BY TONY WEST
It was history writ small; history up close and personal; and most importantly, history passed down.
African American history was marked by Southwest Philadelphia District Services at Kingsessing Recreation Center. Kingsessing is a largely Black, blue-collar community of two-story rowhomes. It lies far off the city’s museum trail and its modest residents don’t make history as a rule.
Last Friday evening, though, 100 neighbors piled into the recreation center to make their history come alive.
It was deliberately entertaining – and fun for the young. About one-third of the attendees were children and teenagers, most of whom performed in the show, exhibiting martial arts, dance and drill.
That was intentional, explained Kevin Horne, executive director of SWPDS, Kingsessing-born and -bred. He grew up with legendary figures of Black male leaders in the civil-rights era: Hardy Williams was his baseball coach, Lucien Blackwell his mentor. “It’s so important for kids to have memories like these when they grow up,” he said.
SWPDS President Mike Ross elaborated, “Often when you have you have meetings and gatherings in the community, they’re always geared to adults and the children are left out. They get happy when they know they are included. This was an opportunity to sit back and show us what they can do.”
Kingsessing Rec was Horne’s after-school base while he was growing up; it’s where he did his homework. It remains a vibrant center of community life. “On a Friday night, you see nothing in it but elderly people and kids,” he said.
Horne’s goal is for the elderly people to pass their knowledge on to those kids.
Adult performers such as Drop Squad, which specializes in African drumming and storytelling, laid a soundtrack to start the evening.
Storyteller Nashid Ali told tales of Philadelphia Black history. How Marcus Garvey, the “Back to Africa” promoter, led the Universal Negro Improvement Association in the 1920s, a branch of which is still based on Cecil B. Moore Avenue. How Cecil B. Moore himself, a fiery lawyer, integrated Girard College, which had always been restricted to white boys: “He got all the gangs together to march around its walls until they let us in.”
Ali spoke of today’s “Black Lives Matter” movement and linked it to the “Black Is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s.
Albert El, an Army veteran and military re-enactor, appeared in Civil Wat uniform. He was portraying a soldier in the US Colored 3rd Regiment, which was recruited out of Philadelphia. 11,000 Black soldiers from Philadelphia fought in the Civil War, out of 200,000 total, he said. They trained at Camp William Penn, which was located at Broad Street and Cheltenham Avenue. In the Philadelphia National Cemetery in Oak Lane, 1,000 of these troops are buried.
El’s own great-great-grandfather was a Union soldier. He spoke of the vital role of veterans in the civil-rights struggle, citing Moore, who was a marine in a segregated unit in World War II, and Congressman Lucien Blackwell, who served in an integrated unit in the Korean War.
Praise dancers also performed. They were graceful and stirring. But their relevance to African American history was brought out when a presenter noted that the first nation in the world to become officially Christian was Ethiopia, in Africa. “Christianity is part of our history,” said Ross.
The evening concluded with a free and tasty dinner.
SWPDS coalesced around the Woodland Avenue street gang of bygone days. It is an all-male group, although it works closely with women who are leaders in their community. Members dig into their own pockets to support a wide range of programs throughout the year, with some assistance from Parks & Recreation activity grants.