[Editor’s Note: Last year, to mark Black History Month we introduced you every day to Charles Barkley’s Philadelphia Black History Month All-Stars. We are running them again this year, as a reminder of those African American Philadelphians whose work still inspires, sometimes centuries later.]
I speak at a lot of schools across the country, and I’ve encountered a trend that drives me freakin’ nuts. I always ask students the following question: “How many of you want to be a professional athlete or a rapper?”
At inner-city, mostly African American schools, nearly every hand shoots up. When I ask the same question in a white suburban school, maybe 10 percent of hands are raised. I speak to a lot of schools, and this happens without fail.
I tell black kids all the time, “You ain’t gonna be me.” Even if you’re any good on the court, the odds are stacked against you. But I can tell from the blank way they look back at me: They’re putting all their eggs in this totally unlikely basket. But I get why. Young black kids get from the media an unrealistic picture of African American success. Athletes and rappers, with Denzel and Oprah thrown in.
Many of these All-Stars didn’t make it into the history books or even the newspapers of their time. But their stories are inspiring and worth knowing.
Civil Rights Activist
(April 2, 1915 – February 13, 1979)
An activist, lawyer, councilmember and sergeant, Moore lived a never-ending fight—one often for social justice and civil rights. “After nine years in the Marine Corps, I don’t intend to take another order from any son of a bitch that walks,” he once said. And that he didn’t. Most famously, he led a group of protesters at Girard College in 1965 to push for the school’s integration. In May of 1963, Moore organized a several weeklong picket line at the Municipal Services Building to fight for desegregated trade unions. Soon after, he picketed against the Trailways Bus Terminal, demanding that they hire black workers. Meanwhile, he advocated for more civic engagement from African Americans and held his own voter registration drives. Though sometimes controversial for his unrelenting style, Moore was a force for change in civil society. (Learn more about Moore here)
(April 27, 1884 – April 30, 1961)
Known as “the midwife” of the Harlem Renaissance, Fauset was an acclaimed writer/editor who used her pen and others’—including Langston Hughes—to further the African American voice in public discourse. She was the only African American in her graduating class at Philadelphia High School for Girls. Years later, she was an editor for The Crisis, the NAACP magazine started by W.E.B. Dubois. The most published novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, she wrote four novels, each with a focus on black culture and the challenges that confronted it. William Stanley Braithwaite hailed her as “the potential Jane Austen of Negro Literature,” and Deborah E. Mcdowell saw her as a “black woman [who dared] to write—even timidly so—about women taking charge of their own lives and declaring themselves independent of social conventions.” (Learn more about Fauset here)
Preacher/Civil Rights Activist
(February 14, 1760 – March 26, 1831)
An inspiration to Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., Allen was a religious man, and was religiously devoted to the African American cause. He was born into slavery and bought his own freedom at the age of 23. After hearing a Methodist preacher speak out against slavery, Allen became a Methodist himself. In 1794, Allen and 10 others founded the Bethel Church, a black Methodist church that stood on a plot of land that Allen purchased with his meager earnings as a chimney sweep and shoemaker. Allen and his wife used the church for prayer, but also as a stop along the Underground Railroad for hiding runaway slaves. W.E.B. Dubois called Mother Bethel, “by long odds the vastest and most remarkable product of American Negro civilization.” It became more vast and remarkable once it turned into a subsidiary of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.)—the first national black church in the United States. Allen was an early face of the civil rights movement, and Richard Newman went so far as to call Allen, “[the] black founding father.” (Learn more about Allen here)
(June 21, 1859 – May 25, 1937)
Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first African American artist to gain recognition on the world stage. Noted for his depiction of landscapes and Biblical themes, Tanner’s work caught the eye of many, including Thomas Eakins, another famous 19th century painter from Philadelphia. Oddly, Tanner thanked his poor health early in his life for giving him the time to hone his artistic skills. He trained at the renowned Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Robert Vaux School before moving to Paris and settling there. “Nicodemus Visiting Jesus” is believed to be his most famous work. (Learn more about Tanner here)
(February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993)
Despite the resistance Anderson faced in venues across the country, she became one of the city’s fiercest and most successful performers, as well as a deliberate (and inadvertent) Civil Rights hero. She played with the New York Philharmonic in 1929, but is best known for her Easter Sunday 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 people, with millions more listening live on NPR. That show happened because the Daughters of the American Revolution in Philadelphia refused to allow Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall, prompting Eleanor Roosevelt to resign her DAR membership and arrange the open-air show for Anderson in D.C. Anderson toured extensively throughout Europe, where her remarkable talent was appreciated by none other than Arturo Toscanini, who told her, “Yours is a voice such as one hears in 100 years.” Back home, it wasn’t until 1955 that she became the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. Anderson fought for more than just her own chance at fame: She was a major part of the civil rights movement, performing in D.C. again for the March on Washington in 1963. “I could not run away from the situation” Anderson said. “I had become, whether I liked it or not, a symbol, representing my people. I had to appear.” (Learn more about Anderson here)