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Celebrate African American Culture with These Events During Black History Month

By Bernie Rodgers | February 14, 2020 | Culture Feature

Not only is it Black History Month, but it’s also the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment, a crucial piece of legislation that granted African American men the right to vote in 1870. The black community’s cultural contributions to contemporary America are countless and invaluable. As for Philadelphia, innumerable black historical figures have lived here—from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, to the first African American opera singer to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera, Marian Anderson. To commemorate these local legends, here’s a list of city-wide events to honor the timeless achievements of the black community.

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“Witness to History: Selma Photography of Stephen Somerstein” at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, 2/1-6/14

The march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, was one of the most iconic and monumental moments of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. It represented the resilience of a silenced community and their ability to overcome oppressive obstacles through organization, peace and solidarity. However, an often overlooked figure that was nearly as crucial as the event itself was 24-year old student photographer, Stephen Sommerstein, who captured history with five cameras and 15 rolls of film. The Brandywine River Museum of Art is displaying 55 of these priceless photographs through June 14th. Tickets from $18, 1 Hoffmans Mill Road, Chadds Ford, 610.388.2700, brandywine.org

African American History Month at the National Constitution Center, 2/4-29

The National Constitution Center is lauded as the only nonprofit—and also nonpartisan— organization strictly devoted to the four most crucial pages in U.S. history. This month, they’ve decided to renovate their exhibits in honor of Black History Month. Screened in their immersive arena-style theater, they are showing FOURTEEN: A Theatrical Performance, which combines a performance of personal testimonies from the 19th century to highlight both the Reconstruction era and the 14th Amendment. Another program is the interactive “The Road to Freedom: The Story of Slavery in America,” which invites guests to travel through time from the Constitutional Convention up to the Civil War to reveal the struggle and eventual abolishment of slavery. Along with other exhibits, such as Four Harriets and Decoding the Document: Reconstruction Amendment Gallery Walk, the National Constitution Center is plunging guests into the scope of black history all month long. Tickets from $14.50, 525 Arch St., 215.409.6700, constitutioncenter.org

“Aretha: Respect” Presented by The Philly Pops at the Kimmel Center, 2/14-16

After becoming one of the 20th century’s premier vocalists—and rightfully being dubbed the “Queen of Soul”—Aretha Franklin is now immortalized in the canon of culturally crucial entertainers. She exuded an unparalleled bravado immersed in a soundscape of soul that can be spotted in any number of her hits, such as “I Say a Little Prayer” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Echoes of her booming balladry can be heard in her present-day proteges from Jennifer Hudson to Beyoncé. From Friday, Feb. 14th to Sunday, Feb. 18th, conductor Byron Stippling is joined by Broadway star Capathia Jenkins and Grammy-nominated singer Ryan Shaw to present Aretha: Respect at the Kimmel Center. Guests are sure to be stunned by the dynamic performance of the city’s own Philly Pops for this one-weekend show. Tickets from $35, 300 S. Broad St., 215.790.5800, kimmelcenter.org

African and Diasporic Cultures Celebration at the Penn Museum, 2/15

Hosted in part with art initiative Artvolution, this event invites guests to explore the traditional and modern cultural practices in Africa and the subsequent African Diaspora. One of the overarching themes of this event is to discover the link between modern and traditional African cultural practices. The event celebrates Black History Month through emphasizing the ways that African culture influenced the African American community. This is accomplished through a variety of interactive activities and demonstrations, such as art-making, mask-making, live entertainment, an African-inspired marketplace and a story-telling circle. Tickets are $18, 3260 South St., 215.898.4000, penn.museum

Yolanda Wisher’s Rent Party at The Rosenbach: Black Beats Edition, 2/20

When most people think of the countercultural Beats Poetry Movement of the 40’s and 50’s, popularized figures like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg typically come to mind. However, there was an astounding range of African American Beats also contributing to the locomotion of the movement. Thankfully, Poet laureate of Philadelphia, Yolanda Wisher, is seeking to revamp this association and honor the legacies of those often-overlooked black Beats, such as Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez and Ted Jones. Hosted at one of the city’s most esteemed literary locations, The Rosenbach, guests are welcomed to enjoy live music and poetry readings to revive the antiquated 20’s tradition of the rent party. Tickets $25, 2006 Delancey Place, 215.732.1600, rosenbach.org

20 Years of Recognition in 2020: Joan Shepp’s Women of Substance & Style, 2/19

Marking the 20th anniversary of this annual event, the Women of Substance and Style fundraiser has honored over 400 African American women across the city for their exceptional efforts in community advocacy. The event was started by avant-garde fashionista and business owner, Joan Shepp, along with the manager/buyer of the iconic shop, Tuesday Gordon, in order to recognize these empowered women and also donate money to a different charity organization each year. This year, all proceeds are going to “Stoney Kids,” a fund started by Gordon for the children of her friend, Erwena Rebecca Stone. From 5 to 8 p.m., guests are invited to party in style-—and for a good cause. Free admission, 1811 Chestnut St., 215.735.2666, joanshepp.com

Family-Friendly Events at the African American History Museum, 2/20 & 2/23

Philadelphia’s African American History Museum has preserved the integrity and accomplishments of the black community since 1976. This month, they are devoting a range of family-friendly events to honor this month’s celebration of culture. Although there’s already been some events over the past two weeks, there’s still more left to enjoy. On Feb. 20th from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m., the museum is honoring the 15th Amendment through discussions and meditations on black masculinity in the modern age. Lastly, on Feb. 23rd from 1 to 3 p.m., there is a collaboration with Moonstone Arts Center and Scribe Video Center to pay homage to the literary achievements of Nobel Prize-winning novelist and essayist, Toni Morrison. Tickets $5, 701 Arch St., 215.574.0380, aampmuseum.org

Ladies Night Out: Comedy Tour, 2/22

Although comedy has become increasingly more diverse over the past twenty years with the inclusion of mainstream African American male comedians, such as Kevin Hart, Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy, there are still many strides left to be made. This comedy tour highlights the contributions made by black women in the comedy community. Hosted by Nene Leakes, veteran performers, such as Loni Love of The Real and comedian/actress Adele Givens, are headlining this show at The Met along with Sherri Shepherd, Kym Whitley and B. Simone. From 6:30 to 8:00 p.m., be prepared to laugh without a break to breathe. Tickets from $59.50, 858 N. Broad St., 800.653.8000, themetphilly.com

Sundays on Stage: Freedom Stories by TAHIRA, 2/23

Held at the gorgeous Parkway Central Library, expressive storyteller TAHIRA is reciting narratives of liberation and struggle titled “Freedom Stories” at 2 p.m. The event aims to preserve the heritage of the valiant men and women that memorialized their fight for freedom in stories and songs. One such song is “John the Rabbit.” It’s filled with encrypted messages about following the Underground Railroad, yet disguised as a frivolous children’s song. Free, 1901 Vine St., 215.686.5322, freelibrary.org



Photography by: Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images / Somerstein 1965 Archive Photos