Philadelphia recognizes its distinct African-American cultural heritage through this year's celebration of Black History Month. (Photo credits clockwise from top left by M. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia; M. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia; J. Ramsdale for Mural Arts Program; courtesy The Barnes Foundation)
Since Philadelphia’s earliest days, African-American culture has played an influential role in shaping the city’s personality.
This February, Philadelphia celebrates that heritage and Black History Month with special events, exhibitions, film screenings and other activities.
Locals and visitors can join members of the esteemed Tiberino family of artists on guided tours of The Unflinching Eye: Works of the Tiberino Family Circle at The African American Museum in Philadelphia, catch the Tony Award-winning classic Porgy and Bess at the Academy of Music or explore the path to Civil Rights at the National Constitution Center.
Below, we offer our highlights of Philadelphia’s Black History Month celebrations.
Museums & Attractions
• African American Museum in Philadelphia: All month long, The African American Museum in Philadelphia in Old City buzzes with activity. Events kick off with a screening and discussion of documentary The Contradictions of Fair Hope on Saturday, February 1, a work produced by S. Epatha Merkerson (of Law & Order fame) and Rockell Metcalf, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg and accompanied by a Christian McBride score. On Saturday, February 8, Zulu native Godfrey Sithole invites people to Step Into South Africa! with a program that delves into South African languages, music, religions and rites of passage. Through Saturday, February 22, guests get an intimate look at the museum’s current art exhibition, The Unflinching Eye: Works of the Tiberino Family Circle, through gallery tours led by members of the Tiberino family and a mural workshop for children.
• Penn Museum: At the Penn Museum in University City, visitors can explore the African Diaspora. The special exhibition Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster presents 33 posters, most targeting Africans and African-American civilians in times of war, and is on view through March 2. Plus, the annual Celebration of African Cultures features storytelling, family crafts and dance and music performances and workshops on Saturday, February 8. The Penn Museum’s permanent African Gallery and Ancient Egypt Galleries round out the February draws.
• National Constitution Center: At the National Constitution Center, visitors can pick up a special “African-American History Month” guide outlining daily events and activities and artifacts related to African-American history or the struggles African Americans have faced to gain equality as citizens. Highlights include Decoding the Document, a workshop that examines the museum’s own rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln, and the interactive Breaking Barriers show, spotlighting the lives of Thurgood Marshall, Bessie Coleman, Jackie Robinson and other barrier-breaking African-Americans.
• The Barnes Foundation: On view now through April 21, The Barnes Foundation’s exhibition of sculptural works by British artist Yinka Shobinare summons the artist’s Nigerian heritage. Featuring life-size mannequins dressed in the fabrics and textiles associated with Africa, Yinka Shobinare MBE: Magic Ladders is a dramatic, playful and irreverent examination of identity, history and politics.
• Mood Indigo: A Harlem Renaissance Retrospective: Dandy Wellington and His Band amp up the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s cool factor on Friday, February 7 with Mood Indigo: A Harlem Renaissance Retrospective, featuring compositions by Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and others. Part of the museum’s weekly series Art After 5, the program invites guests to take in musical and visual arts together, plus enjoy drinks, snacks and a laid-back vibe.
• The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess: Winner of the 2012 Tony Award for “Best Revival of a Musical,” The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess comes to the Academy of Music February 18-23. The stunning production includes legendary songs Summertime and It Ain’t Necessarily So, plus other classic tunes.
• Philadanco: Philadanco teams up with The Philadelphia Orchestra on Friday, February 28 to present Poulenc’s Aubade, the tale of mythological Diana’s struggles between passion and loneliness. The internationally acclaimed dance troupe brings contemporary stylings to the classical piece at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
• Ladysmith Black Mambazo: On Friday, January 31, the dynamic Grammy Award-winning musical troupe Ladysmith Black Mambazo visits the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts for a one-night-only concert event. Known as the “kings of South African a cappella,” Ladysmith Black Mambazo draws from traditional music called isicathamiya, and combines those rhythms with dynamic modern beats and song.
More Black History Month events, below.
• Soweto Gospel Choir: In an amazing fusion of South African gospel, reggae and pop, Grammy Award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir has toured around the world with its thrilling and soul stirring performance. On Sunday, February 16, see the passionate performers at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in University City.
• Healing African Dance: Led by choreographer and former Fulbright Scholar Angela Watson, Healing African Dance at Bucks County’s Mercer Museum on Sunday, February 23 uncovers the role of dance in various events in African life — from births and naming ceremonies to weddings and death. The program includes a discussion, a display of instruments from the museum’s collection, video and, of course, dance demonstrations.
• Philadelphia Freedom Festival: For seven months, the Philadelphia Freedom Festival celebrates Black History with a number of performances, discussions, workshops and more. The festival celebrates the life and legacy of one of Philadelphia’s own Civil Rights leaders, Octavius V. Catto. From a community concert featuring sacred music and praise dancers to a children’s concert, there’s a ton going on through July 28. Click here for the full rundown of events.
Film, Talks & More
• Free Library of Philadelphia: Throughout Black History Month at various library locations, the Free Library of Philadelphia’s calendar is packed with creative writing workshops, scavenger hunts, film matinees, storytelling, trivia games and other activities for all ages.
• Independence National Historical Park: Among the ongoing activities this February at Independence National Historical Park: 30-minute, ranger-led programs on The Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, taking place every Saturday and Sunday in the Second Bank’s Portrait Gallery; a wreath-laying ceremony at the Liberty Bell marking National Freedom Day, when President Lincoln signed a resolution from Congress that proposed the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery; and ongoing programming at The President’s House, the commemorative site where the first president and nine enslaved Africans lived.
• Historic Philadelphia: The weekend of February 15-17, inside the Historic Philadelphia Center, Once Upon A Nation storytellers regale visitors with riveting stories about African-Americans who played a role in America’s history, including Octavius Catto, one of the nation’s most renowned and earliest Civil Rights activists.
• Examining Philadelphia’s Opportunity Gap with Erika M. Kitzmiller at Stenton: Stenton in Germantown hosts an informative look at the history, and current standing, of the School District of Philadelphia on February 15 at 1 p.m. At the discussion, learn how the School District has affected the African American community over the years.
• Philadelphia Museum of Art and Radio One: The Philadelphia Museum of Art and Radio One are teaming up on Wednesday, February 26 to present a panel discussion titled Philadelphia: Brotherly Love & Sisterly Affection Contributors to the Cultural Landscape of Our City. Radio personality Dyana Williams and State Senator Vincent Hughes lead the event, and a reception will follow.
• Mighty Writers and WHYY: In Philadelphia, the strong history of pioneering African-American disc jockeys will be aired thanks to Mighty Writers and WHYY. Tune in to hear Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio air on WHYY on Sunday, February 16, at 6pm, and on Saturday, February 22, at 2 p.m.
• Seeking Closeness to Our Ancestors through the Yoruba Tradition at Awbury Arboretum: Awbury Arboretum in Germantown presents an afternoon of lessons about the Yoruba religion on February 8 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The Yoruba religion came to America via the slave trade and is thought to be as old as Christianity. The session is open to folks of all regions and is slated to teach attendees how to deal with death and communicate with ancestors. Registration is $15 per person, click here to register.
• Cliveden Conversations: On February 20 and 27, the Cliveden hosts evening conversations centering around Black History Month. On February 20, join Rev. Dr. Mark Kelly Tyler, Pastor of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and on February 27, join Dr. George McDaniel, director of Drayton Hall in South Carolina.