Bringing black history home

South Philadelphia Branch 1965 Opening Day ceremonies

When Veronica Britto was a student at Cheltenham High School in the early 1990s studying American History, she lived in La Mott, PA – a major hub of Underground Railroad activity (hence the town’s namesake – Lucretia Mott). La Mott was also a training site for black soldiers in the American Civil War. Britto was actually quite versed in black history and when she and some students in her history class asked their teacher if he had any special projects or speakers lined up for Black History Month, the answer caught her off guard.

“‘I don’t believe in Black History Month,’” she remembers, her teacher’s response. “To hear that from a teacher was heart-wrenching. Kids from the class who weren’t black were surprised, too. I was glad back then to have the library to go to and do my own research and read biographies about Carter G. Woodson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Or what happened in Selma and those four little girls or Juneteenth [Independence Day/Freedom Day].”

Britto’s a Mt. Airy resident who oversees a cluster of central library branches that include libraries in Port Richmond, Fishtown, Rittenhouse Square, Old City, and the Parkway Central branch. She was able to articulate Black History Month’s importance and suggest that libraries are excellent ways to connect communities with historical programming and resources at every South Philadelphian’s fingertips with a library card.

“Some of what I find really exciting is happening down in South Philadelphia on Snyder Avenue,” she said, referring to the Whitman branch weekend matinee series.

The site will screen “Selma” at 2 p.m. Feb. 21 and “The Watsons Go To Birmingham” 2 p.m. Feb. 27. The latter is “a story about Kenny and his family and it so happens that [when they visit] Birmingham that a lot of things are going on in 1963.” It’s a book she’s read with her nieces as a way of introducing black history.

And there’s a lot more going on throughout the city: “Mysterious Travels with William ‘Wali’ Bickley” brings a globally-known jazz musician to Parkway Central 7 p.m. Feb. 22, a collaborative effort with the Philadelphia Jazz Project; “A Taste of African Heritage” is a cooking class that focuses on some of Africa’s healthiest foods (kale, sweet potato, okra) at the Parkway Central branch 6 p.m. Feb. 23; and “Historical Threads” explores quilting and its place in the Underground Railroad at the Bushrod Branch, 6304 Castor Ave. 4 p.m. Feb. 25.

That’s not even the tip of the iceberg – there are digital resources that would frankly shock some Philadelphians. Learn Swahili. Find music from the African American Song Collection. Participate in the One Book, One Philadelphia project by reading Charles Frazier’s 1997 historical novel, “Cold Mountain,” or the companion piece “12 Years A Slave,” the autobiography of free-then-captured-slave Solomon Northup.

Britto was surprised when her mother told her that, growing up in Newark, N.J., she had to sit upstairs in the second floor of the theater because it was segregated.

“There’s a disconnect in our culture today – we don’t realize it was our mothers, fathers, and grandparents that went through it and so that everyone can hear it, we have to keep telling their stories. It’s important that we celebrate Black History Month. Why wouldn’t you want to learn these things?” she asks. “It’s really exciting and I think it’s wonderful to celebrate all cultures.”

Woodson founded Black History Month as Negro History Week in 1926, and it was connected to the week that Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born – Feb. 12 and 14, accordingly.

In Philadelphia, a 23-years-young writer and Temple graduate, Sofiya Ballin, is giving a fresh coat of paint to the Black History Month tradition. She has initiated and curated a series called “Black History: What I Wish I Knew,” an identity series that asked 33 prominent black Philadelphians what they wish they knew about black history as a youth. It’s been a hit.

“A lot of black people feel like they get a dual education – you learn one history [in school] and then you go home and get another history,” Ballin said. “Not everyone has that. When you don’t have that at home or in your community, is the responsibility on schools to teach your history?”

She remembers a friend from school who said she’d had a teacher tell her that “slavery wasn’t that bad” and it made her internalize her black identity – “like it was our rightful place to be under the thumb of a white person or inferior.” Ballin has since researched African history and knows they had kingdoms, empires, success, breakthroughs in math and science, and said “I wish I would have known these things, then I wouldn’t have hated my skin color or my hair.”

One recent profile subject, Phil Freelon, is an award-winning architect. He told her “I’m following in Juilan Abele’s footsteps,” the legendary black architect who designed the Art Museum. His namesake park sits at 22nd and Catharine streets in the Graduate Hospital area.

Ballin recommends Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between The World And Me” and Walter Rodney’s ’72 book, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.” She recommends films like the documentary “Let The Fire Burn” about the ’85 bombing of the MOVE compound in West Philly and the recent Netflix documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” “She lost a lot for the sake of voicing her opinion,” Ballin says of singer Nina Simone.

Ida B. Wells, though, is her true hero.

“She was a black woman writing about voting rights and an activist, and she was fearless,” Ballin said. “I’m trying to be her.”

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at or ext. 117. Comment at

Charles Santore/Southwark Branch 1963 dedication

Free Library of Philadelphia

Former branch at Broad and Federal streets

Free Library of Philadelphia

South Philadelphia Branch 1965 Opening Day ceremonies

Free Library of Philadelphia