Last week City Hall welcomed a new, empowering addition. The arrival of Harriet Tubman, The Journey to Freedom, a nine-foot-tall sculpture by artist Wesley Wofford, is the linchpin of celebrations that will take place throughout Philadelphia in March to highlight Tubman accomplishments and her 200th birthday. The traveling statue has been on tour since 2020 and will move onward to White Plains, New York in April.
As we wait patiently for Moses, a nickname Tubman was given by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, to grace the $20 bill, this symbolic, sculptural testament to her work and sacrifices serves to remind both the city and the country of her important role in U.S. history. She worked odd jobs in various homes to procure funds to go back and save more enslaved people as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. There is the unverified account of her spending a night at the Johnson House in Germantown discussing business with other conductors including Underground Railroad founder William Still. In 1865, while she was serving in multiple roles during the Civil War as a scout, nurse, and intelligence gatherer, she gave a speech to the United States Colored Troops who completed basic training and were awaiting deployment. Many of them were newly freed slaves from Southern states after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
It is elating to see Tubman finally getting the respect that she truly deserves through film, exhibits, events, and the temporary memorial traveling the nation. Yet, as excited as I am about all of this, my thoughts immediately begin to focus on all of Philadelphia’s Black and Brown heroes and our local landmarks that currently sit in various states of neglect and that are under threat of demolition. There are very few stars that shine as brightly as Harriet Tubman. She is well-known, already celebrated, and is a perfect symbol for the city to showcase its diversity and achievements. Anchoring her statue with the Octavius V. Catto statue on the southern apron of City Hall shows progress. Yet, on a local level, there is still an embarrassing lack of equal representation when it comes to public art and historic preservation.
Let’s take a look at some recent losses and projects starting with the demolition of the Royal Theater in 2017. Once a neighborhood anchor that hosted legendary Black entertainers like Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Bessie Smith, the South Street theater was neglected and abandoned for decades. The facade was saved due to an easement held by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia since 2000. Yet, the preserved exterior feels hollow, and the bland infill of the new building diminishes the rich history of the lost African-American landmark.
A similar fate has befallen the former home of famed African American caterer Henry Minton at 204 South 12th Street which was demolished in 2020. Catering services were once one of the only opportunities for Black and Brown people to generate wealth, give employment to others, and become an empowering example to the community. Despite efforts by Oscar Beisert of The Keeping Society of Philadelphia and Black preservation activist Faye Anderson the Philadelphia Historical Commission denied the building landmark status.
In West Philly, the Black Bottom Tribe has been working towards public recognition of the African American neighborhood that was redeveloped in the early 1960s to become part of University City. Over at 54th and Vine Streets the former home of Crystal Bird Fauset, the first Black woman elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, sits abandoned along a partially demolished city block.
The legendary Uptown Theater on North Broad Street hosted the best in soul music from the 1950s until 1972. Take a look at the murals that adorn the front for a sample of the people who showed up to hear performers. The late, great James Brown, who owed the theater for his big break, was once sighted standing outside the theater staring at the marque and reminiscing about how he started his musical career there. This whole stretch of Broad Street holds a wealth of local 20th century Black landmarks, from the Joe Frazier Gym, the Philadelphia Doll Museum, the East Coast Black Age of Comics Museum, and Dox Thrash House at 24th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
According to Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, “There has been a flurry of successful nominations of Black heritage sites to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in recent years, including several sponsored by the Preservation Alliance.” A casual glance shows that a large part of this is due to the unpaid work of local activists, organizations, and communities who work tirelessly to help advocate for the preservation of African American landmarks in Philadelphia. One recent example is the John Coltrane House, a National Historic Landmark, which has been long neglected and its fate uncertain. Recently, Aminta Gadson, the executor of the family’s estate, began working with the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Collaborative to establish a museum and a cultural arts center in the jazz legend’s former residence.
The positive outcome of turning the Coltrane House into a site for education would be quite remarkable and celebrated across the globe if the project comes to fruition. However, it would be the exception, and not the rule, in the struggle to preserve African American landmarks in Philadelphia. As we honor the legacy of Harriet Tubman this spring, it is imperative to look inward and acknowledge that we as a city have done a terrible job at saving and celebrating Black history here at home. It is time to do better.