[Editor’s Note: In honor of Black History Month, The New York Times has been publishing long overlooked obituaries of prominent African Americans. A couple years ago, former NBA star Charles Barkley embarked on a similar project here at The Citizen, highlighting local African Americans throughout history whose contributions we would do well to remember. Here, we take another look.]
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.
- Bluefield College
- Temple Law, L.L.B 1953
- President of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP 1962-1967
- City Councilmember 1976-1979
- Achieved rank of sergeant in Military Marine Corps
- Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia renamed Cecil B. Moore Avenue in 1987, followed in 1995 by the SEPTA stop at 1700 North Broad Street
“I said to hell with the club, let’s fight the damn system. I don’t want no more than the white man got, but I won’t take no less,” Moore said.
(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.”
- Philadelphia High School for Girls, 1900
- Cornell University, B.A., 1909
- University of Penn, M.A., 1929
- Literary Editor of The Crisis 1919-1926
- Published four novels
- There Is Confusion (1924)
- Plum Bun (1929)
- The Chinaberry Tree (1931)
- Comedy: American Style (1933)
- Graduated as the only African American in her class from Philadelphia High School for Girls
- The first black woman accepted into Phi Beta Kappa, a highly selective academic honor society
“To be a colored man in America…and enjoy it, you must be greatly daring, greatly stolid, greatly humorous and greatly sensitive. And at all times a philosopher…” Fauset said.
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.”
- In 1816, he founded the first national black church in the United States, A.M.E.
- Helped found the Free African Society, a religious aid society dedicated to helping the black community
- In 1830, he formed the Free Produce Society, a membership organization that would only purchase food from non-slave labor.
William Lloyd Garrison said of Allen, “[he was] one of the purest friends and patriots that ever exerted his energies in favor of civil and religious liberty. His noble deeds will remain cherished in the memory of mankind as imperishable monuments of eternal glory.”
(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.
- Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
- Robert Vaux School
- Academie Julian
- Won the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ Lippincott Prize in 1900
Named honorary chevalier of the Order of the Legion Honor—France’s most distinguished award—in 1923
- In 1927, Tanner was made a full academician of the National Academy of Design—becoming the first African American to ever receive the distinction.
- Only African American enrolled during his time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
- “Nicodemus Visiting Jesus” (c. 1898) won the PAFA’s Lippincott Prize in 1900
“The Raising of Lazarus” (c. 1897) won a medal at the Paris Salon of 1897
“I will preach with my brush,” Tanner said.
(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.”
- Stanton Grammar School
- First African American to play at Metropolitan Opera in NYC
- Delegate for the United Nations Human Rights Commission
- Goodwill ambassadress for U.S. Department of State
- Awarded dozens of awards but most notably the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Kennedy Center Honors, National Medal of Arts and Grammy Lifetime Achievement award
- Albert Einstein hosted Anderson when she was denied stay in hotels
- Marian Anderson’s center-city home was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and a recreation center in South Philadelphia was named for her
“As long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold the person down, so it means you cannot soar as you otherwise might,” she said.