Folk Arts of Social Change Exhibition

stories to live by

Plenty of history is stored in the memories and keepsakes of those who lived through both legendary and little-known struggles for justice and freedom. The everyday objects gathered in this section are associated with significant experiences. Like the hand-made objects in an earlier section of this exhibition, their meanings, messages and uses are kept alive by their custodians; such meanings are not always readily apparent.

These objects are physical evidence of important stories, and of the community that emerges from the kitchen tables, the streets, and the church basements where work for social change began and continues. Each of the artifacts here reflects aspects of the identity and perspective of the person who saved it, as well as the history of a family, a community, or a political movement. Justice and equity live both in the stories that animate these objects and in the debates and disagreements that they provoke. Each of these objects holds many stories for its owner. We tell some of these stories; others are left unsaid.

Stories associated with these objects of memory elaborate universal themes: epic sagas of conflicts between good and evil, the exploits of clever tricksters and venerable sages, tales of great risks and of how people have "paid the price." There are coming-of-age stories, and stories of how people have served as witnesses and actors, playing their parts, expected or not. All of these themes have been played out, like great social dramas, in the streets of Philadelphia - and they are still being played out today.


Robert M. Smith

Bolt cutter with cloth case, 1984
Courtesy of Robert M. Smith

"On the morning of January 30, 1984, in memory of Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, we drove up to the back of a test facility at the General Electric Space Center in Valley Forge. The sun was just coming up and it was cold. I remember there even being a light snow. Taking the pair of bolt cutters, we cut through the locks and climbed to the top of the building via a stairwaythat goes up the back of the test facility. When we reached the top of the building, we poured blood that had been drawn from our arms onto the testequipment. The act represented the bloodshed that would ensue in war and wasBolt Cutters a reminder that we should cherish life, not threaten or destroy it with nuclear weapons or any kind of war planning.

Then we unfurled down the side of the building a very large banner - if you can imagine a five-story banner, easily a story in width, hanging from the side of the building. It had taken weeks to make. It was anchored at the top with a number of magnetic weights. It read, 'DSCS III is immoral and illegal.' (DSCS III stands for 'Defense Satellite Communication System' and it was the name of the satellite GE was producing for nuclear war planning.) But even though it was quite visible to the turnpike that adjoins that facility - I mean, we could hear people honking - we sat at the top and waited for probably close to an hour before we were arrested. It surprised us that frankly, the reaction, and getting the police wasn't a lot faster. We expected to be up there all of minutes. We watched as the police came up over the hill, five or six police cars, plus a van - all for four people. Some of the time was spent praying. We had a bit of a service prepared, I seem to recall. We also took up a bullhorn, where we spent a few minutes addressing the security personnel who were scurrying around down below. Hours later, we were taken before a magistrate, before being jailed upon refusal to pay bond. We were jailed for, I think, five days before the bail was reduced to personal recognizance, and subsequently the charges were dropped against us out of concern that we would argue a justification defense." --Robert M. Smith

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Rafaela Colón

Dignity suit, c. 1968
Missing polaroid photograph, once owned by Rafaela Colón, showing her in the suit described below

"When I graduated from high school, even though I had two scholarships, I knew that my family could not afford for me to go to college. So I started working. So I looked for a job, looked for a job. And finally found a job with the American Friends Service Committee with the Quakers. Now, the reason I applied there, and I felt comfortable, because I thought it was the American Friendly Service Committee. I used to make $1.91 an hour. My first check was fifty-seven dollars. I think the first time I felt that I had an inkling to struggle was when I went to Blum's, a really nice department store, to buy an outfit. And I had tried on some clothes. And the woman said, 'Who's helping her?' And the other woman said, 'Don't worry about it, she's a spic, she's not gonna buy anything.' And I was the only one in the dressing room. Something just hurt. So I tried on the two suits. I had just gotten paid. I paid her. I told you, I made like fifty-seven dollars a week. And each suit was fifty dollars back then. It was 1967 or '68. I bought both suits. And I wrote a check. When I got home, my mother said, 'We have to take them back.' I told her, 'No mom, I have to buy them, I have to buy them.' My mom said, 'Why?' (My mom always told everybody this story.) I told mom, 'Today I bought my dignity.' And of course, you know, I was broke for the next two weeks. So I think that was when I really noticed that things were different. Because, there was disparity, but I always thought it was because we were poor, that we couldn't get those things, not because we were of color." --Rafaela Colón

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Peang Koung

Tror sao (Khmer musical instrument), 1980s
Tror saoTwo-stringed violin by Peang Koung
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Folklore Project

"The tror sao is one of the main instruments for playing the music for Cambodian weddings. In a lot of the music, especially the wedding, the tror sao would lead the music and then other musicians would follow that. When my dad used to play, he would be the tror sao. And the whole group used to be our family - seven people, playing takhé, khim, tror ou, drum and singing. Way at the beginning, my brother Koung Khom played the drums. My sister Leap played the khim, along with me - she would also help sing. I would play the takhé and my sister Lisa would also play the takhé. Sometimes we would change around. My brother Sipo would play a tror ou, or switch with my father. My father still plays the tror, with a new group that he helped organize. We don't play together as a family any more. We survived the Khmer Rouge, but my brother died here from cancer. My sister Leap was really talented, creative and outgoing. She was caring to others. She was killed on June 30, 1996 as a bystander in a violent shooting spree in the community. The reason I name both the arts and the tragedies is that you have to carry on the art - it helps you remember at least. And sometimes art can help you forget and sometimes forgive. So no matter what happens or what kind of tragedies my father went through, he wouldn't give his music up. Although it is hard. Sometimes you feel you are playing in pain, because usually you used to be in a group with all of the family and now my father is in a group without us. For me, it is painful. I couldn't handle it, but for him he is into it and he really cherishes the music, no matter what. It is like breathing for him. It's like a weapon to protect yourself. His instrument is his spirit." --Leendavy Koung (daughter of the artist)

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Father Paul M. Washington

personal planner, 1968
Father Washington's personal plannerLeather bound calendar
Courtesy of Father Paul M. Washington

"There comes a time when we must act, not because it is traditional, not because it's acceptable, but because conscience says that it is right." Guideposts, words of inspiration, can come from anywhere - and inside the front cover of his daily planner, Father Paul Washington keeps such words: facts, quotes, dates, statistics about African American buying power and numbers of African Americans incarcerated, words of scripture, names of civil rights martyrs, and more. When he is called on to speak, he is never at a loss, always prepared. Many have depended on Father Washington, over the years, for his readiness, for knowing what to do, for helping others to find the ethical, just and righteous position. The words in the front of his planner, and the many dates and appointments inscribed in its pages, are reminders of both the struggle to find the right and ethical way, and the hard daily work of building a just society. Formerly rector of the Church of the Advocate, Father Washington's planner from 1968 includes the dates of the third Black Power Conference, held at the Advocate under his tenure, on August 28 through September 1, 1968 - a time when "something revolutionary took place there." The planner also chronicles countless meetings on many issues of importance to his parishioners in the North Philadelphia neighborhood of the Advocate, and on local, regional, national and international issues.

"Reggie Schell came, from the Black Panther Party, and they wanted to have a rally. And they wanted to use the church. And of course, what you knew about the Black Panther Party, you read in the white press. 'These are people who believe in violence and this and that and the other.' And I listened very carefully to what the Black Panthers were saying. They were saying 'We have a right to defend ourselves. And if violence is perpetrated on us, we feel justified in defending ourselves by violence.'

I always sought for an answer as to 'Why?' Why would you do it? And I wanted to be able to justify my answers theologically and biblically. They're saying they have a right to self-defense, and by God, I believe they have that right. People really came for that rally from all over the country - 10,000 people. And people were afraid that there'd be violence. Not a single incidence of violence. And so they came and went. There are some firsts that took place there, at the Church of the Advocate." --Father Paul M. Washington

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Last update: April 12, 2009