Bringing African American history in Philadelphia to life

Black Lives Always Mattered! highlights influential figures from the city’s past.

African Americans have always played a crucial part in America’s history. That’s the message of Black Lives Always Mattered!, a graphic novel created and soon to be published by the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection.

A celebration of African American history and culture and funded by a grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, the graphic novel features 14 historical figures, black Philadelphians who made significant contributions across different fields, from politics and journalism to music and architecture. 

The book was specifically created with a young audience in mind. “We wanted to do something that would appeal to young people, while at the same time promote literacy,” said Diane Turner, curator of the Blockson Collection. 

“They would learn about the rich history, the contributions and the struggles that African Americans in Philadelphia have gone through—and perhaps be inspired or motivated to go on and do great things themselves,” she said.

The graphic novel is firmly rooted in Philadelphia. All the men and women featured have connections to the city and the artists illustrating their stories are locals, as are the curator and art director, Eric Battle, and the writer, Sheena C. Howard.

Turner and Aslaku Berhanu, the collection’s librarian, began with a long list of candidates, then held focus groups with students, teachers and other members of the community, asking them which people they were interested in learning more about.

The final selection includes familiar names like historian and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, lawyer and civil rights activist Cecil B. Moore and singer Marian Anderson, as well as Crystal Bird Fauset, the first African American woman to be elected a state legislator, and photographer John W. Mosley. 

Many of Mosley’s photographs are part of the Blockson Collection, alongside material about several of the other people featured. Turner hopes the graphic novel will encourage readers to visit the collection and learn more.

Page from John Mosley story, illustrated by Micheline Hess
Eric Battle at the "Black Lives Always Mattered!" exhibition.

Eric Battle at the "Black Lives Always Mattered!" exhibition. (Photo: Ryan S. Brandenberg)

Eric Battle at the "Black Lives Always Mattered!" exhibition. (Photo: Ryan S. Brandenberg)

Black Lives Always Mattered! also tells stories she feels form a counterpoint to the stereotypes that often appear in the media. “When you hear about [African Americans] it’s either about poverty or crime,” Turner said. “We wanted to dispel these myths.” 

Battle, the novel’s curator and art director, believes readers connect differently with a graphic novel than they would a traditional book. “When you use visual storytelling, it can reach people who may be uncomfortable or have no interest in picking up a novel,” he said. 

Working on Black Lives Always Mattered! has been a collaborative process. Berhanu puts together material from the collection about each historical figure and she and Turner suggest periods in their lives to highlight. Then Howard chooses one and writes a profile of each person, as well as a comic book script that the artists follow.

“The visuals are always [intended] to enhance the written prose,” Battle said. “The main goal of the artist is to give the writer what they’re asking for and tell the story as dramatically as they can.”

Artwork from the graphic novel recently went on display in Charles Library; the book itself will be published next year.

Page from Dr. Ruth Wright Hayre's story, illustrated by Jamar Nicholas

Battle, who also illustrated the W.E.B. Du Bois story, matched the artists with historical figures he felt suited their styles. Illustrator Nancy Devard’s work, for example, is “refined” and “bright,” Battle said, so he paired her with Marian Anderson, whom he imagines singing with a glow around her.

“I love being able to collaborate with other artists who I’ve known for years and whose work I admire,” he said. “I’m supremely excited and honored that they’ve lent their talents to this project.” 

“The graphic novel is an opportunity to highlight Philadelphia’s rich history,” Battle said, “and put faces to the names visitors and Philadelphians see around them every day.”  

It’s also a chance for the past to help inspire the future. “The book showcases figures who are either unrepresented or underrepresented in history books,” Turner said. This is crucial for young people because, “when you’re learning things, you need to be able to see yourself,” she said. “That motivates and inspires you, when you’re able to see yourself.” 

Page from Leon Sullivan's story, illustrated by Nile Livingston

Artwork from Black Lives Always Mattered! recently went on display in Charles Library. Although you may not be able to visit the exhibition on campus yourself, we’re bringing some of the art to you virtually with photos and this video.