With the tumultuous recent events of the COVID-19 pandemic, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, renewed attention is focused on what values we as a society hold so highly that we decide to memorialize them. Not all of the values of a century or more ago are acceptable today. Many memorials were erected to celebrate people and events that are historically shameful and persons and historic moments that truly warranted memorializing have been largely ignored or trivialized.
Its been pointed out before that Philadelphia, a city with so many monuments, did not have a memorial to an individual person of color until 2017 when the Octavius V. Catto statue was dedicated at City Hall. There is another memorial, however, which honors not an individual, but a class of African Americans, the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Its origins date from the when America’s celebration of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence was being planned. The travails that the monument’s supporters faced in getting it commissioned and then having it sited on the Parkway are a metaphor for Black Philadelphia’s struggles and triumphs over prejudice and systemic oppression.
When the idea of celebrating the “Sesqui” was first raised by department store mogul John Wanamaker, Philadelphia’s African-American community responded enthusiastically, with the Philadelphia Tribune editorializing on July 16, 1921, “Here in Philadelphia where the initiative has been taken in this matter, our people ought to give a united and unwavering support to the fair and to those working out plans for its success.” The Negro Industrial Businessmen’s Association proposed hosting an annual Philadelphia Autumn Fair for five years to “prepare to be in efficient position to make the most credible showing ever made by Negroes at an international fair.” That was quite an ambitious order given the resounding success of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington’s Exposition des Negres d’Amerique showcasing the contributions of African Americans to American society at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle attended by 50 million visitors. The Tribune’s editorial voiced hopes that Philadelphia’s own Sesqui would have an even more creditable impact that the Paris expo had achieved.
They had reason to expect this, given the city’s experience with the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 celebration. By all accounts, participation in the Centennial was apparently not limited by racial segregation and there is evidence that the fairgrounds were fully open to all regardless of race or class. If this is indeed true, then it is a testament to Philadelphians’ respect for Octavius Catto’s martyrdom in the cause of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1871. Artist Edward M. Bannister’s painting Under the Oaks won the gold medal, and Edmonia Lewis’s sculpture The Death of Cleopatra, now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was so well received that President Grant commissioned her to paint his portrait.
Planning for the Sesqui got off on a positive note, but quickly degenerated into political in-fighting between Philadelphians’ conflicting aspirations for the event and between politician William Scott Vare and his political machine and Pennsylvania’s prohibitionist crusading reform governor Gifford Pinchot. A Sesqui Planning Association (SPA) was organized by Mayor Hampton Moore in 1920 with spirited ideas being discussed for an expo on the recently constructed Benjamin Franklin Parkway, for other locations in Philadelphia to host the party, and for keeping the celebration low key and low budget with an “Old Home Week” observance in vicinity of Independence Hall. The SPA opted for the Parkway as the venue for a Sesqui exhibition coupled with the Independence Hall celebration.
This choice of the Parkway reflected Philadelphians’ pride in what was becoming one of the grandest boulevards in America–a bold diagonal link between Center City and Fairmount Park slicing across the city’s predictable street grid to display Philadelphia’s architectural and cultural sophistication. Included in the City Plan in 1903, construction of Philadelphia’s Champs-Elysees began in 1907 and the boulevard was finished in 1919, albeit without all of the cultural buildings planned to grace its edges. The design of the array of its public buildings attracted some of Europe and America’s most celebrated architects, but by 1920 only the Bell Telephone Company building had been completed. Other buildings were under construction, notably the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but many of the blocks cleared of their former structures remained vacant, thus reckoned to provide ideal sites for the Sesqui’s temporary structures.
Philadelphians loved the Parkway from the start. The popularity of festivals like today’s annual Welcome America Independence Day concerts there can be traced back to the original Parkway Dance held on June 11, 1925, which drew more than 10,000 partygoers. People enthusiastically backed the idea of using the Sesqui to show off Philadelphia’s new boulevard to the world.
In 1921, two massive Civil War monuments, one for soldiers and one for sailors, were placed on the Parkway near 20th Street. Other sculptures were then proposed for locations along or near the Parkway and Art Museum, including a Sesqui gift of a fountain from the government of Italy. This caught the attention of Samuel Beecher Hart, an African-American Army veteran, newspaper editor, and publisher. Hart was also a former captain in the Gray Invincibles, the last all-Black unit in the Pennsylvania National Guard. Hart envisioned the addition of a Parkway Sesqui memorial dedicated to African-American veterans of all wars. His idea was very well received by Philadelphia’s Black community and Hart, who lived in Southwest Center City, was urged to run for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in order to pursue funding for the project. He was elected from the 6th district and worked from his home office at 2021 Waverly Street, several blocks east of Fitler Square. Hart, a native Philadelphian, lived there with his wife and 10 children, communicants at St. Peter Claver Church on Lombard Street, the Archdiocesan center for African Americans who were not welcomed in other parishes. Hart introduced a bill in the PA legislature in 1925 to fund creation of the monument. His bill was defeated, but it then passed in 1927.
Philadelphia elected a new mayor in 1923, Freeland Kendrick, a machine-backed politician beholden to the Vare family who saw the Sesqui fair as a cash cow for their construction business. Kendrick quickly muscled aside the planning association, appointed himself head planner, and declared that there would be an international expo in South Philadelphia in the undeveloped swamp and farmland known as “The Neck.” The area was also known as “Varesville.” During Prohibition Vare identified himself with the “Wets” who favored sales of wine and beer, thus provoking “Dry” Pennsylvania Governor Pinchot’s wrath. Kendrick had appealed to the Commonwealth for Sesqui funding of $1 million, which the legislature approved, but Pinchot refused to release any of the funding. This was the cause of Hart’s monument bill being vetoed in 1925. He would have to wait until another governor was elected to see his project funded, as did occur in 1927.
By July, 1925, enthusiasm for the Sesqui in Philadelphia’s African-American community was turning into anger as Mayor Kendrick had not made a single Black appointment to any one of the 100 or more planning committees–not even to the Negro Affairs Committee. After much condemnation in the Philadelphia Tribune’s editorial pages, Mayor Kendrick responded by appointing attorney J.G. Asbury as director of the Committee on Negro Activities. Time passed and no further appointments were forthcoming and Asbury was not provided a budget. Finally, the Associated Negro Press appealed directly to President Calvin Coolidge for redress. The degree to which the Black community had soured on the Sesqui was evident in the “Facts and Fancies” column in the March 6, 1926 edition of the Philadelphia Tribune, noting that “It is a tragic fiasco made so by the outcropping of narrow-minded and petty jealousies on the part of leading citizens, tragic because because of the many millions of the taxpayers’ money that are being spent, and the poor results that are being obtained by this outlay. This Sesqui has proved a good thing–for the contractors and the owners of property in South Philadelphia.”
Representative Hart’s successful 1927 bill established a seven-member Statue Commission, which included Hart, to oversee the monument’s completion. All five of Governor Fisher’s Commission appointees were African Americans. 12 sculptors participated in the design competition, from which J. Otto Schweizer was selected. His contract was signed in March 1929. Schweizer’s winning design was created in granite with bronze sculptures on the right side two soldiers and a sailor and on the left three soldiers in World War I uniforms. Between them stands a female figure of Justice holding laurel wreaths representing Honor and Reward. The monument’s reverse features four female figures representing War, Liberty, Peace, and Plenty, and atop it four American eagles guarding The Torch of Life. Below Justice is the inscription “Erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in Honor of Her Colored Soldiers.” On the back of the memorial, the dedication plaque states “To Commemorate the Heroism and Sacrifice of All Colored Soldiers Who Served in the Various Wars Engaged in By the United States of America That a Lasting Record Shall be Made of Their Unselfish Devotion to Duty as an Inspiration to Future Generations. This Monument is Dedicated May 30, 1934.”
The selection of the site for the monument then set in motion five years of disagreement. The agency overseeing Parkway monuments, the Philadelphia Art Jury, ruled against installing it on a Parkway site, claiming that they did not want to turn the Parkway into an “avenue of war memorials” as most were more or less mediocre. This was quite a cynical explanation on their part, as they had recently approved the twin Parkway memorials–this in a city already overstocked with Civil War monuments, from the enormous Smith Memorial Arch near Memorial Hall, as grand as any to be found in Richmond, Virginia, to Germantown’s Market Square monument, and with so many statues of generals on horseback around the city that they could have formed their own cavalry troop. Other groups who had unsuccessfully proposed their own memorials on the Parkway, the War Mothers and the World War Veterans, reacted with jealousy. The Art Jury proposed an alternative location for Hart’s memorial, Fitler Square, in his district.
This undeveloped, half-acre square once occupied a kind of no man’s land between Rittenhouse Square to its east, the city’s historic African American community to its south along South Street, and an Irish-American neighborhood to its west settled by immigrant coal heavers who unloaded anthracite from coal barges arriving via the river from Schuylkill County. Fitler Square, once described as a “mudhole inhabited by drunks and empty bottles,” was acquired for a park by the City under Mayor Edwin Fitler, hence Fitler Square. But it remained as disheveled and unkempt as its denizens until the Clark-Dilworth renaissance of the 1950s. The suggestion of this site for the African American veteran’s memorial was taken as an intentional insult. The Commonwealth’s commission agreed and then refused the Fitler Square site, creating a five-year stalemate. A compromise was finally reached, and an obscure site was selected behind Memorial Hall and Horticultural Hall on the grounds of what had been the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. The monument’s dedication on July 7, 1934, postponed from May 30 as stated on the plaque, featured a speech by Representative Hart, and his granddaughter Doris pulled a cord unveiling the monument.
The memorial was especially fitting considering the times through which it was proposed and executed. The U.S. military remained rigidly segregated, and African American soldiers were subjected to a horrendous miscarriage of justice a few years earlier. In 1917, a race riot had occurred in Houston, Texas. The city’s white citizens objecting to a unit of Buffalo Soldiers, 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Division, encamped in one of its neighborhoods. The rioters attacked the soldiers, who were armed with 1903 Springfield rifles. This was the only race riot of that era in which the number of Blacks killed was less than the whites. The 118 surviving soldiers were court-martialed on charges of murder and mutiny, the largest courts-martial ever convened by the U.S. Army. 110 soldiers were convicted and 13 of them were hastily executed before they were given the opportunity to appeal their convictions as authorized under provisions of the Articles of War. A total of 19 executions were carried out.
The National Equal Rights League convened on the Sesqui fairgrounds on October 20th, demanding protection of the ballot and of life, a reference to widespread lynching still occurring, as well as the abolition of segregation and a pardon for the “Houston Martyrs” as an act of justice. There can be little doubt Representative Hall would have been present at this October 20th event.
In 1993, Michael Roepel–my friend and former colleague at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission–organized a group of Philadelphians calling themselves the All Wars Memorial Committee to relocate the monument to the Parkway as Representative Hart had originally intended. Roepel gained the support of the Fairmount Park Commission, the Art Commission (successor to the Art Jury), and Mayor Ed Rendell and his efforts bore fruit. The monument’s new site on the Parkway below 20th Street faces the northeast toward the Swann Fountain on Logan Circle, with its back to the Franklin Institute. Roepel and his group also secured funding to restore the sculpture. This relocation ceremony on November 11, 1994 included Doris Jones Holliday, Representative Hart’s granddaughter who had pulled the cord unveiling the monument at the July 1934 dedication.