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Women’s History Month: Bessie Smith

20 Mar

Bessie Smith famously told us: “Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.”

I have made it my business to oppose the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s proposed Christian Street Historic District which would memorialize a small “light, bright, and damn near white” Negro elite. Cataclysmic events during the period of significance (1910 to 1945) include the Great Depression, the Great Migration, two World Wars, and the New Deal.

The Empress of the Blues lived on Christian Street. Her house is located less than 500 feet outside the arbitrary boundaries of the proposed historic district. The fact that one of the highest paid Black entertainers in the 1920s and ‘30s is excluded from the gentrifiers’ narrative about “Black wealth” tells you all you need to know about the merits of the nomination.

Bessie Smith shaped a fashion aesthetic for blues singers. Drexel University professor Alphonso McClendon, author of Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation, wrote:

Contrary to the sad lyrics they espoused, the blues ladies dressed in extravagant designs that articulated their growing wealth, as well as the changing attitudes of women. … In a publicity photo for Columbia Records [1914], Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, captured the Oriental aesthetic, elegantly draped in a sleeveless net tunic embroidered with beads and floral appliqués that scalloped at the hem. Smith was known for her opulent headdresses that exploited beads, fringe and feathers, conceivably a strategy to emphasize the head as practiced by early African societies.

For info about the “Oriental aesthetic” and the Jazz Age, check out “Venus and Diana: Fashioning the Jazz Age” exhibition presented by the Fox Historic Costume Collection at Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.

Why Christian Street?

30 Jan

Historian and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, launched Negro History Week the second week of February 1926. Black history became a month-long celebration in 1976. Several Philadelphians are included on Woodson’s iconic broadside, Important Events and Dates in Negro History, including Richard Allen, Anthony Benezet, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, and Robert Purvis.

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia erased 371 years of Black history and nominated six blocks of Christian Street for designation as Philadelphia’s first “Black-themed” historic district. I voiced opposition to the proposed Christian Street Historic District from the jump (here, here and here). February is the shortest month so I’ll keep it short: Why Christian Street? The most accomplished albeit largely unknown former resident of the proposed historic district, architect Julian F. Abele, did not identify as Negro. His biographer, Dreck Spurlock Wilson, told Smithsonian magazine, “For all intents and purposes, Julian did not consider himself black. He was almost a-racial. He buried himself in being an artist.”

In Julian Abele, Architect and the Beaux Arts, Wilson notes that Abele was not adverse to following in his brother Joseph’s footsteps but he was not light enough to pass for white. He wrote:

Abele’s racial denial approached delusion. He was both a cocoon with interstitial space for only himself and a shell to ward off unwelcome intrusions. It insulated his talent giving him precious time to mature and repelled the exigency of racism from subverting his ambition. He chose an existence that was neither black nor white. It was beige.

In view of his lifelong rejection of his racial identity, Abele would roll over in his grave at the notion that he would anchor a “Black-themed” historic district.

Abele’s great uncle, Absalom Jones, cofounded the Free African Society with Richard Allen who founded Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The historical markers memorializing this history are located at 6th and Lombard streets. Fact is, from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River there are extant buildings on Lombard Street where Black history happened.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mother Bethel is central to African American history and culture. Henry O. Tanner, who is included on Woodson’s broadside, created a bas-relief of Bishop Richard Allen, Sarah Allen and the blacksmith shop where the first AME church was built.

I am once again asking: Why Christian Street?

Christian Street Historic District: Which is Negro? Which is White?

7 Nov

The April 1952 issue of Ebony magazine included a quiz, “Which is Negro? Which is White?”

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia has nominated six blocks of Christian Street for designation as a “Black-themed” historic district. The notables who lived on that stretch, including architect Julian F. Abele, are largely unknown. According to his biographer, Abele did not identify as Negro; he classified himself “other.” Abele and his French wife lived at 1515 Christian Street. In 2021, African Americans are again asking, “Which is Negro? Which is White?”

The Preservation Alliance’s architectural historians claim that “between 1910 and 1945, the west side of Christian Street—from Broad to 20th—was ‘the social center of colored wealth and pride’ in Philadelphia.” Two white men crafted a narrative that flies in the face of decades of research by Black scholars, primary source documents, and African Americans’ lived experience. During the period of significance, “colored wealth” was concentrated among professionals. More doctors, dentists and lawyers lived on Lombard Street, and in West Philly and North Philly than on Christian Street. Colorism was the defining characteristic of the professionals who lived on so-called “Black Doctors’ Row.” Colorism is anti-Black racism by another name. By the way, when did the descriptor Black Doctors’ Row come into use? Before 1968, calling a Negro “black” would lead to a fight.

The myth of Black Doctors’ Row stems from a random article in the Philadelphia Tribune. In Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of a New Middle Class in the United States, Dr. E. Franklin Frazier noted:

Although the Negro press declares itself to be the spokesman for the Negro group as a whole, it represents essentially the interests and outlook of the black bourgeoisie. Its demand for equality for the Negro in American life is concerned primarily with opportunities which will benefit the black bourgeoisie economically and enhance the social status of the Negro. The Negro press reveals the inferiority complex of the black bourgeoisie and provides a documentation of the attempts of this class to seek compensations for its hurt self-esteem and exclusion from American life. Its exaggerations concerning the economic well-being and cultural achievements of Negroes, its emphasis upon Negro “society” all tend to create a world of make-believe into which the black bourgeoisie can escape from its inferiority and inconsequence in American society.

As for Christian Street’s bougie Negroes being the center of racial pride, don’t get me started. Instead, listen to Dr. Frazier:

Their emotional and mental conflicts arise partly from their constant striving for status within the Negro world, as well as in the estimation of whites. Moreover, they have accepted unconditionally the values of the white bourgeois world: its morals and its canons of respectability, its standards of beauty and consumption. In fact, they have tended to overemphasize their conformity to white ideals. Nevertheless, they are rejected by the white world, and this rejection has created considerable self-hatred, since it is attributed to their Negro characteristics. At the same time, because of their ambivalence towards Negroes, they are extremely sensitive to slights and discriminations which Negroes suffer. Since they do not truly identify themselves with Negroes, the hollowness of the black bourgeoisie’s pretended “racial pride” is revealed in the value which it places upon a white or light complexion.

I will oppose the Christian Street Historic District nomination when it comes before the Philadelphia Historical Commission. For now, I will share some observations of Lawrence Otis Graham, the foremost authority on the Black elite. In his New York Times bestseller Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, Graham acknowledged:

Skin color has always played an important role in determining one’s popularity, prestige, and mobility within the black elite. It is hard to find an upper-class black American family that has been well-to-do since before the 1950s that has not endured family conversations on the virtues of “good hair, sharp features, and nice complexion.” These code words for having less Negroid features have been exchanged over time for more politically correct ones, but it is a fact that the black upper class thinks about these things more than most.

The Negro press also thought about skin color more than most. A large part of their revenue was derived from advertisements for skin bleaching products.

Graham’s kind of people — “the doctor-lawyer, high-church, high-yellow, Episcopalian crowd” — lived on Christian Street where the first meeting of Jack and Jill of America Inc. was held at the home of Marion Turner Stubbs who was married to Dr. Frederick D. Stubbs.

Graham grew up in Jack and Jill. In his chapter, “Jack and Jill: Where Elite Black Kids Are Separated from the Rest,” he wrote:

In its early years, Jack and Jill—like many groups that catered to the black establishment in the first half of the twentieth century—attracted a negative reaction from many blacks who lacked the resources, the pedigree, or the physical appearance to be considered for membership. History shows that some chapters, particularly the ones in the larger southern cities, were clearly guilty of placing a great emphasis on these characteristics, but others were unfairly attacked for doing the same thing when what really was happening was that they were just nominating people who were in their social circle, their church, their bridge club. And not surprisingly, these darker, less-pedigreed people had long before been shut out of those institutions.

Jack and Jill kids did not play with the kids at the Christian Street YMCA which was founded in 1889. The founding meeting was held at the Washington Square West home of William Still.

The Christian Street Historic District would memorialize a caste system that stems from slavery and the rape of Black women and girls by their enslavers. White supremacy comes in many guises, including colorism and self-hatred. Christian Street notables were “light, bright, and damn near white.” If Negroes did not have white-adjacent features or an economic status that “compensated” for their skin color and hair texture, they had to “get back, get back, get back.”

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

15 Aug

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.

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’ skin tone was too dark.

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. Charles L. Blockson is the leading authority on Black history in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. His books include Philadelphia Guide: African-American State Historical Markers and Philadelphia: 1639-2000. A search for “Black Doctors Row” on Temple University Libraries Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection returned no results. Apparently The Philadelphia Tribune is the only 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 included 17 Philadelphians, none of whom lived on Christian Street; two lived on Lombard 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, a lawyer and state legislator, 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 is memorialized in novels and song.

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.

Yorktown Under Siege

11 Jul

General George Washington’s decisive victory over British forces in the Battle of Yorktown, aka Siege of Yorktown, was the turning point in the American Revolution. Yorktown, a North Philly neighborhood whose name is derived from the 1781 battle, is under siege.

The planned community was built between 1960 and 1969. Banker and developer Norman Denny acquired 153 acres of blighted blocks that were cleared by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Denny constructed 635 rowhouses that were marketed to first-time African American homebuyers with children. Yorktown provided suburban-style housing for Black families who did not have access to suburban tract houses due to discriminatory lending practices and residential segregation.

In an interview with Scribe Video Center’s Precious Places Community History Project, Bright Hope Baptist Church pastor and former congressman William H. Gray III said:

The church under the leadership of my father who was then the minister, Dr. William H. Gray Jr., got involved with the urban renewal project and joined forces with a man named Mr. Denny of the Lincoln [National] Bank … who had a radical idea. And the radical idea was that instead of building tenements, instead of building tall public housing, what he wanted to do was to build middle-income housing for homeownership. Everybody said you got to be crazy. This is one of the worst slum areas, inner-city, ghetto areas. African Americans don’t have money to buy houses.

Homebuyers included lawyer and civil rights activist Charles W. Bowser who is pictured raising the Yorktown flag. City Council proclaimed October 9, 2018 Charles W. Bowser Day “in recognition of his lifelong dedication to public service and his significant contributions to the African American community in Philadelphia.”

Grammy Award-winning singer Billy Paul lived on Kings Place.

Gospel pioneer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Sister Rosetta Tharpe lived on Master Street.

Edmund N. Bacon, then-executive director of the City Planning Commission, planned Yorktown. Landscape elements that Bacon introduced in Society Hill are featured in Yorktown. In a progress report to Mayor James H.J. Tate, Bacon wrote:

Denny has finally put landscaping and play equipment in three of the central squares. These are really remarkable and exciting. I have the feeling that this is a unique project and that nothing of its kind has ever been built. I think it is an achievement worthy of some attention.

The project is indeed worthy of attention. The Yorktown Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. It is one of urbanist Bacon’s crowning achievements.

For two decades, Yorktown has attracted unwanted attention. The neighborhood is located immediately south of Temple University. In 2004, the Yorktown Community Organization, founded by Charles Bowser, sued 30 homeowners for illegal conversion of single-family homes into boarding/rooming houses for students. City Council subsequently amended the zoning code to create the North Central Philadelphia Overlay District to, i.a., “preserve and protect the area from the conversion of houses into multi-family buildings that have the potential to destabilize the area; and foster the preservation and development of this section of the City in accordance with its special character.”

Fast forward to today, proposed development projects have the potential to destabilize Yorktown with out-of-scale apartment buildings marketed to students and other transients. The neighborhood is low-rise, low-density by design.

In June, City Council passed legislation to amend the zoning code and create the Girard Avenue Overlay District which would establish height controls. Joe Grace, spokesperson for Council President Darrell Clarke, told PlanPhilly, “The Council President wants to control density along the corridor to protect historic neighborhoods like Yorktown and West Poplar that are adjacent to Girard Avenue. Too much density along the corridors impacts quality of life for the adjacent neighborhoods that are full of single-family homes and long-term residents.”

Black homeowners are fighting to preserve the setting and feeling of the Yorktown Historic District. To paraphrase Revolutionary War Commander John Paul Jones, they have just begun to fight.