Of the 13 panels on Smith Memorial Playground’s lawn detailing the lives and accomplishments of Philadelphians for its “Leaders and Legends” Black History Month exhibit, the most important may be the one intentionally left blank.
Sandwiched among panels honoring Philadanco founder Joan Myers Brown and Edith Mitchell, a retired Air Force brigadier general, oncologist, and Thomas Jefferson University professor, that empty one doesn’t have quotes, facts, or QR codes like the others.
It simply has two words at the top — “FUTURE LEADER” — and a place for a child to stand in front of it and have their picture taken.
“We want kids to claim their place,” said Frances Hoover, the playground’s executive director. “We want them to stand in front of the sign and believe. That is really the purpose of this exhibit.”
One of the honorees, Marcel Pratt, who was the youngest person to serve as city solicitor and is now the managing partner of Ballard Spahr’s Philly office, said he was “blown away” to be included in the list.
“I know what it means to young Black children to see some of these role models and legends be honored in this way,” he said.
On Saturday, city officials, playground staff, Pratt, and friends and relatives of the honorees gathered to kick off the exhibit, which is in its second year at the East Fairmount Park playground, a space that’s been racially integrated since its inception in 1899.
In addition to Myers Brown, Mitchell, and Pratt, the other honorees were:
Marian Anderson, vocalist and civil rights figure.
Robert Bogle, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Tribune.
Ed Bradley, broadcast journalist.
Octavius Catto, civil rights scholar, activist, educator, and baseball legend.
John Chaney, former Temple University men’s basketball coach and Hall of Fame head coach.
Otis Hackney, Philadelphia’s chief education officer.
Juanita Kidd Stout, former Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice and the first Black woman in the nation to serve on a supreme court.
“I don’t know whether it’s because I’m old or I’m lucky or both, but I think I’ve known every one of these people,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in his remarks. “These are real people who walked the streets of our city, who contributed to our country and our city’s growth and improvement, and I think their stories need to be told.”
Kenney said Black history is American history that was “intentionally not told” so “people couldn’t understand what the contributions were that people of color made to this country.”
“Critical race theory isn’t critical race theory, it’s the truth. It’s what happened,” he said. “And white people should feel bad about some of the stuff that’s happened over the last 400 years.”
Several members of the Chaney family attended the ceremony, including John Chaney Jr., who said his family was honored that his father, who died last year, was included in the exhibit.
“We celebrate my dad all the time. He was an extraordinary father to be with,” Chaney said. “He was for education more than anything else, even basketball. ... He said that’s what would tear away poverty in this city.”
Alison Williams Bruno, who’s coached women’s lacrosse at Villanova and Georgetown Universities, spoke on behalf of her “mentor and hero,” Tina Sloan Green. In 1982, Williams Bruno was a kid growing up in Malvern when she saw a picture of Sloan Green in The Inquirer.
“I was like, ‘Wow! There’s another African American female involved in this world of lacrosse,’ because where I grew up, there was none,” she said. “It was representation for me.”
Williams Bruno contacted Sloan Green, went to Temple, won a national championship with her in 1984, and became a lacrosse coach herself.
“Tina has been my mentor and inspiration throughout my entire coaching career,” she said.
Speaking on behalf of her husband, Otis, La-Toya Hackney said that before he was the city’s chief education officer and the principal credited with turning around South Philadelphia High, he was the teacher at Germantown in jeans and Timberland boots who’d show up at his students’ homes when they didn’t come to class.
“He’d say: ‘I’m your child’s math teacher. They weren’t in school today and they need to be in school,’” she said. “That’s the kind of educator he was.”
Hackney’s speech was so passionate it prompted City Councilmember Allan Domb to suggest Otis Hackney should be a candidate for the next superintendent of the Philadelphia School District.
As part of the exhibit, Smith Playground created trading cards of the honorees with QR codes on the back that lead to short narrations of their lives and accomplishments. On Saturday, the playground also had hot chocolate, a s’more pit, and workshops encouraging kids to create art inspired by those in the exhibit.
“We believe [this exhibit] is a great way to open up conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion with your children,” Hoover said. “It’s also a great way for them to feel a sense of pride in knowing that right here, right now, in their midst are these giants that we can celebrate.”