Public Memory and Place Matter

13 Oct

In a recent essay published by the Brookings Institution, the writers asked: Whose history gets recognized in our public spaces?

Ultimately, the fight over Barry Farm is about more than those last 32 buildings left standing. It signifies a larger struggle over representation in our physical spaces, one that has only intensified as cities become more divided, unaffordable, and unequal. This struggle has manifested itself in a myriad of ways, from efforts to remove racist memorials from public plazas to movements to protect Black culture on rapidly gentrifying blocks. Within all these actions is one critical, underlying message: Black history matters.

In Philadelphia, our story is being erased from public memory. From the demolition of the church where Marian Anderson first learned to sing to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places John Brown laid his head, developers don’t give a fig about black history.

Henry Minton House - Inquirer

Midwood Development & Investment CEO John Usdan plans to demolish the Henry Minton House. In a news article, 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.”

For this developer, black history is not American history. And black folks are not included in Usdan’s vision for a changing city since he is building for “the demographic moving to Philly.”

First they displace us. Then they erase us.

#DisappearingBlackness - Where's Our Story

The National Museum for African American History and Culture’s exhibition “Power of Place” underscores that place matters:

People make places even as places change people. Places are secured by individual and collective struggle and spirit. Place is about movement and migration and dis-placement. Place is where culture is made, where traditions and histories are kept and lost, and where identities are created, tested, and reshaped over time.

On October 22, PlanPhilly is holding a panel discussion, “Place, Preservation and Public Memory in Philadelphia.” All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson is a panelist, along with Paul Farber, Ori Feibush and Karen Olivier. The event is free but you must register. To reserve your spot, go here.

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#ThisPlaceMatters: John Coltrane House

29 Sep

I talk to the ancestors. More important, I listen to them. On a hot Saturday, the ancestors pushed this cold-weather person to check on the John Coltrane House in Philadelphia. So on August 31, 2019, I stopped by the rowhouse where Coltrane lived from 1952 to 1958. I later learned that was the same day that “Cousin Mary,” Mary Lyerly Alexander, joined the ancestors.

Cousin Mary - 2003

“Cousin Mary” is a track on Coltrane’s landmark album Giant Steps. The album was composed in the rowhouse he shared with his mother, Alice Gertrude Coltrane, and his beloved cousin Mary. The exterior of the property is in worse condition than when I was last there three years ago.

John Coltrane House - Steps - Faye Anderson

My call to action was published in Philadelphia Weekly. Read my essay and then add your voice to the growing chorus of voices who are concerned about the condition of this National Historic Landmark, the highest designation for a historic resource. The time for wringing one’s hands is past. Tell Mayor Jim Kenney to fix this blight on Coltrane’s legacy.

Mayor Kenney can be reached via email at james.kenney@phila.gov or by phone at (215) 686-2181. His Twitter handle is @PhillyMayor.

UPDATE: All That Philly Jazz, along with Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition and Philadelphia Jazz Legacy Project, have nominated the John Coltrane House for listing on Preservation Pennsylvania’s 2020 Pennsylvania at Risk.

2020 Pennsylvania At Risk - Preservation Pennsylvania

An Opry Salute to Ray Charles

23 Sep

Ken Burns’ latest film, “Country Music,” makes clear that African American music is at the root of the genre. Long before Lil Nas X, there was DeFord Bailey, Rufus “Tee Top” Payne, Charley Pride – and Ray Charles. Brother Ray’s 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, topped the charts in the U.S. and Britain. The album and its lead single, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” were certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Country Music Hall of Famer Willie Nelson observed:

When Ray did “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” that was probably the time when country music was heard by more people than ever before. He kicked country music forward 50 years. Before him, a lot of people had probably never heard of songs by Don Gibson or Hank Williams.

In his autobiography, Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story, the country music pioneer wrote:

I just wanted to try my hand at hillbilly music. After all, the Grand Ole Opry had been performing inside my head since I was a kid in the country.

The Grand Ole Opry “celebrates the songs of Ray Charles and the influence the revolutionary artist had on country music” in a television special, “An Opry Salute to Ray Charles.”

An Opry Salute to Ray Charles

Hosted by Opry member Darius Rucker, the star-studded salute features Boyz II Men, Cam, Brett Eldredge, Leela James, Jessie Key, Ronnie Milsap, Lukas Nelson, LeAnn Rimes, Allen Stone, Travis Tritt, Charlie Wilson, Trisha Yearwood and Chris Young. The program will air on PBS stations nationwide so check your local listings.

On Vacation

25 Aug

In September, I will lead a walking tour of Green Book sites in Philadelphia. The stops include the Douglass Hotel which offered transportation to Atlantic City, or more accurately, to Chicken Bone Beach.

Douglass Hotel Bus Depot

After complaints from white bathers, African Americans were restricted to a stretch of the Atlantic City beach near Convention Hall. The segregated area became known as Chicken Bone Beach.

Chicken Bone Beach Plaque2

This two-part audio doc provides an overview of Chicken Bone Beach and the entertainment district that became a magnet for black vacationers, day-trippers and luminaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Sammy Davis Jr.

For more info, visit Chicken Bone Beach.