Walking down the gravel sidewalks of the Seventh Ward, passersby are struck by what appears to be an inexplicable coalescence of past and present. At 538 Lombard Street, individuals marvel at the sight of Mrs. Doris Way passing by Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1973 and others swear to have seen Nat “King” Cole performing a piano jazz medley at 510 South Broad Street.

From alleged sightings at 915 Bainbridge Street of the 1865 Philadelphia Pythians, one of the earliest Black baseball clubs, to a gathering of Raymond Smith’s 1945 Dra Mu Opera Company at 1524 South Street, the neighborhood’s residents find themselves transported to a different era. The Seventh Ward, in between Rittenhouse and Society Hill, immerses them in the heart of the community’s rich cultural history.

Bridging the gap between the past and the present, Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward Tribute Project embraces visual art as a powerful tool for storytelling, designing outdoor art installations across the area. 

Spearheaded by The Philadelphia City Archives, Little Giant Creative, and Mural Arts Philadelphia in collaboration with the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, the project recruited artists from across Philadelphia to create innovative, contemporary art pieces that illuminated the Seventh Ward’s rich cultural history.

From October to February, the tribute featured youth educational sessions, self–guided walking tours, and curated panel discussions dedicated to bolstering public awareness of the Seventh Ward’s historical significance in the development of Philadelphia's broader Black community. Through each art piece, the public has the opportunity to gain insight into the different aspects of the Seventh Ward’s neglected history as well as bolster their knowledge of the persisting marginalization of Black communities in Philadelphia.

Working with the Seventh Ward Tribute Project to excavate the community’s powerful history, artists Amelia Carter and Beth Naomi Lewis created an art piece entitled “Reflecting Revenants: Recalling Black Life in the Seventh Ward.” A compilation of vinyl decals and banners, the piece layers archival photographs of 20th century Black residents with current images of the Seventh Ward, creating an immersive experience that appears to transcend the confines of time.

Carter and Lewis’ piece reflects the project’s aim to shed light on the Seventh Ward’s neglected Black history. The tribute worked in collaboration with a variety of prominent organizations in Philadelphia to develop the vision for the project and fund the artistic installations.

Believing in the potential of the tribute to spur artistic innovation from a vast array of local artists, Megan Wendell, the Chief Communications Officer for the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, partnered with the project to offer them the financial support needed to develop their vision.

“A panel of professionals who were chosen for their expertise in the arts and culture sector reviewed the application and agreed that the proposed project was worthy of funding and would contribute to the Philadelphia region’s civic life and artistic vitality,” Wendell said.

The Seventh Ward once boasted the greatest African American population of any northern city; however, the once vibrant, Black neighborhood is now primarily composed of middle class white residents, rendering its former Black community a repressed vestige of the past.

During the Great Migration of the 19th and 20th century, the Seventh Ward experienced an unprecipitated influx of African American individuals who harbored a vehement desire to escape relentless persecution in the South. As the migration cultivated a close knit community of Black residents who were connected by their yearning for equality and autonomy, the Seventh Ward became a safe haven, free from the barbarous racism that had continued to pervade society.

Beyond its status as a sanctuary for Black individuals, the Seventh Ward was further renowned for its historical contributions. The neighborhood was home to Civil Rights activists, Octavius Catto and Fanny Jackson Coppin, philanthropist Theodore Starr, hospital director Nathan Mossell, and minister Richard Allen.

Allen founded the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Seventh Ward, and his legacy as a prominent religious leader in the community has continued to have broader implications for the African American religious identity across the United States.

Most notably, the neighborhood was part of W.E.B. DuBois’ case study in “The Philadelphia Negro.” Published in 1899, “The Philadelphia Negro” was a sociological and epidemiological study commissioned by Penn that explored social issues entrenched within African American communities within Philadelphia. Considered a classic work of social science literature, the study marks the emergence of the Seventh Ward as a prominent Black hub of culture and community.

When migration patterns and gentrification shifted to displace the Seventh Ward’s Black residents through coordinated disenfranchisement, the community’s cultural diaspora fell into obscurity, rendering its rich history a neglected fragment of the past.

Projected on building surfaces across the Ward, “Reflecting Revenants” offers introspective insight into the close knit dynamics of the community’s Black residents of the community, while emphasizing the palpable absence of their vibrant memory in modern society.

The piece includes images collected from the Philadelphia City Archives, the Free Library of Philadelphia, Charles L. Blockson Afro American Collection and Special Collections Research Center at Temple University Libraries, Cheyney University, and the Philadelphia Library Company.

“All of those neighborhoods now are some of the wealthiest and most expensive parts of the city to live in,” Carter said. “You wouldn’t know that for more than a hundred years, all of those neighborhoods had one third Black residents from all economic backgrounds. We wanted to make visible the invisible Black history within the Ward.”

Both Carter and Lewis wanted to employ residential store fronts as a means to place past residents of the Ward into its modern setting and bridge the community’s historical gap. However, they faced logistical challenges that barred them from placing certain images in specific locations, making it difficult to consolidate their initial plan for their piece.

Nevertheless, the greatest challenge each artist confronted was tackling the immense volume of material given to them by the Philadelphia Archives. 

With an expansive amount of content available in the archives, Carter and Lewis struggled to narrow their piece down to a specific visual story. 

“It was like losing babies—I got so attached to this one image or I really wanted another image to work here or there. Going through these challenges taught me a lot about curation and why it is such a specific skill set.”

In spite of the difficulties they encountered throughout the development of their piece, Carter and Lewis felt that their involvement in the Seventh Ward Tribute gave them an opportunity to delve deeper into widely obscured facets of Philadelphia’s history and broaden their perception of Black History in Philadelphia’s communities. 

Working previously to craft an art installation centered around the Seventh Ward’s historical significance, Amelia designed a piece called Art in the Open, situated along the Schuylkill River Banks. A six panel glass mosaic installation, the work explored the history of the Seventh Ward, which is why Amelia says that she “always wanted to get back to the subject and go deeper with it … [she] saw this as an opportunity for [her] to continue to explore that story.”

Similarly, the piece allowed Lewis to cultivate a deeper personal connection to the Seventh Ward tribute as she underwent a period of personal growth.

“The Seventh Ward without me knowing it was a large facet of my life,” Lewis said. “Everything from going to school in that area, being at the Pennsylvania hospital to give birth to my kids, and having friends and family in different parts of that area occurred at the Seventh Ward, but it was never a historic Black area in my mind.” 

The entire project aims to contextualize the Ward as a pivotal space in Philadelphia's Black history and quash its obscurity. By crafting a visual narrative of the Ward’s past, the tribute allows the public to immerse themselves in the Seventh Ward’s rich, vibrant history and learn more about the contemporary implications of coordinated disenfranchisement and gentrification. 

A persisting issue in Philadelphia, the gentrification of marginalized communities is encapsulated in the phenomenon of the Seventh Ward. Although the tribute highlights the vibrancy of the community’s past, it simultaneously sheds light on the pain and suffering inextricably intertwined within Black resident’s displacement.

Through its educational and historical components, Lewis and Carter’s project offers Philadelphia residents the chance to engage with a piece of critical history that has been confined to obscurity. By connecting with different facets of Philadelphia’s history, individuals not only have the opportunity to conduct an introspective study of the past but also explore their own relationship to the Seventh Ward and its historical legacy. 

“I think that this project instilled a pride in my Philly heritage and allowed me to uncover something that I did not know about and that was largely unknown about in the city,” Lewis said. “This project bore a lot of meaning because we were unearthing things that have been part of our city for years. There was a personal growth element to the project, and it helped me love my city for all the things that I didn’t know about it.”