Black Philadelphia, 1930’s-1960’s: John W. Mosley’s photographs of ‘A Million Faces’



The Woodmere Museum, Philadelphia, has mounted an exhibition of the photographs, in large and medium  format, of John W. Mosely, 1907-1969.  

This exhibition one year after the seminal ‘We Speak:  Black Artists in Philadelphia, 1920s to 1970s’   is as tightly organized, heartfelt and joyful as the photographer’s work happily encourages.

It shows the life, work, play and political struggles of African Americans in Philadelphia from the mid-late 1930s to the mid-late 1960s. 

All photos are from the  John W. Mosely Photograph Collection in the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection of the Libraries of Temple University, Philadelphia.  Of which large  and medium format digital prints were made for exhibiting. 



John W. Mosley who moved to Philadelphia from Lumberton, N. Carolina in 1934 in the great northward migration. His photos finally numbered 300,000.


It is difficult fully (from the viewpoint, at least, of a foreigner, an immigrant) to take in African American history because it is a hard history and full of outrage.  The mind turns away and has repeatedly to be brought back. 

In the midst of daily news of violence affecting the community, it is difficult to recall that there is a coherent community of ordinary people, Afro-Americans, in every large American city, many small ones and in many rural areas as well.

Extraordinary communities because graced with those attributes which come from lengthy and habitual mistreatment even unto frequent untimely death.  And of tenacious institutions.  A community often invisible in the complexity of their full humanity. 

John W. Mosley took 300,000 photographs in and outside Philadelphia during his chosen career.  He chose his subject matter and did not choose to photograph, for instance, crime.

He set about documenting the African American community as it lived for thirty years in this most historic North American city:  Philadelphia. 



  The photographer’s hallmark signatures.  His signature over an artist’s palette is a self-description of his work as that of an artist.  The snarler may be his acknowledgement of his own high standards and of the testing skills required to master his equipment!


There are about 150 photos of people at work.  Jazz. Dancing. Making art. Sports. Social clubs. Picnics and family gatherings undoubtedly in Fairmount Park which breathes in the heart of the city. 



This is not point and click and then take a look and point and click and look again and again until you are satisfied.  Nothing so easy!

  On the Woodmere Museum website, the Museum director listens to an explanation of the time-intensive, labour-intensive and costly working of a Rolleiflex. The photographer also used a Grafex Speed Graphic camera for large format photos.



 Charles L. Blockson representing the Pennsylvania State University track and field team in the shot put at the Penn Relays, Franklin Field, University of Pennsylvania. 1955

Charles L. Blockson, born 1933, was a noted historian of the black experience in and outside the United States.  He established two collections, at Temple and at Penn State University with the subject matter his life-long work.


Unidentified children at an event organized by the Christian Street, YWCA.  This is also where Mosely had his studio and darkroom.


A Million Faces: The Photography of John W.

Mosley,  Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia,  September 24, 2016 – January 16, 2-17


Here is a small sample of the photographs from this exhibition to which I have added a few paintings because I do so love a painting which expands the story!




Mosely’s work appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune among other black papers and journals.  Late 1930s to late 1960s.

The Tribune is the oldest continuously published African American newspaper in the nation.



The Afro Market, Philadelphia, c. 1940



Pullman Porters at Pennsylvania Station (now 30th Street), Philadelphia. c.1940s.

These were among the most instrumental group of workers for the history of Civil Rights.

Exclusively black by design of their founder, George Pullman,  Pullman Porters formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925.  Under the leadership of A. Phillip Randolph, this all-black union went on to further the cause of Civil Rights and the growth of a black middle class.



North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, Philadelphia, c. 1940s.



Printer, date unknown


Piano tuner, date unknown




The exhibition notes explain the large role Philadelphia played in the evolution of jazz.  This was from the 1920’s through the late 1950’s.  The notes also explained the discrimination which pertained even here.

There was so much jazz in the city.  Shadowed in murals today in the city.  And in fine art also.


Trudy Pitts (1932-2010), date unknown.

Jazz organist, pianist, vocalist, the artist was a great promoter of the organ as an instrument of jazz.



A wall mural in North Philadelphia, 2006, by Felix Oseimi.  Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.



The Unforgettable One, 1944.  Can you hear the song?



Helen ‘Curl’ Harris and Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) in Philadelphia, 1950.  Helen Harris provided the singer her wigs.  In the mirror can be seen a third woman preparing the singer’s gown.

Helen Harris was an entrepreneur who operated her own salon, developed her own line of beauty products and developed a number of other businesses in the city.



The Evolution of Swing, lithograph, date unknown. Fine Arts Collection, US General Services Administration, New Deal Art Project.  On deposit with the Free Library of Philadelphia.

On display at the Woodmere in 2015.  Not part of this current exhibition.



Pearl Bailey (1918-1972) in a publicity photo taken in 1940. 

Pearl Bailey was born in Virginia and moved to Philadelphia where she began her celebrated career by singing and dancing in the city’s nightclubs in the 1930’s.  The performer died in Philadelphia.


Duke Ellington and Cootie Williams at Nixon’s Grand Theater, Broad and Montgomery, January, 1939

John Birks ‘Dizzie’ Gillespie, 1950’s

Daniel Lewis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong, 1944




 The Healing Power of Music mural, 2008, painted by Parris Stancell for Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program.  Brewerytown (Fairmount), Philadelphia

Music has had and has a paramount place in the life of Philadelphia citizens.


I do not have the details of this photo but, please, take me there right now……



The Blues, c. 1950, oil on canvas.   Charles Aaron Pridgen, 1922-1991, American.

The African American Museum in Philadelphia: Gift of Kay and Doris Pridgen, in honor of Doris Power.

  This was exhibited at the Woodmere in the autumn of 2015 and is not in the current exhibition.






 Samuel L. Evans, 1902-2008, relaxing with children probably in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. 1940s. 

Sam Evans, who saw 5 lynchings before he was 9 in the Deep South, migrated north to New York and then to Philadelphia to become a very influential Democratic politician and fighter for equal rights.



A Race, date unknown.  Probably in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia



Two together, unknown date



Easter, 1951


The Heart of Baltimore Avenue,  47th and Baltimore, West Philadelphia, 2006.  A mural designed and executed by David Gunn for the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.



 Mrs. Amelia Morris celebrating her 110th birthday with daughter and friends.  August 10, 1958



As is known, Philadelphia was founded in 1682 and Pennsylvania was established by a Quaker, William Penn.  Quakers do not tolerate slavery. 

The Quaker elder, Parker Palmer (born 1939), tells of how a Quaker held the ‘tragic gap’ (between the appalling now and what we know is possible) by going from farmstead to farmstead in New Jersey in the 18th century for 20 years preaching the evils of slavery and the violation of Quaker beliefs, neither eating nor wearing anything produced by slaves.  Until the New Jersey Quakers voted an end to slavery years before Lincoln abolished it.

But William Penn in Pennsylvania did not abolish slavery and slaves were imported through the port of Philadelphia for decades after his arrival.

Came second and third generations and also Anabaptists and Mennonites and the Amish and others who did not tolerate slavery.  The first abolition law was passed and enforced in Pennsylvania in 1781.  No slaves were recorded from 1847 onwards.  A free city.

Which is not to say a city in which there was equality.  The same battles were fought here for equality of access – including to worship without being discriminated –  and for the ending of de facto discrimination as were fought everywhere.



The intellectual, academic, and a co-founder of the NAACP in 1909,  the author of the first such sociological study: ‘The Philadelphia Negro’ of 1899, W.E.B. Dubois at McDowell, Memorial Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia February 1954


dsc00116Mural at 7th and South Street, Philadelphia of W.E.B. Dubois and his masterwork on the sociology of a ward in the city’s oldest section.

  Philadelphia Mural Arts Program



Detail of a photo showing demonstrations against the discriminatory policies of the Philadelphia Transportation Company, November 1943.



Detail of a photo showing demonstrations against the discriminatory policies of the Philadelphia Transportation Company, November 1943.

This company limited African Americans to menial, poorest-paid jobs only.  It was not before armed Federal intervention that this policy was implemented and enforced in 1945.



Demonstrator protesting segregationist admissions policy at Girard College, Philadelphia, July 17, 1965



James Stewart receiving instruction from William Poisel as a tram operator, 1944.

Mr. Stewart was one of the first 8 African Americans inducted into this job.






Wall mural, 42nd and Baltimore,  West Philadelphia.  Unknown date and artist.  Philadelphia Mural Arts Program



 Streetcar, oil on canvas, 1958. Artist to be determined.  On display at Woodmere Museum in 2015, this painting is not part of the current exhibition.

There is an absolute furore in Philadelphia every time rumour gets out that a tram line is to be replaced by buses.


Paul Robeson with Julian Bond at the Bond home, 1949.

Paul Robeson,1898-1976, the renowned singer, lived and died in Philadelphia after a life of struggle in which he paid a very high price for fighting against Fascism and discrimination.

Julian Bond, 1940-2015, co-founder of the Student Non-Violent C0-ordinating Committee and the Southern Poverty Law Center, was a foremost fighter for equal rights.  Requiescat.



Catholic students, date unknown



Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, 1875-1955, is being greeted by Jackie Robinson,1919-1972, in the last year of her life.



 Prayers for the desegregation of Girard College, 1965.

The College, a college preparatory school, was a bequest of the French merchant businessman, Steven Girard, who built the school in the white marble of Greek Revival, more than 40 acres in Philadelphia – for poor white boys.  It took 14 years of struggle before the first African American boys were admitted in 1968 and girls were not admitted until 1984 along with adjustments – with changing marital mores – to the meaning of the word ‘orphan’.


The Swimming Pool at Hunting Park, Edith Neff, 1977-1

 Swimming Pool at Huntington Park, Philadelphia, 1977, oil on canvas.  Edith Neff, 1943 – 1995, American.  Woodmere Museum.

This painting, the focus of Woodmere’s 2016 Annual Juried Show, depicts the outcome of the long battle fought for the integration of Philadelphia’s public amenities including swimming pools.



John Mosely became the staff photographer of the Pyramid  Club on the magnificent Girard Avenue,  whose goals were the civic, social and cultural advancement of Philadelphia’s African American community. 

Among its members the artist and innovative printmaker, Dox Thrash.



Dox Thrash at the Pyramid Club, 1940s. 



A mural at 17th and Girard Avenue, Philadelphia, with the Pyramid Club  pictured. Undertaken by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program in 2015 to memorialize Dox Thrash.  The artist overcame overwhelming odds to become a master printmaker and innovator.



At the bar of the Pyramid Club, 1940s


A cooking demonstration at the Pyramid Club, 1940s




The large, white-painted circular gallery of the Woodmere is filled at two levels with large photographs so that you are encircled with this community. 

Here is Wilt Chamberlain as if making one of his famous jumps from one museum level to the other:




Wilt Chamberlain, January 16, 1961


A community tenaciously making its way during the momentous economic and political changes of the last sixty years.  And succeeding, after long, long political fights, to the full power over this city.


Each photo here is worth the million words which these photos address to us.

Not only because a picture is worth a million words but also because these pictures superimpose over images which are racist and persistent and killing of bodies and of souls.

Some of the words of these photographs are sweet  with the sound of the jazz voice, the jazz instrument;  some with the thump of the athlete’s foot jumping, some with the soft sound of shoed feet on the march on a street below a hum of voices, some with the metallic rumble of the tram (so much a feature of Philadelphian life), some whispering from the heart of a child, dressed up or at play. 

These words?




 John W. Mosely, date unknown


A Million Faces: The Photography of John W. Mosley,  Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia,  September 24, 2016 – January 16, 2-17