Breaking Through Historic Preservation’s Color Line

 

| Photo: Michael Bixler

History often resides in the most inconspicuous of places. Malcolm X lived at 25th and Oxford Streets in 1954 during his appointment as Nation of Islam minister of Temple 12 | Photo: Michael Bixler

Editor’s Note: On the surface, 2503 W. Oxford Street is not an address with much to say. The eroding, freestanding row house sinks into the heart of Sharswood’s battered landscape with very little dialogue. Save for a fading mural of blue skies on its party wall, half-devoured by a coat of pale aquamarine paint, the house appears to be just another weathered stone on a rocky shore, or so it would seem. It was at this nondescript location that Malcolm X worked and slept for six months in 1954 after being sent to Philadelphia by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad to energize and expand Temple 12 at 1643 North Bailey Street as acting minister. Although the FBI kept close tabs on the then-controversial figure, their records incorrectly identify him as sharing a flat with fellow Muslim brothers at 1522 North 26th Street (Read Peter Woodall’s story on Malcolm X’s residency in North Philly HERE).

Faye Anderson, preservation activist and director of All That Philly Jazz, has confirmed that the Oxford Street address is correct and is currently seeking to have a Pennsylvania state historical marker placed in front of the revolutionary civil rights leader’s former home. Hidden City co-editor Michael Bixler caught up with Anderson to discuss the problematic state of preserving Philadelphia’s built black history, grassroots advocacy, and the destructive pressures of redevelopment in a “World Heritage City.”

Michael Bixler: The FBI files from 1954 have Malcolm X at living at 1522 N. 26th Street, but you have discovered otherwise. How did you confirm that 2503 Oxford Street was his correct address?

Faye Anderson: On January 16, the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus held a screening of civil rights documentaries at the Pearl Theater. One of the films screened was “Seeds of Awakening: The Early Nation of Islam in Philadelphia,” which included first-hand accounts of Malcolm X’s time in the city. In the film Brother Richard Hassan recalled:

We would sit up all night. When Malcolm was here, we’d sit up all night talking. We had a Unity House, a Fruit House, on 2503 Oxford Street. A big house. That’s where Malcolm would stay and all the brothers would come.

The documentary was produced by the New Africa Center, part of the Scribe Video Center’s Muslim Voices of Philadelphia community history project. I have since spoken with Abdul Rahim Muhammad, executive director of the New Africa Center, who confirmed the address with Brother Hassan. While Hassan no longer lives in the Philadelphia area, I have his phone number so I will be able to get an affidavit from him if necessary. I also have contact information for Malcolm’s former press secretary and photographer.

MB: What are the next steps to getting an historical marker placed?

FA: Architectural historian Oscar Beisert and I are preparing the form to nominate 2503 W. Oxford Street for historic designation by the Philadelphia Historical Commission and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. We will submit the nomination on or about February 21, 2016, the 51st anniversary of the assassination of El-Hajj Malik Shabazz [Malcolm X].

| Photo: Michael Bixler

“Malcolm X” by Ernel Martinez at Ridge and W. Susquehanna Avenues. Completed in partnership with the Mural Arts Program, 2005 | Photo: Michael Bixler

MB: Why is it important to you to have an historical marker placed there?

FA: The historical marker is important because 2503 W. Oxford Street is a place where history happened. Malcolm X lived there for about six months in 1954. To be clear, the house does not meet architectural standards for historic properties. Instead, the building has significance in the cultural characteristics of Philadelphia and is associated with a person significant in the past. The building also exemplifies the political, social and cultural heritage of the African American community. What happened at 2503 W. Oxford Street laid the foundation for what is now one of the largest populations of African-American Muslims in the country.

The historical marker will tell a more complete story about the Sharswood neighborhood. Sharswood is about more than concentrated poverty and race riots. It’s a community that provided safe havens from the indignities of segregation. Jazz giants roamed Ridge Avenue and iconic leaders like Malcolm X and Charles W. Bowser resided there.

MB: Divisive figures are often ignored by the general public when it comes to historical recognition, however Malcolm X’s legacy and reputation as a pivotal human rights leader continues to be universally accepted and celebrated, as it should. In Philly, there’s a great mural of him at Ridge and W. Susquehanna, and Black Oak Park was renamed in his honor in 1995. Do you think the city embraces Malcolm X more than others?

FA: I smiled when I read the question. When I was in college, my boyfriend played Malcolm’s speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” every day. A friend from law school has a Malcolm X room in his house.

To be sure, Philadelphia shows Malcolm X brotherly love and sisterly affection. In addition to the park and murals, we now have the New Freedom District (the former Black Bottom neighborhood in University City) which commemorates historic visits by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. to Lancaster Avenue. In my hometown, New York City, there’s the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center.

Malcolm is also embraced in unexpected places, including the U.S. Postal Service, which in 1999 issued the Malcolm X Black Heritage Stamp. A few years ago, Donald Trump’s campaign spokesperson tweeted that Malcolm X is her “idol.”

| Photo: Michael Bixler

The First African Baptist Church of Philadelphia at 16th and Christian Streets was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historical Places in last October. Pastor Terrence Griffith aggressively objected the nomination on the grounds of the building’s condition, despite its undeniable historic merit. Developer Bill Vessal purchased the church in December for $2.05 million and plans to stabilize and preserve the building | Photo: Michael Bixler

MB: You played a considerable role in advocating for the historic designation of First African Baptist Church (the oldest independent black church in both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania) on Christian Street. Can you tell me a little more about your experience getting it placed on the Philadelphia Register and your past involvement in preservation?

FA: The heavy lifting to get the First African Baptist Church of Philadelphia on the local register was done by Oscar Beisert and a small group of dissidents. The congregants recognized that we owe it to our ancestors to fight to save a building that was built with their blood, sweat, and tears. It’s a building that is a testament to our history of resistance, perseverance and triumph.

I was motivated to get involved by the arrogance of the church’s pastor, Rev. Terrence Griffith, who dismissed preservationists as “crusaders coming out of the woodwork.” Well, I came out swinging. My role was to make noise on social media and keep a watchful eye for any attempt to exert political influence on the Historical Commission.

I’m a preservationist at heart. I’ve always loved old buildings and historic sites, but historic preservation did not become a professional focus until I moved to Philadelphia. I walk a couple of miles every day. While out and about, I noticed that murals [depicting black culture] were either being torn down, blocked, or trashed. I also saw the demolition notices on beautiful old buildings. So as a lifelong activist, I decided to get involved.

MB: It doesn’t take a trained preservationist to know that built African American landmarks are highly vulnerable to demolition in Philadelphia. Whether it is because of race, economics, or politics, if these types of buildings have no inherent architectural value it’s almost impossible have them protected, even if they are bursting at the seams with historic, cultural value (churches, former jazz clubs, meeting halls, theaters, first black owned businesses, you name it). Unless the owners remain firm in not giving into the pressures of redevelopment, like Jacob Adams at Barber’s Hall, the threat of loss to demolition is huge, especially around Temple where the cultural and political history is so dense. In Sharswood, the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s Neighborhood Transformation Plan will essentially erase the core of an entire neighborhood when it demolishes the 1,300 properties they plan to acquire through eminent domain. How do you reconcile a city so tone deaf to the needs of preserving its African American and working class history?

FA: Race matters. African Americans were not allowed to live in most neighborhoods, so you had the high concentration in South Philly and, beginning in the 1940s, North Central Philadelphia. These are the neighborhoods that are now gentrifying.

To paraphrase Booker T. Washington, who spoke at the centennial celebration of the First African Baptist Church in 1909, black folks laid down their buckets where they were. They built churches, opened small businesses, many of which were listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, and entertained themselves at social clubs, including the Bainbridge Club, Barber’s Hall, Pyramid Club, and the Clef Club. I should make note that 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Philadelphia Clef Club which was the social arm of Union Local 274, the black musicians union whose founding members included John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie.

The development boom is erasing our cultural and civil rights heritage. But developers don’t care. So advocacy is critical. Council members like to take credit for projects in their district. Similarly, they should be held accountable for failing to use Councilmanic Prerogative to ensure that developers explore adaptive reuses of historic resources.

Union Baptist Church | Photo: Michael Bixler

The former Union Baptist Church at 12th and Bainbridge where world renowned contralto Marian Anderson learned to sing. The church was demolished in September 2015 to make way for multiple single-family homes | Photo: Michael Bixler

MB: Where are we at as a city with preserving African-American history, and what can be done to fortify efforts to save what we have left? How important is saving historically significant neighborhood buildings to those who either have no time or the inclination to lend their voice to the issue?

FA: Don’t get me started. The same week that Philadelphia was named the first World Heritage City in the United States, the church where Marian Anderson learned how to sing was demolished. Like jazz musicians, the world-renowned contralto helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement.

In making the case for designation, the Philadelphia World Heritage Committee wrote: “Philadelphia has been a world leader in the creative reuse of our rich and diverse past.” I hijacked Global Philadelphia’s hashtag #PhillylovesWHC and posted photos of the partially demolished Union Baptist Church. I now routinely post photos of historic buildings in various stages of demolition using their hashtag and Twitter handle (@PhillylovesWHC).

Yes, I would like to see more African Americans get involved. I’d also like to see more Millennials get involved. I’d like to see more people, period, get involved.

There has been an influx of new residents, mostly Millennials, who are unaware of the histories hidden in their neighborhood. Research shows that Millennials love old buildings and value authenticity. Millennials represent 29.5 percent of Philadelphia’s voting age population. If organized and mobilized, they can be the difference-makers in the push for a comprehensive survey of the city’s historic resources and an adaptive reuse ordinance.

With the highest poverty rate of any big city in the U.S., we have to convince potential allies that historic preservation matters. To do that, we must move beyond Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia and Independence Mall. We must raise awareness that historic preservation is about saving places that matter to them. Working together, we can preserve diverse places that tell a more complete American story.

About the author

Michael Bixler is a writer, photographer, and managing editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a former arts and entertainment reporter with Mountain Xpress weekly in Asheville, North Carolina and a native of South Carolina. Bixler has a keen interest in adaptive reuse, underappreciated architecture, contemporary literature and art, and forward-thinking dialogue about people and place. mmbixler.tumblr.com

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3 Comments


  1. Michael,

    Thanks so much for reaching out to me. It’s particularly meaningful the piece is published during Black History Month. I hope your readers think about how the built environment reflects social and economic inequities.

    Faye Anderson
    All That Philly Jazz

  2. Thank you, Faye. Spot on, as always.

  3. Love it! How do you get involved to support this great mission.

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