Karen Asper Jordan learned to be resilient in 1965. She was fired from her first job as a student tutor at George Washington Carver High School after being arrested during a civil rights demonstration alongside Cecil B. Moore at Girard College.
Harriet Jackson worked the graveyard shift as a clerk in a Spiegel warehouse at the intersection of Erie Avenue and K Street. “It wasn’t a fancy job with a fancy title,” she said, “but I learned how to be patient.”
In 1969, Kenneth Salaam of East Oak Lane worked on a Chrysler assembly line in Detroit. He developed calluses on the side of his body from jumping in and out of cars, but there, he found a deeper understanding of teamwork. “If one person messes up their job, the end product would be imperfect,” he said.
Securing a job for the first time is a pivotal step toward adulthood, said Judith Levine, an associate professor of sociology at Temple University. Our first jobs are important to the family dynamic because they help its members become independent — financially and socially.
“First jobs, and often second and third jobs, build your confidence,” said Levine. During these formative times, we learn how to negotiate our value, forge strong social and professional connections, and build a sense of our place in the world.
We asked five of Philadelphia’s black leaders to reflect on the beginnings of their towering careers. As with Jordan, Jackson, and Salaam, their first steps paved the way for the impact they would come to have on their communities.
Helping people help themselves
Bob Nelson’s father was a fastidious dresser. And every year, he would take Nelson to the now-defunct clothier Robert Hall in West Philadelphia for the quintessential Easter suit. By the time Nelson was 13 years old, he became sullen with the stiff shirts and Italian shoes that were picked out for him.
“This is what you will wear because this is what I can afford,” Nelson’s father would retort. “When you make your own money, you can buy whatever you think you’re big enough to buy.”
Nelson soon secured his first job, as a paperboy, and he also worked in a neighborhood drugstore. He relished the new freedom to buy the clothes he liked. As he grew older, Nelson developed a passion for helping people find their own independence.
In 1979, he became the president of the Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC), a post he served in for more than 35 years until his retirement in 2014. OIC, founded by the late Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, provides people with opportunities to gain skills they need to secure employment and advance in their careers.
“When you make your own money, you can buy whatever you think you’re big enough to buy.”
Nelson, now 75, said the most rewarding part of his career wasn’t rubbing elbows with the likes of U.S. Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Rather, it was seeing families reunite after the ravages of drugs and homelessness had separated them. During his tenure as the organization’s president, OIC formed a rehabilitation program and shelter for homeless men.
“I remember there was this one guy who graduated from the program,” Nelson said. “He was estranged from his wife, but she was there and she brought the kids." Several members of the audience were moved to tears as he testified.
“There’s an aggregated pride I have from helping so many people find their own way.”
The courage of David
With furrowed brows and crossed arms, an 11-year old Audrey Bronson slouched in the pews of the Florida church her family attended and thought, “When I get older, I’m going to preach better than this."
To Bronson, preachers worked hard to capture — and keep — the attention of adults, but often neglected to minister to younger congregants.
At 14, Bronson stood before the congregation to preach a sermon based on the biblical story of David and Goliath. Mustering up the courage to address an eager Tuesday night audience, “I felt like I was David,” Bronson said. When she was done, the church’s pastor told her that preaching was a job that people say they’re called to, but not everyone’s call was divine.
“I knew he wasn’t talking about me because I knew I was called,” Bronson quipped. “He just wanted me to be sure.” During that time, Bronson said, a teenager preaching was a “phenomenon," and she was asked to preach at several churches around the region.
Having a solid education was a value that Bronson held dear. She earned her bachelor’s degree in education at Cheyney University, her master’s in psychology at Howard University, and her doctorate at New York Theological Seminary school. In 1965, she began teaching as a professor of psychology at Cheyney.
Before long, the demand for her preaching reached critical mass and Bronson said she had to choose between her role at Cheyney and her calling as a pastor. At 90, Bronson still preaches, only now it’s at the West Philadelphia church she started in 1975: Sanctuary Church of the Open Door.
In the mid-1960s, when Bronson was in her 30s, she was asked to preach at a church in Camden. When she arrived, she prepped by donning her liturgical garments. The church’s pastor asked to speak to her privately and said that the church didn’t allow women to preach from the pulpit. Bronson would have to deliver her sermon from the floor.
Because she had found the courage of David in decades past, she refused.
“I will not be preaching for you tonight,” she said as she removed her robe.
You know very well what you are
James Mtume was about 10 years old when he realized his proclivity for music. The Philly-born singer-songwriter would hear R&B melodies on the radio that he would then re-create at his family’s piano. He played until his fingers were sore, or until he mastered the tune — whichever happened first.
After high school, Mtume moved to California to attend Pasadena City College. A little older and eager to learn more about music, Mtume would sit in during showcases by musicians like Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins. He took a weekend gig at a quaint jazz club in Los Angeles where he’d “make money off the door," but not a substantial wage.
“We wouldn’t start playing until 5 a.m.,” Mtume said. “And during those hours, it was mostly pimps and hustlers” in the audience.
He landed his first legitimate gig in 1968 at age 21. For $40, he played drums with the late drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler during a political campaign event. “It was a small crowd, and we were just the background. ... I don’t remember who was there, but I remember we got paid,” he said with a chuckle. Learning the monetary value of his skills was the biggest lesson from the gig.
Soon after, he worked with Miles Davis for five years and went on to form the band Mtume. He began to dabble in songwriting and producing and won the Grammy Award for best R&B song for his work in Stephanie Mills’ 1981 hit “Never Knew Love Like This Before.”
In 1994, Mtume found himself in uptown New York for a meeting with Diddy, who was eager to introduce his newest artist, the Notorious B.I.G.
Diddy wanted to sample Mtume’s 1983 hit “Juicy Fruit” in a record for B.I.G. After negotiations, Mtume agreed. “Juicy,” in many ways, helped characterize the rapper’s style. “Juicy Fruit” went on to be sampled in more than 100 songs.
You’re an eagle
Jeffrey Johnson knew the value of education. When he was enslaved, his owner taught him how to read, a revolutionary act for its time. Equipped with literacy, Johnson became a leader in his community, working in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Georgia.
“He was a proud man,” said Liller Green, Johnson’s granddaughter. “He taught us who we were and that we were to be proud.” Green, now 91, said that in her family, the importance of education was passed down through generations, and as a result, she began reading at an early age.
Green did everything she could to contribute to her tuition at Morgan State University. After querying around campus about a job, she found a part-time gig working in the campus library as a typist for 40 cents an hour.
In 1953, Green became a social worker and learned how education affects the family dynamic. After starting her own family, Green wanted her eldest daughter, Pamela, to have a preschool experience akin to her own, in which children learned mathematics and reading through games and songs. In 1965, she founded the Ivy Leaf School, originally intended to be a preschool program.
“When the parents saw what the children were doing and how they were progressing,” she said, more parents “just flocked to us.” At its prime, Ivy Leaf swelled to more than 800 students and four buildings across Philadelphia. The New York Times once named Ivy Leaf as one of the “country’s largest independent black private schools.” The school operated for 43 years.
It was important to Green that African American history was taught at Ivy Leaf. As her grandfather taught her: “When you know your history and where you come from,” Green said, “when you’re faced with discrimination, you know how to handle it.”
Instilling a sense of self-worth and self-respect was also paramount at Ivy Leaf. “We always told the students, ‘You’re not a chicken, you’re an eagle,’ ” Green said with a small, confident smile. “You can fly above everyone else.”
When you learn, teach
When he was 4, Richard Watson’s mother died and he moved in with his grandparents in North Carolina. There, he lived in a farming community. To pass time, he’d watch his older brother paint cartoon characters with watercolors. And “whatever my older brother did, I did," Watson reminisced.
His father remarried, and Watson’s family relocated to Philadelphia. He continued to create. After graduating high school, he worked odd jobs to pay the rent — help unload a truck, or work on “somebody’s anything.” But as an artist, “I’ve always wanted to incorporate materials that are relevant to my black experience.”
He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he met a mentor, Anne Garrott, who gave him his first job teaching art classes to children and seniors at the Christian Street Branch YMCA.
“I got that job while I was still a student,” said Watson, now 73. “I was teaching while I was still learning.”
On May 1, 1965, Watson woke up to sounds of police sirens and voices chanting. He peered out of his window and saw police cars necklaced around Girard College. Quickly, he dressed, fetched his sketchbook and a camera, and headed toward the campus. It was the start of the NAACP’s protest campaign to integrate Girard College, led by prominent activist Cecil B. Moore.
“I went back every day,” Watson recalled. “But on the fifth day, I was arrested by the police for taking pictures and drawing people.” He said he was interrogated by plain-clothed detectives about his sketchbook in a police station at 17th Street and Montgomery Avenue. After half an hour, an entourage of activists and lawyers showed up to demand Watson’s release.
Since 1986, Watson has worked in many capacities at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Currently, he’s the museum’s artist in residence and exhibitions manager.
A lesson that he’s carried throughout his career? Always be prepared. “Opportunities can come at any time,” he said. “Knowing that has given me a rhythm in my dedication to art.”