Murals honoring Black activists now wrap the Municipal Services Building

Mural artist Russell Craig cuts the ribbon on the West side of Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building at the dedication of the Crown mural on May 11, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Mural artist Russell Craig cuts the ribbon on the West side of Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building at the dedication of the Crown mural on May 11, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Two new murals flank the sides of the Municipal Services Building, across from Philadelphia’s City Hall. They honor Black activists of the past year, as well as the past several decades.

Both murals – “Crown: Medusa” and “Crown: Freedom,” by Mural Arts Philadelphia artist Russell Craig – are continuations of the mural he created for the front of the MSB building, “Crown,” unveiled last summer. All three images are based on photographs of contemporary people, and make references to 19th and early 20th century classical paintings.

Mural artist Russell Craig embraces Pam Africa, a social justice activist and a featured face in his mural on Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building on May 11, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The mural on the west side, “Crown: Medusa” is a group portrait of several younger activists set against a backdrop of names of unarmed Black people killed by police.

In the center is Sudan Green, the founder of Spirits Up!, who advocates healing and wellness for Black people through yoga and meditation. Craig put an image of Théodore Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818) on Green’s t-shirt in the mural. It’s a chaotic and tragic painting depicting shipwrecked sailors struggling on a makeshift raft.

Green had not been familiar with the painting. When he saw it on his chest in the mural, he read it as a struggle for survival: the inspiration for Green to advocate for Black wellness came last May, when he participated in a demonstration following the murder of George Floyd by police last summer. That demonstration escalated into clashes with police. That scene of unrest was at the exact spot where the mural is now.

“It was the first time I was in a protest witnessing people being harmed, harmed by police right here on these stairs, right where we’re standing now,” said Green. “I knew I wanted to start Spirits Up, because I knew I couldn’t do that every day.”

Pam Africa (center) with her sisters Jeanine (right) and Janet (left), at the dedication of the Crown mural by artist Russell Craig on Philadelphia’s Municipal Services building. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The other figures in “Crown: Medusa” are Max Ho, Debora Charmelus, Christina Jackson, Aaliyah Michelle, and Gregory Coachman.

On the east side of the building is “Crown: Freedom,” a lineup of Black women activists shown in profile, some of whom have been fighting for Black liberation for many years – like Ramona and Pam Africa of MOVE. Others depicted have come to prominence only in the last year, like Dr. Ala Stanford, who founded the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium in order to get Philadelphia’s Black communities tested and vaccinated against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stanford feels honored to be included in the mural, but also sad. She wept when she saw the mural for the first time, with its background of names of murdered Black people.

Dr. Ala Stanford, founder of the Black Doctors Consortium, in front of the Crown mural by artist Russell Craig that pays homage to her and other Black women. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Every time I see Sandra Bland’s name, I see myself,” said Stanford. “I remember where I was with Walter Wallace Jr. … when that happened. And Eric Garner in New York. I remember that. So as much as it’s jubilant, it’s different for me. I can’t explain it.”

From left: Dr. Ala Stanford, Ajeenah Amir, Sajda “Purple” Blackwell, artist Russell Craig, Pam Africa, Krystal Strong, YahNé Ndgo and Kezia Ridgeway, in front of the East side of the Crown mural that pays homage to their social justice work at Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Crown: Freedom” is based on the Howard Pyle painting, “The Nation Makers” (1901), showing a line of Revolutionary War soldiers, in profile, walking into battle. The figures in the mural also include YahNé Ndgo, Keziah Ridgeway, Krystal Strong, Ajeenah Amir, and Sajda “Purple Queen” Blackwell, who is also a partner of WHYY’s News & Information Community Exchange (N.I.C.E.).

Artist Craig Russell’s Medusa mural on the front of Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Stanford saw the mural, showing that lineage of women activists, as a depiction of how far we have come, but it also made her think about how far we still must go. All of the women in the mural were at its unveiling, and posed together for a photo. Stanford wanted them all to smile for the camera, but was dismayed when she discovered that some of them had to keep their masks one because they have not yet been vaccinated. That hit home for the doctor whose number one priority for over a year has been to protect Black Philadelphians from the virus.

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