It’s Black History Month and in Philadelphia, that means you have a wealth of options to soak up some Black history. John Coltrane, Paul Robeson and Billie Holiday all once lived in the city and Richard Allen founded the Mother Bethel African Methodist Church there, one of the nation’s oldest African-American churches. Another thing you can count on in Philadelphia is good food. And if you want to give your business to a Black-owned restaurant, there are some great choices. Eating is akin to religion in the East Coast city of over 1.5 million people, 44.2% of whom happen to be African-American (and there is quite a large African as well as an American Muslim and Arab Muslim population as well).
Among the great culinary choices, including a restaurant owned by the first African-American Top Chef winner, are a few off-the-beaten track examples and some of Philadelphia’s great music history. Sadly, though, both Sigma sound, the recording studio where some of Philly’s greatest hits were recorded and Gamble and Huff ‘s Philadelphia International Records have both been demolished. However, the historical markers (common around Philadelphia) designate the places they once existed.
Here’s a list of some of the Black history worth checking out in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia’s Bynum brothers (Robert and Benjamin) have been a staple in the restaurant community for over two decades. Not only are they known for their Southern-style food offerings and service, they are known for incorporating live jazz music into most of their spots. Warmdaddy’s is great for an after-movie drink as they are in close proximity to the United Artists Riverview Theater, Paris Bistro is an upscale neighborhood restaurant in Philly’s diverse but heavily Black upper middle class Mt. Airy neighborhood and South, (pictured) their latest, is part of the newly developing North Broad Street area. The brothers also own Green Soul and Relish, also in Mt. Airy well known for their magically delicious 40 ft. All-You-Can-Eat buffet on Saturday and Sundays.
The winner of Top Chef Season 7, owns several restaurants. The one in Philadelphia, The Fat Ham, opened in 2013 and is in the city’s revitalized University City section near University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. It offers up a modern soul food cuisine, billed as Southern small plates cooking. Yelp and Google consistently give it high ranks and Zagat says its one of the best places in Philly for a mint julep.
One of the city’s best known soul food restaurants, Miss Tootsie’s is the brainchild of owner Keven Parker who named it after his mother Joyce “Tootsie” Parker who died of pancreatic cancer in 2011. Parker also has a smaller, takeout space in the historic Reading Terminal building, close to the Pennsylvania Convention Center. After the demise of popular soul food spot Bluezette’s Parker’s place has become the #1 casual sit-down soul food spot in Philly and is well known for its stellar mac and cheese, flavored tea and cornbread muffins.
Other Spots Of Interest:
Mother Bethel AME Church:
One of the oldest churches in America, the Mother Bethel AME Church was founded by Richard Allen, a bishop and abolitionist who was one of the leading figures in Black America in his time. He founded the church after becoming a pastor at a Methodist church in Philadelphia but was forced to preach segregated services. He and another Methodist preacher Absalom Jones, with William Gray and William Wilcher found the space to build a church which is the oldest piece of land continuously owned by African-Americans in the U.S. Jones stayed in the Episcopalian church eventually building his own church, but Mother Bethel has remained on the same spot since 1794.
Both the actor/scholar/athlete Paul Robeson and jazz pioneer John Coltrane once lived in Philadelphia. Robeson lived out his final years in West Philadelphia and Coltrane lived in the city’s now blighted Strawberry Mansion district. Coltrane lived at the house during the release of his first three albums and his mother remained in it even after his move to New York City. The house hosts several events and workshops, and sells some merchandise including T-shirts and posters. For information click HERE.
The Paul Robeson house in West Philadelphia showcases the life of the Renaissance man who was an actor, singer, scholar and activist. He lived out the last years of his life in Philadelphia and the house preserves the history of his last years. Robeson was hampered by persecution and then ill health in his later years but still remains a towering figure of Black history. You can check out info on scheduling visits to his home HERE.
Father Divine and his International Peace Mission lasted for about 50 years until his death in 1965. It remains one of the most sincere religious movements in the country, without a breath of scandal as Divine lived as he preached. He believed in racial harmony and a strict lifestyle that included no drinking, no smoking and no undue mixing of the sexes. For many of those years, Father Divine operated the Divine Lorraine, a hotel that towered above the intersection where Broad and Fairmont streets meet in North Philadelphia.
The 10-story 300 room hotel housed his followers who adhered to a strict code of dress and conduct where even married people could not cohabitate. The hotel closed in 1990 and remained a abandoned relic of the past, but the property is now being renovated. Divine’s personal residence was a mansion in where he lived with his second wife, Mother Divine. Called Woodmont, the national historic landmark is in the Gladwyne suburb of Philadelphia and you can tour if for free, from April to October every Sunday from 1 – 5 p.m.
But in order to visit, you must follow Divine’s restrictions – no smoking, no drinking, no vulgarity, no undue mixing of the sexes and men and women must wear sleeves and women should visit in a dress or skirt.
(Photos: Zagat, Visit Philly, International Peace Mission, Kevin Spraga, Brownstone PR)