We're celebrating Black History Month by bringing you stories and history about some of our neighborhood and city's prominent African American figures and organizations through history.
CHRISTIAN STREET YMCA
The Christian Street YMCA has been a landmark of this neighborhood for more than ninety-five years. As the city’s first African American YMCA and the fourth in the nation, it served not just those in the immediate vicinity, but the whole African American population of Philadelphia.
Though the nation’s first African-American YMCA was founded in Washington D.C., in 1853, it was not until the national YMCA office created a “Colored Men’s Department” in the 1890’s that their number proliferated. By the mid-1920’s there were 51 African American YMCA’s nationwide. Segregation at YMCAs was strongly discouraged as official policy after 1945, and the association banned it outright in 1967.
Along with the Southwest-Belmont Branch of the YWCA at 1605 Catharine Street, the Christian Street YMCA became a center of African-American community life, providing opportunities to many residents and a home to community organizations.
W.E.B. DU BOIS
In 1896, W.E.B. Du Bois, having completed his Ph. D. at Harvard and spent two years at Wilberforce University in Ohio, accepted a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a study of Philadelphia’s predominantly Seventh Ward, from South to Spruce Streets and from Schuylkill River to Seventh Street. Du Bois lived with his wife at the College Settlement Association, 617 Carver (now Rodman) Street, “in the midst of an atmosphere of dirt, drunkenness, poverty, and crime.”
“Murder,” he wrote in his Autobiography, “sat at our doorsteps, the police were our government, and philanthropy dropped in with periodic advice.” Three years later he published The Philadelphia Negro, a pathbreaking work of sociology that documented the historical development and composition of Philadelphia’s largest and oldest African American community.
Contradicting accepted wisdom, Du Bois concluded that black poverty and crime did not result from racial inferiority, but from the unwillingness of white employers and city officials to employ blacks. More than half the Seventh Ward’s population had emigrated from the South following the Civil War, and lacked political and personal connections to land jobs that businessmen and machine politicians were doing out in the city’s other immigrant wards. More than 61 percent of the men and 88 percent of the women in ward who held jobs did so in “personal service”, as maids, cooks, stable hands, and the like.
Realizing that appeal to moral sensibility would do little good. Du Bois told white Philadelphians, all white Americans, that it was for their own advantage to give blacks the opportunity to do better.
In 1905 a group of young ambitious African-American doctors set on organizing a hospital, purchased a private house at 17th & Fitzwater Streets. In 1907, it formally became Mercy Hospital. The hospital provided invaluable medical care to the African-American community, and to anyone who could not afford proper care otherwise. The beneficent attitude did not help pay the bills and in 1948 the hospital had no choice but to merge and with a new facility on Woodland Avenue in the 1950’s. A Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker at 17th & Fitzwater Streets memorialize this hospital.
Marian Anderson was one of the most internationally acclaimed singers of the twentieth century and was the neighborhood’s most famous resident. Born in a small house at 1833 Webster Street in 1897, the neighborhood and its residents nurtured her vocal talents throughout her childhood. Members of her church congregation raised funds for her to attend a music school for a year. During this time, she moved from house to house, never leaving the neighborhood: first to Colorado street, then, after the death of her father, to her grandmother’s house on Fitzwater Street, then 17th and Christian Streets, then 18th and Carpenter streets, and finally to the east side of South Martin Street.
By the late 1930s, Anderson's voice had made her famous on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States she was invited by President Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor to perform at the White House, the first African American ever to receive this honor. In 1955, she became the first African American singer to perform as a member of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
The house is now home to the Marian Anderson Residence and Museum, founded by Blanche Burton Lyles, who also founded the Marian Anderson Historical Society, Inc. Martin Street is now known as Marian Anderson Way. She is also memorialized by the Marian Anderson Recreation Center on 17th & Fitzwater Streets.
In 1902, Charles Tindley began as the twenty-third pastor of the Temple parish. Born a slave in 1851, his rise is due to the power of his own industry, teaching himself Greek and Latin, and he became a methodist minister in 1886. He nurtured a rise in the congregations membership and purchased the former Westminster Presbyterian Church building at Broad and Fitzwater Streets, the parish taking on the name East Cavalry Methodist Episcopal Church. After a decade of success in this structure, which dated to the 1850’s or earlier, Tindley began the process of building a gigantic structure on the lot to the immediate south. In 1924, the congregation moved into the new cathedral, and in 1927 the name was officially changed to Tindley Temple.
Dr. Tindley was also a famous gospel music composer, writing such hymns. His most famous, “I’ll Overcome Someday”, would be later adapted as “We Shall Overcome”, an anthem of the Civil Rights movement.
THE ROYAL THEATER
The Royal Theater became the most distinguished of the theaters and jazz clubs of this diverse district. It began as a first-run cinema. The theater catered to the area’s black community. The developer underscored his dedication to the black residents of the neighborhood by hiring an all-black staff, the first cinema to do so. His staff would go on to organize the “Colored Motion Picture Operators Union” that included projectionist, staff, and ushers.