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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

#1619Project: 400 Years of African American History

11 Aug

Four hundred years ago, a ship carrying the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia.


#400Years - Introduction of negro slavery into Virginia - NYPL Digital Collections

On August 13, 2019, The New York Times Magazine will launch “The 1619 Project.”

The 1619 Project

The entire issue of the magazine will be devoted to an examination of “the many ways the legacy of slavery continues to shape and define life in the United States.” The launch event is sold out. You can watch the free live stream here on Tuesday, August 13, at 7 p.m. E.T.

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, 2:30 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.