Black History on South Street: A Self-Guided Tour

Jan 30, 2024 | Featured, In The District

Black History and South Street History are inseparable: the all-Black Engine #11 fire station; the Seventh Ward and sociological studies of W.E.B. DuBois; Black community members like educator and civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto, artist Conrad Booker, and skateboarder Roger Browne; and the origin stories for soon to be famous performers like Boyz II Men and The Roots. The growth and evolution of South Street would not be possible without the cultural input and impact of Black community members, neighbors, and business owners.


Take a trip through Black history on and around South Street with this self-guided tour of Black history, culture, and community in the South Street Headhouse District!


1. Engine #11 Philadelphia Fire Department Historical Marker

1016 South Street was once home to Engine Company #11, Philadelphia’s all-Black firehouse that was segregated from 1919 until 1952. During these years, the station garnered recognition for its hard working platoon, but for nearly three decades prior to 1917, the Fire Department employed only a single Black firefighter. He was always stationed at Engine #11.

📷: The Historical Society of Philadelphia
📍: 1016 South Street

2. Octavius V. Catto Historical Marker

Born free in South Carolina, Octavius V. Catto’s family came to Philadelphia in 1843 when he was only 3-4 years old. Catto would go on to become an educator and political activist who at one point lived at 812 South Street. He fought for abolition and equal rights in the classroom, at the podium, and on the battlefield as a member of the Union League. On Election Day in 1871, Octavius V. Catto was harassed, shot, and killed at the intersection of 9th and South Streets on his way to cast his vote. He was only 32 years old.

📷: Portrait of Octavius V. Catto originally published in Harper’s Weekly on October 28th, 1871.
📍: 812 South Street

3. Mural honoring W.E.B. Du Bois, and the current location of Engine #11 Philadelphia Fire Department

Painted on the northwest corner of 6th and South Streets, “Mapping Courage” is a mural honoring W.E.B. Du Bois and the Black firefighters of Engine #11. Created by Black artist Willis “Nomo” Humphrey in 2008, the mural adorns the exterior of the relocated Engine #11 fire station, while also being a short distance from W.E.B. Du Bois’ former residence at 6th and Rodman Streets. The artwork was a collaborative effort between Mural Arts, the Fire Department, and The Ward, which is a research, teaching, and public history project dedicated to the timeless lessons of W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1899 book, The Philadelphia Negro.

📷: Via the South Street Headhouse District
📍: 601 South Street

4. W.E.B. Du Bois Historical Marker

Dr. Du Bois was a highly accomplished academic and the first Black man to earn a PhD from Harvard. In 1896, the University of Pennsylvania’s department of sociology invited Du Bois to survey Black people living in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward (from South Street up to Spruce Street, from 23rd to 6th Streets), and during this time, he resided at 617 Carver Street, now renamed Rodman Street. The field research he conducted in these neighborhoods would become the basis for his landmark 1899 study, The Philadelphia Negro. Despite his successes, Du Bois always resented that the University of Pennsylvania never offered him a teaching position. He left Philadelphia in 1897 for a teaching position in Atlanta and would go on to champion the civil rights movement and challenge the perception of Black people and Black communities in early 1900s America.

📷: W.E.B Du Bois Collection, Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries
📍: 617 Carver (Rodman) Street

5. Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, and the Free African Society Historical Marker

The Free African Society was a mutual aid organization that provided assistance to Philadelphia’s Black community, including sick, widowed, and orphaned individuals, as well as those charged with burying their deceased family members, regardless of religious affiliation. Co-founder Bishop Richard Allen would go on to establish a congregation, as well as several churches, which would eventually come to be known as Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, located at 419 S. 6th Street.

📷: Mother Bethal A.M.E. Church
📍: 419 S. 6th Street

6. Avenue of The Roots

As aspiring young musicians, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson attended nearby music schools and busked on South Street corners in the late ’80s/early ’90s. In 2000, photographer Annie Leibovitz captured an iconic portrait of The Roots on the corner of East Passyunk and South Street as they performed for an onlooking crowd with only a piano, a barebones drum kit, an amp, and a microphone. Later, in a 2017 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Black Thought proclaimed that his “favorite historical landmark is Fifth and South Street, right off the corner of Passyunk Ave,” because “[i]t’s where the Roots first started.” In February 2020, the 600 block of East Passyunk Avenue was renamed “Avenue of The Roots” in honor of the dynamic and influential hip-hop group.

📷 – 1: Annie Leibovitz
📷 – 2: @thebandwashere on Instagram
📷 – 3: Conrad Feimster for the South Street Headhouse District
📍: E. Passyunk and South Street outside Woolly Mammoth (430 South Street)

7. Mural honoring Philadelphia Skateboarding Legend Roger Browne at Nocturnal Skateshop

On the side of Nocturnal Skateshop’s new location at 5th and Kater Streets, this mural is a tribute to Black Philadelphian skateboarding legend Roger Browne. Created in late 2022, Browne worked closely with artist Jim Houser in developing this mural and its specific color scheme. Immortalized at 612 S. 5th Street with the help of Mural Arts, Roger was and continues to be a staple in Philadelphia’s skate scene.

📷: Eric Dale on Instagram.
📍: 612 S. 5th Street (5th and Kater Streets)

8. “All At Once” Mural honoring seven Black trans women at Philly AIDS Thrift

In the summer of 2022, a new mural honoring seven Black trans women was added to the wall above Philly AIDS Thrift at 710 S. 5th Street. Titled “All At Once,” the mural depicts Kyra Cordova; Charlene Arcila; Nizah Morris; Michelle Tamika Washington; Shantee Tucker; London Kiki Chanel; and Dominique Rem’mie Fells alongside the words, “We are the past, the present, and the future. All at once.” This project was lead by artist Ali M Williams in collaboration with Mural Arts and RHD Morris Home, a residential recovery program for trans and gender non-conforming individuals.

📷: Streets Dept
📍: 710 S. 5th Street (5th and Bainbridge Streets)

9. Settlement Music School

Founded in 1908, Settlement Music School began as a settlement house for immigrants in Philadelphia. It later developed a robust music program, and by 1914, Settlement was incorporated as an independent community school of the arts. Notable Black musicians who studied and trained at Settlement include Kevin Eubanks of The Tonight Show; Chubby Checker (pictured above), singer and dancer; Kathy Sledge of Sister Sledge; and Questlove of The Roots & The Tonight Show. Throughout its storied history, the school has become a gathering place for diverse communities, breaking down barriers and leaving an indelible mark on the cultural tapestry of Philadelphia.

📍: 416 Queen Street

10. Conrad Booker “Harmony and the Windows of Curiosities” Mural

In 2012, with the assistance of the Queen Village Neighborhood Association, resident and Black artist Conrad Booker gave new life to the wall at 770 S. 4th Street with a mural titled “Harmony and the Windows of Curiosities.” Through a larger beautification initiative, this Fulton Street facing wall was transformed into a fluttering butterfly sanctuary that can be enjoyed by all still to this day.

📷: Long & Foster Real Estate
📍: 770 S. 4th Street

11. & 12. 7th Ward Tribute’s “Reflecting Revenants” art installation (multiple locations)

Artists Amelia Carter and Beth Naomi Lewis created this multi-art, outdoor installation that pays homage to the vibrant Black history of Philadelphia’s former 7th Ward as a center of Black culture and community. The artists skilfully incorporate candid archival photographs of Black residents between early to mid 20th century into the present-day landscape of the Ward in order to offer viewers a unique perspective into the rich cultural history of the area.

Note: This installation is temporary.

📷: 7th Ward Tribute
📍: Black and Nobel, 422 South Street, and Greene Street Consignment, 700 South Street (in addition to other tour stops)

13. Tribute to The Orlons' "South Street" Album and Title Track

In 1963, the line “Where do all the hippest meet? South Street, South Street” became a well-known tune for generations of Philadelphians. From The Orlons’ classic album and title track South Street, the single crooned: “Meet me on South Street / The hippest street in town” and reached #3 on the U.S. pop chart. The album showcased The Orlons’ versatility, combining elements of doo-wop, R&B, and pop, reflecting the diverse influences of the era. With its dynamic vocal harmonies and energetic performances, “South Street” captured the spirit of the times and became an anthem for the lively street life of Philadelphia. A tribute to The Orlons featuring a framed original copy of the vinyl record, jacket, and insert can be seen on display at the South Street Off Center (407 South Street).

📷: South Street Headhouse District
📍: 407 South Street

14. Tierra Whack wheatpaste installation

Philly rapper Tierra Whack teamed up with Philly’s own Streets Dept to spread the word about her debut album, “World Wide Whack” through a series of wheatpaste installations showcasing the album’s artwork. Wheatpaste installations are a popular medium for street artists to share their work with the public, transforming urban spaces into open-air galleries. Due to the impermanent nature of wheatpaste, these installations may gradually weather and deteriorate over time, contributing to the transient and evolving nature of street art. Known for her colorful and eccentric visuals, Tierra Whack effortlessly blends elements of hip-hop, R&B, and avant-garde influences, creating a sonic landscape that defies easy categorization. Her fearless approach to self-expression has earned her accolades, making her a standout figure in the world of hip-hop and beyond.

Note: This installation is temporary.

📷: South Street Headhouse District
📍: 304 South Street

15. & 16. Boyz II Men “Motownphilly” Music Video

Iconic Philadelphia vocal group Boyz II Men released their first single, “Motownphilly,” off their debut album, Cooleyhighharmony, in 1991. In the first verse, they croon “Boyz II Men, ABC, BBD / The East Coast family / Never skipped a beat / While cooling on South Street.” In the music video for this song, the group was filmed in a car driving down South Street at 3rd and South Streets. Other parts of the video were filmed under the Headhouse Shambles in front of the restaurant currently known as Cavanaugh’s Headhouse, located at 421 S 4th Street.

📷: Boyz II Men, “Motownphilly” Music Video
📍: 3rd and South Streets; & 421 S 4th Street

Black History continues to thrive on South Street at our Black Owned Businesses! Make sure to visit and support these shops, stores, salons, and restaurants during your self-guided tour.