Mar 30

Remembering an Icon: Willis "Nomo" Humphrey

by: Norah Langweiler

When Willis “Nomo” Humphrey passed in winter of 2018, it hit hard. A fixture in the community, Willis was a renowned figure in Philadelphia’s art scene and a role model for burgeoning artists. 

Many of Willis’s murals explored the lives of black Americans frequently overlooked in school curriculums. He filled the streets with images of black historical figures, inspiring future generations with faces often ignored in history books, and ensuring those legacies are not lost to time. It is only fitting that we do the same.

I interviewed Corin Wilson, a Mural Arts project manager and collaborator of Willis’s, to share some of her memories.

What projects did you work on with Willis? 

I worked with Willis and Keir Johnston, his partner from his design firm Amber Art and Design, on Remembering a Forgotten Hero, a mural honoring Octavius V. Catto, a highly respected activist and educator in the late 1800’s. He successfully desegregated public transportation in our city almost 100 years before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King tackled it in 1955! In 1866, Catto organized one of the country’s earliest acts of disobedience, protesting Philadelphia’s segregated horse-drawn mass transit system. It was a huge win and set the stage for the civil rights movements mid-century. Catto was also a vocal proponent of voting rights and lived to see the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which allowed black men to vote. 

Tragically, Catto was murdered by white supremacists while he was on his way to exercise the right to vote he had fought so hard for. He was thirty-two. Another important figure in American history we lost too soon.

Centuries later, there is still a lot of work to be done, but that makes it even more important that we remember and honor our heroes, like Catto and Willis.

Remembering a Forgotten Hero © 2018 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Willis Nomo Humphrey / Keir Johnston, Universal Charter School, 801 South 15th Street. Photo by Steve Weinik

What was it like, getting that mural made? 

A mural honoring O.V. Catto had been a dream for years. Actually, the project was started by the former Restorative Justice director, Robyn Buseman. When she retired, I was brought in to complete the mural with a committee including authors Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin, educators Vistula Chapman-Smoth, Yaasin Muhammad, and Shaquita Smith, and community partners Eve Lewis and Jeffery Williams. It was a diverse group to make sure we had the history and representation right. With Mayor Kenney’s galvanizing support and the passionate team behind us, we were able to move the mural forward!

How do projects like these improve the community? 

Willis and Keir took painstaking care to create a design that featured scenes from Catto’s life and give context to the world he lived in. Students at the Universal Charter School, where the mural currently lives, now have scenes from the mural in their curriculum. That’s why it was so important to Willis, and to all of us, that the project had such a strong, diverse committee behind it. Thanks to their work, the mural can be used in schools around the city as a teaching tool honoring this incredible civil rights figure.

Is there a particular moment or memory that stands out to you? 

Yes – spending the day at Universal Charter School with Willis and Keir. As the home of the mural, Universal Charter wanted as many scholars – their students – as possible to have a hand in creating it. And of course, we were happy to oblige! Throughout that day, classrooms with students from second through eighth grade came in to meet our artists and learned about the mural while painting and dancing. That day was easily one of the highlights of my career with Mural Arts.

How would you describe Willis legacy? 

I am still heartbroken for the loss of such a wonderful person, but I am grateful to have worked alongside him. I have no doubt Willis will continue to inspire and impact this city for years, as he did when he was alive. His talent and dedication were so clear in everything he did – and our city is better off because of him.

As a resident and art-lover, I can appreciate the work he left for us. But as a person who was lucky enough to work with him, his greatest legacy is the respect he showed all folks – and his generous spirit. He showed me a more patient way to do things. He inspired me to look for a kinder approach to my work. And I know I’m just one of many, many people who were forever changed by knowing him.

Learn more about Willis 

Background & Bio: Willis “Noms” Humphrey
One-on-One with muralist Willis Humphrey aka NOMO 
In Memory of Willis “Nomo” Humphrey

Last updated: Mar 30, 2020

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