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.
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:
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.
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.