Holidays in Philly

Kwanzaa in Philly: How neighborhoods celebrate the African-American holiday

In Strawberry Mansion, it’s all about embracing self-determination.

Judith Robinson (right) organizes a Kwanzaa celebration in Strawberry Mansion every year.

Judith Robinson (right) organizes a Kwanzaa celebration in Strawberry Mansion every year.

Strawberry Mansion Civic Association / Facebook

Judith Robinson has been organizing an annual holiday celebration in her Strawberry Mansion neighborhood for four years now. She hosts it always on the second night of Kwanzaa, dedicated to the principle of Kujichagulia, or self-determination.

The seven-day Kwanzaa holiday was founded to bring African-American people together by highlighting a different theme each night, such as unity, purpose and faith.

Why does Robinson align her gathering with the self-determination theme? To her, it feels most relevant to the modern struggle of Philadelphia’s black community — which she believes includes learning how to deal with the encroaching gentrification that’s rapidly changing many historically black neighborhoods.

“It’s no secret that we’re transitioning in North Philadelphia,” Robinson said. “In the spirit of self-determination, we’ll talk about having strong home ownership. Nobody can move you if you own your home.”

On Dec. 27, Robinson will invite the community to join together at Fairmount Park’s historic Hatfield House to celebrate the African-American cultural holiday. There will be gifts and plenty of great food, thanks to the caterer Brotherly Grub.


The Kwanzaa table at the African American Museum in Philadelphia

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

An opportunity to tell Philly’s black history

Philadelphia is one of three cities that hosts the creator of Kwanzaa for celebrations each winter.

Now in its 52nd season, the holiday was founded by California State University professor and Black Studies chair Dr. Maulana Karenga. Back in 1966, protestors had been rioting for six days in Los Angeles in response to police brutality against black people, and Karenga wanted to find a way to bring them back together.

In that spirit, Robinson, a Hidden City tour guide, will use her Kwanzaa gathering to present a wealth of historic info about African-American culture in North Philly.

She’ll tell stories about people who once worked on plantations in Fairmount Park. She’ll show Native American maps of the area, to honor the people who first settled here. She’ll discuss an important, historic piece of legislation that came out of Philly — the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1780.

“Gradually, just like it says, it reduced the amount of folks who would be considered enslaved,” Robinson said. “At the time, in 1780, it was about the best in the nation. In that regard, folks looked at it as radical.”

Per Robinson, those historic moments of triumph for African-American people in the region will, ideally, inspire attendees to work toward the same goals today.

“We try to practice 365 days a year,” Robinson said. “That’s the real point of this: to try to encourage people to practice the traditions of Kwanzaa all year-round.”

The Kwanzaa table at the African American Museum in Philadelphia

The Kwanzaa table at the African American Museum in Philadelphia

Cassie Owens / Billy Penn

Philly-area Kwanzaa celebrations

If you’re looking to celebrate Kwanzaa — or just to learn more about it — you’ve got plenty of local opportunity.

African American Museum in Philadelphia

This Old City museum will host two days of celebration, on Wednesday, Dec. 26, and Saturday, Dec. 29.

Free Library

The Free Library’s Parkway Central branch hosts its Annual Kwanzaa Celebration for children to learn about the holiday on Wednesday, Dec. 26. At the same time, there’ll be a fashion show combined with spoken word poetry and a dance and drum performance.

Boathouse Row

Mayor Jim Kenney will join other city officials who will honor Kwanzaa by lighting up Boathouse Row on Wednesday, Dec. 26. Each night for the following seven, a new facade will be lit in red, green and black, forming the shape of the kinara, the traditional Kwanzaa candle holder.

Dr. Karenga at West Philadelphia High School

Kwanzaa’s founder will spend the evening of Friday, Dec. 29, in West Philly at a celebration enlivened by a musical quartet and an African dance performance.

Universal Audenried school

Just south of Grays Ferry, the Universal Audenried Charter High School at 33rd and Tasker will host a Kwanzaa celebration on Saturday, Dec. 29, featuring food, education and entertainment.

Strawberry Mansion Civic Association

Robinson emphasized that everyone is invited to the Strawberry Mansion celebration on Thursday, Dec. 27.

“Anyone that’s interested in coming, they’re all welcome, welcome, welcome,” she said. “They don’t have to be African-American. If they’re not, they’re going to learn a whole lot about the culture of Kwanzaa.”


Want some more? Explore other Holidays in Philly stories.

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