Through city’s murals, a legacy lives on

Mural Arts hosted a tour on civil rights for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Emprisia Lee photographs a mural at William D. Kelley School in Brewerytown, as part of Mural Arts’ tour of murals focused on civil rights leaders. | DANIEL RAINVILLE TTN

A vintage trolley furnished with wooden benches carried visitors through the African American Iconic Images Tour, showcasing 12 local murals dedicated to past and present civil-rights heroes in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The city’s Mural Arts Program partnered with the African American Museum in Philadelphia for the mural tour, which included sites around 7th and Arch streets, along Ridge Avenue and on Chestnut Street.

“This is the first year we partnered with the African American Museum for this particular event,” said Ellen Soloff, the director of tours and merchandise for Mural Arts, who added that the event has been running for about five years. “We tweaked the tour a bit to highlight civil rights, freedom and equality, which seemed fitting.”

Although subject matter differed among each mural, they all maintain a common theme relative to civil rights movements in Philadelphia and Dr. King.

“A committee was put together, and they looked at all of the murals with an African-American theme and images,” Soloff said. “Then, based upon location and artistic beauty, murals were chosen for the tour.”

One such mural was “Ridge on The Rise,” created by Eric Okdeh at 2125 Ridge Ave. in 2004.

“The mural itself covers the idea of bridging the past and the future,” said Susan Lemonick, a veteran tour guide for Mural Arts. “What this artist did was interview residents of the Ridge Avenue area about the important figures and events that built Ridge avenue’s past. The mural was designed to recognize the collective soul of the area. The central figure is Pearl Bailey, a symbol of the strength of the renaissance of North Philadelphia.”

Soloff said the murals all “pay homage to MLK in terms of subject-matter and the figures that appear in those murals.”

“A few murals actually depict Dr. King himself, and the ideals he stood for,” she added.

Ebony Lee attended the tour with her father, My-Ron Hatchett and her two sisters.

“Just thinking about everything that took place before us, before my parents and my grandparents, it all just makes me so grateful for what we have today,” Lee said.

“I think I’ve been saying this all day, but we are filled with pride,” she added. “That is one word that keeps coming to my mind today, being prideful and really humbled.”

Soloff said Mural Arts chose to host the tour because “it was important to do our part to commemorate MLK.”

“Since our work is tied to social justice, it seemed like a fitting tie-in,” she added.

Lee said the focus on civil rights within the tour is still a relevant topic today, considering the current global climate.

“You see what’s happening in Syria and other countries,” Lee said. “It’s not only about the past, it’s about the message. I think what he taught is still so relevant today. When you think of Martin Luther King Day it is a reminder that still lives on. It makes you question whether you did your part to continue that.”

Soloff believes the tour’s message expands beyond just Philadelphia.

For Hatchett, King’s sacrifice was something everyone has benefited from.

“Not just black people, but people around the world have benefitted from what he taught,” he said. “That people should be judged by the content of their character. It is what’s inside that counts, not your exterior. That message is worldwide.”

Erin Blewett can be reached at

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