Wagner hosts neighborhood history event

“Unedited North Philadelphia” focused on community relations.

Ken Scott (left), president of Beech Companies, and John Pettit from the Special Collections Research Center speak at the event on Saturday. | JD Mousley TTN
Ken Scott (left), president of Beech Companies, and John Pettit from the Special Collections Research Center speak at the event on Saturday. | JD Mousley TTN

Eve Lyngray still remembers the Columbia Avenue riots, begun in 1964 after rumors spread of a white police officer knocking down and beating a pregnant black woman.

Racial tensions had been building in the area, and the reports led to a breaking point. The riots lasted for three days, after which several shops were left destroyed, and did not reopen. The only shop still remaining is Hollywood Shoes. Its faded green and red sign still stands at 1615 Cecil B. Moore Avenue.

“I came outside and I saw everybody, [the street] was in a turmoil, so I ran back into the speakeasy and told them what was going on,” Lyngray said. “It was just something terrible, I don’t think I could endure anything like that again.”

The riots were only one of the events through the years that would change the face of North Philadelphia. On Saturday, community members, Temple students and history enthusiasts gathered at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, which has stood at 17th Street and Montgomery Avenue for about 150 years, to hear and tell stories as old as the building itself.

The footage screened at the event, called “Unedited North Philadelphia,” was gathered from the archives of Paley Library. The film included clips of the Columbia Avenue riots, the Philadelphia “green” movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Richard Nixon’s visits and scenes from the Uptown Theater and the Blue Horizon, a boxing club which was located on the 1300 block of North Broad Street.

Ken Scott, president of Beech Companies and a panelist at the event, described the area’s long history of rich culture and art, and its strides in race relations through strong community leaders and the passion of students and residents.

“Temple back then was kind of known as a beacon for social, political and progressive movement,” Scott said, referring to a September 1970 Black Panther convention that was held in McGonigle Hall and other locations across the city to promote racial equality.

Amid push and pull from residents and the state government over his sensitivity to neighborhood issues, former Temple President Paul Anderson allowed the conference, drawing scorn from many in Harrisburg.

After the screening, the discussion switched from the past to the present changes happening in North Philadelphia, with Temple expanding and a shift in the makeup of the area.

Lyngray said she’s now concerned with the real estate developers’ growing stake in the area. She said she believes they are overtaking the area and forcing current residents out.

A developer in the crowd argued that developers are working to provide area for local residents while keeping its history intact.

Scott said knowing this history and keeping it alive is important, because it gives context for why the area is shaped how it is today. He added that it gives context to many of the debates that are happening today – like the state of the housing industry, and also the recent debate over changing the area from Cecil B. Moore to TempleTown.

“That has thrown the area into a whole outrage, because this area was named after a civil rights leader, [Cecil B. Moore],” Scott said. “It’s meaningful. [This is] another example of why the history is important, so that people understand this is named after someone for a reason.”

John Pettit, assistant archivist at Paley Library, said the footage he compiled was just the baseline, and that it’s through events like this that they add to history and continue the dialogue.

After the screening, Kaycee Osadolor, a member of the Philadelphia Public History Truck – which travels throughout the surrounding neighborhoods to document the history of the area through its residents – met with guests and listened to their stories of North Philadelphia outside the Wagner.

“I think it’s important that this history is shared because there are usually different narratives coming from people who usually wouldn’t be recorded in history,” Osadolor said.

Mariam Dembele can be reached at mariam.dembele@temple.edu or on Twitter @MariamDembele.

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