Black History in Philadelphia
Philadelphia is one of the country’s most notable Black history cities.
Black scientists, engineers, IT specialists, human resources specialists, accountants, writers, technicians, and inventors, work for hand and hand. Together, they break barriers to achieve the impossible.
Incredible Black Philadelphians have changed the world by making significant—and ground-breaking—impacts.
For 2023 Black History Month, MileStone Academy features 28 incredible Black Heroes from Philadelphia.
Fareed Simpson-Hankins is a trumpet player, composer, educator, and bandleader from Philly.
Hankins loved music at a very young age. His parents are musicians who practiced at home and took him to their performances.
He first picked up the trumpet at eight years old.
He learned more about music while playing spirituals and gospel at his home church and studying at the Mount Airy Cultural Center jazz program.
Hankins attended and studied music while a student at Central High School.
After graduating from high school, he went to Temple University, where he had the opportunity to study with outstanding trumpet players and veteran jazz musicians.
In 2019, he was featured on Constant Renaissance, a recording collaboration between the Temple Studio Orchestra and Vince Mendoza. The recording was nominated for a GRAMMY.
Byard Lancaster (August 6, 1942 – August 23, 2012)
Byard Lancaster was an avant-garde jazz saxophonist and flutist.
In 1965, Byard recorded Sunny Murray Quintet with the album’s eponymous musician in New York and performed in the Parisian Actuel Festival with him in 1969.
He continued to work in the drummer’s groups throughout his career.
By the 1970s, Byard had played with musicians such as McCoy Tyner, Khan Jamal, and Sun Ra.
Near the end of his life, Byard performed regularly with cellist David Eyges and recorded as a leader and sideman for the record label Creative Improvised Music Projects.
Monnette Sudler (June 5, 1952 – August 21, 2022)
Monnette Sudler was an American jazz guitarist from Philadelphia.
Her first exposure to jazz was listening to her great-uncle play the piano.
When Monnette was fifteen, she took lessons on guitar at the Wharton Center in Philly.
She could play drums and piano and composed, arranged, sang, and wrote poetry.
She worked with vibraphonist Khan Jamal in the Sounds of Liberation early in her career.
In the 1970s, she studied at Berklee School of Music in Boston and the 1980s at Temple University. Time for a Change (1977) was her first album as band leader.
Ora Mae Washington (circa 1899 – December 21, 1971)
Ora Belle Washington was an athlete from the Germantown neighborhood.
Ora excelled in both tennis and basketball.
In 2009, she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 2018, Ora was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Black newspapers called her “Queen Ora” and the “Queen of Two Courts.” She was one of the best tennis players of all time.
Julian Francis Abele April 30, 1881 – April 23, 1950
Julian Francis Abele was a prominent Black architect and chief designer in the offices of Horace Trumbauer.
Julian contributed to designing more than 400 buildings, including the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University, Philadelphia’s Central Library, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
He was the primary designer of the west campus of Duke University.
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander was a pioneering Black professional and civil rights activist of the early-to-mid-20th century.
In 1921, Mossell Alexander was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in economics in the United States.
In 1927, she was the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and became the first Black woman to practice law in the state.
She was also the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, serving from 1919 to 1923.
Mossell Alexander and her husband were active in civil rights in Philadelphia and nationally.
In 1946, she was appointed to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, established by Harry Truman.
In 1952, she was appointed to the city’s Commission on Human Relations, serving through 1968.
Mossell Alexander is a founding member of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (1963).
She served on the board of the National Urban League for 25 years.
U.S. President Jimmy Carter named her in 1979 to chair the decennial White House Conference on Aging.
Richard Allen (February 14, 1760 – March 26, 1831)
Richard Allen was a minister, educator, writer, and one of America’s most active and influential Black leaders.
In 1794, Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first independent Black denomination in the United States. He opened his first AME church in 1794 in Philadelphia.
Allen focused on organizing a denomination where free Black people could worship without racial oppression and enslaved people could find a measure of dignity.
He worked to upgrade the social status of the Black community, organizing Sabbath schools to teach literacy and promoting national organizations to develop political strategies.
Caroline Still Anderson (November 1, 1848 – June 1919)
Caroline Still Anderson was a physician, educator, and activist.
She was a pioneering physician in the Philadelphia African American community and one of the first Black women to become a physician in the USA.
After graduating from college, Anderson moved back to Philadelphia and became a teacher of elocution, drawing, and music, which ended in 1875.
In 1878, she began her medical career with an internship at Boston’s New England Hospital for Women and Children.
In 1879, Anderson moved back to her hometown, opening a dispensary and a private medical practice.
In 1889, Anderson revived her career as an educator, teaching hygiene, physiology, and public speaking while continuing her medical practice. That year, she and her husband founded a vocational and liberal arts school called the Berean Manual Training and Industrial School.
Anderson was the assistant principal in addition to her teaching roles.
Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993)
Marian Anderson was a contralto. She performed a wide range of music, from opera to spirituals.
Anderson performed with renowned orchestras in major concert and recital venues throughout the United States and Europe between 1925 and 1965.
Anderson was an important figure in the struggle for African American artists to overcome racial prejudice in the United States during the mid-twentieth century.
In 1939 during racial segregation, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The incident placed Anderson in the international community’s spotlight on a level unusual for a classical musician.
With the aid of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Anderson performed a critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, on the Lincoln Memorial steps in the capital.
Charlene Arcila (January 2, 1963 – April 7, 2015)
Born in Jacksonville, Mississippi, Charlene Arcila moved to Philadelphia in 1990.
She came out as a transwoman and at once began her activism for LGBT rights.
Among her many roles and achievements, Arcila worked for The Philadelphia AIDS Consortium, served on the board of directors for the Mazzoni Center, and was the treasurer for the William Way Center.
Arcila is best known for founding the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference (now known as the Philadelphia Trans-Wellness Conference) and for removing the gender markers from SEPTA’s transportation passes.
Pearl Bailey (March 29, 1918 – August 17, 1990)
Pearl Mae Bailey was an actress, singer, and author.
After appearing in vaudeville, she made her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman in 1946.
She received a Special Tony Award for the title role in the all-black Hello, Dolly! Production in 1968.
Guion Bluford (November 22, 1942)
Guion Stewart Bluford Jr. is an American aerospace engineer, retired United States Air Force (USAF) officer and fighter pilot, and former NASA astronaut.
In this capacity, he became the second person of African descent to go to space.
While assigned to NASA, he became a USAF officer, rising to colonel.
He took part in four Space Shuttle flights between 1983 and 1992.
In 1983, as a member of the crew of the Orbiter Challenger on the mission STS-8, he became the first African American in space and the second person of African descent in space, after Cuban cosmonaut Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez.
Nellie Rathbone Bright (March 28, 1898 – February 7, 1977)
Nellie Rathbone Bright was an educator, poet, and author.
Born in Savannah, Georgia, to parents who were college graduates and professionals, Bright and her family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the early 1910s during the Great Migration.
Bright’s father was an Episcopal priest, and her mother was a teacher and social worker.
She completed most of her education in Philadelphia, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania.
Bright devoted most of her life to her students as a teacher and a principal.
Bright taught in Philadelphia public schools, becoming a principal in 1935 and serving until her retirement in 1952. She inspired generations of African American students.
During the 1920s, she was part of a literary group known as the Black Opals.
In 1927–1928, with Arthur Fauset, she co-edited Black Opals, a literary magazine named after a line from a poem in its first issue. Although it was published in Philadelphia, the magazine was considered part of the larger art world of the Harlem Renaissance.
Octavius V. Catto (February 22, 1839 – October 10, 1871)
Octavius Valentine Catto was an American educator, intellectual, and civil rights activist. He became the principal of male students at the Institute for Colored Youth, where he was also educated.
Born free in Charleston, South Carolina, in a prominent mixed-race family, he moved north as a boy with his family.
After completing his education, he went into teaching and became active in civil rights.
He became known as a top cricket and baseball player in 19th-century Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
A Republican, he was shot and killed in election-day violence in Philadelphia, where ethnic Irish of the Democratic Party, which was anti-Reconstruction and had opposed black suffrage, attacked black men to prevent their voting for Republican candidates.
Rebecca J. Cole (March 16, 1846 – August 14, 1922)
In 1867, Rebecca J. Cole became the second African American woman to receive an M.D. degree in the United States (Rebecca Crumpler, M.D., graduated from the New England Female Medical College three years earlier, in 1864).
Dr. Cole graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1867. Dr. Cole overcame racial, and gender barriers to medical education by training in all-female institutions run by women who had been part of the first generation of female physicians graduating mid-century. under the supervision of Ann Preston, the first woman dean of the school, and went to work at Elizabeth Blackwell’s New York Infirmary for Women and Children to gain clinical experience.
Although Rebecca Cole practiced medicine for fifty years, few records survive to tell her story, and no images of her remain. Cole was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she attended the Institute for Colored Youth, graduating in 1863. Her medical thesis at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania was titled “The Eye and Its Appendages.”
Cole went on to practice in South Carolina, then returned to Philadelphia, and in 1873 opened a Women’s Directory Center to supply medical and legal services to destitute women and children.
In January 1899, she was appointed superintendent of a home run by the Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens (February 21, 1909 – December 2001)
Helen Octavia Dickens was an American physician, medical and social activist, health equity advocate, researcher, health administrator, and health educator. She was the first African-American woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons in 1950, specializing in Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Dickens worked at private practices and clinics, including the Aspiranto Health Home, founded by Dr. Virginia Alexander, and the Teen Clinic at The University of Pennsylvania, which she founded.
Strongly motivated to provide better healthcare to the African-American community, her jobs enabled Dickens to combat the racial and residential segregation integrated into medicine at the time.
Crystal Bird Fauset (June 27, 1893 – March 27, 1965)
Crystal Bird Fauset, the first African American female state legislators in the USA.
Fauset grew up in Boston, Massachusetts but spent her adult and political life in Philadelphia.
Between 1914 and 1918 Fauset worked as a public school teacher in Philadelphia.
In 1918 she began working as a field secretary for African American girls in the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).
In 1925 the Interracial Section of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC or Quakers) was formed, and Fauset joined the organization in 1926. Her goal was to work on her interest “in having people of other racial groups understand the humanness of the Negro wherever he is found.”
Between September 1927 and September 1928, she made 210 appearances before more than 40,000 people for the AFSC.
During the late 1920’s Fauset studied at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, graduating in 1931.
In 1932 Fauset founded the Colored Women’s Activities Club for the Democratic National Committee where she helped African American women register to vote.
In response to her efforts the Roosevelt Administration appointed her Director of the Women and Professional Project in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Philadelphia.
Fauset then began to work on the Joint Committee on Race Relations of the Arch and Race Streets (Quaker) Yearly Meetings where she helped establish the famous Swarthmore College Institute of Race Relations which documented employment and housing discrimination against Pennsylvania African Americans.
In 1938 Fauset was elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature, representing the 18th District of Philadelphia, which was 66% white at that time. As a state representative Fauset introduced nine bills and three amendments on issues concerning improvements in public health, housing for the poor, public relief, and supporting women’s rights in the workplace.
Jessie Redmon Fauset (April 27, 1882 – April 30, 1961)
Jessie Redmon Fauset in Camden County, New Jersey. She grew up in Philadelphia and attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls.
Fauset received a scholarship to study at Cornell University, where she was likely the first black female student, and she graduated with a BA in classical languages in 1905.
After college, she worked as a teacher in Baltimore and Washington, D. C.
In 1912, Fauset began to write for the NAACP’s official magazine, The Crisis, which was co-founded and edited by W. E. B. Du Bois.
Fauset contributed poems, essays, and reviews to The Crisis, Fauset became the journal’s literary editor in 1919, moving to New York City for the position.
In her role as literary editor, Fauset introduced then-unknown writers, including Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Anne Spencer, to a national audience.
Along with her poetry and short fiction in The Crisis, Fauset published novels known for their portrayal of middle-class African American life, including There Is Confusion (Boni and Liveright, 1924) and Plum Bun (Matthews & Marrot, 1928).
Fauset also edited The Brownies’ Book, a periodical for African American children, from 1920 to 1921.
James Forten (September 2, 1766 – March 4, 1842)
James Forten was born free in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His parents were Thomas and Sarah Forten. He was also the grandson of slaves.
Forten’s formative years were spent in Philadelphia, and he attended Anthony Benezet’s Quaker school for African American children.
By the time he turned eight years old, he was working for Robert Bridges’s sail loft. This is where his father worked as well. The following year, his father was the victim of an unfortunate boating accident and died. This tragedy resulted in nine-year-old James having to take on additional work to support his family.
Over time, James Forten became interested in politics and avidly campaigned for and supported temperance, women’s suffrage, and equal rights for African Americans.
In 1800, he was the leader in organizing a petition that called for Congress to emancipate all slaves. Given the fact that this was a presidential election year, rumor had it that a few of the presidential candidates (among them Thomas Jefferson) were none too pleased with a black man advocating for the emancipation of slaves.
His activism was further recognized when he wrote and published a pamphlet denouncing the Pennsylvania legislature for prohibiting the immigration of freed black slaves from other states.
During his early teens, he worked as a powder boy during the Revolutionary War on the Royal Lewis sailing ship.
In 1817, Forten joined with Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, to form the Convention of Color.
Charlotte Forten Grimke (August 17, 1837 – July 23, 1914)
In 1817, Forten joined with Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, to form the Convention of Color.
Forten was educated by private tutors as her father did not want her to attend a public school. This was a privilege only wealthier families could afford.
Later Forten moved to Salem, Massachusetts where she joined the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society.
Forten called for Black women’s participation in the abolitionist crusade. She joined circles of significant abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child.
Moreover, her role in the community went beyond education. She was also a song leader, storyteller, nurse, Sunday school teacher and companion to the elderly. She was one of the few northern Black teachers to chronicle her time on the islands.
After the war, Forten taught in Boston, MA and Charleston, SC.
In 1872, she moved to Washington, DC, where she taught at a preparatory school later known as Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. One year later she became a clerk in the Treasury Department.
Throughout the 1890s, she published poems about DC, including “At the Home of Frederick Douglass” and “The Corcoran Art Gallery.”
In 1896, Forten helped found the National Association of Colored Women.
Forten remained active in the civil rights movement until her death on July 23, 1914.
Francis Ellen Walker Harper (September 24, 1825 – February 22, 1911)
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born free and was a poet, fiction writer, journalist.
Harper was raised by her aunt and uncle because her mother died when she was three years old.
Until the age of 13, she attended the Academy for Negro Youth. The school was run by her uncle.
After graduating from the Academy, Harper, found domestic work in a Quaker household, where she had access to a wide range of literature.
Harper worked for two years in Ohio and Pennsylvania. She embarked on a career as a traveling speaker on the abolitionist circuit.
In addition, Harper helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. Plus, she often wrote for anti-slavery newspapers. Thus, she earned a reputation as the mother of African American journalism.
A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. (February 25, 1928 – December 14, 1998)
A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. grew up during the Great Depression and the era of Jim Crow laws. He overcame a childhood marked by economic hardship and segregation, and after graduating from Antioch College he attended Yale Law School where he graduated with honors.
Leon sought an education and career in law where he fought institutionalized racism in the American judicial system.
He began his career as a law clerk to Justice Curtis Bok of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania and soon became the youngest and first African American District Attorney in Philadelphia.
In 1954 he became a founding partner of the first African American law firm in Philadelphia, Norris, Schmidt, Green Harris, & Higginbotham.
While in private practice, he also served in public roles including Special Deputy Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and a board member for various legal, political, and nonprofit organizations within the commonwealth.
In 1962 President Kennedy appointed Leon to the Federal Trade Commission making him the youngest and first African American to ever serve on a federal regulatory commission.
Thereafter, President Lyndon Johnson nominated him as a federal judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. He became one of the youngest people ever appointed to a federal bench at the age of 35.
Leon played an extraordinary role in the civil rights movement as an advisor to President Johnson after the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and as a member of the National Commission on Causes and Prevention of Violence.
In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed Leon to the USA’s Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit where he remained for 16 years. He served as the Chief Judge from 1989 until 1991 and as Senior Judge until his retirement in 1993. He was appointed by President Clinton to be the USA’s Commission on Civil Rights.
Leon was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and other honors and awards including honorary degrees from more than 60 universities.
Caroline LeCount (c. 1846 – January 24, 1923)
Caroline Rebecca LeCount was an African American educator and civil rights figure from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
LeCount was born in South Philadelphia in 1846 as one of four children.
Caroline began school at a young age and graduated at the top of her five-person class from the Institute for Colored Youth in 1863.
LeCount was part of the Ladies’ Union Association, a group of women supporting the Union in the American Civil War.
In addition, she was part of the Ladies’ Union Association, a group of women supporting the Union in the American Civil War.
As part of the Association’s efforts, LeCount and other Black women would ride streetcars to deliver supplies to troops even though black riders were often removed by force.
When the city passed a law in 1867 banning segregation on public transport, LeCount successfully brought charges against a driver that would not let her ride. The city then issued an official notice to its transit companies that they were no longer allowed to discriminate against black passengers.
In 2022, some Philadelphia residents began petitioning to rename the city’s Taney Street to Caroline LeCount or LeCount.
Joyce Craig Lewis (June 7, 1977 – December 9, 2014)
Joyce Michelle Craig grew up in the City of Philadelphia and attended Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School, William Levering Middle School, and Murrell Dobbins Vocational High School, where she majored in printing.
Joyce was a loving, outgoing, tough-as-nails, hardworking mother, sister, and friend.
Joyce always showed a self-sacrificing spirit, leading her to become trained as an EMT, a job she held for years. However, her passion was to become a firefighter. “It was a dream of mine since I was five.”
She admired the firefighters on Ridge and Midvale (Engine 35 – Ladder 25), where she lived. Joyce began looking to accomplish this goal by studying for hours and explaining to her sisters the difference between various fire hydrants and trucks.
Firefighter Joyce Craig served as a member of the Philadelphia Fire Department with valor and distinction. She graduated from the Firefighter Academy, Fire Class 178, in March 2004.
She served with Engine 9, Engine 45, Ladder 21, and Engine 64 and will always be remembered as a “firefighter’s firefighter.”
In her service to the community, Firefighter Craig continually proved her duty-bound commitment to the saving of lives and the preservation of property.
Regrettably, on Tuesday, December 9, 2014, Firefighter Joyce Craig died in the line of duty.
She was posthumously promoted to fire lieutenant on January 12, 2015.
Joyce loved her family, and it was all about keeping the family together. She was the aunt to go to for cool school clothes, name-brand sneakers, and trips.
Dr. Walter Lomax, Jr. (July 31, 1932 – October 10, 2013)
Dr. Lomax was born in South Philadelphia. He graduated from Central High School, LaSalle University, and Drexel School of Medicine (then Hahnemann Medical College).
He began his solo medical practice in the same South Philadelphia neighborhood (1936 Reed Street) where he had grown up.
In 1982, Dr. Lomax, a management company focused on healthcare, called Lomax Health Systems (LHS), Inc.
He grew his practice into a multi-site group practice in Philadelphia and the suburbs comprising 22 physicians.
He was affiliated with Pennsylvania Hospital and Graduate Hospital and served on the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine faculty.
In 1984, LHS won a medical services contract to recruit physicians and physician assistants to supplement the City of Philadelphia’s staff in the prison system.
In 1990, Correctional Healthcare Solutions, Inc. was incorporated to specialize in managing and delivering health services to correctional facilities.
CHS appeared as a major participant in this industry, offering quality care while having costs. In October 2000, CHS supplied health care in 70 prisons in 16 states.
In 1989, LHS joined forces with a firm in Virginia to form Healthcare Management Alternatives (HMA), Inc.
HMA successfully won a then-Pennsylvania Department of Welfare contract (HealthPASS) to supply health care to South and West Philadelphia Medicaid recipients.
Of HMA’s success in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) licenses were issued in each state.
In 1995, AmeriChoice was formed as a holding company for the three state HMOs and was eventually sold to United Health Group Company.
In 2003, Dr. Lomax formed The Lomax Family Foundation (LFF) and served as its Chairman.
The LFF supplied funding for eligible non-profit organizations and programs that promote arts and culture, health and wellness, education, and philanthropy in the African American community.
Cecil B. Moore (January 5, 1976 – February 13, 1979)
LFF has had a significant impact on the Philadelphia region, not only because of the size of the financial support it offers to many programs and organizations but as one of a few African-American grantor foundations in the area.
In addition, Dr. Lomax had honorary degrees from Neumann University and Lincoln University.
In 2000, The Philadelphia Mural Arts program honored Dr. Lomax with a mural. It is found near the corner of 23rd and Wharton Streets.
Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson is working with Mural Arts and the Lomax family to find a replacement location for the mural in South Philadelphia and to start painting it as soon as possible.
Clara Ward (April 21, 1924 – January 16, 1973)
Clara Mae Ward was a gospel singer who achieved great artistic and commercial success during the 1940s and 1950s as leader of The Famous Ward Singers.
She was one of the most outstanding soloists and conductors in gospel history. Ward was a seven-year-old lead singer of her family’s musical group, The Ward Trio.
Her musical genius was recognized during early childhood as she began piano studies when she was seven years old.
At the age of 16, Ward recorded her first gospel album.
In 1950 and 1952, Ward performed at New York City’s Carnegie Hall at the Negro Music Festival. Occasionally, she performed in nightclubs and 1957 at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, during a gospel music forum.
In 1962 she was one of the backup performers for the rhythm and blues song “Mashed Potato Time” by Dee Dee Sharp, which was #1 on Billboard’s pop chart. The following year Ward was the Choral Director of Langston Hughes’ musical Tambourines to Gloryddddddddddddddddd and was the principal singer in the Broadway’s Little Theatre on West 44th Street.
In 1964 she performed for President Lyndon Johnson at his inaugural ball at the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C.
In 1967, she led the Clara Ward Singers in a first of its kind performance at the Philadelphia Academy of Music.
Ward acted in the Hollywood movie A Time to Sing in 1968. The same year she performed in Vietnam at the request of the United States State Department. A year later, Ward was back in Vietnam at the request of United Service Organizations Inc. (USO).
Ward has composed and arranged more than 500 gospel scores.
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