A Banner Celebration

Photo: Emma Lee/WHYY

Local art unfurls the proud, impactful history of Philly’s Black entrepreneurs.

In the heart of downtown Philadelphia, a special tribute is on display. Artist Xenobia Bailey has created vibrant street banners called “Radical Black Elite” to celebrate the history and achievements of Black entrepreneurs from the 18th and 19th centuries. These banners, which you can see around 13th and Locust streets, feature images of notable figures like James Forten, a successful sailmaker who used his wealth to support abolitionist causes and improve the lives of other African Americans.

This project, commissioned by the Association for Public Art to mark the 200th anniversary of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, reflects on the deep roots and civic strength of Philadelphia’s early Black community. These residents created a self-sustaining “city within a city” in what is now known as Society Hill, running thriving businesses and establishing their own institutions.

Bailey, known for her textile art and installations, was particularly inspired by the historical figure James Forten, a free person of African descent who lived in Philadelphia in the 1770’s and was present when the Declaration of Independence was read aloud publicly for the first time. She brings attention to how this community where he came to be an accomplished businessman, philanthropist, and activist connected to current movements like Black Lives Matter, emphasizing continuity in the struggle for justice and equality.

Besides honoring this important history, Bailey’s project also ties into recent research and educational efforts. For instance, the 1838 Black Metropolis project which uses US census data to explore the size and influence of Philadelphia’s Black population at the time — which was considerable.

Bailey’s work not only honors the past but also resonates in the present, hoping to inspire today’s Black artisans by uncovering and showcasing the material culture and craftsmanship of their ancestors. These banners will be up until next fall, providing a visible reminder of a vibrant historical legacy right in the streets of Philadelphia.

THE MORE YOU KNOW: The Philadelphia Black Metropolis

Put aside everything you think you know about the history of Black people in America – the enslavement, the Abolitionist Movement, famous firebrands like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth. That’s all important, of course, but it’s just part of the story.

Though the first African people came to Philadelphia on a slave ship in 1684, the Quakers here were powerful anti-slavery allies, and by 1800 there were nearly 7,000 free Black people in the city. Within a generation, the community had established its own identity, economy, and leadership.

By 1838, the population had grown to almost 20,000, with 16 churches, 23 schools, 600 businesses, and 80 beneficial organizations which together formed a robust and influential “city within a city” especially concentrated in the area known today as Society Hill. This burgeoning Philadelphia Black Metropolis represents an important chapter in Philadelphia’s history.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, African American life, culture, and commerce prospered. The city’s Black community was especially known for its skilled artisans, entrepreneurs, and educators, who were often quite wealthy even by white standards of the time. There was also a working and middle class, as well as poor and enslaved households, too. There were refugees from the Haitian Revolution, pirates from Spanish galleons, and many individuals of Indigenous descent.

State law in the early 1800’s allowed all “freemen” the right to vote – including Black citizens – much to the growing distress of the white Establishment. Pennsylvania called a Constitutional Convention to clarify our election laws so that only white votes would be counted. The Black community responded with an appeal of 40,000 citizens, and data from the 1838 Census documenting contributions of more than $1,350,000 in taxes annually. They owned homes, they paid utilities, and created thousands of jobs.

The plea didn’t work, but it underscored the Black community’s organizational power and commitment to civic activism that laid the groundwork for future civil rights struggles.

Today, efforts like the 1838 Black Metropolis project aim to educate the public about this rich history through interactive explainers, historical documents, and more to provide insight into the historical dynamics of race, economy, and society in Philadelphia and also celebrate the enduring impact of the Black community in shaping Philadelphia’s unique identity.

This focus on the Philadelphia Black Metropolis serves as a compelling reminder of the historical contributions of Black Philadelphians and their ongoing influence in the city’s narrative.

The Philadelphia Black Metropolis today is a movement to reclaim, rewrite, and restore suppressed or forgotten Black Histories with timelines, archives, walking tours, citizen stories, and educational tools available on their captivating website.

LEARN MORE: 1838blackmetropolis.com, follow @1838blackmetropolis on Instagram and TikTok

This article combines history with a summary of Peter Crimmins’s excellent piece for WHYY originally published March 16, 2024 and printed in April’s edition of The Local paper though a N.I.C.E. Shared Content agreement.

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