Since the late 19th century, Philadelphia has been known as the city of homes, a relatively affordable place one can fill with family and memories. Up the steps and staircases of many a black Philadelphia house, one can find something familiar, whether it’s an Annie Lee painting, glittered popcorn ceilings, or portraits of relatives arranged in a constellation.
Philadelphia has the highest percentage of black owner-occupied homes among the nation’s 10 largest cities. According to an Inquirer and Daily News analysis of census data, black homeowners live in 39 percent of Philadelphia’s housing units, nearly twice the rate of the next-highest city, Chicago, and far greater than the national rate of 8 percent.
Over the course of Black History Month in February, the Inquirer and Daily News explored different aspects of black aesthetics. Style like this, one could say, begins at home.
Four native Philadelphians of various generations shared what they cherished most about black homes in this city: Joseph Blake, founder of the Blue Bell-based Trestle Communications and an art collector; Syreeta Scott, celebrity hairstylist, founder of Duafe Holistic Hair Care, and cofounder of the retail boutique the Sable Collective in North Philadelphia; Rasheeda Gray, principal at Gray Space Interior Design in Cheltenham; and Deborah Willis, MacArthur genius and department chair of photography and imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Here are their thoughts and memories.
Rooms with meaning
Syreeta Scott, 43: Growing up in the ’70s, everybody had a club in the basement of their house. There was the bar, the black lights, everything. Oh, my God. It was bopping time. There was the after-the-party Marvin Gaye. There was Otis Redding. For [my cousins], there was Rick James and Teena Marie. There was James Brown and the Supremes. They came so decked out. Sometimes it wasn’t just dancing. It was a social club.
Deborah Willis, 70 (her exhibit, “Went Looking for Beauty: Refashioning Self,” is now at the African American Museum in Philadelphia): I believe the kitchen is one of the most creative spaces in our home. People create art and have conversations in the kitchen. They create different types of dishes. They do homework. They do hair.
Whenever I travel, wherever I go, the kitchen is this public-private space that has a warm environment that helps to contextualize a visit.
In terms of black interiority, it’s just a space that I consider the active creative space for black people. Their arguments, their tough conversations, their political discussions — there are a lot of things happening in that. It’s not only a creative, but emancipating, space for people.
[Our kitchen] was medium-sized. It had a window. It had a back door to the yard. Enough room for five people to sit around the table.
When I grew up, we didn’t have dishwashers. We were the dishwashers. … My sisters and I, when we did dishes, we sang.
Art and literature
Joe Blake, 62: We didn’t have a lot of art, because when I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of black artists around that we knew about or that we could collect. On the other hand, we had books of poetry by Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and that kind of thing, which gave you a different kind of visual. So almost every black family I knew had those books [by Harlem Renaissance authors], and they were sacred.
Scott: What I found in every brown person’s home in the '70s was white Jesus. It was a picture of white Jesus along with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and President John F. Kennedy.
Blake: Until guys like Jonathan Pinkett came along and other contemporary artists, there wasn’t much out there until the ’60s. [Then] everything changed. You had the movement where people couldn’t get enough of art.
Scott: I used to love going over to my Aunt Evelyn’s house, and she had nasty — it was nasty at the time, I get it now — crushed-velvet artwork. I mean, that was in the ’70s, so you had the naked woman with the Afro, and she had the black panther beside her.
Rasheeda Gray, 35: All I remember in my home and friends’ parents’ homes was black art everywhere. There would be images of women who were the silhouette of dancers, with maybe African print as the dance attire, or with the woman carrying a basket-type silhouette.
Old vs. new
Blake: This morning I drove through a community [in North Philadelphia] that I grew up in. I don’t recognize it anymore. A lot of fond memories, I can’t even recall them because the buildings are not there. Every rowhome, every block had a distinctive flavor. [New construction now is] like Las Vegas. It’s fake. Gentrification has pretty much just wiped out vast swaths of this urban culture that I grew up under. And I collect art because I know that at some point, these things are not going to exist.
Scott: Once you started understanding more about your history, in my opinion, the more you could really walk in a room and stand firm that you know who you are.
So for me, that’s how I decorate my home. … It helps me have a learning tool for my children, where they’re able to point at something, and I can give them the history, and tell them where it was from, and they know that this world they’re living in is much bigger than just the four walls they’re living in.
In my bathroom, I have a sign that says “no whites allowed,” which is American history and a reminder of the ignorance. My daughter asked, “Why can’t white people go to the bathroom there?” And I said, “That’s not why I put that sign there.” And it allowed me to reach back and teach the history.
Scott: Depending upon what the weather was, if it was raining or what have you … my grandmother would pull out the plastic rug liner to go around her home.
Blake: My mother was very much into doilies, and into lace white patterns, where there was tablecloth, or whether it was something on the armchair. Whatever it was, you knew when that lace tablecloth came out, something important was about to happen.
Gray: I just remember in our china cabinet. … We spent some time growing up in North Carolina. That’s where my father’s family is from. I just remember there being things that referenced that.
My mom met Mayor John Street, so there was a picture of that in there. Our prom pictures were in the china cabinet. Even programs from prom, you know that kind of thing. So, really, life’s moments were captured in that china cabinet.
Scott: My mom being a single mother, we didn’t have the best of the best. The plastic on the couch was so that she did not have to worry in the next couple years that she would have to buy another one. It was to preserve. … But she invested the money for me to go to private school from pre-K to 12.
Blake: There were two chairs in my living room, and these two chairs were taken from the pulpit of my old church [Vine Memorial Baptist Church]. They had been in that pulpit for maybe, God, got to be about 60 or 70 years. And just wooden chairs, maple chairs, very nicely done, very nicely made. And they were going to throw them in the trash, because they were getting a modern pulpit. And I’m like, “Well, you know you can’t do that!”
Gray: I grew up in a working-class family. … We didn’t always have brand-new items in our home, but we always reused items in different ways to make the most of them. That influences me in my design style.
A lot of times people say, “I want everything new.” Completely fine. But when I enter someone’s home, I look for those treasures that can be reused in a different way or laid in a different way that may feel new to them.