Temple’s Blockson collection publishes graphic novel to encourage youth

High school students in the School District of Philadelphia will soon have access to Philadelphia’s rich history of local African American heroes and trailblazers.

Curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection Diane Turner holds a copy of the graphic novel BLAM! (Abdul Sulayman / The Philadelphia Tribune)

Curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection Diane Turner holds a copy of the graphic novel BLAM! (Abdul Sulayman / The Philadelphia Tribune)

This story originally appeared on The Philadelphia Tribune.

High school students in the School District of Philadelphia will soon have access to Philadelphia’s rich history of local African American heroes and trailblazers through a graphic novel.

“Black Lives Always Mattered!” (“BLAM!”) features profiles of 14 prominent African American Philadelphians from the 20th century.

Temple University Library’s Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection created and published the graphic novel, which was made possible by a grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

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The Blockson Collection has donated 5,000 copies of “BLAM!” to the School District of Philadelphia and in time the graphic novel will be available to the public.

“We wanted to introduce students to African Americans in Philadelphia who they probably hadn’t heard of and who made positive contributions to our city, said Diane Turner, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection.

“We wanted students to see themselves in the curriculum, especially in the public schools,” she added. “We also wanted to promote literacy and the importance of the arts and we felt the graphic novel was a popular way to do that.”

The graphic novel will be incorporated into the school district’s African American history curriculum and extra copies will be made available in high school libraries.

Teachers, who participate in two professional development opportunities based around the book, will receive class sets. Teachers will start using the graphic novel at the end of February.

In 2005, the District became the first major U.S. city to require African American History as a graduation requirement for all high school students.

“The goal with the graphic novel is to provide mandatory professional development for teachers who are interested in receiving a class set,” said Ismael Jimenez, School District of Philadelphia social studies curriculum specialist.

“They would come to the professional developments and learn how to teach the graphic novel,” he said. “We’re also going to be providing a graphic novel to every teacher who teaches African American history regardless of them participating in a graphic novel workshop.

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“The remaining books will go to K-8 schools around the North Philadelphia region,” he added. “That was a direct request from the Blockson Collection. Dr. Turner wanted some of the copies to end up in the schools near Temple University.”

Jimenez added that school district teachers helped with the curation of “BLAM!”

“The social studies curriculum department was working with the Blockson Collection about three years ago on this project,” Jimenez said.

“The teachers were involved in the actual curation of some of the information that is included in the graphic novel,” he added. “It came from experience teachers that was identified by my predecessor Yaasiyn Muhammad.”

The planning for “BLAM!” began in 2016. Curator, art director and illustrator Eric Battle selected contributors who began drawing for the novel in 2019.

The 164-page graphic novel features work from local and non-local comic book artists. The forward of the graphic novel was written by the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Lonnie G. Bunch III.

Some of the individuals in the novel include opera singer and civil rights activist Marian Anderson, writer and educator Alain Locke, medical practitioner and businessman Dr. Walter P. Lomax Jr, Philadelphia Tribune Newspaper founder Christopher J. Perry, attorney and civil rights leader Cecil B. Moore, architect Julian Abele as well as civil engineer and contractor Frederick Messiah.

“I selected the artists involved,” Battle said. “We brought Dr. Sheena Howard aboard to write the narratives. All of the artists involved in the book, I’ve known over the years and they’re artists whose work I always admired.”

Battle illustrated three profiles in “BLAM!” including W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke and Cecil B. Moore.

“In illustrating those three profiles, I did each profile in a slightly different manner,” Battle said. “The W.E.B Dubois profile, I did in black and white with gray tones.

“The Alain Locke story, I colored that myself with painted color,” he said. “Cecil B. Moore’s illustration is the traditional comic book style. I had a friend of mine, who’s also a working colorist in the industry, color that particular work for me.”

“It was a big responsibility to be able to illustrate these stories and these particular individuals because they’re so iconic,” he added. “You want to do justice to their stories and to the legacy of their families.”

The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection is one of the nation’s leading research facilities for the study of the history and culture of people of African descent. The collection has more than 700,000 items.

In the future, Turner hopes to make “BLAM!” into a series. She wants the stories in the graphic novel will get students to read and be inspired.

“I’m hoping ‘BLAM!’ will encourage students to read more and know more about their history,” Turner said. “Reading about the lives of African Americans who have made contributions to various domains helps students to develop their critical thinking skills.

“We also want students to be inspired by these stories,” she added. “We want to combat the negative stereotypes by showing them that there are role models for young people to follow and they can come from your own city.”

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