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    Black Philadelphia through the lens of John W. Mosley

    The children were just adorable. Photographer John W. Mosley had captured them in their fashion best, on their way perhaps to church on an Easter morning in early spring. They were a proud group, marching more than walking as if the world was theirs for the taking.

    These children were a far cry from the ones of black children I’d seen illustrated in a 1911 book at an auction house the day before. Author and illustrator Eloise Lee Sherman had painted those children with all of the stereotypes I’d seen in other books like it: illiterate, barefoot, carrying a watermelon and wearing tattered handmade clothes.

    By the time Mosley photographed his children a few decades later, little had changed in the way black people were portrayed by others.

    John Mosley photographs

    Easter Sunday, 1951.

    Mosley photographed a people as they were in real life, doing in Philadelphia what the Scurlocks were doing in Washington, DC, what Teenie Harris was doing in Pittsburgh, what the Hooks Brothers were doing in Memphis, what the Smith twins were doing in Harlem, what James Van Der Zee had started decades earlier in Harlem, and Philadelphian Jack T. Franklin had started doing alongside Mosley in the 1950s.

    Mosley’s wonderful photographs of black Philadelphia, its culture, its institutions and its rituals are on display at the Woodmere Art Museum in an exhibit titled “A Million Faces: The Photography of John W. Mosley” that will be around until Jan. 16. On the walls of two galleries at the museum are 100 black and white photographs of the black bourgeoisie, celebrities, clubs and also plain common folk like the dressed-up children.

    Many people in the photos are not identified, and the museum would appreciate it if you’d drop by, see if there’s anyone you recognize, and let them know. Or check out the website to share your stories about the photos.

    John Mosley photographs

    John W. Mosley in a self-portrait, 1941. He did not like having his own photo taken.

    The items in the exhibit are just a mere handful of the more than 300,000 prints, negative and photos shot by Mosley from the 1930s to the 1960s that are in the John W. Mosley Photographic Collection at the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University. (There’s even a photo in the exhibit of Blockson as a shot-putter in the Penn Relays in the 1950s). I first became familiar with Mosley’s career not long after I moved to Philadelphia and dropped by the collection. Forever the educator, Blockson gave me a copy of a 1992 book he had compiled with some of Mosley’s photos titled “The Journey of John W. Mosley.”

    Mosley was born in North Carolina in 1907 to a Baptist preacher father and stay-at-home mother, according to the book. He played football in high school and attended Johnson C. Smith College (now university) in Charlotte. He found photography in the 1920s in the form of a simple box camera.

    He moved to Philadelphia in the 1930s and got a job at the Barksdale Photography Studio, where he learned about photography and editing. (His wife recalled in the book that he used their bathtub to wash photos before placing them in a dryer). He photographed people and events in the Philadelphia area and Atlantic City, as well as other Northeastern cities, and his work appeared in several African American newspapers.

    John Mosley photographs

    An unidentified woman on Easter Sunday, 1950s.

    Mosley seemed to be everywhere – at every cultural and sporting event, cotillion balls, picnics and protests, jazz sets and press events. He loved to photograph beautiful black women in bathing suits, his wife said in the book. During World War II, he photographed women as pin-ups for their husbands and boyfriends. He also photographed nude women, which, his wife told Blockson, she later regretted having made him get rid of.

    He didn’t drive, so he was transported to the events, and he was shy about having his own picture taken. But others loved to see him coming. When people spied him with his camera – for years, the Graflex Speed Graphic that is synonymous with 1940s newspapermen and then the Rolliflex – they jockeyed to get into range of his lens.

    “Having your photo taken by him,” one admirer said, “was considered an honor.” He became the photographer and art director of the Pyramid Club, a social and cultural organization for black men in Philadelphia, when it was formed in 1937.

    John Mosley photographs

    Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson at the Pyramid Club, 1943. Roosevelt was in town for a ceremony honoring Anderson at a local church. They are holding a copy of the annual pictorial album of the club.

    One photo in the exhibit shows Marian Anderson and Eleanor Roosevelt looking at an annual album titled “Pictorial Album of the Pyramid Club,” a compilation of Mosley’s photos. I’d love to find a copy of it at an auction, along with a pin-up-style calendar illustrated by artist Dox Thrash. Mosley died in 1969 at the age of 62.

    On several of his photos, he scratched whimsical sketches as part of his signature: a photographer snapping a photo of a posed pig, an artist’s palette with paint brushes, a wolf with a camera.

    John Mosley photographs

    John W. Mosley signed several of his photographs with these sketches.

    Here are some other photos from the exhibit.

    John Mosley photographs

    Ella Fitzgerald gets her hair done by Helen “Curl” Harris before a performance in 1950. Fitzgerald purchased wigs from Harris, an entrepreneur who owned several beauty businesses, and created her own line of makeup and hair products.


    John Mosley photographs

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., left, at Chicken Bone Beach in Atlantic City.


    John Mosley photographs

    Philadelphia Stars baseball team of the Negro Baseball Leagues, 1944.


    John Mosley photographs

    A female grocery store owner poses in front of her business. Entrepreneurs like her hired Mosley to photograph them and their businesses.


    John Mosley photographs

    Marchers protest discriminatory hiring practices at the Philadelphia Transportation Co. in 1944.


    John Mosley photographs

    People leaving the Academy of Music in 1949 after a performance of Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto.” They were coming out a side door that led from segregated seating at the academy. They could not enter or leave through the main door.


    John Mosley photographs

    A cooking demonstration at the Pyramid Club. Note the pyramid mural on the wall. I wonder who painted it.


    John Mosley photographs

    John W. Mosley photographed women in the 1940s in front of prints by Dox Thrash for a calendar.




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    1. I just happened on this site while looking for current value of a Fireside Game Co. card game: Game of In Dixie Land, that you described, including photos, on this site. I collect Fireside games, which they marketed as educational games, and happen to have a mint condition set of In Dixie Land.

      The photos above are wonderful and the people in them are beautiful. So much hope, so much promise and potential. Thanks for sharing them.

      Suggestion: You probably already know all about them, but in case you don’t, I suggest you look for paintings by the Florida Highwaymen in your auctions.Ive lived in FL for a long time and these paintings are particularly beautiful showing “real Florida”. Here’s a bit of information found on website:


      “In the early 1950’s through the 1980’s a group of twenty-six African-American artists painted beautiful landscapes that displayed the serene, undeveloped Florida landscape of their time. Today these artists are known as the “Florida Highwaymen” and because of the tranquil scenes and history involved, their original paintings are highly demanded by collectors and enthusiasts.”

      See also:




      • Thanks, Ruth. I am familiar with the Florida Highwaymen, but I don’t think I have come across any of their works. Perhaps I’ll need to become more familiar with their names and their styles.

    2. Love the pictures and seeing us as the beautiful people we are. Great blog.

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