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A Street Art Tour in the “City of Murals” Honors African American Heroes

By Sarah Buder

Jan 20, 2020

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“Remembering a Forgotten Hero” by Willis “Nomo” Humphrey honors the life of Octavius V. Catto, an early civil rights activist who lived in South Philadelphia and was assassinated in the neighborhood.

Photo by Steve Weinik for Mural Arts Philadelphia

“Remembering a Forgotten Hero” by Willis “Nomo” Humphrey honors the life of Octavius V. Catto, an early civil rights activist who lived in South Philadelphia and was assassinated in the neighborhood.

For just two days during Black History Month, a special Mural Arts Philadelphia trolley tour will follow a trail focused solely on civil rights–oriented street art in the city.

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In observation of Black History Month, which each February commemorates the contributions of African Americans throughout U.S. history, the country’s largest public art program is offering a unique way to pay homage in the “Birthplace of America,” which is also commonly labeled one of the mural capitals of the world. 

For two days this February, Mural Arts Philadelphia—which regularly provides guided walking, bicycle, and trolley street art tours (both group and private)—will put forward a curated trolley tour that follows a mural trail honoring prominent African American figures tied to the city. On February 9 and 23, the “African American Iconic Murals Trolley Tour” will explore street art specifically related to themes of civil rights, freedom, and equality across multiple Philadelphia neighborhoods. At each stop, a Mural Arts guide will discuss the important history behind each Philadelphia mural as well as the artist’s process for creating it. 

“Staircases and Mountaintops: Ascending Beyond the Dream” by Willis “Nomo” Humphrey is based on a 1965 photograph taken by William Lovelace.

During the two-hour excursion, attendees will see a vast selection of large-scale murals such as “Staircases and Mountaintops: Ascending Beyond the Dream,” which depicts Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, as they led a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965. Based on a historic image by photographer William Lovelace, this 2014 mural by late Philadelphia muralist Willis “Nomo” Humphrey decorates the exterior of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Recreation Center in North Philadelphia.

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The Mural Arts tour also includes a stop at “Remembering a Forgotten Hero,” a 2018 mural in South Philadelphia that honors the early civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto, who was assassinated on South Street in 1871 after advocating for voting rights for black citizens. This public artwork (which is also by the late “Nomo” Humphrey in addition to Philadelphia-born muralist Keir Johnston) is the first-ever to honor Catto, and it does so in the very neighborhood where the 19th-century activist lived. 

Artist Marcus Akinlana worked with the Tuskegee Airmen’s Philadelphia Chapter to create the 2008 mural, “The Tuskegee Airmen: They Met the Challenge.”

In West Philadelphia, the themed route also passes by a 2008 mural called “The Tuskegee Airmen: They Met the Challenge,” which pays respect to the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces who served as pilots in World War II. For this towering tribute on South 39th Street, artist Marcus Akinlana worked with the Tuskegee Airmen’s Philadelphia Chapter to determine symbols and images that represent the challenges these aviators faced, both at home and abroad.

Those who miss this unique tour in February can still try to navigate Philadelphia’s street art trail using Mural Arts’s online “mural finder,” which identifies the location of every mural featured on the program’s gamut of guided tours. If you decide to go the self-led route, you can connect any gaps in your pre-existing knowledge at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, which is notable as the first major institution devoted to Black American heritage founded in the United States.

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The “African American Iconic Murals Trolley Tour” with Mural Arts Philadelphia will take place on Sunday, February 9, and Sunday, February 23, 2020. The two-hour guided trolley excursion will depart from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (128 N. Broad Street) at 1:30 p.m. on both dates. Tickets are $32 for adults and $28 for students and kids under 12 years old.

>>Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Philadelphia

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