The Netroots Nation gathering of progressives was held in Philadelphia this year. By the time this story is published, it will have ended, and I’ll be heading home from there to New York. No matter where most conventions are held, they really aren’t a part of the city they are held in, except peripherally. One convention center is like another, and though visitors may take time out to visit tourist sites, that really doesn’t give them a sense of the heart and soul of a place.
The Philadelphia I know and love has little or nothing to do with the sites most tourists flock to each year in the City of Brotherly Love, such as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. It isn’t Rocky Balboa or the Rocky steps.
My Philadelphia is black.
Growing up in New York, I was surrounded by Hasidic Jews, white and black leftist communist and socialist friends of my dad, Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Italians, Irish, and Poles. Our dinner table looked like the United Nations. But each summer, I got sent to stay with my mom’s sister and most of my maternal relatives, who lived in Philly. They were black, their friends were black, their neighborhood was black, church was black, and even a summer camp I went to outside of Philly was black. I can’t remember one white person ever being in their homes or gathered with them round a table, or at a funeral.
Oh, if you saw some of those folks in the community, you might have mistaken a few for white folks. We do have some “light, bright, and almost white”-looking folks among us. But “they be black.”
Charles D. Ellison wrote an article for The Root for Black History Month this year that struck a chord in me. The Root stated, “For Black History Month, we asked writers to explain why they think their hometown, current residence or notable place deserves the title of America’s Blackest City by defining a city’s history, music, cuisine, notable figures, and cultural touchstone/unique black fact.”
This is what he wrote: “Philadelphia, Where Blackness Transcends.”
“PHL” is nearly 44 percent black (the highest black population share of the top 10 most populous American cities), a colorful canvas of black imagination and grit; a 26 percent poverty rate where half of it is black. Still: black mayors? We’ve had three, each winning two full terms (even the one who ordered the bomb drop). Black politicians, community leaders and a citywide organization class is business as usual. Black power principles are universally acknowledged, albeit scaled, regardless of neighborhood and class. There is a constant busyness to Philly’s blackness, a constant need to start some shit, good or bad: from political firsts to the black architect who designed everything from our iconic art museum to our central library. There is the legendary Philly Black Mafia that was more organized and elusive than its Italian and Irish peers of cinematic repute.
Half-a-million people make annual pilgrimage to our Odunde Festival, symbol of Philly as capital of black spirit and black standards. We are a place of black options. We have the nation’s oldest, largest and near daily black newspaper, The Philadelphia Tribune. We enjoy constant black-owned broadcast gems such as WURD, the only one of its kind in Pennsylvania, and just a few like it in the nation. The oldest HBCU? That would be Cheyney University, struggling on the edges of town.
Mind you, none of this is perfect. But black Philadelphians are, as WURD President and CEO Sara Lomax-Reese reflects, “… heirs to revolutionary legacy.”
“With all its flaws and hypocrisy, we were the place where the ideals for a free, egalitarian society were shaped,” says Lomax-Reese. “This was an epicenter of the abolitionist movement.” A place of promise and possibility for enslaved Africans, where heroes like Octavius Catto and William Still blazed the path for freedom firsts and “the fight to claim our basic humanity.” Something about Philly blackness refuses to accept second-class status and less than. Tired of sitting in the discarded pews of a white church, Richard Allen just started his own thing, creating the African Methodist Episcopal church. Philly gave life to organized black theology in America.
Go read the whole thing.
Just by chance, the Smithsonian tweeted out some early Philly history a few days ago:
PennsylvaniaÃ¢Â€Â™s location on the Mason-Dixon Line created a unique situation that influenced local and national attitudes about the issue of slavery. Explore the impact of African Americans in Philadelphia at @aampmuseum! #APeoplesJourney pic.twitter.com/Cl99R2nOte
Ã¢Â€Â” Smithsonian NMAAHC (@NMAAHC) July 3, 2019
This mini-docudrama tells a little of AME Church founder Richard Allen’s story.
How many of you who have ever been to Philly have visited Mother Bethel?
The African Methodist Episcopal Church had its beginnings right here in Philadelphia. Today, @MotherBethel #AMEChurch has become a National Historic Landmark and is the oldest parcel of real estate continuously owned by blacks in the United States. https://t.co/ntoWmpPvIR pic.twitter.com/VrSiBtzsNO
Ã¢Â€Â” Grid Magazine (@gridphilly) March 28, 2019
The AMEC grew out of the Free African Society (FAS) which Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and others established in Philadelphia in 1787. When officials at St. George’s MEC pulled blacks off their knees while praying, FAS members discovered just how far American Methodists would go to enforce racial discrimination against African Americans. Hence, these members of St. George’s made plans to transform their mutual aid society into an African congregation. Although most wanted to affiliate with the Protestant Episcopal Church, Allen led a small group who resolved to remain
Methodists. In 1794 Bethel AME was dedicated with Allen as pastor. To establish Bethel’s independence from interfering white Methodists, Allen, a former Delaware slave, successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for the right of his congregation to exist as an independent institution. Because black Methodists in other middle Atlantic communities encountered racism and desired religious autonomy, Allen called them to meet in Philadelphia to form a new Wesleyan denomination, the AME.
Fast forward into my Philly again.
As a young teenager, living in New York, my friends would leap on me after I got back from a Philly visit, demanding, “What dances did you learn?”
I grinned when I read this in Charles’s piece:
In Philly, our black goes big. Some of it is the Philly you know: from Uptown to Philly Sound; from countless names like Anderson, Abele, Scott, Gray, Gamble, Huff, Stone, Tucker, Washington, LaBelle, Pendergrass, Morgan, Vanzant, Wideman, Delaney, and, yeah, (damn) Cosby, too. Philly is so black that folks like Ella, Sonia and Badu stopped through for inspiration or stayed. There are no boundaries to the blackness of Philly, the blackness that empowers you, protects you and never leaves. The blackness that brings you home and loves you back.
While the rest of the nation was getting watered-down Dick Clark American Bandstand, we were tuned in to Georgie Woods, “the man with the goods,” listening to Philly soul.
If you did not make it to a party on the Friday of the Penn Relays, then it was a cabaret. The Imperial Ballroom located at 60th and Walnut streets was one of the major places for a cabaret. Times Auditorium located at Broad and Spruce Streets was another popular place to go to a cabaret before the major Saturday relay events. A University of Pennsylvania sponsored dance on campus, also on Friday evening, was attended by many Black Penn Relay partygoers.
We attended these affairs all dressed up and danced to the favorite dances of the times; dances such as the stroll, cha-cha, mambo, slop, bop, strand, twist and the infamous, “slow drag.” Being dressed up brings back fond memories because going to the Penn Relays definitely meant purchasing a new outfit.
A close friend told me that the two new outfits he bought each year included one for Easter and one for the Penn Relays.
My black political memories of Philly are of the Black Panther Party—and of the infamous racist Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo (who would later become mayor). The photo of what he did to the BPP went around the world.
Members of the Black Panther Party, stripped, handcuffed, and arrested after Philadelphia police raided the Panther headquarters, August, 1970.”The Black Panther Party had its local Philadelphia headquarters in a storefront on Columbia Avenue, from which a group of young men and women went forth to sell the party’s news paper and in other ways agitate for the Panthers” Ten Point Program, calling for ‘land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.” When the party decided on Philadelphia as the site of its Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention – to begin to draft ‘a constitution that serves the people, not the ruling class, the Church of the Advocate was the location for the convention’s registration center, 1970. On the Saturday before the convention a murder was committed when a Philadelphia policeman was shot and killed in a Fairmont Park guardhouse. There were also other attacks on policemen. Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo used this opportunity to attack the Black Panther Party in Philadelphia. At dawn, August 31, 1970, heavily armed police raided three Panther Offices in the city, 2935 Columbia Avenue, 3625 Wallace Street, and 428 W. Queen Lane. Around the world flashed news photos of young black men arrested in the raids, who were ordered to strip. One photo showing them in their underwear and another showing them stripped naked at gunpoint.” Reggie Schell, local defense captain, organizer for the party remembers it this way, “Each cop took an individual Panther and placed their pistol up the back of our neck and told us to walk down the street backyard. They told us if we stumble or fall they’re gonna kill us. Then they lined us up against a wall and a cop with a .45 sub would fire over our heads so the bricks started falling down. Most of us had been in bed, and they ripped the goddamned clothes off everyone, women and men. They had the gun, they’d just snatch your pants down and they took pictures of use like that. Then they put us in a wagon and took us to the police station.”
By 1975, Philly had birthed Odunde, which, as African diasporic religious practitioners, my husband and I have attended several times.
ODUNDE was created in 1975 by Lois Fernandez. The festival attracts UP TO 500,000 people annually and is the largest African American street festival held in the country. The ODUNDE festival, whose concept originates from the Yoruba people of Nigeria, West Africa, celebrates the coming of another year for African Americans and Africanized people around the world. It is an occasion highlighted by a colorful procession from 23rd and South Street to the Schuylkill River where an offering of fruit and flowers is made to Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of the river.
I hope that if you ever get to Philadelphia, even if you don’t see or experience Black Philly, you’ll now be aware that it is there.