Slavers kidnapped a frail, 7-year-old girl in West Africa. They forced her aboard The Phillis, transported her to Boston, and sold her to John Wheatley, a tailor, and his wife, Susanna. Phillis Wheatley (named for the ship) quickly mastered English, became versed in the Bible and learned Greek and Latin. A creative genius, her first poem appeared in print in 1770. Wheatley was lauded as a new, distinctively American poet, a star of the rising anti-slavery movement and a trans-Atlantic literary celebrity. Six cities, including Philadelphia, printed her work. Wheatley’s collected poems were published in London in 1773.
A century and a half later, the name Phillis (sometimes spelled Phyllis) Wheatley would be considered an inspiring choice for African-American organizations from South Carolina to Minnesota. Equity Hall in Philadelphia’s “Black 7th Ward” had been serving as a destination since 1894 for banquets, meetings, protests, funerals, balls, boxing matches, concerts and political rallies. In 1922, The Negro Year Book listed the building at 1024 Lombard as the Phyllis Wheatley Social Center.
When Mayor Hampton Moore confirmed his plan to renovate the hall and build a new playground on the block between 10th, 11th, Lombard and Rodman Streets, it made perfect sense to name it for the poet. “I suggest the name of one who stands for the colored race,” declared the mayor, “a slave child brought to the country and kept here in slavery, who, despite all obstacles became an educated woman—a writer and a poet, a woman who wrote of her people and who sang their songs.” At a dedication ceremony on July 12, 1921, Mayor Moore noted before a crowd of 2,000 that a place previously known as “Hell’s Half Acre” was about to be renamed “the Phyllis Wheatley Recreation Centre.” This choice, he later noted, met the approval of several religious and civic leaders in Philadelphia’s African American community.
But Mayor Moore had earned himself a few political enemies. Immediately after his election in 1919, Moore unfurled a banner across Market Street proclaiming: “No boss shall rule this town.” He derailed the political ambitions of Vare loyalist, City Councilman Charles B. Hall, whose district included the playground. And Moore commissioned a study, conducted by sociologist Richard R. Wright Jr., that concluded the 1000 block of Lombard Street was “one of the worst pest holes in Philadelphia… due largely [to the] influence and protection” of an unnamed politician. Wright’s report claimed that city-owned buildings there were being “used for profitable, but illegal practices, including banditry, dope, prostitution, gambling and a series of other crimes too numerous to mention.”
Hall, the area’s ward leader, looked like the guilty party. He threatened to sue the Mayor for libel—and more, he proposed using what power he did have in City Council to swap out Wheatley’s name with someone who had a direct connection with the 7th Ward, the recently deceased City Councilman (and Hall’s predecessor and mentor) Charles Seger. A fireman turned saloon owner machine politician, Seger was the epitome of political bossism.
Moore called Hall “a “baby” and a “bluffer,” and reiterated the accusation that Hall was “largely responsible for vice conditions in the section of the city where he is in political control.”
“It’s a usurpation of power which belongs to Council,” claimed Hall of Moore’s proposal for the Wheatley name. “I want that place named Charles Seger Park and I’m going to see that it is named that.” A few members of the city’s African-American press took Hall’s side and interpreted the mayor’s proposal as crass pandering. “The most regrettable occurrence,” wrote the author of an article entitled “Phyliss Wheatley’s Name in Wrong Hands,” “has been the flippant and disgusting manner in which the mayor of Philadelphia and a few of his colored followers have dragged into the mire of the filthy politics of the city the name of that illustrious Negro woman…” Others in the city’s African-American community disagreed: “Numerous colored churches … vigorously denounced Councilman Hall for his attempt to name the new playground at 10th and Lombard streets after the late Charles Seger.”
Mayor Moore wasn’t about to back down, even after City Council overwhelmingly voted (15-4) to name the playground for Charles Seger in late July, 1921. He vetoed the bill and presented a plaque of Phyllis Wheatley to hang in the Lombard Street building. A week later, Moore opened the Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall to 250 citizens interested in maintaining the Wheatley name. “The masks usually worn by the colored population had been stripped off,” declared the Rev. W.H. Moses of the Zion Baptist Church, “and no matter what Council did the name of the playground to the Negroes always would be the Phillis Wheatley Center.”
City Council did override the Mayor’s veto. And soon after, Council proposed to demolish Equity Hall, aka the Phyllis Wheatley Social Center. What would take its place? Councilman Hall had at the ready an ordinance to fund “a modern community and social service house to be named after Fanny Jackson Coppin, a slave girl who rose to be a profound Greek and Latin scholar and the greatest of all Negro educators of all time.” Coppin did have strong ties to the neighborhood. Starting in 1865, she ran the Institute for Colored Youth only a few blocks away near 9th and Bainbridge Streets.
But today, the Coppin building is long gone. And, of course, Wheatley’s name is nowhere to be found. What remains is once-contested public space that goes by the name of Seger.
Sometimes, long-forgotten history forces us to pose a question. In this case, we must ask: Should Seger’s name remain?
[Sources: [Dedication of Equity Hall], December 11, 1894 (Inquirer); “Colored Odd Fellows’ lodges in Philadelphia, 1896,” New York Public Library Digital Collections; “Republicans Hold a Rousing Meeting in Equity Hall,” October 26, 1912 (Tribune); “Seger Dies at 71,” November 8, 1919 (Inquirer); “Moore Clamps Lid Tightly on Cabinet,” Nov. 8, 1919 (Inquirer); “’Hell’s Half Acre’ to get New Name,” July 13, 1921 (Tribune); “From Sproul Down, Vare Rule is Over, Notice From Moore,” Dec. 24, 1919 (Inquirer); “Mayor Answers Threats of Hall,” July 9, 1920 (Inquirer); “Mayor Should Clean Up Vice, Declares Hall,” Aug. 25, 1920 (Inquirer); “Hall Threatens Mayor, Dares Moore to Charge Him with Vice Conditions,” Aug. 28, 1920 (Tribune); “Mayor Threatened By Hall With Suit,” Nov. 27, 1920 (Inquirer); “Mayor Threatened By Hall With Suit,” Nov. 27, 1920 (Inquirer); “To Build Playground,” Oct. 23 1920 (Bulletin); “Mayor Moore Would ‘Clean-Up’ Seventh Ward Section to Establish His Own Political Headquarters,” Oct. 30, 1920 (Tribune); “Hell’s Half Acre Is Passing Away,” Jan. 4, 1921 (Inquirer); “Bill for New Playground,” June 2 1921 (Bulletin); “Hell’s Half Acre” to get New Name,” July 13, 1921 (Inquirer); “Wheatley Pa’K How Come?” July 16, 1921 (Bulletin); “Phyllis Wheatley’s Name in Wrong Hands,” July 16 1921 (Tribune); “Mayor Moore Opens New Play Ground…Phyllis Wheatley its Name,” July 16, 1921 (Tribune); “Hall Defies the Mayor to Veto ‘Seger’ Centre,” July 22, 1921 (Bulletin); “Bold Attempt to Use Our Churches in City Politics,” July 23, 1921 (Tribune); “Phillis Wheatley Name To ‘Stick,’” July 23, 1921 (Inquirer); “Negroes Announce Break with Hall over Playground,” Aug. 4, 1921 (Bulletin); “Colored Residents Demand Park Be Named for Poetess,” Aug. 4, 1921 (Bulletin); “The Mayor Hears Arguments on Play Ground Naming,” Aug. 6, 1921 (Tribune). Marcus Anthony Hunter, Black Citymakers: How The Philadelphia Negro Changed Urban America (Oxford University Press; 2015)].