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From cotillions to protests, visitors fill in the gaps at John W. Mosley exhibit

Woodmere's John W. Mosley exhibit connects with visitors

Carole Robinson was fully prepared for the memories of yesteryear to flood her old-school soul a few weeks ago when she visited the Woodmere Art Museum's John W. Mosley photography exhibit.

A child of socialites, Robinson came of age in the '50s — part of Mosley's workaday heyday, from the late '30s to the mid-'60s. Often, she was a guest at the Jack and Jill of America soirees, high-society picnics, and church functions where Mosley made his career capturing images of black people living, loving, and working in a segregated Philadelphia.

However, Robinson, now 75, was floored when she spotted herself dancing at a debutante ball.

"It just all started coming back to me," Robinson, of West Philadelphia, said  Monday morning.

It's no wonder that — 57 years later — Robinson was able to identify more than half of the 16 couples with relative ease.

"That's Billy Young, Peter Norris, Richard Selby, and, look, John Hopkins — we called him Hoppie," Robinson said, her voice crackling with excitement. "And, look, there's Betty Jane and Alice. And right there in the front, that's Ron Brown." (As in, the nation's first African American to be appointed secretary of commerce.)

"Those were good times," Robinson said before making her way up through the cavernous three-floor show to introduce me to a picture of her 7-year-old self at a Jack and Jill Halloween party.

As one of the nation's first black syndicated photographers, Mosley sold his pictures to the Philadelphia Tribune and the Pittsburgh Evening Courier, and from time to time, a few appeared in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.

Those that were published in newspapers have their subjects, for the most part, identified, especially celebrities. Images of Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, and Bill Cosby, among others, are prominently featured in "A Million Faces."

Yet it is the many photos of everyday black people doing the everyday (like going to church on Easter Sunday) and the extraordinary (protesting segregated school and workplaces) that have remained anonymous. This is true in both the Mosley exhibit and in the tens of thousands of the photographer's photos housed at the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University. (Blockson, 84, who is also a subject in one of the photos, will give a talk as part of the exhibition's wrap-up Sunday.)

"We are definitely ending with a lot more information than we had when we started," said William Valerio, director and CEO of the Woodmere.

In some cases, people just wanted to share memories, like Charles Truxon III, whose father was among the first eight bus and trolley drivers in the early 1940s to integrate SEPTA's predecessor, the Philadelphia Transportation Co. Although his father wasn't in Mosley's picture of African Americans demanding in a protest that they be hired as drivers, he remembered what it was like on the streets of Philadelphia then.

"My father used to come home every night in his green uniform, and I remember how he felt after a hard day driving those buses with the U.S. Army soldiers riding with him," Truxon, of West Philadelphia, said. When the black bus drivers finally won those jobs, the federal government sent in the U.S. Army to protect them.

As Valerio talked about the number of people who have shared with him fond memories of long-since-demolished nightclubs or Atlantic City's segregated playground, Chicken Bone Beach,  73-year-old Ted Greene of Mount Airy gently interrupted us with a knowing chuckle:

"I just went down [to Chicken Bone Beach] last year for a reunion." As Greene talked to us, he  scanned the photos that featured Joe Louis, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and in one,  bikini-clad West Philadelphia socialite Mary Sullivan, according to Robinson. "I remember there was Aramingo Avenue and New York Avenue. There were lots of Southern restaurants over there. Then the casinos came and closed it all down."

Valerio pointed out a photo of seven school-age girls standing in front of a building. A woman visiting with her daughter thought one of the girls  looked like her friend, when her daughter piped in and said, "Mom, I think that's you."

Indeed it was. Marie Molino, now 89, was flanked by friends in front of St. Peter Claver, the first Catholic church for African Americans, at 12th and Lombard Streets. Molino, whose father worked at Gimbels during World War II, shared with one of the note-takers that her family lived in a basement apartment at the school during that time. The church is now closed.

"That's what makes this exhibit so special," Valerio said.

"I had no idea my aunt was a part of this exhibit," Clarke, 74, said of the photo that says only, "Easter Sunday." This was Marjorie Tunis (later Marjorie Abrahams), a milliner who worked for the government.

A Million Faces: The Photography of John W. Mosley runs through Monday at the Woodmere Art Museum9201 Germantown Ave. in Philadelphia. 215-247-0476.