Introduction: Alfie’s Portrait of Philadelphia
Alfie Pollitt, the Philadelphia jazz and R&B musician, took part in forging the history of Philadelphia and black America by immersing himself in its deep traditions. He was born 1943 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania to a mother who was a steadfast advocate of African-American history and an organizer in her community at Saints Memorial Baptist Church and his father who was a worker and a fine arts musician. His family — the men and women, parents, siblings and cousins, all played a role in cultivating the moral fortitude which served as the foundation that would guide him through his trials and tribulations in the coming years.
He established a new meaning of life and purpose through making his pilgrimage to Philadelphia in the height of the Black Freedom Movement during his youth. There, he experienced the essence of the black American arts and revolutionary movement. On these trips, he often attended the Uptown Theater in North Philadelphia, which hosted some of the greatest musicians that America has ever produced such as Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and Michael Jackson. He frequented jazz clubs such as Pep’s Musical Bar and the Showboat Lounge, coming face-to-face with his hero, the legendary jazz musician John Coltrane. In 1970, he decided to permanently leave Bryn Mawr to move to the city.
All of this took place amidst a pivotal moment in American history, where the awakening of black Americans was shaking the foundations of white civilization by confronting the most evil forces of racism in society. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the ongoing struggle in the south to end segregation, influenced Philadelphia’s Cecil B. Moore to desegregate Girard College. And Malcolm X, in fact, lived in Philadelphia as a Minister of the Nation of Islam.
The musical and political force of the black world created the conditions for Alfie’s personal transformation which led to one of the most significant decisions in his life. He admired Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali for their courage to stand up against war and the system which oppressed black people. In 1970, he joined the Nation of Islam and became a registered member of Temple #12 under the leadership of Minister Jeremiah Shabazz.
Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, Alfie traveled with Teddy Pendergrass and the Blue Notes across the country as a pianist. On these tours, they opened for the likes of Marvin Gaye and The Isley Brothers. This direct interaction with the popular black artists of the era cultivated a community of musicians who were organically connected to the people and their movements for liberation. Therefore, the music they created was formed by the aspirations and strivings of black people which stood for love in a time of widespread war.
Through Alfie’s story and his journey toward endlessly redefining himself, we will learn about the unsung heroes of America — all of the pieces which create the whole — who teach us more about the inextricable nature of the struggle to transform ourselves and to transform the world. In letting the people and their history make him, Alfie seized the capacity within himself to become a maker of history.
We will furthermore learn about Philadelphia, one of the largest cities in the United States, whose true identity was born out of the Black Freedom Movement. Once the home of Malcolm X, John Coltrane, Cecil B. Moore and W.E.B. Du Bois, Philadelphia arose organically from black America, and the city has made a lasting contribution to the lives of many through its political movements and culture forged out of a struggle for a just world.
Working professionals and young, educated people who move here are often encouraged to lay claims to Philadelphia despite having no historical understanding of it. This perpetuates destruction of the city’s rich history and its true moral culture, thus erasing what it can contribute to the lives of all people searching for purpose and freedom. In obscuring this moral foundation, the ruling class keeps the masses blaming each other rather than realizing a common liberation. Education within universities and the public school system does not tell the youth what their responsibilities are, or what their role in society is.
However, through Alfie’s story, we will learn that another world is possible — where men and women are guided by the principle that peace and unity between all peoples must be at the core of all creative potential. His sacrifices and moral choices show us how to live a more principled life and to discover our possibilities which are negated by living in white society. This interview can inform us on how we can learn from history and the makers of history to better ourselves and society. And from this history, to determine what our duty to humanity is.
Finally, we are publishing this interview as a tribute to Alfie Pollitt’s life. We had originally met Alfie in 2018 through the Saturday Free School’s event “Pan Africa and Pan Asia: A World United For Humanity,” a symposium which celebrated the 150th birthday of the black fighter for peace, W.E.B. Du Bois. In May and June 2020, we interviewed Alfie five times over the span of five weeks, moving chronologically through his life, developing and asking new questions as we learned more from him each week. The final published interviews have been organized by theme, and will be released as six separate parts, each defined by a unique chapter of Alife’s life.
The history Alfie has lived and forged has shown us a foundation to understand the significance of Philadelphia, what it has produced and what it can offer to the struggle for a world rooted in principles of morality. We wish to honor him and his life’s sacrifices by sharing his story, which serves as a guiding light to those who are striving to unite humanity toward a future of beauty and peace.
Part 1: Bryn Mawr and The Beginnings (1943-1960s)
We want to learn about the beginnings of your life, and what made you, in the beginning, you know, take the path that you did. And in order to understand that we have to understand your childhood and how you were raised. So the first question we would like to ask you is, where were your parents born? And what did they do for work?
Okay. My mother was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania. And she was an only child, and her mother and father spent time at what became Cheyney University, at that time was called Cheyney Institute for Colored Youth, and they helped work the land to help feed the people on the campus, you know, working on the farm there. Then eventually, they moved to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and my father was born in South Philadelphia, on the 2100 block of Fernon Street, and at some point, he connected with my mother and grandfather and then, and you know they connected in Bryn Mawr, and eventually got married, you know. I don’t know where they were married. You know, they were married the day before Pearl Harbor day. Six of, six of September 1941 and they spent their honeymoon in the Theresa hotel in Harlem. This is what I was told.
And my mother, she went to Lower Merion high school. I think she went to school in Radnor as well and the Gay Street school in West Chester, and I believe one of her contemporaries might have been Bayard Rustin because he’s from West Chester. And there’s a famous painter, black painter named Horace Pippin who was from West Chester as well who lived there. And you know, my mother was an only child and my father was an only child. That, I know of. And he grew up in the Point Breeze section of South Philly.
And my mother did what was called days work, you know, she’d work in folks’ homes, cleaning and sometimes work in doctors offices, cleaning them up as well. My earliest recollection of my father, he was working on an ambulance for Bryn Mawr hospital. And also he sold newspapers to the patients in the hospital and he did other jobs. He worked at a place called King of Prussia Inn, which was a historic building that was supposedly from 1776, that era, you know. United States revolutionary war era. He worked there, I think maybe as a waiter. I don’t know what all he did. He worked a lot of different jobs and my mother did too.
And my mother was a fine arts painter. And my father was a musician. He played the cello in the Philadelphia Concert Orchestra, Black Symphony Orchestra, which existed from the 1930s to the 1960s. And he played cello in the group. And he was the assistant business manager of the orchestra which was conducted by Raymond Smith. And my father was also a member of a string quartet called the Tempo String Quartet.
So were they lifelong artists?
Oh, I guess my father played most of his life. My mother painted, I guess. Mhm.
And you also said that your mother was a researcher on African American history right, on the Underground Railroad specifically.
Yes, mhm. And I became aware of that, you know, very young, that. I’m the oldest and I had a brother named Harry. Harry was three years younger than me. He passed about two years ago. And he was, he got the art trait, in fact he went to Arts Students League in New York, a famous art institution. And he took some classes at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Flescher Art Museum, South Philly. My mother went to Flescher too. And my brother went to Bryn Mawr Art Center, in Bryn Mawr.
My sister, she’s four years younger than me. We all had piano lessons and my sister had violin. I had violin, I had clarinet. My brother had cornet and we had a piano in our home and my grandfather, my mother’s father, Alfred Hensley, lived with us. He played the clarinet and I learned that early on he played the cornet as well. And him and my mother played in a band that was founded by a man named Clarence Waters from Ardmore. It’s like a community, band and people, you know, from the black community were members of the band at different times. Even when my brother was a little boy, he was in, in the band, you know, a different set of — different generations — what have you.
Okay, so what age were you when you first picked up an instrument?
Well, piano, I was given piano lessons when I was three.
When you were three, right. So why, like you really do come from a musical family and a musical background, but also like a family that’s rooted in African American history. Why do you think, I mean, how do you think this affected you growing up, and why was it important?
Well, we were raised on the so-called Main Line and the black folk who lived there were, some black folk lived with their employers, you know. And they all, they were brought up here from, like, for example, Ardmore, Pennsylvania, most of the black community from Ardmore, Pennsylvania came from Middlesex County, Virginia. So those folks early on, early on come up and work at Bryn Mawr College and work in people’s homes and estates and what have you and they bring their relatives. You know, like the Great Migration, you know. And so, like, and the information we were given in school, we were not taught about our histories as people of African descent, except, you know, picking cotton, all kind of negative stereotype stuff and slavery, you know. When I was in elementary school, black folk would either be playing picking cotton or we would be Native Americans, or be so-called Indians. Yeah. So that was the choice, if we wanted to be in theater or the Thespians that would be it, the only choices, but my mother you know she took myself, my brother, sister and a lot of the community of young people in Bryn Mawr and Ardmore and introduced us to, you know, like Carter G. Woodson and George Washington Carver and a lot of different people and in fact there was a man, who lived, well his mother lived on our street in Bryn Mawr and the man’s name was Charles Alfred Anderson.
And he is a man who flew Eleanor Roosevelt in an airplane. He was one of the trainers at Tuskegee Institute back in the day and his mother lived in our block. And we were told as young people, when we were very young, that if we saw a bi-plane circling her home three times, that would be her, her son, you know, he acknowledged her by doing that, and I witnessed seeing that you know, and then eventually I met him, Charles Anderson and his wife, and his two sons. His oldest son was my age and his youngest son was my brother’s age, and my brother and myself played with his children, when they came up some summers from Tuskegee, and we, you know, retained that connection of friendship, family for years, you know. That’s part of our heritage as well.
My mother, she had something in our church Saints Memorial Baptist Church, she had a program, she was a part of the program called The Sunshine Band. The Sunshine Band would take young people and take them on field trips to different places, museums and at that time there was a Negro History Week. And my mother was part of Negro History Week renamed to Negro History Month in the state of Pennsylvania. And, you know, I have a picture of her with governor Shaff and others, C. Delores Tucker while the governor signed off the proclamation, what have you, you know, oh, well, and then eventually in the church, you know, like the name changed from Negro to Black, you know, people accepted, people of color accepted more, during the Black Power era, so the club was called the Black History Club, you know, eventually.
My mother would have, during Black History Month she would have lecturers at another church in Ardmore, Zion Baptist Church. We were introduced to a lot of our culture. The school we went to, all the schools, I never had a black teacher, never at all. Bryn Mawr elementary school, Ardmore junior high school and Harriton High School. And so when I went to junior high, I started meeting friends from Philadelphia who had went to Philadelphia schools, with black folk, and they had black teachers and white teachers, and it was a new experience. I was hoping up to see a different world out there other than just, everything just Europeans teaching black folk only, and whatever information given was from their perspective and not considering perspectives outside of their scope.
Do you remember when King came to Girard College?
I remember hearing that he did, yeah. I wasn’t there. I’ve seen pictures and I’ve seen some, you know, footage. My mother also walked around the walls of Girard College as well, and my sister and brother and I believe I did also, I believe I did. So I’ve been told, it’s something that I don’t remember.
Yeah, it seems like your mother had a really great impact on your life.
And a lot of folks’ lives. She took a lot of young people to places that they would probably never go to, introduced them to different experiences and information.
Yeah, and I think, I mean, we do read a lot about the significance of the black mother in the Free School. I know Du Bois writes about it, but it comes from lived experiences, like Philadelphia is almost a matriarchal city where women are the backbone of the family. I was wondering if you could go into that more.
Well my mother she was friends with other matriarchal type women like C. Delores Tucker, you know, there were women like Novella Williams — 52nd Street, Mattie Humphrey — you know, a lot of women, they took up the mantle and helped make it a better world. Matter of fact, Novella Williams, she was the last female who had a vending business at the Penn Relays, you know. Like, the Penn Relays used to have a lot of vendors that would come there from around the world, from New York and what have you and set up on the streets and then the Penn Relay people, they like shut all that down so that the only people who could sell stuff were their vendors, they could only sell their products and what have you. So Miss Novella, she stuck to her guns and she was able to have a concession outside of the relays and one inside of the relays and nobody could shut her down. She passed away several years ago and after she passed away, there’s no one else been holding that up.
In fact, Leo Gadson, who is the founder of the Producers’ Guild, so-called jazz group — he used to work for Novella Williams selling concessions, Penn Relay concessions. And you know, matter of fact, they were members of the same church: White Rock Baptist Church in West Philadelphia and they stood they grounds making sure the blacks could have vending and could benefit from that experience because every year, the last weekend of April, people would come from around the world for the Penn Relays and so they were able to benefit financially from Miss Novella and her organization from the Penn Relays experience.
It seems like there was a large migration of African Americans to this part in Pennsylvania, I mean Ardmore. There had to be like, like a tense, some kind of tension or like, you know, in the social climate at that time. And I was wondering if you could describe that, but also, you know, as far as racism and facing adversity, like what was the first hardship that you felt like you faced in your life?
Well, I mean, there was a whole lot of stuff, I don’t really recall, but I remember, my mother, she was an advocate for people of color. And she was a member of the Main Line branch of the NAACP and I remember going, traveling with her to Pittsburgh, maybe in 1954 to a NAACP national convention and while there, I met Cecil Moore who was a friend of hers. I met Father Thomas Logan, I’m not sure if I met father Paul Washington there, but I met him around the same time, or a little after that. And so during that time with the sit-ins down south. So what we did, with my mother as one of the leaders, adults of the Main Line chapter of the NAACP, and I was part of the Main Line Branch Youth Council — the Lower Main Line, ‘cause Upper Main Line was Paoli, Berwyn, Malvern, Devon, Wayne, and then Lower Main Line was Ardmore, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, you know. So, um, when the stuff was going on with the Woolworth’s five-and-ten-cent stores, the sit-ins down south, we were in constant with them, we picketed Woolworth’s in Wayne, Pennsylvania. My mother, all of us, and young people, and old people, Wayne, Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Ardmore, Pennsylvania, 60th and Market in West Philadelphia, 52nd and Market, West Philadelphia, and 13th and Chestnut, Downtown Philadelphia, you know, we did picketing of those places. In fact, I had a job at Woolworth’s as a stock boy in Ardmore. And as fate had it, later on I picketed the same store that I worked at, you know.
Alfie, I wanted to ask if you could share more about who your neighbors were growing up or people that you saw very frequently, for example, who your music teacher was.
Okay. Oh, my music teacher was a friend of my mother’s, her name was Theresa Adele Tucker. And she and my mother both studied piano with a man named Lewis Benn, Sr. And he was a black man who lived down on the Main Line. And he taught piano, and he taught other instruments. I really don’t know, but he might have taught my mother violin, I’m not sure. But he taught my piano teacher piano. And Theresa Tucker — she was my godmother too.
And so it was her, well, friend of mine who was same the age as my sister, Yvonne, Dr. Yvonne King. Her older sister Phillyis and I, we’re the same age, you know, schooled together. There was a lot of folks. Whole lot of folks. Next door neighbor was a family of ten children, the Harley family, and we grew up with them, we all played baseball together, football, hide and seek. We played, did a lot of stuff, went camping, hiking, rode bicycles, all kinds of stuff, you know. Mhm.
I had friends who are African American and friends who are Caucasians too. There were these two guys named Jeff and Rick Henderson, they’re Caucasian guys, and they live, like Bryn Mawr is in two counties and three townships. Okay, one county is Montgomery County and the other is Delaware County, now in the Montgomery County part, that’s in Lower Merion Township, and in the Delaware County part that’s Haverford Township, and also Radnor Township.
So Jeff and Ricky Henderson, they lived in the Haverford township part of Bryn Mawr. And they hung with black people, I mean that’s who they hung with, you know. And Jeff and Rick both played drums. And Rick became good friends with Elvin Jones, John Coltrane’s drummer, and used to drive Elvin’s drums around for him. And I believe Rick sat in with Trane one time on drums, you know. But um, you know they were like, part of the crew.
And in fact, Rick introduced me to a gang called the Moon Gang in West Philadelphia, and I’ve been friends with the Moon since the 50s, you know. ‘Cause he lived in Bryn Mawr, he lived in a white neighborhood. But he hung with the blacks in Bryn Mawr. And when he went to high school, he commuted to Dobbins Tech High School and through that, over there he met, a guy named Arthur Hill. Arthur Hill was one of the leaders in Moon Gang and Rick and him became friends and then also Harold Johnson, he was a heavyweight boxing champion. Um, he, Rick used to go to study — Rick was training as a boxer at one point, so he was studying with Harold, and then as a reciprocation, Rick would teach Harold drums, you know, Harold was an aspiring drummer as well. But, you know, and Rick and I, Jeff is longer with us, but Rick and I, we’re still very close friends. In fact, we talked a couple of days ago — he’s down south now. He played with Mose Allison, he played drums with Mose Allison, a famous bluesy jazz singer. And he also played with Dave Van Rock, the folk musician.
And he commuted by himself on public transportation from Bryn Mawr, you know, took the trolley, the 100 P&W trolley to 69th street, then he caught the El, the Market-Frankford El, down to Broad Street or to City Hall, and I think he caught 33 bus, northbound. At that time I don’t know if the 33 was a bus or trolley, it might have been a trolley. ‘Cause a lot of different bus lines today, bus lines, some of them were trolley lines. Like the 42 bus was a trolley, you know. The 52 used to be a trolley. The 46 was a trolley. So on and so forth. ‘Cause back in the day, that was the era of the trolley, before the buses and private automobiles became in vogue and people, you know, embraced that mode of transportation.
And as a white person, I mean to make that commute all the way to North Philadelphia, especially 22nd and Lehigh. I mean, that’s, that’s kind of like a drastic change in environment.
And you also said that he hung out with mostly African Americans.
And I was wondering, I mean, as a white man, what do you, what do you attribute that to like, was it the influence of jazz. Like was there, was it the movement at the time that, you know, gravitated him towards jazz and African American culture?
The movement, meaning…
Like political movements.
That I really don’t know. I just knew that when I heard about them, you know, him and his brother early on. That they hung with black guys, they acted like black folks, you know. They carried themselves, they walked like black folks, they talked like black folks — so they was, it was what they was into. And friends, I mean, friends to the end, you know what I mean?
And I wanted to ask you, what else, what are some of the other activities or hobbies that you think really defined your childhood and your teenage years you know, because I know that you’ve mentioned in the past that you also sang and I also know you dance but I don’t know when you began dancing so I’m wondering if that has roots in your childhood as well.
Yeah, well on my block was my cousin. Okay? He was my play cousin, okay. Matter of fact his mother was a godmother to my sister, my brother, myself and my mother and father were a godmother, godfather, him and his two sisters, yeah. Okay, so, so he was my play cousin and he was like, a couple years older than me and he was like my big brother of sorts. So he had me hanging with him.
He introduced me to, I guess, like rites of passage, so to speak, for lack of another term. So he took me, introduced me to when I went to see the Globetrotters play — the Harlem Globetrotters. He took me to the first bandstand picnic in Woodside Park. He took me places called Export Import and John Kohler’s which were clothing stores at Eighth and Arch, and the clothes at that time, this was back in the 50s, was a hot, so-called hot rock and roll type, real slick type clothing. So he did these things, he introduced me to this stuff, you know. Introduced me to how to dress, you know, and he was, he was dating a girl who lived in Ardmore, and during when I was in sixth grade, he couldn’t have me hang out with him and not know how to dance. So he took me to her home, and her and her cousin attempted to teach me how to dance.
Unsuccessful. I mean, I enjoyed, you know them trying to teach me but I was all clumsy it was all totally new to me. Eventually, I became a dancer. And also in junior high school we had, you know, everybody like, rock and roll shows. We used to go to the Uptown Theater. So our heroes were like Frankie Lymon, The Teenagers and the Charts, the Channels, The Dells, The Dubs, so many groups and we wanted to be like them.
So we had a singing group called the Pentagons, which is the name we found out later on somebody else owned that name, but that’s a name we had. And we had, we had uniforms, we bought our clothes. We had steps we would do. And we sang and we, and one of the guys in the group wrote original songs. We had two original songs that we would do.
And during when I was in junior high school we heard about on the radio, on WGAS radio, that this guy had a recording studio and a record company. And he lives in North Philly and he was, he was like, if your group would go to his place, he would rate you. And if he liked what you did, he would give you a contract, recording contract and record you.
So we went there, went up to his place, and we auditioned and he liked us. He liked our songs and he liked our look and you know, steps and everything. So he gave us a contract, we gave it to our parents, our parents then took it to an attorney, and the attorney said no, I wouldn’t recommend that you have them sign this.
And so that was a big blow for us as young people because, I guess, we wanted to be able to dance at the Uptown Theater and on the stage and perform and all that. So we were, you know, struck with that, but found out later on the contract wasn’t, wasn’t a good contract, you know, like a slavery type contract. So we, we did stuff in high school, we performed record hops, dances and sock hops and stuff like that. And, you know, we really enjoyed doing that kind of stuff, you know.
I really appreciate you being so candid about your life with us. And I think that it’s really going to be something that’s going to benefit not only us, but you know, the younger generation who really want to broaden their life and who really want to, you know, come to Philadelphia with the intentions of growing with the people, and not just seeing themselves as above the people. And yeah, I really hope that in some way we can, you know, still continue this.
Right. You know, just real quickly, like, I’m glad you mentioned that because my hometown, Bryn Mawr, okay, so, I grew up in Bryn Mawr, and there were certain pockets of blacks, you know, blocks, streets where we lived. And so we, we like, kind of like we’re the indigenous folk from Bryn Mawr, but I’ve seen people come, move up there from Africa and other places, and you’re walking down streets. So we’re used to like — growing up the way we grew up — if I walked down the street and I see you, I nod to you, you nod to me, and it’s a greeting or whatever. And people like — when I know they see me, and they just keep going like I ain’t nothing, invisible. You know what I mean?
Or like they have arrived on the so-called Main Line, so that they are way up here, and you know, so they don’t need to have no kind of discourse with nobody else because everybody else is beneath them because they’re on cloud nine, you know? That’s, that’s a hurt-piece right there. That’s an observation and so like some people, I’ll get in from of them, “How you doing?” And then some of them will reluctantly, meekly reply. So, they messed up. They bought in to something that, that is like a fantasy. That to them, that’s reality though.
Well, Michelle and I were actually having this conversation in her reading group yesterday where we talked about whiteness, and racism is really the negation of human possibility. And I think like, yeah, I mean, what I noticed, especially at Temple University is that a lot of the students don’t say hi to the black people in the community who live there, who have lived there for generations. But it’s just like,
Like the black people are people just in the way.
But it’s like, through this process of interviewing, like, through hearing your story and listening to your story, I’ve learned more about myself, as much about myself as I’ve learned about you.
And I think like this is, yeah, I mean, this is something really significant that we’re doing. And yeah, it made me realize like, this is so much bigger than us.
Yes, I agree.
Because there are people who need this.
So, this is medicine. This is a ministry, you know, good medicine. Hopefully, you know, it will work good for, beneficial for folk who view and read the outcome.
Interview conducted and compiled by Michelle Yuan Lyu and Brandon Hai Do.