Many in his family said the Rev. Paul M. Washington was destined to devote his life to God. What they never could have guessed is the impact he would have on his community through that devotion.
Since his death in October 2002 at the age of 81, Washington’s family said he has been missed by many. Because of his lifelong community work, a committee has been formed to rename a portion of Diamond Street – from Broad to 33d streets – “Father Paul M. Washington Avenue.”
The Father Paul Washington Community Committee is comprised mostly of “Freedom Fighters,” a group devoted to positive change formed in the 1960s. The committee’s founder, Gary Adams, is a “Freedom Fighter.”
Washington was known as a friend to both the homeless and to the gay and lesbian community. As pastor of the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia for 25 years, Washington hosted only the second Black Power Conference in the nation and a peaceful Black Panther Conference in 1970. The Advocate was the setting for peaceful meetings of rival gangs during the 1960s and 1970s.
As an Episcopalian rector, Paul Washington became dedicated to countless social causes. Washington met with Nelson Mandela, Louis Farrakhan, Paul Robeson and Muhammad Ali. He also traveled to Iran to discuss the release of American hostages during the Carter administration.
With Washington’s support, the “Freedom Fighters” used the Advocate as a home base amid the hostility and chaos of the modern civil rights era. The group picketed then-segregated Girard College until the school admitted four African American men in 1968.
“We were responsible for a lot of walls being broken down,” Mel Dorn, a “Freedom Fighter” active in the Diamond Street renaming, said. “When there was a lot of police brutality [in Philadelphia in the 1960s] we would follow cops … just to make sure people were treated humanely.”
“The ‘Freedom Fighters’ have done so much for Philadelphia,” Washington’s youngest son, Michael, 46, said. “I’m proud that they’re part of this effort.”
The Father Paul Washington Community Committee has also enlisted the help of the Washington family. Washington is survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter.
“I knew my father was a great person. I knew he did a lot of good,” Washington’s middle son, Kemah, 54, said. “But the stories of his work are overwhelming.”
While pastor of the Advocate, Washington’s opinions on equality were often in contrast with the views of the Episcopal Church leadership.
His activism often put him at odds with more established powers. He was a supporter of the controversial “back to nature” MOVE organization and was considered an adversary to former Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo. During the most active stages of his life, he received hate mail.
Yet, the committee has found a great deal of encouragement for the proposal. More than 5,000 people have showed their support for renaming Diamond Street in honor of Washington by signing a petition, which can be reached at www.fatherpaulwashington.com.
Because Diamond Street is a state highway, committee members need state approval.
“We have to contact the governor and talk to state legislators,” Dorn said. “But we’ve found a lot of support from local politicians.”
In 1994, his autobiography, Other Sheep I Have, was published by Temple University Press. On Jan. 28, the Advocate will host a tribute for Washington, which will include live filming for a documentary about his life.
“If you have no reason to say no, then you must say yes,” Christine Washington said, quoting her late husband. “He would never turn down anyone who needed help.”
Isaac Miller – who has been at the Advocate for 16 years – took over leadership after Washington’s passing. Miller has continued Washington’s active role, maintaining a meal program begun by the late pastor and furthering community involvement and maintenance of the historical Church of the Advocate.
As reported by The Temple News, the Advocate – located on 18th and Diamond streets – received in October a federal grant of $500,000 to renovate water-damaged walls.
“I don’t know if he was directly responsible,” Michael Washington said, “but if my father wasn’t at the Advocate, the church may not have gotten that grant.”
Diamond Street was named after Temple founder Russell Conwell’s “acres of diamonds” lecture, in which Conwell spoke of the talented individuals waiting to be found. Kemah Washington said he sees nothing wrong with renaming the street after his father.
“Russell Conwell did so much, but my father did something important too and that should be remembered,” he said. “Years from now, if someone wanted to rename the street again, I don’t think I would have much to say.”
“My husband was for peace. He fought injustices wherever he found them or saw them,” Washington’s wife said. “He was brave and unselfish, a man of great dignity and integrity.”
It’s no surprise then that the committee – who plans to raise awareness about more local leaders – chose Washington. Many “Freedom Fighters” have worked for renaming other streets in Philadelphia. In 1988, Columbia Avenue was renamed after former Philadelphia civil rights activist Cecil B. Moore. Many east-west streets in Philadelphia, like former Columbia Avenue, are named after Pennsylvania counties.
“It’s important to honor our [predecessors] who have made our way a little brighter,” Kemah Washington said. “We have Cecil B. Moore Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard. But we won’t stop with Father Paul Washington Avenue. We have a mission before us … we don’t want to name this street and go back home. We’ll continue ’til we can give something back to those who have given something to us.”
Christopher Wink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.