BITS Summer Program 2008 is underway throughout the month of July. This year we are providing students with research and field experiences and information technology skills in mapping historic markers related to the African American experience in Philadelphia.
Charles L. Blockson, founder of the Blockson Afro-American Collection housed at Temple University's Paley Library has met with BITS students every summer for the past four years to instill in them an understanding of the importance of learning about the relationship between primary sources of information and analyzing the racial, cultural, and geographic histories of Philadelphia and beyond. Over 200 BITS Students have had the opportunity to examine first edition volumes of major works by African American authors, documents related to the historical underpinnings of the institution of slavery that are hundreds of years old, photos taken by John Mosely depicting nationally prominent African Americans, archives from the nation's largest collection of Underground Railroad documents, and the focus of our theme this year - one of Blockson's books depicting the locations and descriptions of historical markers related to African Americans throughout Philadelphia. It is called: Philadelphia's Guide: African-American State Historical Markers (1992). He has been gracious to donate this and other volumes of his work to ITSRG and the BITS Program.
Students are shown visiting the collection and interacting with Mr. Blockson on Thursday, July 11, 2008 here:
This summer, our students are focused on creating web-interactive maps of the entire marker collection documented by Dr. Blockson. Dr. Blockson has spent a great deal of time helping our students to understand the politics of marking by sharing some of the stories related to how and why specific settings are ultimately chosen to receive an official state historical marker. They have found that there is no single consolidated listing of markers, since more than one institution has programs to place markers at historical sites. And, since the various marker programs do not create meta-tags denoting categories for inclusion, it is difficult to search for maps of markers online. Here is the map one of our students, Hazreena Ali, has created drawing from Mr. Blockson's book detailing sites related to African American history designated by the State of Pennsylvania to be of interest within Philadelphia.
One interesting example of a setting that has been given a state historic marker is the Legendary Blue Horizon, located on North Broad Street, just a few blocks from Temple University's Main Campus. Many of the greatest boxers of the last century have fought and trained at the Blue Horizon. Surprisingly little information about it is found online, and even less is noted on the marker outside. Our approach for providing students with an understanding of its historical and cultural significance within the African American community of Philadelphia and beyond has been to visit, photo-document, and map the location during the past four years. Through this process, our students have come to understand that it is a living legacy that continues to host world-renowned boxing events, and that its owners are striving to compile archives of its historical significance and share them with the public. Newspaper clippings are framed behind the venue manager's desk, shown here in a photo taken by students in the BITS Program during the summer of 2006.
One block away is Progress Plaza, another site with important significance in the African American experience in Philadelphia and the nation. It is the oldest black-owned and developed shopping center in the country. It is currently in the process of being renovated. The renovation will feature the return of a neighborhood grocery store after a decade without one. The issues of local food security and economic development have been themes for the BITS Program during the past four years. Students have learned that these two issues are closely intertwined. They have visited and photo-documented this site, tracking the progression of change related to the renovation. No historical marker notes the significance of Progress Plaza for the local community or larger national audience. Students have discussed this issue with Mr. Blockson and BITS mentors as they learn about the process by which some sites gain distinction while other important sites are less noticed.
The facade and ambiance of the Legendary Blue Horizon are distinctive in many ways. Fancy grill work, well maintained brownstones, and a famous mural on the northern exterior wall all say "historically significant" to passersby. In contrast, Progress Plaza is denoted with a well worn, wooden sign. It is famous locally for the rapid rate at which cars unauthorized to park in the lot are towed. And, the slow transformation of the site is on the minds and in the conversation of locals eager for the new grocery store set to open its doors this fall. Yet, the continued presence of Progress Plaza in the neighborhood is vital to its economic stability, anchoring it to the massive investments that are being made in public-private partnerships along what is known locally as Avenue of the Arts North.
Our students have had the opportunity to gain a front row seat to the tensions between neighborhood transformation and historical preservation at work in our community of North Philadelphia. Through the basic geographic research tasks of field observations, mapping historically significant settings, and photo-documentation they have gained an opportunity to see their local community through different lenses.