Story

The Disturbing and Inspiring History of the All Wars Memorial

The All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors (1934) on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Photo: Caitlin Martin for aPA.

The Association for Public Art (aPA) is dedicated to telling the complex stories about public artworks in Philadelphia, and we will be using our platform to actively participate in this essential civic discourse by sharing lesser-known histories and new points of view of sculptures in the coming months. Some of these stories are disturbing, and some are inspiring.

A monument to the “unselfish devotion to duty” of African American military men was a rare objective in early 20th century America; the artist began his work, but the struggle to realize the memorial had just begun.

The story behind Philadelphia’s All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors (1934) by artist J. Otto Schweizer is a significant one that our organization never gets tired of sharing. When the sculpture was first brought to the attention of the Association for Public Art (aPA), it was in poor condition sited in a remote location in West Fairmount Park. However, a large wreath at the site was a clue that Black veterans and those paying tribute had been gathering at the memorial for Veterans Day, no doubt for years. The aPA arranged for initial conservation treatment in 1984, and the humanity of the monument was immediately stirring. Revealing its dignified beauty and telling the story of the clearly racist attitudes that placed it at the site, energized fiercely determined community leaders who formed a Committee to Restore and Relocate the All Wars Memorial. The history of this memorial and the racism that lies at the heart of its long journey should be revisited at this time, when we strive toward racial justice and reflect on monuments across the nation.

Before and after conservation of the memorial - black and white photo
Before and after conservation of the All Wars Memorial in 1984. Photos: Franko Khoury courtesy Tatti Art Conservation.

 

A GRAY INVINCIBLE (Commissioning a Monument to Black Military Men)

1902 portrait of Samuel Beecher Hart
Samuel Beecher Hart, who sponsored a bill to have the memorial created. Photo courtesy PA House of Representatives.

The idea for the All Wars Memorial began in the 1920s, when the Honorable Samuel Beecher Hart, an African American Pennsylvania legislator and captain of the Gray Invincibles – the last “colored” unit in the Pennsylvania Militia – sponsored a bill to have a memorial created to honor the state’s Black military men who had served the U.S. in wartime. Funds were finally appropriated in 1927, and a Colored Soldiers Statue Commission was created by the Governor. His five appointees to the Commission were African American. A competition was held, and Philadelphia sculptor J. Otto Schweizer was selected. The Swiss-born immigrant, who lived and worked in the city’s Tioga neighborhood, is responsible for many other historic monuments commissioned for sites in Pennsylvania. Samuel Beecher Hart wanted the memorial, which is now owned by the City of Philadelphia, to be in a prominent location, and the artist recommended the Parkway. A monument to the “unselfish devotion to duty” of African American military men was a rare objective in early 20th century America; the artist began his work, but the struggle to realize the memorial had just begun.

 

A BIASED ART JURY

When the All Wars Memorial was brought before the city’s powerful Art Jury – the forerunner of what is now the Art Commission – for approval, it was denied its proposed location on the Parkway due to blatant racism. The Art Jury offered Fitler Square as an alternative. According to the Associated Press, the Art Jury’s reasoning was that the Parkway was becoming an avenue of war memorials that were “mediocre”. Public protest against Fitler Square placement mounted, with one nearby building owner writing to the Art Jury in opposition, claiming that it had “very desirable tenants living in these apartments, and we feel that such a statue opposite the apartments would cause us a loss of tenancy.” The racist intention behind suggesting Fitler Square as a location was transparent: keep the memorial out of sight. Fitler Square was the epitome of urban blight in the 1930s. It made little sense as a location, as the area was largely inhabited by Irish-Americans who had no interest in the memorial – and the Black community saw the site as unworthy. A compromise eventually was reached to place the memorial in West Fairmount Park.

Left: The memorial installed in 1934 in West Fairmount Park, the compromise location. Photo courtesy The Library Company;  Right: A 1947 photo of Fitler Square, the Art Jury’s suggested location for the memorial. Photo courtesy City of Philadelphia Department of Records.

 

A REMOTE LOCATION and THE PEOPLE’S FIGHT

After heated debate, city officials compromised on a site in West Fairmount Park, and the All Wars Memorial was installed in what was then a remote area of West Fairmount Park behind Memorial Hall (now the Please Touch Museum), where it languished and remained hidden for 60 years. Samuel Beecher Hart’s granddaughter, Doris Jones Holliday, tried for years to have the memorial relocated. “Doris fought with the city, and she wrote letters, made phone calls, and talked to people about moving the statue to a better place,” said Hart’s great-grandson, Samuel Hart Jones, Jr., who would visit the statue in Fairmount Park as a boy with his aunts Doris and Harriet and his grandmother.

1934 unveiling of the All Wars Memorial in West Fairmount Park - black and white photo
Left: Children, including Samuel Beecher Hart’s granddaughter, Doris Jones Holliday, at the unveiling the All Wars Memorial at its original site in West Fairmount Park. Photo courtesy Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center;  Right: Photo of Doris (left) and her sister Harriet visiting the memorial. Photo courtesy Doris Holliday from aPA’s archives.

 

Memorial Day parade at the All Wars Memorial - black and white photo
A Memorial Day parade at the All Wars Memorial in West Fairmount Park in 1969 with the Fort Dix Army Band. Photo courtesy Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.

It was finally relocated to the Parkway in 1994 thanks to the efforts of the Committee to Restore and Relocate the All Wars Memorial, led by Michael Roepel. “In 1993 I was a city planner, and it was brought to my attention by the [Association for Public Art] that there was a monument located in the park made up of African American soldiers,” said Roepel. “You practically had to be lost to find out that the memorial existed.” He helped form a committee to restore and relocate the monument to “its rightful place on the Parkway.”

 

WHO WERE THEY?

Each of the men depicted was a real person who the artist knew. Photo: Caitlin Martin for aPA.

“The models were people that the artist knew, and I think that is just one of the reasons why they are so imposing. Their posture is noble and dignified, and their faces are intense and exquisitely composed,” said Penny Bach, Executive Director of the Association for Public Art. The six black soldiers and sailors flank a woman representing Justice, who was modeled after the artist’s wife. Above them is a symbolic “torch of life” surrounded by four American eagles, and allegorical figures on the other side of the monument represent the principles for which American wars have been fought. While the monument is not without its issues – there is the conspicuous detail of the towering allegorical white female flanked by Black military men – it is overall an exceptional work of sculpture that is appreciated and beloved by many.

 

FINALLY, ON THE PARKWAY AT LAST

Michael Roepel standing in front of the All Wars Memorial on the Parkway
Michael Roepel, who led the Committee to Restore and Relocate the All Wars Memorial. Photo: Albert Yee for aPA.

In 1994 the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors was relocated by the City of Philadelphia with appropriate fanfare, and it has stood proudly at a prominent location on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Logan Square. Doris Jones Holliday, who lobbied for its move and as an 11-year-old child pulled the drape off of the sculpture in 1934, asked her nephew to represent the family and remove the drape 60 years later. Also attending were the artist’s granddaughters, Elyssa S. Burke and Carol Sides, who remembered playing at Schweizer’s feet in his studio.

Men in front of the memorial at the rededication in 1994 on the Parkway
The 1994 re-dedication of All Wars Memorial at its current site on the Parkway. Photo: P. Bach for aPA.

Related Artworks

Artwork

All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors

(1934)

by J. Otto Schweizer (1863 - 1955)

Logan Square, Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 20th Street

The Honorable Samuel Beecher Hart, a Pennsylvania legislator and captain of the Gray Invincibles, proposed a memorial to the state’s African American military men who had served the United States in wartime.

Artwork

Aero Memorial

(1948)

by Paul Manship (1885 – 1966)

Aviator Park, Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 20th Street

Located opposite the main entrance of the Franklin Institute, the bronze sphere is dedicated to the aviators who died in World War I.

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