Paris Dennard, a conservative speaker, and Kamiliah Prince, RNC director of African-American engagement, speak at a Black Voices for Trump event in Sharswood

Passing by First Immanuel Baptist Church on Thursday night, lifelong Philadelphian Abdul Byrd said he’s no fan of President Donald Trump.

“My personal opinion is, I dislike how he’s running the country right now,” Byrd said. “And I can’t wait till he out of office.”

Inside the North Philly church on that evening, the sentiment was opposite.

About 60 mostly Black and Brown people were gathered there to show their support for the president at an event organized by his campaign’s Black Voices for Trump initiative.

“You’re in a safe place tonight,” began First Immanuel senior pastor Todd Johnson. “You’re in a good place tonight. And you’re in a place tonight where if you wanna say we’re gonna make Philadelphia great again, we’re gonna make Pennsylvania great again, and we’re gonna make America great again — you can say that.”

People came from as far away as the Bronx and as close as 10th and Master to hear conservative commentator Paris Dennard and co-panelist Kamilah Prince, the Black engagement director for the Republican National Committee, talk about Donald Trump.

The meeting also offered tips on how best to engage neighbors with pro-Trump outreach.

Boisterous applause met various talking points, like mention of a bill Trump signed to restore funding to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or the historically low U.S. unemployment rate.

In the 2016 election, Trump earned just 15% of the vote in Philadelphia.

But in a city that’s been run by Democratic politicians for generations, where gun violence has reached decade highs, where school buildings are toxic and neighbors feel they’re being displaced by gentrification, some residents said they think it’s time for a change.

Todd Johnson, pastor of the First Immanuel Baptist Church in Sharswood, prays before the Black Voices for Trump roundtable event Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

‘What he can say is a bit crazy,’ but policies draw support

Community organizer and former Democratic City Council candidate Sheila Armstrong was in attendance.

“In my community where we are oppressed, we’re not being heard,” said Armstrong, 43, who lives in a Philadelphia Housing Authority development in North Philadelphia. “I left the Democratic party because I realized they did not want change. They wanted our community, my community…to stay oppressed.”

Natasha Davis, a social worker from Sicklerville, N.J., who identified as biracial, said she switched parties when she noticed the economy improving in her neighborhood.

“I feel like the jobs are opening up,” Davis told Billy Penn. “The jobs are opening up more doors for a lot of people, especially minorities.”

Pastor Johnson, 56, is a lifelong Republican. He’s staunchly anti-abortion, and said he likes Trump’s approach to funding the military and law enforcement.

Trump’s presidency has been imbued by offensive remarks that play on racist stereotypes. He has called Haiti a “shithole country,” and referred to Baltimore as “disgusting, rat and rodent infested.” He’s also repeatedly failed to condemn white supremacy, like when he insisted there was “blame on both sides” of the attack during a Charlottesville, Va., rally that left one woman dead.

But the president’s Black supporters say his policies don’t reflect this rhetoric.

To a person, Dennard, Armstrong, Johnson and Davis said it’s Trump’s actions, not his words, that have garnered their support.

“What he can say is a bit crazy,” said 32-year-old Davis, “but at the same time, it’s like, what has he actually brought he’s brought to the table.”

When he’s engaging neighbors at the barbershop, Johnson said he challenges the assertion that Trump is racist. “If he is a racist, then he’s the worst racist in America because there are more African-American people working now than ever in the history of our economy,” Johnson said.

About 50 Philadelphians attend the Black Voices for Trump event Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

A longtime role model for the Black community

Trump’s embrace by some in the Black community is not new.

Long before he emerged as a viable potential president, but long after he took out full page ads in the New York Times calling for the executions of five young African American boys falsely accused of rape and assault, Trump received shoutouts from Black hip-hop artists and other Black celebs.

“Bill Gates, Donald Trump, let me in, now!” rapper Nelly sang on his break-out hit, “Country Grammar,” praising Trump’s wealth.

“I took the hand that they gave me and played the Donald Trump card,” Big Sean rapped in his 2017 song “Light,” referencing his own trajectory in relation to Trump’s successful career.

And in his song “Incarcerated Scarfaces” Wu-Tang Clan rapper Raekwon calls himself the “Black Trump,” in reference to his own street-style business savvy.

Session panelist Dennard, a Phoenix, Ariz., native who last visited Philly 20 years ago when he gave a speech at the Republican National Convention, said Trump’s success is aspirational.

“I remember watching…Donald Trump the mogul, the entertainer, the real estate investor, the businessman,” said the 37-year-old commentator. “There was a time when President Donald Trump was very connected to the culture and to the identity of what it means to achieve the American dream.”

It remains unclear whether Trump can translate his admired, if questionable, business acumen into political support from Philly’s large African American population. That didn’t happen in 2016, when Hillary Clinton won 82 percent of the vote, claiming victory in every majority-Black ward in the city.

Election analysts note, however, that fewer Black Philadelphians voted in 2016 than in 2012.

Nationwide, the Black electorate wasn’t feeling Trump either. Just 8% of Black people voted for him, including just 3% of non-college educated and 6% of college educated Black women. He had a 10% approval rating among Black Americans at the end of 2019, according to Gallup.

At First Immanuel on Thursday, there were shouts of “amen,” lots of applause, and plenty of affirmative grunts.

Before folks left the Black Voices for Trump event, they gathered for a group pic. An enthusiastic “Four more years!” chant erupted from the front of the sanctuary.

Byrd, who didn’t attend the event, isn’t convinced.

“I don’t think he going to win Philadelphia,” offered Byrd, adding, “[But] he’ll probably win Pennsylvania.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...