Marcua Garvey Foundation, Inc.  
Garvey About Us activities Publications Education Archives Projects Links  
Activities and Events

Annual Bus Tour of Harlem:
The article, "Center to Center: From Philly to Harlem, a Bus Tour of Black Culture Past and Present," by Walidah Imarisha was first published in the June 21-28, 2001 edition of the Philadelphia City Paper.

Center to Center: From Philly to Harlem, a bus tour of black culture past and present
by Walidah Imarisha

Saying the word "Harlem" conjures up images of segregation and the Apollo, Malcolm X speeches and lazy summer days on brownstone stoops, the art and politics of the Harlem Renaissance next to the urban decay of one of the largest black ghettos. Harlem is a contradiction for blacks, a place that even if we have never been there, occupies a special hollow in our heart. This is because Harlem is arguably the center for black politics, culture and thought in the country. But it wasn’t always. In fact, before Harlem existed in its current incarnation, that center was Philadelphia. And early June 9, a bus full of black Philadelphians took a historic tour of Harlem, reconnecting the two centers of black life. The bus was filled with people from all walks of life, students, artists, workers, retirees, professors. One family represented three generations, and the grandmother said she had brought her grandchildren "so they can learn their history."

The tour, organized by the Marcus Garvey Memorial Foundation (MGMF), commemorated the 61st anniversary of the black leader’s death. MGMF, based in Philadelphia, archives information about Garvey and his organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which created the basis for Pan-Africanism, the idea that all black people are connected through Africa. UNIA is a large part of black history, says Giles Wright, tour leader and historian.

In Harlem, we saw the old offices of the Negro World, the UNIA newspaper, and the Black Star Line, a UNIA-owned shipping company designed to take black people back to Africa. UNIA is still an active organization, with about 15 chapters left across the country, with its international headquarters in Philadelphia. Jean Harvey-Slappy, MGMF executive secretary, also has an intimate tie to UNIA: her father succeeded Garvey in UNIA leadership when Garvey died in 1940.

"The most important thing on this trip is a reconnection with the living spirit of Marcus Garvey," says Malik Reggie Hudgins, a member of the Philly UNIA since 1974.

That spirit is infused into Harlem’s history. Marcus Garvey rose to the height of his power at the same time as the explosion of black artists and political thinkers called the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem was originally an all-white neighborhood, but population growth and development pushed black people into it, and the first black housing was established in the early 1900s. By World War I, Harlem had become the black ghetto that it is today. Because of segregation, Wright says, Harlem had the duality of being an upscale community next to a slum. Now, with Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s urban renewal plan, and Bill Clinton working in Harlem (he even got a membership to the Harlem Y), Wright says half-jokingly that Harlem might come full circle again. "If it’s not careful, Harlem may return to what it started out as: an all-white community because of gentrification."

It is still the current mecca of black American life, as it was throughout the 20th century, and many of the older people on the tour felt a special connection to Harlem. They looked out of the windows of the bus, faces full of rememberance. As we passed the Savoy Ballroom, a famous black dance spot, one 60-year-old woman said, "I remember going there. That’s where I met my husband." Two women from New York on the tour had been Garveyites for 50 years. Another woman on the bus witnessed Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination.

"They brought him out and we were all outside, and I could see the holes in his body," she said as we reached the Audobon Ballroom (now a Chase Bank), where the shooting took place. "I could literally see the holes. It took me years to get over that."

When we passed the spot where the UNIA hall used to be (now apartments), several people spontaneously broke into one of the old UNIA songs, and it felt for a time more like a family vacation than a chartered bus tour. Because of the number of elders, much of the tour was spent on the bus. However, we did get out and walk around at a few spots, one of them being St. Mark’s Church, where Marcus Garvey gave his first speech after founding the UNIA in 1916.

There we met Pearl Smith, a 90-year-old woman who had heard Marcus Garvey speak when she was a child, who shared her impressions of him as a "big, black, imposing-looking man, who during the parades sitting on a carriage would look like an emperor.

While some were revisiting old memories, some were learning about them for the first time. Nya Lewis, a 21-year-old Temple student, clad in a black power T-shirt with her hair in cornrow Afro puffs, says, "I thought it would be interesting. I don’t really know too much about Harlem except for the Harlem Renaissance."

Not only were all ages on the tour, but all nationalities. Pan-Africanism played out on the bus, with Africans, Caribbean people and black Americans all sitting side by side. Two men from a Liberian political organization were on the tour. "We are participating in the bus tour to build a Pan-African link, and it’s our hope that this tour provides an opportunity to unite with brothers and sisters to reinforce each other on both sides of the Atlantic," says Alaric Tokpa. People may have been forging connections between continents, but they were also forging connections between themselves and the history of Harlem. On the last stop we made, we visited Strivers Row, where the upwardly mobile black people historically lived. A few blocks away was the house of black actor and activist Paul Robeson. Two doors down, the house of Philly poet Larry Neal. Around the corner were old wooden rowhomes built in the 1700s, which were featured in Spike Lee’s movieBamboozled. Newer sites are nestled between early-20th-century sites. Because of segregation, there is an enormous number of historical and cultural sites in a small geographic area, and in some cases, history has gotten a face lift. "It’s common to an urban community that buildings disappear as development occurs. Brownstones are torn down for enormous apartment buildings," Wright says. He adds that the more research he does, the more levels of this he uncovers, and that this tour, the second one MGMF sponsored, is just going to continue to grow. They plan on making it an annual event. At the end of the tour, people were thoughtful, trying to digest the century of history we had been fed in five hours.