Behind the large, red Gothic Revival-style doors of the Church of the Advocate on Diamond Street near 18th lies a sanctuary with deep historical ties to Temple and the surrounding North Philadelphia community.
It’s also where the Saturday Free School chose to hold a 150th birthday celebration and symposium last weekend for civil rights activist and writer W.E.B. Du Bois, who authored several books, most notably “The Souls of Black Folk” and “Black Reconstruction in America.”
The Saturday Free School is a philosophy discussion group that hosts weekly meetings at the church to learn about Pan-Africanism and other global ethnic unity movements.
In honor of the late Du Bois’s 150th birthday, the Saturday Free School will host a year-long celebration of his life with conferences, symposiums and multiple readings of Du Bois’s literary works. To kick off the commemoration, the school organized a two-day symposium, “Pan Africa & Pan Asia: A World United For Humanity,” on Friday and Saturday, the former being Du Bois’s birthday.
Du Bois had ties to Philadelphia: he attended the University of Pennsylvania and wrote a book titled “The Philadelphia Negro.” He was also a founder of modern Pan-Africanism, a philosophy that advocates the cultural and political unification of people of African descent.
On Friday, the symposium began with a screening of “Finally Got The News,” a 1970 documentary about the people involved with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and their lives as employees in Detroit automobile factories.
On Saturday there were several panels discussing Du Bois’s books “Dark Princess” and “The World and Africa.” There was also a cultural celebration that included drumming ceremonies, music and poetry performances by African, Indian, Latin-American and Afro-American performers.
FOUNDER, SATURDAY FREE SCHOOL
The church itself has a rich history of civil rights advocacy in the North Philadelphia community, too. It served as a venue for the 1968 National Conference of Black Power and the 1970 Black Panther Conference. In 1974, it also became the first Episcopalian Church to ordain women as priests.
“It’s very historical,” said Anthony Monteiro, the founder of the Saturday Free School. “Its role in the community, going back some decades, is well known, and it is very, very beautiful.”
Monteiro, a former African-American studies professor and a 1993 Ph.D. sociology alumnus, founded the Saturday Free School to create an environment for students and Philadelphians to “learn and discuss local and national issues with people from the Philadelphian community.”
The organization used to meet at Temple while Monteiro was still a professor.
“After we were no longer at Temple, we were welcomed at the Church of the Advocate to continue our weekly meetings and sessions,” Monteiro said. “It’s just one of those very unique, very beautiful, very historic places that seemed fitting to host the celebration of Du Bois and his life.”
The Saturday Free School discusses several topics related to social movements and revolutionary thinking and organizing, guided by the teachings, speeches and literary work of activists like Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton.
Last year, the School hosted a symposium at the Church of the Advocate honoring James Baldwin, an author and essayist who critiqued Western society’s attitude toward gender, race and class.
This year, the School wanted to honor Du Bois for his political activism and global outreach.
“We decided we wanted to do something big,” said Elías Gonzalez, a 2016 media studies and production alumnus and event organizer for the School. “We believe that his books and his novels are…necessary now more than ever.”
Gonzalez also finds Du Bois’s life and teachings personally inspiring.
“Just his trajectory in life helped me change my perspective on what is possible, especially for Black people,” Gonzalez said. “[He] really helps you reinterpret the culture, and the world, and the connection between Africa and Asia and the Americas.”
Gonzalez said he was in awe at the various topics discussed during the weekend, like the Cuban Revolution and the Black Panther Party. Gonzalez joined the Saturday Free School in 2016, after graduating from Temple.
“I joined it because it turned out to be the next step in politically educating myself and organizing with Black Philadelphia,” Gonzalez said. “I went there, started learning a lot and I couldn’t stop.”
Nandita Chaturvedi, a member of the Saturday Free School and symposium organizer, joined when she moved to Philadelphia in 2016. As a child, she was always excited by the idea of helping people of all backgrounds and spurring change in the world.
“We all come from a certain history and nation, and there are differences in the way we see the world, but there are also commonalities,” Chaturvedi said. “To move forward in the future, to create a new world, a world free of hunger and war and poverty, we have to unite around those common principles and dismantle white supremacy.”
Monteiro closed the symposium on Saturday by thanking the students and Philadelphia residents in attendance. He said he hopes more people become “involved in the discussions” the Saturday Free School hosts.
“More than anything, I want people to begin thinking,” Monteiro said. “We want to get people involved in critical thinking and stimulate discussion and organizing and building unity among people.”