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Scouring the Dustbin of History


Throughout American history, cemeteries have constituted sites of sanctity and honor, symbols of freedom and autonomy carved into contested landscapes. To disrupt or neglect these spaces is to violate the civil rights and memory of those who inhabit them.


Since before the nation's founding, black communities in Philadelphia have claimed belonging and engendered vibrant support networks within larger frameworks allergic to the very notion of their humanity. The contestation of rights to dignified burial, peaceful rest, and honorable remembrance illuminated in the stories of Lebanon, Mount Moriah, and the Philadelphia National Cemetery reflects a larger pattern of racial stratification that transcends law, time, and space. The ways that racism has manifested in cemeteries - the lack of compassion afforded to black citizens even in death, when personhood is most colored by honorable remembrance - distill the underhanded empathy gap in this country.


But these stories also function as reminders of the remarkable, everyday battles for justice hidden in plain sight. The grand narrative of American history gestures to moments of broad legislative and societal reconfiguration - like those of the 1860s or the 1960s - as punctuating proof of America's linear progress. It elides the hurdles and hardships, the intergenerational component, the continuity of people who pushed uncertain progress for hundreds of years and laid the foundations for those junctures of tangible change.

Is it fair to say that most of history is a study of the no-longer-living? Certainly, with cemeteries as the bedrock of these stories, the no-longer-living are front and center in each narrative. But the questions of history are not the dead past: they live within us, propel us, manifest in all that we do. And race, with its mobilizing power to both justify and resist stratification, is a touchstone of the quality of American democracy. 

Recounted histories and honored memories perform particular political and social functions: most often, they promote nostalgic sentiments and patriotic ideologies. A traceable lineage from modest beginnings to national greatness - American history as one long victory march - can be naturally appealing. In moments of nation-building, wartime tumult, and political fragmentation, they can provide a unifying gloss. 

But progress is never a straight line, and narratives that exclude people of color, consigning their experiences to the dustbin of history, impel ignorance and leave American citizens unprepared to confront the nation's realities. If we don't reckon with collective histories - the ones that provide context for present-day tensions, the ones that illuminate traditions of racial subjugation embedded in a nation that defines itself by tenets of freedom and equality - what does that say about the state of our democracy? What does it say about distributive empathy in America?

A Stephen Powers mural project at Ralph Brooks Park. Philadelphia, PA: 2015.

Image sourced at Mural Arts.

​And what make those intergenerational connections possible for living generations are the act of memory and the art of storytelling: together, memorialization. Its most obvious application, in these cemetery histories, is through the material: bodies, gravestones, monuments, storyboards, physical expressions of who or what is worth remembering. But memorialization manifests in more ways than one: it's also structural and ideological. Its curation gestures to the dominant class - those with the power to determine who tells narratives, who is named, what memories should be passed on and carried forward in public spaces. It is why we see statues of powerful white men in spades peppered throughout the nation, and very few of anyone else. And cities are often wedded to these master narratives - the grand stories they have been telling for decades about their place in the nation. In Philadelphia, that master narrative emphasizes Revolutionary triumph. In the busiest parts of the city, it is easy to locate statues of Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson - all of the usual suspects. But what of those whose memories have been occluded?


On the heels of Charlottesville's lethal white supremacist rallies around Confederate monuments in the summer of 2017, new and innovative ways to lift up and honor more marginalized histories are making their way to the fore.  Monument Lab, a public art and history project produced by Mural Arts Philadelphia in the fall of 2017, installed temporary monuments throughout the city and posed a central question: "What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?" Some of its installations even heed the call of the dead.

"Whosoever live and believeth in me, though we be dead, yet shall we live," reads the epitaph of Amelia Brown, loosely quoting John, 11:24-26. Brown was a nineteenth-century black Philadelphian, whose gravestone was recently recovered from underneath Weccacoe Park in South Philadelphia - once the site of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the oldest of the country's first black denomination. She was likely a member of the church, and one of approximately three-thousand discovered underneath the now-playground in 2013. Marisa Williamson, one of twenty artists selected to contribute to Monument Lab, produced an interactive video scavenger hunt led by the specter of Brown, paying homage to the forgotten dead, their gathering places and burial grounds.

One snapshot of the Sweet Chariot app in action; another from its content production, in which the statue of George Washington in Washington Square is gradually obscured from view.

"Sweet Chariot: The Long Journey to Freedom Through Time." Marisa Williamson. Philadelphia, PA: 2017. Images sourced at Mural Arts.

With the Sweet Chariot smartphone app and a map at hand, users were invited to investigate the landscape of historic Philadelphia for history hidden in plain sight. Williamson included site-specific videos to illuminate lesser-known histories related to the black freedom struggle, and this content could be gradually unlocked as users located specific clues on murals, plaques, and signs in Old City. Beginning in Washington Square, where a statue of George Washington stands prominently, users would follow Amelia Brown "home" to Weccacoe Park - virtually interacting with prominent black Americans of historic Philadelphia, like Octavius Catto and W.E.B. Du Bois, along the way. 

Prior to the Revolution, Washington Square was dubbed "Congo Square" by Philadelphia's enslaved and free black population, who met there to honor their heritage: it was a place to celebrate holidays and festivals, as well as to bury and visit their dead. A block away from Independence Hall - one of the most famous buildings in the nation's grand history, a cornerstone of its master narrative - the square has been recast as a memorial to the soldiers who died in the Revolutionary War. But as part of Sweet Chariot, as pictured above, the site has been reclaimed and reattributed to "the ghosts of Congo Square." They honor what has disappeared from materiality and popular consciousness: like Lebanon Cemetery, that which is no longer there.

Several blocks away in Center City, sculptor Hank Willis Thomas installed an eight-foot tall, eight-hundred pound Afro pick sculpture, which stood for two months adjacent to Philadelphia City Hall on Thomas Paine Plaza. Intended as an intervention into conversations around identity and representation in the city, the Afro pick, Thomas explained, also highlights "ideas related to community, strength, perseverance, comradeship, and resistance to oppression." He chose to fashion an Afro pick, in part, because of its versatility "as adornment, a political emblem, and signature of collective identity [...] a testament to innovation." 

Two angles of the Afro pick sculpture on Thomas Paine Plaza at Philadelphia City Hall; on the lefthand side, just out of view, stands Frank Rizzo's statue.

"All Power to All People." Hank Willis Thomas. Philadelphia, PA: 2017. Images sourced at Mural Arts.

Thomas saw a scarcity of sculptures commemorating freedom, belonging, and equal justice: this piece, with a Black Power fist for a handle, served to represent all three. And it was notably situated a stone's throw from a statue that represents none of those things: that of former Philadelphia Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo. In line with the law-and-order rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s, Rizzo fused crime and race in city policy and action. To say that his relationship with black constituents was turbulent would be euphemistic: under his direction, police brutality against people of color in Philadelphia was unceasing. 

Rizzo's reign was a far cry from an era one-hundred years before, when Henry Jones' family successfully utilized the law to protect his constitutional right to be buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery. Rizzo neglected the constitutional protections of people of color at every opportunity. Motions to remove his statue from such a consequential public space have gained traction, but it has long stood by City Hall as a reminder of violence, oppression, white supremacy. For a city reconsidering what histories it wants to honor and uphold, Thomas' sculpture has stood by Rizzo's as a powerful foil. 

And on the northern outskirts of Philadelphia, documentary photographer Jamal Shabazz has featured some of his photographs together on a mural. The photographs include and the mural honors black veterans and their families, posing for photos in Germantown's Vernon Park. As a black veteran of the U.S. military, Shabazz served abroad in the 1970s with many men from the Philadelphia area: knowing firsthand the lack of appreciation bestowed upon black soldiers and veterans, which has certainly been corroborated by the U.S.C.T. storyboard negligence at the Philadelphia National Cemetery. He had long-intended to create a tribute to their service, fortitude, and style. The mural is framed with the inscription "Love is the Message."

A snapshot from a Jamal Shabazz photo shoot of black U.S. military veterans and the resulting commemorative mural in Germantown.

"Love is the Message." Jamal Shabazz. Philadelphia, PA: 2017. Images sourced at Mural Arts.


In advance of Monument Lab's installation, Shabazz held pop-up photo shoots in the park between Memorial Day and Veterans Day in 2017. The mural was created in concert with a number of local organizations: the Aces Museum, the Black Writers Museum, Friends of Vernon Park, and the iMPeRFeCT Gallery, among others. While most of Monument Lab's installations completed a nine-week stint on Philadelphia's landscape in November of 2017, the "Love is the Message" mural remains. 

Ultimately, this digital project aims to illuminate stories of the past that reach into the present and subvert the master narrative of American history. Through their afterlives, it also aims to contribute to a larger national discussion on race, empathy, and memorialization. Like cemeteries, public history can shroud or illuminate the efforts of marginalized groups to resist oppression, push progress, and lay claim to the spaces they inhabited. It can honor the dead and their living progeny all at once. In foregrounding the fraught and tangled histories of the United States, we become equipped to meet the lived realities of the present. Because history is more than a treasury of facts or a vehicle for political propaganda: it is contested, collective, and instructive of the perils and possibilities of the present moment. But in the public sphere, patriotic, celebratory grand narratives of America's history still reign, obscuring its embedded, persistent inequities. There is a pressing need for more public work that impels critical thought and honest discussion about American democracy's contradictory past and its afterlife in the present.

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