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Suffer the Children

4 Aug

On or about August 25, 1619, the first enslaved Africans landed in British North America. The 400th anniversary will not be celebrated. Instead, it will be commemorated lest we forget that our ancestors were brought here in the bowels of slave ships.

Slave Ship - Villages at Whitemarsh

For nearly 250 years, our ancestors were sold on the auction block and subjected to unimaginable dehumanization and brutality. Children were separated from their parents and put up for sale.

Negroes for Sale - Villages at Whitemarsh

In her groundbreaking book, The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, Prof. Daina Ramey Berry observed:

The pubescent years were terrifying. Not only were their bodies changing, but this was also a time when enslaved children experienced the separation they had feared all their lives. Daughters and sons were taken from their parents as the external value of their bodies increased. Market scenes from their childhood now made sense and haunted them for the rest of their lives. At this stage in their maturation, they knew full well that others claimed ownership of them and sexual assault came at any age.

Children are at the center of an event organized by Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), “400 Years of Slavery and Other Official Racism: Never Forget, Always Avenge.” The event will be held on Sunday, August 25, 2019, 2:00 p.m., at the Slavery Memorial/President’s House, located at 6th and Market streets, Philadelphia.

ATAC Co-founder Michael Coard recently wrote:

The highlight of the event will be 400 Black children who will identify and condemn each of the 400 years of slavery as well as its residue, which includes the reactionary Redemption Era, Black Codes, sharecropping, convict leasing, peonage labor, mass lynchings, de jure segregation (known as Jim Crow), de facto segregation, stop-and-frisk, police brutality, mass incarceration, disenfranchising voter ID legislation, court-sanctioned gerrymandering, and other forms of official racial injustice up to and including 2019.

Of the 12.5 million Africans stolen from the Motherland, 26 percent, meaning 3.25 million, were children. And 13 percent of those children, meaning 420,000, died during the more than 60-day Middle Passage voyage in the bottom of feces-filled, urine-soaked, vomit-drenched, rat-infested, disease-ridden “slave” ships. By 1860, shortly before the Civil War, about 33 percent of the nearly 4 million enslaved Black population, meaning 1.32 million, were children. Think about that for a minute.

ATAC - August 25, 2019 - Villages at Whitemarsh

It’s not too late to get your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and other young people age 4 to 14 involved. Help them avenge their enslaved ancestors by calling ATAC at (215) 552-8751 or emailing ATAC@AvengingTheAncestors.com and leave a message stating your name, phone number, email address, and the children’s names and ages. The deadline to sign up is August 9.

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Preservation Month 2019: Gentrification and Displacement

5 May

May is Preservation Month, a time to celebrate historic places that matter to you. What matters to me is the loss of historic places that hold the ancestors’ stories of faith, resistance and triumph.

#DisappearingBlackness - Where's Our Story

A recent report by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that Philadelphia has the fourth highest rate of gentrification. The 34-page report is encapsulated in a statement by Midwood Development & Investment CEO John Usdan who lays bare that gentrification and cultural displacement go hand-in-hand:

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.

The demographic moving to Philly does not look like the demographic that is being displaced. At the same time Usdan gushes over Philadelphia’s rich history, he plans to demolish the Henry Minton House. For Usdan, black history apparently is not American history.

As I commented before the Philadelphia Historical Commission when the property was nominated for listing on the local register, this places matters:

Henry Minton belonged to an elite guild of caterers and was a leader in the free black community. In The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. DuBois wrote that Minton “wielded great personal influence, aided the Abolition cause to no little degree, and made Philadelphia noted for its cultivated and well-to-do Negro citizens.”

There is not much more to add other than Minton provided freedom fighter John Brown “with bed and board” shortly before his raid upon Harper’s Ferry. It should also be noted that Minton is listed on the iconic Civil War poster, “Men of Color, To Arms!” Clearly, the nomination satisfies Criteria A and J for Designation.

The provenance of the front façade is a distraction. The property is not being nominated because of its architectural significance. So the National Register roadmap for evaluating integrity is irrelevant. Viewed through the African American lens, it’s not about bricks and mortar. It’s about recognizing that our stories matter. African American history matters.

Commission members acknowledged the property does indeed meet the criteria for designation. Still, they reversed the unanimous decision of the Committee on Historic Designation and voted to toss the building on the trash heap of history.

Henry Minton Residence - Committee on Designation Vote

#PhilaHistorical Commission Vote to Decline Designation - April 12, 2019

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to British North America. While African American history is more than slavery, our story begins with the arrival of “20 and odd Negroes” in Virginia. So whether one focuses on 1639 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Philadelphia or 1939 when Billie Holiday first recorded “Strange Fruit,” the African American story cannot be told without Philadelphia.

So where’s our story? I will talk about disappearing blackness on WHYY Radio Times on Thursday, May 9, 2019, 10:00 – 11:00 am. The station can be heard in Philadelphia and New Jersey. You can join the conversation on Twitter (@whyyradiotimes) or call 888-477-9499.

Ironically, WHYY is in the footprint of Pennsylvania Hall, a purpose-built meeting place for abolitionists that was burned to the ground by a pro-slavery mob three days after it opened. Philadelphia’s mayor, firefighters and police stood by and did nothing.

Pennsylvania Hall Marker

Pennsylvania Hall - WHYY

Fast forward to today, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney does nothing as black presence is erased from public spaces.

The First Decoration Day

28 May

The first Decoration Day, as the commemoration of the nation’s war dead was originally called, was observed on May 1, 1865. The African American origin of the holiday was suppressed by white Southerners. David W. Blight, a professor of history and the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University, discovered the hidden history while digging through the archives at Harvard University.

In a 2011 op-ed piece in the New York Times, Dr. Blight wrote:

Whites had largely abandoned the city [Charleston, SC], but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.

The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

The symbolic power of this Low Country planter aristocracy’s bastion was not lost on the freed people, who then, in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged a parade of 10,000 on the track. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.

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Fourth of July 2016

4 Jul

In 1852, abolitionist Frederick Douglass asked, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”:

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful…

…But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?

For me, July 4, 2016 means that in a little over two months, I will join thousands of African Americans for the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

NMAAHC - I too am America

The museum has been 101 years in the making. At last, everyone will now know that when we celebrate black history and culture, we, too, sing America.

Black Wall Street and the Blues

1 Jun

June is Black Music Month. This June marks the 95th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. For two days (May 31-June1), white vigilantes massacred black residents, looted and burned to the ground the most prosperous black community in the United States.

Tulsa Race Riot

The riot took place in the Greenwood District, known as the Black Wall Street, the heart of which was bounded by Greenwood Avenue, and Archer and Pine streets. Tulsa natives, brothers Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson’s band name pays tribute to one of the worst race riots in U.S. history.

Black Wall Street, a hotbed for jazz and blues, was a stop on the famed Chitlin’ Circuit. Bandleader Walter Barnes was one of the most colorful characters on “the stroll.”

Walter Barnes and his Creolians

In his book, The Chitlin’ Circuit: and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Preston Lauterbach writes:

The tour [Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians] kicked off in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the week before Thanksgiving, where Barnes found “Black Wall Street” bustling. “Greenwood is the name of the colored district of Tulsa, and one can get anything here from a shoe shine up.” Barnes highlighted the stroll’s musicians, dance promoters, dance halls, and its dentists, barbers, pharmacies, cafes, cab companies, and lodgings, always stressing the up-to-date. “I stopped with my entire orchestra at the modern and exclusive Small Hotel” in Tulsa, “one of the best equipped in the country, having newest electrical fixtures, telephone in each room, bath in every room, and modernistic furniture.” The Kings of Swing played the Crystal Palace Ballroom, “the last word in beauty,” and hung around the Goodie Goodie Club, Cotton Club, and Del Rio. “There’s plenty niteries here.”

In 1940, Barnes was killed in a fire while performing at the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi. The tragedy was memorialized in tribute songs by blues musicians, including Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker.