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Let’s talk about the Philadelphia monuments we need to preserve | Inga Saffron

Tearing down offensive statues feels good, but it’s not enough.

The Colored Girls Museum in Germantown is a repository of Black cultural history. It was found by (from left) Ian Friday, Vashti DuBois, and Michael Clemmons.
The Colored Girls Museum in Germantown is a repository of Black cultural history. It was found by (from left) Ian Friday, Vashti DuBois, and Michael Clemmons.Read moreJessica Griffin / File Photograph

For people who want the nation’s public monuments to tell a less varnished and more inclusive story of America, these are heady days. Dozens of Confederate statues, erected in the late 19th century to promote a white supremacist narrative, are being taken down across the South.

In Philadelphia, the infamous Rizzo statue was finally whisked off the city’s municipal doorstep last month, and two Columbus monuments have been boxed up for possible removal. Public forums are being organized to determine the future of those tributes to the Italian-born, Spanish-funded colonizer.

There’s definitely a feel-good aspect to Frank Rizzo’s banishment from the public square. The former mayor and police commissioner was a contentious figure during his lifetime, and his statue became a painful symbol of racism and police abuse after it was installed in 1999, particularly for the city’s Black residents who had to pass it every time they entered the Municipal Services Building. Few tears were shed when his likeness was carted away in early June.

And yet merely removing statues that denigrate the Black experience isn’t enough. We need to talk about preserving monuments, too. Philadelphia’s history won’t be served unless its neglected Black cultural sites are properly recognized and supported.

By monuments, I don’t mean heroic, neoclassical, man-on-a-pedestal-style statues. You won’t find many of those honoring Black Philadelphians, apart from the handsome Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors on Logan Square and the recently installed monument to Octavius V. Catto at City Hall. You need money and power to erect statues made of bronze and stone. Although Blacks have been a presence in Philadelphia for 400 years, monuments to their achievements and suffering tend to take other forms. There are dozens of them around the city if you know where to look.

It would be impossible to list every site, or identify the most important of them — assuming Philadelphians could actually agree which monuments should make the cut. The city is blessed with a huge number of Black churches and mosques, including architectural dazzlers such as Mother Bethel AME, Bright Hope Baptist, Tindley Temple and Church of the Advocate. There are also several important memorials that explore the history of slavery, most notably the Presidents House on Independence Mall. But after interviews with preservationists and historians, I decided to focus instead on the lesser-known cultural buildings, especially those that desperately need some TLC right now.

Monuments to Black achievement

Even the most artful statue can tell you only so much about an important historical figure. If you want to understand what made that person special, you need to see where that person lived or worked. The building is what makes it real.

I’ve always marveled that the great classical singer Marian Anderson spent much of her life in a modest rowhouse on Martin Street in the neighborhood now called Graduate Hospital. She was revered in Europe, but really became famous in America only after she was barred in 1937 from performing before an integrated audience in Washington’s Constitution Hall. In response, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, an event that was broadcast to millions around the world.

Paul Robeson, a multitalented performer and athlete (as well as a political activist who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era), didn’t grow up in Philadelphia, but he spent his last decade at his sister’s house at 49th and Walnut in West Philadelphia. The house, a shrine to his accomplishments, has been closed for the pandemic and needs some structural repairs.

The Strawberry Mansion house where the great jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane lived during his most creative period isn’t a house museum, but it should be. Because of tangled ownership issues, efforts to open it to the public have stalled. Now in poor condition, the historic property was recently put on Preservation Pennsylvania’s endangered list.

There’s more hope for the home of Dox Thrash, an innovative print maker and painter whose work hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Although his house at 23rd and Cecil B. Moore has been allowed to decay, a group of preservationists has launched a high-profile crowdfunding campaign to purchase the property. To think that the house once occupied by another important Black painter, Henry O. Tanner, still stands a few blocks away at 29th and Diamond. A student of Thomas Eakins', he also has work on view at the museum.

Maybe the most innovative house museum in the city is the Colored Girls Museum on Newhall Street in Germantown. Rather than honoring a single individual, the museum, which takes its name from the play by Ntozake Shange, celebrates the “stories, experiences, and history or ordinary Colored Girls.” Like the other house museums, it has been forced to shut its doors during the pandemic, losing crucial ticket revenue.

If you don’t mind wandering amid the sofas, you can visit the former gym on North Broad Street where heavyweight boxing champ Joe Frazier trained and try to imagine the ring that occupied the space. Now a furniture store, the landmarked city building off Glenwood Avenue was listed on the National Register in 2013. Two years later, the city honored Smokin’ Joe with a bronze statue at the South Philadelphia sports complex.

Monuments to Black wealth

The protests over the death of George Floyd have highlighted the systemic racism that has kept Black people from owning property and accumulating wealth. Philadelphia has been home to several determined Black entrepreneurs who overcame enormous obstacles to acquire property. Raymond Pace Alexander, who hails from a storied North Philadelphia family, was not just the first Black person to graduate from Penn’s Wharton School, he also became one of the city’s first Black developers. When white landlords refused to rent space for his law practice in 1934, he erected his own office building. The handsome, three-story building at 19th and Chestnut is now part of a Target store.

At the time of his death in 1911, John S. Trower was said to be the richest Black man in America. A native of Virginia, Trower moved to Germantown in 1870 to open a restaurant and catering business. He became so popular with Philadelphia’s white elite that he was able to acquire a Victorian bank on Germantown Avenue. Although no longer owned by the Trower family, the perfectly intact building still houses a restaurant, the Crabhouse Bar & Grill.

Philadelphia is also home to the first Black-owned shopping center in America, Progress Plaza on North Broad Street. The collection of suburban-style stores was developed by the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan as part of a larger empowerment effort. Several other buildings constructed by his influential job training program remain in North Philadelphia. Of course, it’s hard to mention Sullivan’s work without noting that Mother Bethel church at Sixth and Lombard sits on the oldest parcel of real estate continuously owned by Blacks in America.

Monuments to Black culture

Those jobs made it possible for the city’s Black residents to enjoy the numerous movie houses and music venues that once dotted Ridge and Cecil B. Moore Avenues. Many are long gone. But at least two, the Freedom Theater, whose stage has nurtured numerous Black playwrights and actors, and the Uptown Theater, a premier showcase for Black musical acts in the ’50s, still remain on North Broad Street. Philadelphia is also home to the nation’s first African American museum, which opened for the Bicentennial at Seventh and Arch.

Relics of segregation

At the other end of the spectrum are buildings that speak to the legacy of segregation. The Hotel Carlyle, a boardinghouse at 1425 Poplar St., was once one of the few Philadelphia hotels where Blacks could stay, and was listed in the Green Book, the guide used by Black travelers. Another important relic of segregation is the Hotel Brotherhood, at 15th and Bainbridge, which served as a professional club for the city’s Black hotel workers.

Ironically, buildings such as these are a direct result of the oppressive practices promoted by the people who erected the Confederate monuments during the Jim Crow era. They are a bitter reminder of the work America needs to do to fulfill the promise of the Black Lives Matter protests.