If you walk along South or Lombard street in Center City this autumn, you’ll see more paying homage to history than just those classic blue markers.
At 513 Delancey St., for example, you’ll see two curious young children peeking out of the window to look at a wise older woman. They lived there not recently, but almost a century ago, when the address was part of Philadelphia’s burgeoning 7th Ward.
The larger-than-life photo is part of a new installation by artists Amelia Carter and Beth Lewis, who were selected to work with the 7th Ward Tribute project.
Comprising 10 pieces across 12 blocks, the collection is titled “Reflecting Revenants.” It’s essentially an outdoor pop-up gallery that commemorates the lost history of the area, which once had the largest African American population of any northern U.S. city.
Carter is a Philadelphia native and grew up interacting with the 7th Ward area.
“I had so many questions when I was younger, about where did these people go, where did the history go?” Carter told Billy Penn.
“The art installations are giving me an opportunity to explore those questions, and to try to bring that history to the next generation,” she said. “So they don’t have to ask the same questions like I did.”
New public art initiative ‘Legacy Reclaimed’ aims to revive the Black history of Philly’s former 7th Ward
The duo used decals and banners to assemble enlarged photographs from the early- to mid-20th century, and then infused them into the present-day landscape to provide an immersive art experience that naturally reveals the images from the past.
“We wanted to work with windows and doors in the ward to return a Black presence to the ward,” Lewis explained.
They gathered material from a wide variety of sources — the Philadelphia City Archives, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Charles L. Blockson Afro American Collection and Special Collections Research Center at Temple University Libraries, Cheyney University, and the Philadelphia Library Company — turning them into a collection that presents a narrative and perspective the modern city hasn’t seen before.
One of Carter’s favorite pieces is installed at the Church of the Crucifixion at 8th and Bainbridge. It shows two young black children walking on the street. Although the exact location the photograph was taken is unknown, it’s presumed to be on the outskirts of the 7th Ward.
“It’s just Black adults and children living their lives from 1930 to 1940,” Carter said, “and that to me is really cool. It makes you feel connected to the past in a more authentic way.”
One of the final pieces the artists installed was near 5th and Delancey. Called “Living Quarters,” it’s one of Lewis’s favorites. It shows a collection of nine, three-room houses, each home to a different family. The people who lived there shared a common yard and flat above for drying clothes. In the beginning of the 20th century, the rent would’ve been between $1.80 to $2.00 per week.
“We don’t typically relate to the idea of black people in the 1900s, that’s not really an era we connect with, so that to me has been a really cool part of this,” Lewis said.
A goal is that when people walk through this area that played a huge role in Black independence, they’ll be immersed in the lifestyle that was once there.
“We didn’t want it to be too spooky, but we did want it to feel like you were seeing an echo of the past coming through time,” Carter said. “So it’s like now you can be walking with the people from that time and becoming more enmeshed with that part of history.”
“Reflecting Revenants” is designed to provide an opportunity for a more intimate examination of the images featured in the public installation and for delving deeper into the archives alongside the artists.
Lewis believes important and historical events and trademarks need to be a part of our daily conversation and education system. “If you don’t start talking about history and popularizing it as much as everything else,” she said, “it just stays in the archives.”
You can see these works during weekly Saturday walking tours, held now through Feb. 23.
Black Futures: A Conversation about Art and Identity is set for Nov. 15. It will be a discussion with Carter, Lewis, and Legacy Reclaimed artist Li Sumpter about the ways art, design, and creative expression can act as instruments for rediscovering cultural heritage, nurturing a sense of identity, and igniting inspiration among the generations to come.