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African-American Music Appreciation Month

4 Jun

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter decreed that June would be Black Music Month. Each president since then has signed a proclamation recognizing the contributions of African American musicians and music. In 2009, President Barack Obama rebranded the annual celebration as “African-American Music Appreciation Month”

The legacy of African-American composers, singers, songwriters, and musicians is an indelible piece of our Nation’s culture. Generations of African Americans have carried forward the musical traditions of their forebears, blending old styles with innovative rhythms and sounds. They have enriched American music and captured the diversity of our Nation. During African-American Music Appreciation Month, we honor this rich heritage.

There’s no better place to get the celebration started than at the mecca of African American culture, the world famous Apollo Theater.

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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#ThisPlaceMatters: Robert Purvis House

14 May

Philadelphia is the birthplace of the American democracy and a City of Firsts. While there are thousands of places that matter, only two percent of historic buildings are listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Without historic designation, buildings may be demolished with impunity.

Sadly, historic designation provides little protection from demolition by neglect. Without court intervention, that fate may await the Robert Purvis House. Built circa 1859, this is the only extant home of the cofounder of the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Library Company of Colored People. Because of its association with a leading abolitionist, the house is a significant resource within the Spring Garden Historic District.

Robert Purvis Collage

From ExplorePAHistory.com:

In October 1838, the voters of Pennsylvania approved a new state constitution that limited the power of the governor, prohibited the legislature from granting special favors to corporations, and ended life tenure for judges. The new constitution also stripped black Pennsylvanians of their right to vote, a right guaranteed under law since 1790. African Americans had since then lost the ability to vote in some Pennsylvania counties, including Philadelphia. But the constitutional disenfranchisement of black voters was yet another ominous sign of the rising power of the slaveocracy in the United States and of the growing fears of black political and economic power in the state of Pennsylvania.

The appeal quoted above was penned by Robert Purvis, then fast emerging as one of Philadelphia’s most prominent abolitionists. The year before, Purvis was the principal organizer of the Vigilant Association of the Philadelphia, founded to promote the anti-slavery movement and “to create a fund to aid colored persons in distress.” In the decades that followed he and his wife Harriet would use their home to harbor slaves escaping to Canada along the Underground Railroad and Purvis would act as a tireless leader in the struggle not just for the rights of African Americans, but for the equal rights of all Americans, regardless of their race, nationality, or sex.

Noris and Miguel Santiago purchased the Robert Purvis House on December 19, 1977. The couple did not maintain the historic landmark; instead, they racked up years of building code violations.

Robert Purvis House Collage

The slumlords have fought efforts to save the Robert Purvis House. Barbara Wolf has served on the board of the Spring Garden Community Development Corporation since its inception. In an email, Wolf wrote:

The owners of this historic property have repeatedly and persistently failed to take the basic necessary steps, even when court ordered, to maintain and secure this building. Through willful neglect, they have caused the rear of the building to collapse, with resultant city’s demolition because of immediate safety concerns. The son of the owners in a recent court hearing even boldly stated that he wanted the remaining front block of the building to be demolished. This building survived in solid shape for over 100 years before the owners’ purchase in 1977. In a little over 40 years, the rear EL wall has collapsed and the remaining front is seriously deteriorated in an “unsafe” condition.

Wolf’s petition for the appointment of a conservator to restore the Robert Purvis House is supported by the City of Philadelphia. But right now, the property is tangled in a legal morass in federal bankruptcy court. As the result of neglect by financially and morally bankrupt scoundrels, a building that holds stories of organized resistance to slavery may be erased from public memory.

The struggle continues.

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