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

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

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

Using Elder Stories to Understand the Continuity of History

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

The African, Caribbean and African American Cultural Connection

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

Kids Love Stories

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

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

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

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

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

From Cornrow Village to Corporate City I

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

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

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