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From West Africa to West Philadelphia

Seminar Leader:
Mary T. Hufford


Since the colonial period, Philadelphia has been home to communities with African ethnic and cultural roots. Indeed, Philadelphia continues to be a significant port-of-call in the African Diaspora, a vital threshold to that modern political and counter-cultural formation that Paul Gilroy calls “the Black Atlantic.” Throughout the metropolitan area and surrounding Delaware Valley we found touchstones to every stage in the still unfolding history of the Black Atlantic: from Congo Square (now Washington Square) to well-known stations on the Underground Railroad; from Merion Cemetery to the displaced graves of Mt. Olivet; from the theater districts of North Broad Street and West Philadelphia’s Fifty Second Street, to the West African and West India ethnoscapes – restaurants, churches, community gardens, hair braiding salons, and markets – that are transforming the spaces of Woodland and Lancaster Avenues today.

In the last three decades of the twentieth century, African American neighborhoods of West Philadelphia, settled by descendants of slaves who migrated from the south to find work, have begun absorbing thousands of West Indian and African immigrants. The languages, dress, religious practices, foodways, and cultural styles of African ethnic groups are as distinctive as those of European or Asian ethnic groups, but the historical and cultural reasons for distinctions – and similarities – are not well understood. Teachers in this seminar conducted fieldwork exercises among their students as well as extensive research on cultures of the Black Atlantic to develop a framework that would heighten the relevance of standard curricula for students of diverse backgrounds while ameliorating ethnic tensions that have led to physical violence in recent years.

Through readings, field assignments, and class discussions, teachers in this seminar explored three premises: 1) the idea of the Black Atlantic offers a historical and theoretical framework for identifying and building upon expressions of a shared African cultural aesthetic among students in West Philadelphia schools; 2) as a portal on the Black Atlantic, West Philadelphia is possessed of living, African-based vernaculars of language, music, dance, food, visual arts, healing, dress, and bodily style; and 3) these African-based vernaculars form a threshold to the history of the Black Atlantic, and a means of understanding cultural similarities and differences that are subtended by shared aesthetic, social, and spiritual values.

Unit TitleAuthor


Love to Tell the Story: West African Expressions Come to West Philadelphia

Bonnee Breese
Keywords: African people, cross-cultural understanding, cultural and historical backgrounds, discover and explore, dismantle stigmas and stereotypes, English Language Arts, oral storytelling, Overbrook neighborhoods of West Philadelphia, storytelling, written storytelling

Sew Me a Story: African and African American “Quilt Lore”

Kelly Graham
Keywords: African American History, American History, elementary school, human experience, quilt, Quilt Lore, quilting, stories and designs, storytelling

Using Elder Stories to Understand the Continuity of History

Meagan C. McGowan
Keywords: broader historical narratives, folk lore, folk lorists, local resources, make history relevant, Reading, stories of elders

The African, Caribbean and African American Cultural Connection

Keysiah M. Middleton
Keywords: aesthetic values, African, African American, Black Atlantic, connect to Africa, cultural expression, dance, Food, interlinked groups, language, Music, pride, shared African background, shared awareness

Kids Love Stories

Nan Richmond
Keywords: attitudes towards young and old people, celebrations, community culture, evaluate, folktales, games, heroes, interactional routines, language arts, language of origin, local settings, problem solving, relating to life, retelling, social studies, Technology, values

Philadelphia Stories: African Transitions from West Africa to Philadelphia as a Means to Study Oral Histories

Stephanie R. Wicks
Keywords: African American History, African immigrants in Philadelphia, English, ethnography, historical research, historiography, learn content through oral history, learning history, love of history, love of learning, oral history project, story time, storytelling

Folktales: Trickster Stories Across Time – From African Ancestors to African American Rappers

Wilda Hayward
Keywords: African, African American, African Diaspora, African folktales, anthropology, ESOL, folktales, hip-hop, legacy, Middle Passage, rap, trickster stories, West African storytellers

From Cornrow Village to Corporate City I

Valerie A. Quarterman
Keywords: African American culture, African American History

From Cornrow Village to Corporate City II Culturally-Based Classroom Guidance for Transitioning High School Students

Karon S. Waters
Keywords: African American History, High School

Crossing Borders and Crossing Time: A Tableau of African Immigration and Migration in America

Stacia D. Parker
Keywords: African Americans, Africans, West Philadelphia