Black History Conference Keynote Speaker Tells Philadelphia’s Story
By: Nick Santangelo
As the College of Liberal Arts’ Africology and African American Studies departments prepare to celebrate Black History Month tomorrow, it’s important to stop and consider the significance of it all. Specifically, keynote speaker Marcus Anthony Hunter wants students to think about how slavery was a reality “not that long ago” and how black history is intertwined with American history as a whole.
“Black history is American history,” he says in a phone interview ahead of his talk tomorrow.
Dr. Hunter is the Chair of UCLA’s African American Studies department. Tomorrow, he plans to engage students about how studying Philadelphia’s own black history in particular can bring a new understanding of the American experience. Many battles over civil rights, poverty, education and public housing originated here in Philadelphia as captured in the W.E.B Du Bois classic The Philadelphia Negro. When Dr. Hunter speaks in Ritter Hall at 11 a.m. tomorrow, he’ll discuss how Du Bois’ and Cecil B. Moore’s legacies bring to light a broader sense of black history throughout both Philadelphia and the United States.
For example, the professor points out that when the University of Pennsylvania hired Du Bois in 1896 it was to study what was then called “the negro problem.” Du Bois would later become a professor at Clark Atlanta University but was eventually asked to resign because of pressures from white philanthropists funding the university. He then helped found the Niagara Movement, which would become the NAACP, the North Philadelphia branch of which Cecil B. Moore would go on to lead.
Black history is American history
“So it has its way of demonstrating, either accidentally or on some kind of serendipitous purposefulness, that Du Bois would come to Philadelphia and study black people and, in fact, Cecil B. Moore's ancestors,” explains Dr. Hunter. “And then actually found the organization that Cecil B. Moore would use to actually try to get black people more free in Philadelphia.”
More than a century after Du Bois’ The Philadelphia Negro was published in 1899, Dr. Hunter published his latest work, Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life, in 2018. The book examines how in places where blacks have lived in “ghettos or hoods or slums,” there are state failures to remedy the comprehensive nature of the conditions that created those environments. And yet, black people living there managed to “make lemonade out of lemons,” says Dr. Hunter.
Here in the City of Neighborhoods, Dr. Hunter sees many individual chocolate cities from South Philly to West Philly to Germantown to Mt. Airy to Temple’s own neighborhood of North Philly.
“All of these different chocolate cities really comprise their own sets of politics and histories,” he says. “And when they all come together they, in many ways, dictate the political outcomes for Philadelphia from the mayors to the city council leaders and so on.”
In the nearly 120 years between Du Bois’ seminal work and Dr. Hunter’s Chocolate Cities, then, there has “clearly been progress,” he notes. Still, there obviously remains much more work to be done. In the grand scheme of history, we are not so far removed from the era of slavery that necessitated the Underground Railroad. Although we can’t progress the years between then and now any faster, Dr. Hunter sees his work as crucial to advancing our understanding of the state failures that are still producing a one-dimensional understanding of minority hoods, slums and ghettos.
“I think about this as offering new building blocks that are more vested in the experience and understanding the perspectives of black people,” he says, “and if we start building our solutions and policies or strategies based on that, I think we'd be even further than we are now.”
Join Dr. Hunter as he speaks during the College of Liberal Arts’ 16th Annual Underground Railroad and Black History Conference tomorrow, February 28 from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Ritter Hall.