Jan 30

Black History in Murals: A Journey Through Art and Time

by: Ilse García Romero

Once the nation’s capital, Philadelphia boasts being the “birthplace of America,” where Revolutionary leaders met to sign the Declaration of Independence and, later, the Constitution. Our beloved Philly is also the home of many national “firsts,” including the first medical school, first women’s medical college, first children’s hospital, first general purpose electronic computer, and first zoo. Not only is Philadelphia key to understanding early American history, but it is also rich with Black history that has shaped our present in countless ways. From abolitionists to suffragists to civil rights leaders, Black Philadelphians have been fighting for equality and justice for centuries.

In the last 40 years, many Black historical and community figures have been immortalized by Mural Arts Philadelphia’s murals in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. But it is not just Black ancestors that have changed the course of history. Philadelphia’s vibrant murals also celebrate present-day Black lives and aim to address current issues of civil rights and social justice that affect our Black communities.

In honor of Black History Month, let’s look back at some of Mural Arts’ most memorable murals featuring Black trailblazers.

The Legacy of Bishop Richard Allen and the A.M.E. Church 

2016. By Willis Nomo Humphrey. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Location: 3801 Market St, African Methodist Episcopal Church

The Legacy of Bishop Richard Allen by artist Willis “Nomo” Humphrey is located in the University City neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In partnership with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and First District Plaza, Mural Arts created the mural honoring the legacy of minister and activist Richard Allen. Members of the AME Church collaborated with muralist Willis “Nomo” Humphrey to design a mural that stimulates dialogue about Richard and Sarah Allen’s importance in American history.

Allen was born into slavery in Germantown in 1760, and was granted his freedom in 1780 after demonstrating religious devotion and academic aptitude. By 1787, Allen was a locally-lauded parishioner of the historic St. George’s church, drawing a large congregation of African-Americans to the church. An increasingly segregated seating policy for Black worshippers compelled Allen and his colleague Absalom Jones to lead their congregation in a historic walkout.

The walkout resulted in the formation of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The church is among the oldest denominations of independent African-American churches in the United States. Later he founded and was elected the first bishop at the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first fully independent Black denomination in the United States.

Read more about Richard Allen and this mural.

Harriet Tubman & the Underground Railroad 

2006. Sam Donovan. Photo: Jack Ramsdale.

Location: 2950 Germantown Ave

This mural is a tribute to the great works and sacrifices of abolitionists, freedmen, and freedwomen like Harriet Tubman and others who risked their lives so that enslaved Black people could live free. Located across from the Historic Fair Hill Burial Ground, the mural is inspired by the reformers who are buried there.

Historic Fair Hill is a 300-year-old Quaker burial ground where many who worked to end slavery and promote equality are buried. Established in 1703, this National Historic Site on the Underground Railroad Network was part of a tract of 16 acres given by William Penn to George Fox, founder of Quakerism, who left it to Quakers for a meeting house, a burying ground, and a school.

The burial ground was laid out in 1843 and enlarged in 1854, providing almost 5 acres of open green space in this urban neighborhood. Most of the persons buried at Fair Hill are Quakers, many of them participants in the early abolitionist and women’s rights movements. Some of the more renowned include Lucretia Mott, James Mott, Thomas and Mary Ann McClintock, Sarah Pugh, Ann Preston, and Edward Parrish. Some colleagues in the anti-slavery movement, not Friends, are also buried there, most notably Robert Purvis, an African-American known as the President of the Underground Railroad, and his family.

Read more about this Mural.

The Colored Conventions: A Buried History 

2022. Ernel Martinez. Photo: Steve Weinik.

Location: 351 Washington Ave

The Colored Conventions: A Buried History is a series of two murals by Ernel Martinez, situated at 315 and 351 Washington Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Created in 2022, The Colored Conventions Project partnered with Mural Arts Philadelphia to memorialize the Colored Conventions Movement and its attendees.

Starting in 1830 and continuing until well after the Civil War, free, freed, and self-emancipated Blacks gathered in state and national political conventions. A cornerstone of Black organizing in the 19th century, these “Colored Conventions” brought Black men and women together in a decades-long civil and human rights campaign. The first “Colored Convention” was in Philadelphia.

Both murals visually demonstrate the continuous struggle for freedom and rights African Americans in Philadelphia have articulated, demanded, and secured. These Black men and women, their movements, and communities continue to carry on the work of the conventions over generations and into the future.

Learn more about the Colored Conventions and these murals.

Remembering A Forgotten Hero 

Photo: Steve Weinik.

Location: Universal Institute Charter School, 1427 Catherine St

In 2018, artists Willis “Nomo” Humphrey and Keir Johnston collaborated on this mural at the Universal Charter School in South Philadelphia. The artwork celebrates early civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto in the neighborhood where he lived.

An educator, athlete, and activist, Catto was a staunch advocate for abolition and Black suffrage. Throughout his life, Catto fought for the inclusion of Black men in the fight for emancipation, the desegregation of Philadelphia streetcars, and the eventual ratification of the 15th Amendment, which prohibited discrimination against citizens in registration and voting based on race, color, or prior condition. Catto was assassinated by dissenters at Ninth and South Streets on Election Day in 1871 on his way to cast his vote. Remembering a Forgotten Hero is the first mural to honor Catto.

During the mural production, Humphrey and Johnston engaged with local students and members of the Restorative Justice Guild in learning about Catto’s life and struggles, designing a mural that elevates and reflects on the complexity of our history.

Learn more about this mural.

The Tuskegee Airmen: They Met the Challenge 

2008. Marcus Akinlana. Photo: Jack Ramsdale.

Location: 20 S 39th St., Philadelphia

They Met the Challenge pays homage to the Tuskegee Airmen and their message of perseverance to rise above adversity, racism, and unfair training and performance expectations in the US Armed Forces. To create the mural, artist Marcus Akinlana worked closely with the Philadelphia Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. The mural’s design incorporates their images as young men–uniformed pilots, at work, and in-flight–along with representative images of the myriad challenges they faced at home and abroad due to Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in the military.

The Airmen’s descriptions of their boyhood dreams of learning how to fly inspired the design. The bas-relief sculptures that adorn the mural were created by students in the Mural Arts Mural Academy who participated in a series of workshops with Akinlana.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first corps of African-American military aviators in the US Armed Forces, formed in 1941 under the command of Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Davis was a West Point graduate and son of the first African-American General in the US Army, who trained nearly 1,000 men over a four period. Many of those men were from Philadelphia.

Learn more about this mural.

Staircases and Mountaintops: Ascending Beyond the Dream 

Location: Martin Luther King, Jr. Recreation Center, 2101 Cecil B. Moore Ave

2014. Willis Humphrey & Johnny Buss. Photo: Steve Weinik.

In the spring of 2014, in collaboration with PhillyRising Collaborative and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Recreation Center in North Philadelphia, Mural Arts gathered a team to create Staircases and Mountaintops: Ascending Beyond the Dream. This continuation and expansion of the work Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice Guild Program was already doing at the facility was based on a photograph by William Lovelace that depicts Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, as they led a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965.

The facility is a cornerstone of this community, encompassing an entire city block and boasting a full-size gym, classrooms for after-school and full-day programs, a large playground, and sports fields. New murals and mosaics help draw attention to the services this city resource provides.

Lead artists Willis “Nomo” Humphrey and Jonny Buss, along with Guild participants, met with the local community on several occasions to gauge the type of mural they wanted in their neighborhood. After numerous collaborative discussions, Humphrey created a design for the front of the building and the side facing the playground, inspired by the civil rights movement and Dr. King’s pivotal role in the fight for equality. Abstract mountains and stairs symbolize activists’ arduous journey to attain their full rights. At the front of the facility, the team installed a brand new, intricate mosaic by Buss that enlivens the space and serves as a symbol of welcome.

Learn more about this mural.

Dr. J (Julius Erving) 

1990. Kent Twitchell. Photo: Jack Ramsdale.

Location: 1234 Ridge Ave., Philadelphia

Feeling restless and desperate to improve the quality and variety of the murals, Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden raised money in 1990 from a private foundation to bring her old friend and mentor, Kent Twitchell, to Philadelphia. She wanted a “breakthrough mural,” and Twitchell—a nationally acclaimed California artist—was just the man to paint it. “We knew we had to push the boundaries,” she said. “The goal was to try to integrate superior artwork with a subject that touched the community in a special way.”

Twitchell was known for his portraits, and he lobbied to paint basketball great Julius Erving in a business suit instead of a uniform to portray him more as a man and role model than simply another well-known athlete.

Known for his remarkable slam dunks, Erving won three championships, four Most Valuable Player awards, and three scoring titles with the ABA’s Virginia Squires and New York Nets (now the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets) and the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. In the last 30 years, he has been repeatedly honored by Sports Illustrated and the NBA as one of the greatest players of all time.

Read more about the making of this mural.

Tribute to Herman Wrice (Re-envisioned) 

2014. David McShane. Photo: Steve Weinik.

Location: 612 N 33rd St

Herman Wrice (1939-2000) was a renowned community organizer and inventor of the Wrice Process – a method of direct action whereby neighbors directly confront street-level drug dealers in their communities. In 1988, Wrice organized Mantua Against Drugs (MAD), fearlessly confronting dealers, condemning potential crack houses, and leading marches against drug dealers in his neighborhood. With the slogan “Up With Hope. Down With Dope,” the Wrice Process empowered Mantua residents to reclaim their neighborhood at the height of the crack epidemic.

Following Herman Wrice’s death in 2000, David McShane created a mural tribute to Wrice. After being obscured by new construction, the mural was lovingly recreated at 33rd and Haverford Streets.

Read more about this mural.

ASpire: No Limits  

2016. Ernel Martinez. Photo: Steve
Weinik.

Location: 2054 Ellsworth St., Philadelphia

Mural Arts and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, of the Grammy© Award-winning band The Roots, worked together to create ASpire: No Limits, a mural celebrating the life of Shawn L. “Air Smooth” White, Ph.D. Dr. White was a community leader, father, and educator who created educational health initiatives on HIV/AIDS as well as sexually transmitted diseases aimed at young African American men in Philadelphia before he passed away suddenly from hypertension in April 2013.

A series of workshops, programs, and community paint days accompanied the creation of the mural. Workshop topics included personal responsibility (Awareness of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as conflict resolution and anti-violence), wellness (holistic health promotion), and refuge (affirming oneself, defining personal goals, and thoughtful decision-making).

Dr. White was born and raised in South Philadelphia and stayed true to his neighborhood roots, becoming a fixture in the Point Breeze section of the area. In 2004, Dr. White earned a Master of Human Services (MHS) from Lincoln University. In 2011, his Ph.D. from Cappella University, where his studies focused on analyzing and evaluating HIV and sexually transmitted diseases risk among young African American men. Concurrent with his studies, he worked in social service with the Youth Outreach Community Awareness Program (YOACAP) as a cast member, peer educator, and youth trainer for HIV/AIDS awareness. His sixteen-year affiliation with the organization kept him face-to-face with at-risk communities who were fighting the battle against HIV and AIDS.

Learn more about Dr. White and this mural. 

 


The History of Black Philadelphians is Still Being Written 

While it is evident that Mural Arts strives to celebrate and bring awareness to the tireless work of Black historical and community figures of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, it acknowledges that there is still work to be done to create a safe and equitable city for all.

 

Finally on 13th © 2023. Nile Livingston, 306 South 13th Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

- President Barack Obama

With this challenge in mind, Mural Arts continues to support the work of artists seeking to address topics that affect Black communities, such as the disproportionate incarceration of Black people, police brutality, and restoring hope in the future.

Among other issuesnational and global scale, the racial discrimination and abuse that Black people still endure at the hands of the authorities reached a climax in 2020. This environment of social conflict, resentment, and injustice produced some of the city’s most compelling murals addressing contemporary issues.

Gerald Brown, Roberto Lugo, and Isaac Scott’s Stay Golden harnessed the radical energy in the city and around the country by commemorating the powerful spirit of Black and Brown people, while Russell Craig’s temporary installation Crown, served as a response to the ongoing protests supporting Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the fight to end systemic racism and inequality. Meanwhile, Craig’s Prophesied intended to call attention to the oppression and brutality from law enforcement and the mass incarceration Black people face in the United States.

More recently, muralist Keisha Whatley unveiled Philly’s First Juneteenth Mural to commemorate June 19, 1865, when individuals in Galveston, Texas, were finally able to embrace their freedom – more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In this mural, Whatley sought to celebrate the extensive history of Black individuals, from their ancestral beginnings to the triumphant moment of emancipation.

 

  • Stay Golden © 2020 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Gerald A. Brown, Roberto Lugo, Isaac Scott, 33rd & Diamond Streets. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Crown © 2020 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Russell Craig, Municipal Services Building, 1401 JFK Boulevard. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Prophesied © 2020 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Russell Craig, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Mural artist Keisha Whatley presents her Juneteenth mural Saturday in Philadelphia's Germantown. Tyger Williams / Staff Photographer.

As we celebrate Black history this February, we can’t forget that this country was built on the suffering and labor of Black people, effectively weaving Black history seamlessly into the fabric of American history. With respect and appreciation for those who came before us, we must continue to fight for equity and find strength and inspiration in those who refused to remain silent

More Murals Celebrating Black History! 

  • Cecil B. Moore Philadelphia Freedom Fighters © 2021 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Felix St. Fort & Gabe Tiberino, 2201 College Avenue. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Why We Love Coltrane © 2022 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Ernel Martinez, 2729 West Diamond Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Jackie Robinson © 1997 (restored 2015) City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / David Mcshane. 2803 North Broad Street. AND The North Philadelphia Beacon Project © 2013 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / James Burns. 2701 North Broad Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Declaration © 2021 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Dwayne Betts & Titus Kaphar, 150 North Broad Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Black Family Reunion © 1988/1990 by Jane Golden. Restored 2001/2008 by Ernel Martinez

  • untitled © 2019 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Amy Sherald, 1108 Sansom Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • The Talented Mr. Trotter: You Can Be Anything © 2022 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Roberto Lugo, The Clay Studio, 1425 North American Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • The Future Is Worth The Fight, Just Hold On & You Will See © 2021 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Jess X Snow, 3404 Kensington Avenue. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Lincoln Legacy © 2005 Joshua Sarantitis / Eric Okdeh / City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, 707 Chestnut Street. Photo by Jack Ramsdale.

  • Engage The Change © 2018 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Ernel Martinez, Olney Charter High School, 100 East Duncannon Ave. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Paul Robeson © 2012 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Peter Pagast, 4502 Chestnut Street. Photo by Jack Ramsdale.

Last updated: Feb 5, 2024

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