Heroes: Black Philadelphia Icons

Six deeply personal essays by Philadelphia African-American writers about figures in the city’s history who deserve much wider acclaim — not to mention statues — in our hometown.

From left: Marian Anderson; Bennie Swans; Sadie T.M. Alexander; Charles Bowser. Images courtesy of Walter Sanders/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images; April Saul/Inquirer; Jules Schick; Inquirer

When the city erected a statue of Octavius Catto on the apron of City Hall last September, it went up with a jaw-dropping distinction: It was the first public monument to a specific African-American in Philadelphia. For a city that’s 44 percent Black, that’s a pretty lousy stat. The city is only in the very early stages of recognizing the contributions of its greatest Black citizens. We asked six African-American writers to tell us about figures in Philly’s history who have had uncommon resonance with them, who inspire them, and who deserve much wider acclaim in our hometown, too. —Edited by Brian Howard

Marian Anderson: A Voice that Shattered Barriers

Her powerful singing changed the world, and it all started downtown. By novelist Diane McKinney-Whetstone.
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Reggie Bryant: He Spoke Truth to Power

For many in the city, this trailblazing broadcaster was the only journalist who mattered. By Philadelphia magazine columnist Denise Clay.
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Sadie T.M. Alexander: Philly’s Great Hidden Figure

The first Black woman to practice law in the state, she’s finally getting her due. By author and Temple professor Lori Tharps.
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Bennie Swans: The Warrior

He’s Philadelphia’s unsung hero in the fight against street violence. By Praise 107.9 radio host, author and award-winning Daily News columnist Solomon Jones.
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Charles Bowser: The Ultimate Power Player

The legal colossus who inspired a generation of Black politicians in Philadelphia. By attorney, Tribune columnist and activist Michael Coard.
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Michael Hinson: The Voice in the Hall

Before Gloria Casarez and Amber Hikes, he was the LGBTQ community’s champion in city government. By Philadelphia magazine columnist and LGBTQ editor Ernest Owens.
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Published as “Heroes” in the February 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.