In West Philly, repainting tribute to drug dealers’ worst nightmare

The community gathers during a recent paint day for a new mural honoring Herman Wrice, a West Philadelphia legend.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a balmy community room inside the Charles L. Durham library branch buzzes with activity.

David McShane, an artist with Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, hasn’t stopped moving since residents started trickling in around 2 p.m. There are brushes and plastic cups of paint – mostly blue, black and gray – to hand out. Splatter protection too.

“They were right, one size does fit all,” McShane told a young girl after slipping a loose-fitting pair of adult-sized latex gloves over her kid-sized hands.

It’s the second and final community paint day for a new mural honoring Herman Wrice, a West Philadelphia legend. Until his death in 2000, Wrice was a charismatic civic force who took on drug dealers in Mantua, his tight-knit slice of the neighborhood, and other drug-ridden areas of the city and country.

McShane is guiding participants through this giant paint by numbers project that will eventually grace a 35-foot wall near the corner of 33rd Street and Haverford Ave., a short walk from another mural featuring a likeness of Wrice .

A new building right next door now obstructs the original mural at 34th and Spring Garden, but its design will live on.

The same image featuring Wrice’s imposing frame and steel-eyed gaze still takes center stage. It’s a pose daughter Tammy Wrice and anyone living in Mantua know well.

“For us, that’s the look like, that’s it. It’s time to get to work. It’s time to be serious I’m not playing,” said Tammy, chuckling.

McShane, though, has added a new element the second go-around, set to be installed this spring.

“Behind him [Wrice] in the background, there’s a crowd of people because he never did it alone. He was good at organizing people and so there’s just a whole group of people with megaphones and hard hats and sings that say ‘Up with Hope, Down with Dope’ that really are a signature of the kind of work that he did,” said McShane.

Wrice, wearing a white zip-up jacket and his iconic white plastic hard hat, stands out front, arms crossed, ready to lead the assembly.

The hard hat, offered up by then-Mayor Wilson Goode, became a symbol of Wrice’s nonviolent, but fearless brand of anti-drug activism that aimed to empower residents to take back control of their communities.

Wrice’s Mantua Against Drug Group routinely organized marches and stood in the streets as drug dealers cursed their presence and, sometimes, threatened their lives.

“Sometimes Herman and I would talk about sporting events and the boys would say, ‘you guys don’t belong here, you better get the F off this corner MF.’ And I would say ‘Herman, now I think the Phillies are doing kind of poorly. I don’t think they have the right outfielder.’ And they would say, ‘you didn’t hear what I said? I told you to move your ‘effin white butt off out of this corner.’ And we wouldn’t respond,” remembered Bernie “CB” Kimmins, who worked closely with Wrice.

“They got incensed that anyone would ignore them because everybody was supposed to be afraid of them,” added Kimmins.

Wrice’s wife, Jean, said, despite the danger, people followed her late husband because they knew he believed strongly in the neighborhood and that he was a true leader. Or, as she puts it, the “mother of all community organizers.”

“He knew first you had to ask people what they want and then sometimes listen to what they say they want and what they’re able to work towards getting. How much, if they really want it , are they going to work for it?” said Jean.

Third District City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell says Mantua needed a leader like Wrice. The neighborhood, she says, was like a “third-world country” at the time, partially because of the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s.

“Just a real bad inner-city neighborhood that needed everything and where people were depressed, where people were deserted and the area was deserted as well,” said Blackwell.

When the newly painted fabric mural goes up, Kimmins hopes residents are reminded not only of what Wrice did for the neighborhood, but also what it really means to be a community leader.

“You’re not going to become famous. You’re not going to have your life story on Lifetime. You are just going to say that you were there at a time when people needed you,” said Kimmins.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal