A Brief History Of Race & Contested Space In West Philly

 

Left: Detail from the design for Breaking Chains, a mural by K.C. White and Gabe Tiberino. Left: The completed mural at 500 S. 52nd Street shows a young girl inspired by the stories of Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, Madame CJ Walker, Guion Bluford, and Paul Robeson. | Images: Mural Arts and Mariam Williams

At the May 12 unveiling of the Breaking Chains mural at 500 S. 52nd Street in West Philadelphia, Congressman Dwight Evans said, “This mural sends a message. I’ve always said that you have to change the environment to change behavior and what is taking place here is a changing of the environment.”

Although the new mural replaces Broken Chains, a mural designed by K.C. White that was damaged over the past year during building renovations, the comments by Congressman Evans reflect more than the new scene on the side of a remodeled building. West Philly—its buildings, its murals, and its residents—are changing just as they have since the early 1900s.

I personally learned of West Philly’s history of change in the fall of 2017 when I was a lab manager for Monument Lab, a citywide public art and history project. I was assigned to Malcolm X Park. Breaking Chains, designed by muralist Gabe Tiberino in collaboration with White, sits catercorner to the park. Throughout the duration of Monument Lab I saw its predecessor enclosed in fencing and surrounded by construction material. Longtime West Philly residents often remarked on how unfortunate it would be to see the mural removed. It depicted the African American experience, from enslavement to the 21st century, highlighting figures like Sojourner Truth, Paul Robeson, and Barack and Michelle Obama. West Philly’s majority Black residents appeared to enjoy seeing representations of Black history and Black empowerment.

The new mural continues the themes of Black history, Black empowerment, and Black struggle, themes I found evident in talking to locals, through newspaper archives, and, particularly, in relation to the racial and economic evolution of Malcolm X Park.

Renaming the Land

The city passed an ordinance to rename the 5.5 acres of land in the 5100-5200 blocks between Pine and Larchwood Streets Malcolm X Memorial Park in 1993, 90 years after the park, previously known as Black Oak Park, was established. Community leaders advocated for a name change that would inspire black youth. According to an article published by the Philadelphia Tribune in 1992, “leaders concerned about the increase in abandoned buildings, failing businesses and drug activity in [West and Southwest Philadelphia] began [organizing] to help revive the park and the adjoining community.”

Seen by some as a symbol of the community’s decline, Black Oak Park became a catalyst in the early 1990s for community uplift. One Saturday in May 1993, residents organized a large trash cleanup that removed hypodermic needles, beer bottles, crack vials and other dangerous trash that littered the green space. More cleanups were planned after that. Community leaders like Brother Deke, who operated Know Thyself Bookstore at 52nd and Larchwood Streets, “wanted [to rename the park after] someone the youths could identify with,” according to the Tribune article. Bill No. 622 to change the name of the park was passed in October 1993.

Signs in Malcolm X Park don’t mention that it was named Black Oak Park from 1903 to 1993. During Monument Lab, several local residents expressed to me their concerns about the missing information. They worry it will confuse youth by making them think Malcolm X was born before the Civil War. A more sinister threat, some believe, is the potential erasure of Black history. What’s at risk of being forgotten when the park’s previous identity isn’t acknowledged in the neighborhood, and how did the park changed with it?

Black Oak Park and the First Half of the 20th Century

Black Oak Park was founded in 1903 and fully developed for public use by about 1910. From 1910 to around 1950, the vast majority of references to the park in the Philadelphia Inquirer appear in the Real Estate section as advertisements for attractive homes and amenities. The park was an asset, a reason to buy a home in West Philly, just like the Spruce Street trolley line and the Samuel B. Huey School, a public, mixed gender school established in 1898. When shots were fired in the park back then it was usually out-of-control hunters were aiming at rabbits.

Evidence the City government’s early intention for Black Oak Park to be a healthy public park and neighborhood green space was evident in a few random news items. In the 1930s, the Philadelphia Inquirer stationed speakers outside of a number of parks, including Black Oak Park, so the public could hear their sports coverage of the World Series. Evangelists from the Christian Endeavor Union also held outdoor services and revivals there.

Black Oak Park in 1927. | Image courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

Black Oak Park as a reason to live in West Philly is a far cry from this post on Reddit in May 2017: “My wife and I are moving to West Philly and found what looks like a great apartment. It is located just west of 52nd, right by Malcolm X Park. Is this a safe area for a couple young white folk?”

And this post on an online City-Data forum, in which a white person, “not trying to be a gentrifier,” asks if houses for sale on the western end of Malcolm X Park sell for under $100,000 because “they are crappy drug infested neighborhoods? Or just under valued because they are old school African American [sic] blocks?”

Monument Lab staff witnessed a considerable amount of drug activity in Malcolm X Park—drug deals going down in the gazebo and teens and adults smoking marijuana at all hours. A number of park regulars sat on the benches and drank alcohol. Caretakers of the park allegedly began locking the bathrooms because heroin needles were discovered. A man in the park was shot multiple times and critically wounded about a month before our project began. If the trash strewn all over the park’s grassy lawn could talk, it would probably tell us more about our now former place of work than we ever would have wanted to know before working there.

The broken benches, condom wrappers, and fresh urine we encountered around the lab most days reinforce claims of serious neighborhood blight. However, a letter published in the Inquirer on May 3, 1949 suggests that neglect of the park, even when it was Black Oak Park, is not new.

The letter, from Mrs. Howard Frower, reads, “Beautiful Black Oak Park, 51st & 52d, Pine & Larchwood, is provided with 38 benches. Ten of them are so rickety one hesitates to sit on them. The population has greatly increased in this section, consequently benches have been needed for the past five years. How can more benches be obtained? Committeemen and ward leaders really don’t know there is such a place as Black Oak Park.

The neighborhood at the time was mostly white, as South Philadelphia was still the city’s hub of African American life. So the neglect, for the time, doesn’t appear to be racially connected. The neighborhood’s growth simply may have outpaced funding allocated for its public spaces. And, in 1955, unspecified improvements were made to the park according to a city ordinance.

The neighborhood surrounding Black Oak Park may have reached a population saturation point in 1960. Between 1961 and 1970, Black Oak Park shows up in Inquirer search queries only twice—once to advertise a home for sale, the other to mention students from Samuel P. Huey School evacuated to Black Oak Park when the school caught fire in 1962.

A Mixed-Race Neighborhood

Black Oak Park first appears in search queries from the Tribune, the city’s African American newspaper of record, in 1953. The article announces several women in the Black community that have been appointed to leading campaign positions in West Philly for the 33rd Annual Red Feather campaign of the Community Chest.

The brief roll call shows that by the early 1950s, Philadelphia’s African American community, which has existed since the city’s founding, had a presence in the area surrounding the park.

The Tribune’s first classified ad featuring Black Oak Park is from May 1955. It is for a three bedroom home at 5240 Delancey Street, about half a block from the northwest corner of Black Oak Park. As the ads for housing near the park decrease in the Inquirer, they increase in the Tribune, almost at the same rate as they appeared in the Inquirer from the early 1900s to the 1940s. The ads are less descriptive, however, and are straight to the point with the number of bedrooms and the cost. Words like “delightful” and “desirable” have disappeared, perhaps to save on the cost of an ad priced by letter, or maybe because the sellers didn’t consider their neighborhood delightful and desirable anymore.

Gregorio Pac Colujun, or as most people call him, Mr. Greg, president of Friends of Malcolm X Park, told me that in the 1950s and 1960s when he was growing up, Black children were relegated to a small section of Black Oak Park to play. If the children left their designated area, white people in the park “would call the Red Car on you,” Mr. Greg said, referring to the Philadelphia Police Department, whose squad cars were red back then. When he was a child, West Philly was a mixed-race neighborhood and not without its tensions.

It’s not hard to imagine, then, how Black Oak Park would morph back and forth over the years from a healthy neighborhood green to a site and symbol of contested space—right up until today.

Divisive Space, Competing Uses

Broken Chains, a mural by K.C. White at 52nd and Larchwood Streets depicting Black oppression and empowerment, will be removed for a new construction project. | Images: Mariam Williams

An image taken in the park on August 9, 1969, speaks to the tensions of a changing neighborhood. It shows a profile view of three black women in a straight line, posed with left legs extended behind them, right legs steadying them as they lean back, left arms extended to the sky, right arms pointed diagonally towards the ground. The caption notes they are former students of the Sydney King School of Dance. As readers of the Tribune would have known, Sydney King, a brown-skinned Jamaican immigrant, and Marion Cuyjet, a Delaware Moor who passed for white, founded the Sydney-Marion School of Dance in 1946 to give Black girls the opportunity to learn ballet when white dance schools wouldn’t admit them. The school was located in West Philly, which indicates it had enough support from the surrounding community to exist, even when students were excluded elsewhere.

In the early 1980s, a different picture of Black Oak Park and West Philadelphia begins to emerge. According to the Tribune, the area is still “racially mixed,” but incidents of crime, vandalism, harassment, and drug trafficking had increased to the point where residents wanted “to establish a liaison with the narcotics division” in the 18th District Police Department. Residents cared about their park. Numerous articles in the Tribune and in the Inquirer highlight the efforts of John Terry, a then 16-year-old resident who had voluntarily picked up trash from the park and surrounding streets three times a week since he was 10. Incidentally, President Ronald Reagan bestowed the teen with a medal of honor for his community heroism. One resident told the Tribune, “We want to restore [Black Oak Park] to its original beauty.” But drug dealers saw Black Oak Park as an advantageous business location. They, too, were the public. Who, then, did the park belong to?

Another public becoming more vocal in the 1980s were those who embraced their African roots and supported Black Liberation and Black Nationalism in the U.S., Africa, and the Caribbean. A group called the African National Reparations Organization had planned an African Liberation Day parade for May 28, 1988. The parade was to have started and ended at Black Oak Park and the route to have included Osage Avenue, a street that picks up east and west of Black Oak Park and that was the site of the 1985 MOVE bombing. The day’s events didn’t go as planned, and marchers confronted, in chants, Wilson Goode, Philadelphia’s first African American mayor who held office during the MOVE bombing. In person, the marchers challenged police, residents of Cobbs Creek, and motorists stranded in a traffic jam when marchers took their parade-turned-protest quite literally into the streets. Black Oak Park held a small, but symbolic role in this story. In additions to being the site of public protest that day, it was a place where people seemingly at war with their neighbors were still allowed to gather and be heard.

In the 1990s, a deteriorating 52nd Street business corridor brought an onslaught of corner beer stores to the neighborhood, which in turn brought more drinking into the park and built hostility between Black residents and Korean business owners. In 1996, parents of Huey Elementary School students were concerned about their children walking through a park filled with crack addicts, drug dealers, and people drinking alcohol.

At the same time, however, the Friends of Malcolm X Park and other community leaders were working to make the park better. In 2001, eight years after the City Council ordinance was passed to rename the area Malcolm X Park, their organizing paid off with public and private funds totaling $500,000. The central gazebo, a cornerstone, new benches, new walkways, new restrooms, and a playground were built. Racially mixed children and families now frequent the park every day.

Recent Changes and Repeating History

Inside the park, a story of contested space continues. Which group can claim the space depends on where you are in the park. From the vantage point of our lab, which was off-center and adjacent to the gazebo and facing 51st Street, it belonged to the dog-walkers and their furry friends that chase squirrels and to people sleeping on park benches. If we faced 52nd Street, with its traffic and stores, it was a place for anyone passing through. At 52nd and Pine Streets opposite the park sits Global Leadership Academy, the charter school that opened when the School District closed the struggling Samuel B. Huey in 2016. When children are dismissed from school for the day the park belongs to them. They pounce on the playground covering the 52nd Street side of the park. Occasionally they find their way to the grassy areas. Drug deals go down in the gazebo, but so do jazz and R&B concerts and theater productions. People of all ages bring their lawn and picnic chairs to the center of the park to enjoy the entertainment. Drunks drift around to whoever will talk to them. One Saturday, a Black man I had previously only seen outside of 52nd Street Station stood on a crate in the grassy area closer to Larchwood Street to preach Islam and community. A Black Nationalist, who obviously didn’t know me well, lectured me about how feminism was ruining the Black community and then asked for my number. Every woman working at the lab was harassed by men.

Outside of the park, West Philly is gentrifying, despite some white peoples’ desire not to participate in the process. Earlier this year, PlanPhilly reported barriers to qualified African Americans attempting to purchase homes in rapidly reviving areas. According to the report, banks are required to invest in lower-income neighborhoods like West and Southwest Philly, but “most of these special loans are now going to new white homebuyers, not to longtime residents of color.”

Congressman Evans was correct at the mural unveiling. The environment is changing. The mural has changed. The building it is painted on has changed. But West Philly remains a contested space, and some chains still need to be broken.

About the author

Mariam Williams is a writer, arts educator, and public historian who writes to find answers, dances to find joy, and researches history for the love of curiosity. Read more about her and by her at mariamwilliams.com.



5 Comments


  1. Michael Krasulski

    Mariam
    Thank you very much for this interesting, engaging, and illuminating essay. The topic is particularly interesting to me since I am very interested in the history of the Church of the Holy Apostles and the Mediator on Spruce Street. In 1963 the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania did a study of each parish within the Diocese. Here is the link to that report: https://wp.me/p4cM9a-Cui. The demographics section is based on the 1960 census. Although race of the membership is not mentioned, the best evidence suggests that HAM finally integrated around 1962.
    Cheers
    Mike Krasulski

  2. The alcohol and smoking and drugs would embarrass Malcolm X! Neighborhood parks reflect the neighborhood culture. A spotless, graffiti free park shows users that the neighborhood cares and encourages respect for the park. I am sure the Friends of the park group is focused on the niceties and cleanliness of the park. This is essential. Others, please call 911 when you see illegal activities going on (drugs, smoking, drinking alcohol) and work with the local police precinct to have a cop walk through the park at irregular intervals.

  3. Pretty sweet Jeep Commander in one of those photos

  4. Mariam,
    Intersting article. In 1967 I work in a pharmacy across the street from that park I was 14 years old and a West Catholic student. Kessler’s Pharmacy on the corner 52nd and Larchwood. The whole neighborhood and myself included called it Doc Kesslers Drug Store.
    Your article brought back that memory along with the memory of that park. What I never knew, was the name of that park. I noticed the sign in your photo but I never saw that sign. I only saw that park from across 52nd street. Groups of black kids hung around in that park, so I would have been treading where I didn’t belong.
    My memory as a kids was, it looked like a nice park. It’s a shame that the city lets it parks or squares deteriorate but I also think the burden falls on the shoulders of the community. If the community doesn’t care about it’s neighborhood then who else will care.

  5. Great article on this public space. Appreciate your reporting.

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