We're celebrating Black History Month by bringing you stories and history about some of our neighborhood and city's prominent African American figures and organizations through history.
CHRISTIAN STREET YMCA
The Christian Street YMCA has been a landmark of this neighborhood for more than ninety-five years. As the city’s first African American YMCA and the fourth in the nation, it served not just those in the immediate vicinity, but the whole African American population of Philadelphia.
Though the nation’s first African-American YMCA was founded in Washington D.C., in 1853, it was not until the national YMCA office created a “Colored Men’s Department” in the 1890’s that their number proliferated. By the mid-1920’s there were 51 African American YMCA’s nationwide. Segregation at YMCAs was strongly discouraged as official policy after 1945, and the association banned it outright in 1967.
Along with the Southwest-Belmont Branch of the YWCA at 1605 Catharine Street, the Christian Street YMCA became a center of African-American community life, providing opportunities to many residents and a home to community organizations.
W.E.B. DU BOIS
In 1896, W.E.B. Du Bois, having completed his Ph. D. at Harvard and spent two years at Wilberforce University in Ohio, accepted a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a study of Philadelphia’s predominantly Seventh Ward, from South to Spruce Streets and from Schuylkill River to Seventh Street. Du Bois lived with his wife at the College Settlement Association, 617 Carver (now Rodman) Street, “in the midst of an atmosphere of dirt, drunkenness, poverty, and crime.”
“Murder,” he wrote in his Autobiography, “sat at our doorsteps, the police were our government, and philanthropy dropped in with periodic advice.” Three years later he published The Philadelphia Negro, a pathbreaking work of sociology that documented the historical development and composition of Philadelphia’s largest and oldest African American community.
Contradicting accepted wisdom, Du Bois concluded that black poverty and crime did not result from racial inferiority, but from the unwillingness of white employers and city officials to employ blacks. More than half the Seventh Ward’s population had emigrated from the South following the Civil War, and lacked political and personal connections to land jobs that businessmen and machine politicians were doing out in the city’s other immigrant wards. More than 61 percent of the men and 88 percent of the women in ward who held jobs did so in “personal service”, as maids, cooks, stable hands, and the like.
Realizing that appeal to moral sensibility would do little good. Du Bois told white Philadelphians, all white Americans, that it was for their own advantage to give blacks the opportunity to do better.
In 1905 a group of young ambitious African-American doctors set on organizing a hospital, purchased a private house at 17th & Fitzwater Streets. In 1907, it formally became Mercy Hospital. The hospital provided invaluable medical care to the African-American community, and to anyone who could not afford proper care otherwise. The beneficent attitude did not help pay the bills and in 1948 the hospital had no choice but to merge and with a new facility on Woodland Avenue in the 1950’s. A Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker at 17th & Fitzwater Streets memorialize this hospital.
Marian Anderson was one of the most internationally acclaimed singers of the twentieth century and was the neighborhood’s most famous resident. Born in a small house at 1833 Webster Street in 1897, the neighborhood and its residents nurtured her vocal talents throughout her childhood. Members of her church congregation raised funds for her to attend a music school for a year. During this time, she moved from house to house, never leaving the neighborhood: first to Colorado street, then, after the death of her father, to her grandmother’s house on Fitzwater Street, then 17th and Christian Streets, then 18th and Carpenter streets, and finally to the east side of South Martin Street.
By the late 1930s, Anderson's voice had made her famous on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States she was invited by President Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor to perform at the White House, the first African American ever to receive this honor. In 1955, she became the first African American singer to perform as a member of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
The house is now home to the Marian Anderson Residence and Museum, founded by Blanche Burton Lyles, who also founded the Marian Anderson Historical Society, Inc. Martin Street is now known as Marian Anderson Way. She is also memorialized by the Marian Anderson Recreation Center on 17th & Fitzwater Streets.
In 1902, Charles Tindley began as the twenty-third pastor of the Temple parish. Born a slave in 1851, his rise is due to the power of his own industry, teaching himself Greek and Latin, and he became a methodist minister in 1886. He nurtured a rise in the congregations membership and purchased the former Westminster Presbyterian Church building at Broad and Fitzwater Streets, the parish taking on the name East Cavalry Methodist Episcopal Church. After a decade of success in this structure, which dated to the 1850’s or earlier, Tindley began the process of building a gigantic structure on the lot to the immediate south. In 1924, the congregation moved into the new cathedral, and in 1927 the name was officially changed to Tindley Temple.
Dr. Tindley was also a famous gospel music composer, writing such hymns. His most famous, “I’ll Overcome Someday”, would be later adapted as “We Shall Overcome”, an anthem of the Civil Rights movement.
THE ROYAL THEATER
The Royal Theater became the most distinguished of the theaters and jazz clubs of this diverse district. It began as a first-run cinema. The theater catered to the area’s black community. The developer underscored his dedication to the black residents of the neighborhood by hiring an all-black staff, the first cinema to do so. His staff would go on to organize the “Colored Motion Picture Operators Union” that included projectionist, staff, and ushers.
The theater expanded beyond cinema with the live broadcast of a children’s talent show called “Parisian Tailor’s Kiddie House”. Most of the theater’s renown, however, stems from the live concerts it hosted - Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, among others. The Royal’s marquee would read: “Always A Great Show.”
JULIAN FRANCIS ABELE
Julian Abele was a Philadelphia-born architect who in 1902 became the first African American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Architecture. Eventually ascending to the post of chief designer in 1909, Abele had a hand in the construction of some of Philadelphia’s most prominent buildings including the Free Library of Philadelphia (19th & Vine), the Chateau Crillon, the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, and most notably, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He lived at 1515 Christian Street from 1915 until his death in 1950. The house remained with his son and widow until 1953. The park at 22nd and Carpenter now bears his name, recognizing his historical contribution to our neighborhood and city.
PHILADELPHIA, WILMINGTON, AND BALTIMORE RAILROAD & SHED
The PWB Railroad was constructed in 3 segments, Baltimore to Havre de Grace, Wilmington to Susquehana, and Susquehanna to Philadelphia. As industrial activity soon emerged on Washington Avenue, the neighborhood became a hub for manufacturing jobs. The shed at the railroad’s terminus on Broad Street was constructed in 1856, accommodating both passenger and freight business until 1880.
This line was the main entry point to Philadelphia from the south, and witnessed two events of historical importance. In 1859, abolitionist John Brown’s body was to be brought to Philadelphia to be addressed by a local undertaker on its way to New York. When the train carrying the coffin and widow arrived at Broad and Prime Streets, a massive crowd gathered - a volatile mix of abolitionists and angry southern sympathizers. The mayor did not want this crowd to explode, and thus ordered the body to progress immediately to Walnut Wharf for shipping to New York. He brought out a decoy coffin to lure away the crowd, before secretly and quickly transporting the body to the Delaware River.
The second event also surrounded a corpse, this time the assassinated president Abraham Lincoln. Thirty thousand people gathered at the corner of Broad and Prime Streets to greet the body, and from there it processed down Broad Street to City Hall, and then down Market Street to Independence Mall for public viewing.
Today, the structure is being rehabbed to house a Sprouts Market as part of the development called Lincoln Square at Broad and Washington.
LOCAL 274, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF MUSICIANS
In 1935 Local 274 was chartered because the existing musicians union, Local 77, did not accept African-American members. It became the second such union in the country. Its headquarters on Broad Street was the hub for Philadelphia’s star-studded African American musical population. Over the years its membership rolls included John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie, and Philly Joe Jones, all of whom would regularly walk the streets of the Thirtieth Ward. Other Jazz greats such as Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughn would stop by to socialize and jam regularly.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 abolished segregation in unions based on race, but Local 274 remained independent for seven more years. Resisting a merger with Local 77, the American Federation of Musicians, Local 274 cancelled its charter. Despite this, Jimmy Adams, Local 274’s final president, founded the Clef Club that continues the tradition and mission of Local 274, showcasing African American music in Philadelphia to this day.
ODUNDE was created in 1975 by Lois Fernandez and Ruth Arthur. The festival attracts up to 500,000 people annually and is the largest African American street festival held in the country. The festival, whose concept originates from the Yoruba people of Nigeria, West Africa, celebrates the coming of another year for African Americans and Africanized people around the world. It is an occasion highlighted by a colorful procession from 23rd to South Streets to the Schuylkill River where an offering of fruit and flowers is made to Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of the river. ODUNDE is also known for its authentic African marketplace featuring vendors from around the world selling merchandise from many African nations, the Caribbean, and Brazil.
The Hotel Brotherhood
This historic landmark was founded in 1883 as the Hotel Brotherhood U.S.A., it later became known as the Bainbridge Club. The event space is located in the Graduate Hospital area of Philadelphia. It’s President is Michael Jones. “The Hotel Brotherhood USA was founded to provide medical benefits for colored hotel workers,” Jones said. “It was started when five or six men got together [in a house] on the 200 block of South Juniper Street to raise funds to meet the medical needs of a stricken fellow hotel worker.”
The brotherhood is considered one of the earliest unions representing black workers in the United States, but it has historically functioned more along the lines of the fraternal mutual benefit societies – organizations like the Elks, Eagles, and Odd Fellows that were formed to provide medical and death benefits to their members and families. Over the years, membership in the Brotherhood was extended to include workers in other trades, and in the mid-1980s, the organization adopted the Bainbridge Club name to emphasize its social and support functions.
“Since our inception, we have been an organization that helps advance the station in life of people of color” much as other private clubs have helped their members advance, Jones said.
Among the club’s distinguished members is former Federal Judge Robert N.C. Nix, who worked his way through college as a hotel waiter, and civil rights leader Julian Bond addressed the members on the club’s 100th anniversary in a speech at the now-demolished Mt. Olive Baptist Church.
“Now that we have affordable health care at last,” Jones said, “we will focus on educational opportunities for people interested in the hotel industry as well as opportunities in other fields such as technology where we can attract and develop people’s talent.” (Source: HotelBrotherhood.org)