Philly has made a lot of black history. Nearly 690,000 African Americans live in the city. And so, with this large and longstanding community, there’s no shortage of institutions to honor and stars to remember during Black History Month.
So if you wanted to get a strong grasp of this history, what books should you read? We reached out to several experts and researchers. Many recommended the same works; others pointed to tomes of which we’d never heard. Out of dozens of suggestions, we’ve narrowed that list down to 13. (It was hard.) You may not have been able to take a class on Philly Black History in college, so here’s that syllabus.
Book recommendations were generously submitted by Little Giant Founder Tayyib Smith, writer Steph Watts, Rutgers researcher James R. Jones, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection Curator Diane Turner, Penn professor and oral historian Grace Sanders Johnson, Up South author and University of Michigan professor Matthew J. Countryman and Smith Postdoctoral Fellow J.T. Roane.
Of course, we’ve got to start here. W.E.B. DuBois is not only regarded as one of the most esteemed writers on race ever, he’s also a father of American sociology. This study was a landmark for the young field. In it, DuBois focuses on the then-Seventh Ward: Sixth to 23rd, Spruce to South.
Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910, Kali N. Gross
As critiques of our criminal justice system bring forth deeper discussions on mass incarceration and perception of black men in society, consider this slice of history. Kali N. Gross, an African American studies professor at Wesleyan, looks at how black women in Philadelphia were criminalized during the Progressive Era. The title, “Colored Amazons,” refers to how they were described.
Saved and Sanctified: The Rise of a Storefront Church in Great Migration Philadelphia, Deidre Helen Crumbley
For many African American Christians, storefronts can carry a certain stigma: small-time, often even fringe. But Deidre Helen Crumbley, a researcher of black religions, chooses one Philly storefront church to tell larger narratives about diasporic spirituality, African American history and black urban culture.
Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent book has reframed the conversation on the Great Migration. Before, many historians had broken it into separate waves. Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize winner who previously reported for the New York Times, analyzes it as a single movement, from World War I to the 1970s. She argues the treatment blacks suffered in South was analogous to what Eastern European Jews experienced before the Holocaust, which lead to massive flight. This book isn’t Philly specific, but it’s hard to overstate the impact that the Great Migration had on Philadelphia. In 1900, according to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, Philadelphia’s black population numbered 63,000. By 1970, it was 655,000.
Mosley was a pioneering black photojournalist. Each photo included in this post is his. He’s been less celebrated than counterparts like Gordon Parks and Moneta Sleet, but attention to his work has risen in recent years, thanks to exhibitions held at Philadelphia Airport and most recently the Woodmere Art Museum. This book couldn’t begin to cover all of his work— he was a dogged photographer, and his wife reportedly gave 300,000 images to the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple. Blockson authored this overview and is curator emeritus at the archive where his catalog is now housed. But it does show the depths of a photographer who documented black Philadelphia for three decades. (This book is $950 on Amazon right now. Go to the library, honey.)
Did you know that the Links, a women’s service organization with a reputation for having a very well-off membership, was founded in Philly? Our Kind of People looks at the groups and culture of black elites, and our city has a nice presence in the book. Lawrence Otis Graham is a lawyer and best-selling author; you may be familiar with not only his work, but the 2014 essay he wrote for the Washington Post on how his status and cautious parenting weren’t protecting his children from bias and racial profiling.
A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia, Lisa Levenstein
Black women in Philadelphia after World War II may not have been seen as the vanguard of Americans seeking poverty interventions. But they were. Lisa Levenstein, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, explains how they sought New Deal benefits, and how the public and the government responded.
It’s not just that many Philadelphia neighborhoods are highly segregated, political factions here often are too. James Wolfinger, a historian and education professor at DePaul who is also a leading scholar on Philly’s transit unions, takes a look at how this landscape developed from the ’30s through the ’50s, as Philadelphia’s working class struggled to cohere into one strong coalition.
“Up South should be a must-read for the whole city,” wrote Tayyib Smith, founder of Little Giant Media and the Institute for Hip Hop Entrepreneurship. Matthew J. Countryman, an American culture professor at the University of Michigan, follows the civil rights movement in Philadelphia in particular, shedding light on how political and activist dynamics we still see today were shaped.
The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia, Matthew F. Delmont
Bandstand wasn’t all dance, now. Matthew F. Delmont, a historian at Arizona State, traces how, amid the civil rights movement, some locals clung to segregation while others rebelled against discrimination.
Companion reading to The Nicest Kids in Town: A history of Philly’s iconic Uptown Theater, where a deep list of black music’s most famous stars graced the stage and the Philadelphia Sound’s home venue. Its author, Kimberly C. Roberts, is an entertainment reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune.
In the Life isn’t entirely set in Philly. “I think [Beam’s] efforts for this anthology were part of the history of Philadelphia despite not being exclusively about the city,” wrote Roane, while recommending the book. It’s a collection of varying literary forms and was the first anthology of out gay black male writers ever published. It has since been called a “sacred movement text.” Beam was a groundbreaking writer and activist. He died of AIDS-related complications before finishing In the Life’s sequel, a book that was completed by celebrated poet Essex Hemphill and Beam’s mother, Dorothy.
Yale Urban Ethnographer Elijah Anderson’s award-winning book, set in North Philadelphia, made a sociological argument that’s been widely touted since: Poverty, widespread drug abuse, diminished access to work opportunities, distrust in the criminal justice system and racism in America are factors that have led a Code of the Street to govern interactions in distressed neighborhoods.