Ever heard of Absalom Jones? Did you know he has a Philly street named after him?
In honor of Black History Month, Billy Penn delved into Philly’s African-American history and the ways the city commemorates important people and places in the community.
You probably (read: hopefully) know Martin Luther King Jr. has a Philly street. But we also have streets and landmarks honoring black Philadelphians who left significant marks on the city.
Absalom Jones (1746-1818):
On March 14, 1983, 52nd Street (Southeast of Paschall Ave. through City Ave., which covers Southwest through West Philadelphia) also became known as “Absalom Jones Way”
Jones was born a slave in Sussex, Delaware in 1746. When he turned 16 years old, members of his immediate family were sold. They were separated and his new owner took him to Philadelphia. It was not until 1784 when his owner finally freed him from being a slave.
In Philly, Jones was an active member of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church and served as lay preacher for the black members of the congregation. Then, Jones cofounded the Free African Society with Richard Allen on April 12, 1787. The program was designed to help widows and orphans and also medical or burial expenses. The two men also led the black community in petitioning the Pennsylvania State Legislature for the abolition of slavery in 1799. Jones has done much more for the city throughout his life through religion and politics.
Rev. Harry Hoosier (1750-1810):
On May 17, 1983, 12th Street between Market and Poplar in Center City became known as “Harry Hosier Way”
Harry Hoosier was born a slave in North Carolina. He was able to obtain his freedom toward the end of the American Revolution. From there, he converted to Methodism and became a preacher. Although he was illiterate, he became famous as a traveling evangelist and was considered one of the most popular preachers of his era.
He preached in and around Philadelphia. He was described as “a renowned camp meeting exhorter, the most widely known black preacher of his time, and arguably the greatest circuit rider of his day.”
Cecil Bassett Moore (1915-1979):
On Oct. 14, 1986, Columbia Avenue (from Front Street through West 33rd St. in North Philadelphia) had its name changed to “Cecil B. Moore Avenue”
Cecil B. Moore was born in West Virginia in 1915. After serving overseas during World War II, he returned to the U.S. in 1947. He settled in Philadelphia, where he studied law at Temple University. He received his law degree in 1953. He eventually became a prominent Philadelphia defense attorney and civil rights leader known for his militant style of activism.
Specifically, Moore wanted to desegregate Philadelphia building trade unions. In 1964, a race riot erupted on the streets of Columbia Ave, and Moore took the lead of the attack. Despite his outsized personality and schisms with other civil rights leaders, Moore maintained massive public support within the black community.
Francis “Frank” Johnson (1792-1844):
On June 10, 1992, Pine Street (between Fifth and Sixth streets in Center City) also became known as “Frank Johnson’s Place”
Johnson was born on June 16, 1792 in Philadelphia. By the time of his birth, a thriving community of free African Americans had been established in Philly. He was a musician, bandleader and composer.
By his mid-twenties Johnson had become an accomplished violinist and cornetist and led a dance band that was a favorite among the elite of Philadelphia. His accomplishments were ambitious and remarkable. Although African Americans were free, Johnson still had to face overt and sometimes hostile racism, particularly when touring outside Philadelphia in areas where he was not known.
Marian Anderson (1897-1993):
On May 29, 2003, the 1800-block of Webster Street between the dead-end west of 18th Street and 17th Street in South Philadelphia also became known as “Marian Anderson Place”
Anderson was born on Feb. 27, 1897, in Philadelphia. Growing up, she was deeply committed to her church (Union Baptist Church, 19th and Fitzwater) and its choir. Her choir helped her raised enough money to pay for her to formally train with a professional. From there, her career took off.
Anderson performed at so many different places. Her performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 helped set the stage for the civil rights era. Also, in 1955, she became the first African American singer to perform as a member of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Despite some racial adversity at various points, she enjoyed a very successful singing career.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968):
West River Drive in Fairmount Park was changed to “Martin Luther King Drive.” “Dr. King Avenue” was supposed to span from 87th to 89th streets, and from 89th St. to Lindbergh Blvd. on Aug. 6, 1971. The street was placed on the City Plan by ordinance of City Council but has never been physically improved.
Though King Jr. wasn’t really active in Philly, his role was large in ending the legal segregation of African-American citizens in the South and other areas of the nation, as well as the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The impact he had not only on African Americans, but on society as a whole, is greater than anything I could ever put into words. Some more of his most notable doings throughout his life include his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech.
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013):
On Jan. 17, 1996, in West Philadelphia, 45th Street to Rudy Robinson Way also became known as “Mandela Way”
Mandela was born into the Madiba clan in the village of Mvezo, Transkei, in South Africa on July 18, 1918. He was given the name “Nelson” when he attended a school, which was in accordance with the custom to give all school children “Christian” names. Throughout his life, he was a part of numerous protests and political organizations, and was arrested twice before becoming the first black president of South Africa in 1994, serving until 1999. Oh yeah, and he was 77 when he became president.
Rev. Rudolph “Rudy” Robinson (died 1993):
Also on Jan. 17, 1996, in West Philadelphia, Nehemiah Way to Mandela Way became known as “Rudy Robinson Way”
In June 1961, Rev. Rudolph became the pastor of St. Paul Chapel Baptist Church of South Philadelphia. He is the man who led the creation of the current building that stands at 21st and Federal streets. He served as pastor for 32 years before dying on Jan. 7, 1993.
The John Coltrane House
In 1952, when he was 26 years old, John Coltrane bought for himself, his mother, his aunt and his first cousin, the North 33rd Street property in Strawberry Mansion. Coltrane owned and lived in this home for a large portion of his legendary career as a jazz saxophonist and music composer. It was while he resided in this home that Coltrane, as a musician, became identifiably Coltrane.
After he moved, members of his family resided in the home until 2004, when it was sold. It remains the tribute to John Coltrane and the John Coltrane Cultural Society was established.
Richard Allen was born in Philly as a slave on Feb. 14, 1760. When he was able to earn his freedom, he pursued his life-long dream, which was to preach the Gospel. He preached in areas in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. He found his niche as a preacher in St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philly. There, he was able to draw large audiences, particularly within the African American community.
Bishop Allen founded Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He purchased an old blacksmith shop at Sixth and Lombard streets, and turned it into a church that has since expanded, as three subsequent buildings were constructed in the 1800s to accommodate to its rapid growth.
Joseph E. Coleman Northwest Regional Library
On Tuesday, July 25, 1978, the Northwest Regional Library officially opened to the public. Northwest was the third regional library in the Free Library system. In 1997, it was renovated as part of the “Changing Lives” campaign, which brought Internet service to every library. In 2002, the Northwest Regional Library was renamed the Joseph E. Coleman Northwest Regional Library.
Coleman served City Council for 20 years, and from 1980-1992, he served as the first African-American president of Philadelphia City Council. As a member of City Council, he worked for the development of the Northwest Regional Library and its location at the corner of Chelten Ave and Greene St.
The Philadelphia Tribune is the oldest continuously published Black newspaper in the U.S. It began way back in 1884 as a single, hand-printed page dedicated to improving the everyday life of Blacks. It is located on S. 16th St, between Lombard and South streets.
Christopher J. Perry, a pioneering black businessman who championed racial equality, founded the Tribune. He moved to Philly when he was very young. There, he took night classes and studied diligently. At only 14 years of age, he started writing for local newspapers. He worked his way up until finally founding the Tribune.
Crystal Bird Fauset
In 1938, Fauset was the first Black woman elected to a state legislature in the U.S., as she earned a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. As a state rep., she introduced nine bills and three amendments on issues concerning public health, housing, public relief, and working women. She also sponsored an amendment to the Pennsylvania Female Labor Law of 1913 to better protect women in the workplace. After World War II, Fauset broadened her scope of activities. She helped found the United Nations Council of Philadelphia, which later became the World Affairs Council, and in the 1950s traveled in Africa, India, and the Middle East to meet with independence leaders. The historical marker for her is located at the intersection of 54th and Vine streets.
Guion S. Bluford Jr.
Dr. Guion Bluford, Jr. was the first African American to enter outer space. His first mission into space was launched from Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 30, 1983. He was born in Philadelphia, Pa. on Nov. 22, 1942. He graduated from Overbrook Senior High School in Philadelphia in 1960. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from Penn State University in 1964. He eventually obtained two Masters Degree and a Ph.D. He became a NASA astronaut in August 1979.
Photos from Wikimedia Commons