I think my first exposure to what we call African American History was when I taught 7th grade United Staes History at Saint Michael’s in Levittown in the early 1970s. I don’t remember any mention in my high school and college classes except for generalities about slavery. I think it was probably African American History month in February, that I got a filmstrip (for those of you who don’t know, film strips were a coil of 35mm images fed through a projection machine) that gave an overview of African American History. Like my students, I learned about Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Jim Crow laws, Marcus Garvey, George Washington Carver, the Harlem Renaissance, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. All the classics.
Fast forward. I was teaching American History classes at Holy Ghost Prep. February was still African History Month. Textbooks had begun to include some of the classic people and events. This wasn’t always the case. I remember reviewing history textbooks for a course at Temple. it was hard to believe but a big publisher claimed that slavery wasn’t always that bad; many masters treated their slaves well. In the early 80s, I took a month long workshop At the University of Pennsylvania in Local History, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The instructor, Walter Licht, introduced us to the New Social History. The history of everyday life of ordinary people. The New Social History was an umbrella that included African American history, Ethnic history, Women’s history, and any other group that had been left out of the traditional United States history narrative.
Since the National Endowment program was in Philadelphia, we learned a lot about the African American experience in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. Did you know that the Pennsylvania State Constitution in 1776 and 1790 did not restrict African Americans from voting. That came in 1836 when in Bucks County, African American votes determined an election. The losing candidate went to court and a Judge Fox ruled that the African Americans really had no right to vote. Election resuts changed and the following year new state constitution disenfranchised Black voters. Why was I thirty years old before I learned this?
The National Endowment program also introduced me to Philadelphia Black history — Richard Allen, the founder of Bethel AME church. Facing discrimination in the White Anglican Church, Allen formed his own. My Aunt Lucy, a spinster Irish domestic, took me to several down home dinners at the Bristol AME church when I was in elementary school. I remember going into the basement, in a sea off Black faces, eating fried chicken and corn bread. Aunt Lucy socialized with her Black domestic friends. Memorable experiences for me.
As part of the NEA program, we visited the African American Museum on 7th street, Bethel AME mother church, and the Johnson House in Germantown, associated with the Underground Railroad. We met with Charles Blockson at his library/archive of African American history at Temple. I was particularly intrigued with Blockson’s explaination of lawn jockeys.”Charles L. Blockson, Curator Emeritus of the Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia, claims that the figures were used in the days of the Underground Railroad to guide escaping slaves to freedom: “Green ribbons were tied to the arms of the statue to indicate safety; red ribbons meant to keep going … People who don’t know the history of the jockey have feelings of humiliation and anger when they see the statue…” Blockson has installed an example of the statue at the entrance to the University’s Sullivan Hall.
As I continued to read and teach Philadelphia history, I learned a lot more about the experiences of African Americans in the City of Brotherly Love. William Still and the Underground Railroad. Richard Allen and Bethel AME church; Octavius Catto and voting rights and desegregation activist (murdered in 1871). There is Robert Purvis and sailmaker, James Forten, both active in the Underground Railroad; Zachariah Walker, lynched in Coatesville; Harvard educated sociologist, W.E.B. DuBois who wrote “Philadelphia Negro.” And many African Americans who contributed to Philadelphiia in the 20th century– singer Marian Anderson; actor, Paul Robeson; Civil Rights activists, Cecil B. Moore and Leon Sullivan.
Recently I viewed the exhibits of two extremely different African American artists. A Horace Peppin show, “The Way I see It,” is currently at the Brandywine River Museum. Peppin was born and spent most of his life in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He lost the use of his right arm during World War I but taught himself to paint. His works is folk art, genre style painting. Peppin was almost 50 in 1937 when Museum of Modern Art recognized his work. Philadelphia’s Albert Barnes was a patron. I’ve always liked Peppin’s bold, bright palette, scenes of African American life. I was not familiar with peace and social justice themes in some of his paintings. Peppin depicted the hanging of John Brown and has several paintings about the war. I particularly enjoyed the “Holy Mountain” paintings, a take off on Edward Hicks, “Peaceable Kingdom.”
The second African American artist exhibit was Colin Quashie’s “The Plantation (Plan-ta-shun)” now at the African American Museum at 7th and Arch. Quashie’s work pulls you into another world — satire so strong, I wondered if I should be viewing it. Susan Cohen writing in the Charleston City Paper (Quashie’s hometown), commented, “. . . this type of work doesn’t require an esoteric explanation of its greater purpose. It is about race. It is political. It is emotional. Even in its best moments, it can be garish, aggressive, impeccable in its delivery but uneasy in its message. It is meant to start a conversation, and, for better or worse, it does.” Many of Quashie pieces are posters or other large visual panels. In the center of the room is his version of monopoly, including the buying and selling of slaves and mules. There are advertisements — Oprah as a grinning Aunt Jemima on a box of pancake and waffle mix. Quashie has a clothing line, J Crow, featuring formal wear, a white shirt with a black noose tie. Quashie said he didn’t get the parallel to J Crew until someone pointed it out.
Slave cabins advertised like hip mansions. Run-away- slave- ads but instead of ads they are offered up as resumes. Boxcar Brown, the slave who shipped himself in a box to Philadelphia becomes an ad for Fled-X (Confederate flag logo). There are articles in Plantation Digest (pinch yourself, no this is not real) and a Plantation Coloring And Activity book. Most disturbing was the can of Slave Ship Sardines — you don’t want to read the fine print.
The first thing you see entering the Plantation exhibit is a large chalkboard with: “A White Radio host said the word, “nigger” 11 times in five minutes. It coast her a career. 2 cops called an unarmed Black man a “nigger” then tased and shot him dead. It cost them nothing. What is the value of “nigger.” There is a desk with a notebook to write your response. As I moved through the show, I was pretty uncomfortable. This was African American history as I’ve never seen it before. There was a middle aged African American man looking intently at each work. We were often looking at the same work. I want to say’ “What do you think?” But I didn’t. As I looked at Colin Quashie’s work online and read some reviews of his work, I wished I had spoken, asked my question. Take a look at Quasie’s work. “What do you think.”