my heart. During a particularly rough patch, I started every day listening to “Good Morning Heartache.”

You can imagine my dismay when I moved to Philadelphia and noticed she didn’t have a plaque on the Walk of Fame. So I did what I do.

Months later, I was all smiles when Lady Day’s plaque was installed on Avenue of the Arts.

I recently watched the powerful new documentary Billie via an exclusive screening by the 92nd Street Y.

Billie breathes life into nearly 50-year-old audiotapes of the interviews journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl conducted with Holiday’s contemporaries including Count Basie, Carmen McRae, Tony Bennett, singer Sylvia Syms and drummer Jo Jones. Archival materials and first-hand accounts shed light on systemic racism, racial segregation and the undertold story of her commitment to racial justice.

The civil rights pioneer said “Strange Fruit” was her personal protest. She performed the song at the end of every performance for 20 years despite FBI and police harassment. Bassist Charles Mingus said, “She was fighting equality before Martin Luther King. … That might be why the cops were against her too, not just junk.”

The special screening was followed by a Q&A with director James Erskine and executive producer Michele Smith, manager of the Billie Holiday Estate.

Billie is now showing in theaters and on virtual cinema. For updates, go here.

Systemic Racism and Historic Preservation

From the colonial era to the Civil War, Philadelphia was a center of organized resistance to slavery. The city was also home to the largest and wealthiest African American population in the country. Philadelphia’s Black elite included Henry Minton (1811-1883), a caterer and abolitionist whose guests included John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad. But this history is largely absent from the properties listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Last year the Philadelphia Historical Commission ignored the unanimous recommendation of its Committee on Historic Designation and rejected the nomination of the Henry Minton House for listing on the local register because its façade has been altered. Midwood Investment & Development plans to demolish one of the few extant buildings in Philadelphia associated with the Underground Railroad.

Midwood CEO John Usdan signaled his biased view of history in 2017. In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer Usdan said:

Because the city’s so rich in history and has all these great historic buildings and amazing places where you want to congregate, it’s exactly what the demographic moving to Philly wants [emphasis added].

That is what systemic racism in historic preservation sounds like. This is what it looks like. The Historical Commission applied a Jim Crow-like test of historic integrity that the Betsy Ross House and “historic” properties in Society Hill could not pass.

For a deeper dive, check out my essay “Henry Minton House, Systemic Racism and Historic Preservation.”

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.