Mike Morgan Images

Honoring Black History at the Philly Kroc

by Hugo Bravo

Photographs by Mike Morgan Images

The Salvation Army Ray & Joan Kroc Center of Philadelphia welcomed a packed audience to its chapel for its Black History Month celebration, “Shining a Light on Black History in Philadelphia.”

“From the earliest days of our nation’s founding to the present, Black Philadelphians have left an indelible mark on the city’s culture, politics, and arts,” said Major Leslie Knaggs, administrator and congregational life officer at the Philadelphia Kroc. “Their stories, struggles, triumphs, and legacies are woven into the very fabric of our city, enriching us all.”

The honorees were coach and founder of the PDR (Philadelphia Department of Recreation or Pride, Determination, Resilience) swim team Jim Ellis, three-time Emmy Award-winning composer Bill Jolly, and Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco!) founder Joan Myers Brown.

Guests were also treated to performances by vocalist and Kroc Center staff member Regina Smith; Pastor Edward Fields from the Ambassador Seed of Love Church, who played piano and sang; Philadanco’s apprentice company Danco 2; and even Bill Jolly himself.

Chris Bagley from Jim Ellis’ PDR swimming introduced him to the audience, which included many of Ellis’ past and present swim students. PDR was one of the first predominantly Black swim teams for inner city youth. Ellis was influential in designing the pool at the Philadelphia Kroc Center and is currently the coach of ‘PDR Swimming for Success’, which uses the Kroc Center as their primary practice facility.

“Jim strives for excellence and pushes his swimmers to achieve excellence. He knows what it takes to get you to compete,” said Bagley. “But he never just pushed for trophies or records; he said those things fade, break, or get lost. Instead, he wanted to develop self-esteem and confidence in his swimmers, because swimmers with those qualities would swim fast. More importantly, he knew that young people going into adulthood would be successful if they had those qualities.”

“My family always told me to follow your dreams and your passion, and you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s true. I didn’t know I’d been doing this for over 50 years. Someone here had to tell me that,” said Ellis.

“This is a story about community,” he said. “We came together in a sport that they said was not for African Americans. It’s still primarily a white sport. But we came to compete, and we did it at the highest level possible.”

Vocalist and Kroc Center staff member Regina Smith introduced Bill Jolly. Jolly has performed on stage with some of the biggest names in music, including Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, and Luther Vandross. An accomplished keyboardist, Jolly spent 10 years as the musical director for jazz great Grover Washington Jr. and has performed before five U.S. presidents.

“We honor you and we treasure you, as a Philadelphia treasure, but also here in our Kroc Center,” said Smith to Jolly, who holds a membership at the Philadelphia Kroc and is often seen playing basketball on its courts.

Jolly told the audience to remember that the difficult moments in our lives are there for a reason, and that he would not be where he is if he hadn’t failed repeatedly.

“As a kid, I didn’t have a lot of friends, so music became my friend. When a few of us started a band, we got booed, and soon we even lost our keyboard player. He said we couldn’t play,” said Jolly. “When I couldn’t find another piano man, I taught myself to play piano, so I would never be without a keyboard player again.”

From performing at small music clubs for $25 per night, Jolly was introduced to Grover Washington Jr., who opened doors to music, TV, and film for Jolly and his talents.

“You look back and you see that you’ve built something for yourself out of all that failure,” said Jolly. “I thank God for all those things in my life that didn’t work out.”

Veda Brown, Kroc Center community liaison, honored Joan Myers Brown (no relation), who, through her dance company Philadanco! and the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts, has made significant contributions to formal dance in Philadelphia and across the country. A member of the dance faculty at Howard University, she founded the International Conference of Black Dance Companies and has received two National Medals of the Arts, the nation’s highest civic honor for excellence in the arts, from Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Veda, who once worked as Myers Brown’s personal assistant, said, “I was a young Christian woman seeking a path, and God was directing my path. He directed me to Philadelphia, and I learned from a businesswoman, entrepreneur, and a boss. She became my mentor, and then she became ‘mom.’”

Veda shared a story about how Myers Brown did not want her assistant walking home at night to a tiny one-room apartment, so she offered her one of her own luxury apartments nearby to stay in. “I lived there for four years. That why I call her mom: because that’s a mom,” said Veda.

“When your community and the people in it want to honor you and say they appreciate you, it’s the best feeling in the world,” said Myers Brown.

“A lot of people say dance is something frivolous or fun. But dance is hard, and it pays off for our young people to formally train in it. It gives them discipline,” said Myers Brown. “Every young dancer wants to get the trophy, but I tell them no dance college is going to ask about your trophies; they’re going to ask about your training.”

Myers Brown said it’s up to all of us to encourage children who want to dance. “Especially our boys,” she said. “They get grief for wanting to dance, and we want to show them that it’s OK for them to dance too.”