Taking inventory of Philadelphia’s African American history

Nov. 30


By Alan Jaffe
For PlanPhilly

History is more than a series of well-known names, and it’s not necessarily something that happened a hundred years ago.

Those are a couple of the lessons gleaned from the research for an “Inventory of African American Historic Sites” in Philadelphia recently completed for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia by a recent Temple University master’s graduate.

The inventory was posted in late October on the Alliance’s website (http://www.preservationalliance.com/aainventory), and serves as the foundation of an ongoing effort to record the story of the city’s African American community and its impact on Philadelphia.

A grant from the Samuel S. Fels Fund supported the work of Dana Dorman, whose studies in the public history program at Temple focused on how academic expertise is “interpreted to a broader audience. How do you get people more involved in these stories of the past, and not just have historians talking to each other? How do you share those discussions with a broader audience?”

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A rowhouse at 1319 Christian St. was the home of the great blues singer Bessie Smith. Appropriately enough, the home is now across the street from the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts.

Dorman began working on the project in June, starting with a 10-year-old inventory of African American churches, schools, businesses, homes, clubs, benevolent associations and other sites.

Back in 1999, explained Melissa Jest, the Alliance’s Neighborhood Preservation Program Coordinator, “the goal was to promote African American historical sites to the general public. Before you can do that, you have to know what sites are out there, their condition, and their history.”  Through that initial research, which included information-gathering at community meetings, the Alliance compiled a list of about 350 sites.

Dorman put that list into electronic form over the summer, and weaved in a 2008 report on African American churches by historian Emily Cooperman. “What I did was cross-reference her report with what we already had in the inventory. Of course, there were many new sites she had found in her research,” and the list grew to 450 sites.

“This was mainly because congregations moved over time,” Dorman said. “Even if it was obvious they are in one place now, they have been in several locations over their history. Dr. Cooperman was able to fill in all of those blanks, and really fill in that historical record,” reflecting the shifts in the African American population over time.

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The home of Julian Abele, 1515 Christian St., bears a Philadelphia Historical Commission plaque. Abele, the first African American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture, worked on the designs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Free Library.

In addition to creating the new inventory, Dorman was assigned to write a historical context statement, “which was intended to be a very bird’s-eye-view for the broader audience.”

Her context statement explains that Philadelphia’s African American community “outnumbered that in any other northern city into the 20th century, thanks in part to the city’s geographic proximity to the Mason-Dixon line and the economic and social opportunities the city offered to blacks. In spite of oppressive racism, African Americans in 18th and 19th century Philadelphia built successful businesses, founded churches, established schools, created support networks, honed artistic skills, expressed political ideologies, and challenged the institution of slavery.”

“The African-American experience” in Philadelphia “has left an indelible mark on the city’s neighborhoods,” Dorman also wrote.

In the course of her research, she also came across other sites that were eventually added to the inventory. “We were trying to be inclusive and cast a wide net. For this particular project, we’re not worrying about whether something is historic enough, or how to define African American. We want to raise awareness, and not exclude sites.”

The research revealed that there are significant sites throughout the city. “It is not just one corridor or neighborhood. There are sites in the Northeast, Northwest, Southwest – they are really all over the place,” Dorman said.

“The other interesting thing about some of the sites is that history is not just the events of the 1700s,” that the story of the city’s African American community continues into recent decades. “Important people who are either affiliated with institutions or private homes are also important parts of the city’s history and African American history, and they should be recognized and protected,” Dorman said.

Among the 20th century stories told through the inventory is that of Sadie T.M. Alexander, a lawyer and economist who was appointed by Harry Truman to his administration’s Committee on Civil Rights. “She had quite an impressive career, especially for an African American woman in the early 20th century,” Dorman said.

More recent historic sites include the local headquarters of the Black Panthers in the 1960s, and the site of the infamous MOVE bombing in 1985.

The inventory includes at least 100 historic resources that have been lost over time.
Among them was the home, on 12th Street near Locust, of William Still, a leader of the Underground Railroad.

Another building lost was the home of Thomas J. Dorsey, who lived at 1231 Locust St. in the 1800s. He was a runaway enslaved African, Jest said, who “ended up becoming one of the more wealthy African Americans in the city. Even though that property was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, it was lost in demolition.” Jest said his story is the kind of inspirational tale that “we’re hoping to expose to the public in garnering their support. If you put faces to some of these stories and some of these sites, the public is more inclined to take hold to our message.”

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The home of abolitionist Robert Purvis, 602 N. 16th St., still stands but is in need of restoration. Purvis was president of the Pennsylvania Underground Railroad.

Many of the buildings that have already been lost were due to “the normal growth and development of the city,” Jest said. Some were lost during the construction of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Others were replaced by new housing. Many of the original churches were knocked down during expansion or construction of new houses of worship.

There are several goals in creating the inventory, Dorman explained. “One is to get our heads around the status of all of these sites, and what level of recognition they have – local or national, whether they have state markers, and which are still standing.”

Another goal is awareness and education, “helping to draw more attention to the fact that Philadelphia has a very vibrant African American history, and African Americans have been essential to the history of Philadelphia,” Dorman said. “It’s also about making this inventory more accessible, more searchable” for the public.

The public, in turn, is invited to suggest new entries for the inventory by contacting Jest at the Preservation Alliance. And the suggestions don’t have to be about famous individuals or landmarks.

“I think that the wonderful part of what we’re finding is that they were just regular, everyday people who managed to do extraordinary things,” Jest said. The names that come up “won’t be a Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, but somebody like Thomas Dorsey, who was able to bring himself up.”

Contact the writer at alanjaffe@mac.com.

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