History

A New Book Looks at Philadelphia’s Black History, Century by Century

February 27, 2024 | by Kimberly Haas

There have been efforts to make our commemoration of Philadelphia’s history more inclusive. The state’s historical marker program, the Philadelphia Historical Commission, and a wide swath of cultural and educational organizations have been increasingly focused on the city’s Black history throughout the centuries and the neighborhoods.

A new book by Philadelphia-based educator, writer, historian, and Hidden City contributor Amy Jane Cohen is the latest contribution to that endeavor. Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape: Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy, published by Temple University Press, traces events surrounding and contributions of Black Philadelphians from the founding of the city in the late 17th century through the 20th century.

A question arises, one that Cohen herself raises in the book’s introduction, is how a white Jewish woman came to be the author of a thorough examination of Philadelphia’s Black history? The book’s origins lie in a 2005 decision by the School District of Philadelphia to mandate a high school course in African American history as a graduation requirement. Cohen taught it for eight years. “I volunteered because I had already been teaching a senior elective that was in part a history of Philadelphia,” she recalled. “I had no idea how steep the learning curve would be. But it was fabulous. I was in my 40s and just learning so many new things.”

That experience informs the book in several ways. Rather than presenting a cursory chronological narrative, Cohen has written chapters that take a deep dive into significant events, issues or figures, much like a study unit in a classroom seminar. Each chapter concludes with a “to-do” list of a handful of follow up items to further explore the topic, including visiting sites, reading books and articles, and checking out websites.

But this is no textbook. Each topic is enriched with contemporary viewpoints and reactions. For Cohen, this is an essential part of studying history. “Historical narratives aren’t static because the past is gone,” she asserted. “So what we do in the present is to make sense of the past. But we see it through our own lens.”

Several chapters end with essays by others that relate to the chapter’s subject, which further personalizes the history and brings it into the present.

Cohen says she intended the book for a primarily Philadelphia audience. While there are singularities in Philadelphia’s history that informed the Black experience here, such as the outsized Quaker influence on the early city, and its location so close to the Mason-Dixon Line, there are parallels that readers in other locations will recognize.

It also succeeds in appealing to a variety of readers. “My hope is that someone who is familiar with the history will see something through a different lens, and someone who isn’t familiar will learn something new,” she said.

The perspectives in Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape stand in contrast to recent events in libraries, school districts and public squares elsewhere in the United States, which have seen book banning and pushback against inclusive views of the country’s history. “Where the contention comes in is that the more inclusive narrative threatens some,” Cohen observed. “In Philadelphia, we have for the most part, been successful in transforming the landscape to better reflect all the people who lived here.”



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About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.

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