Black History in Doylestown, Pennsylvania

On a summer afternoon in 1992 my niece Leigh Miller—since then dubbed our family genealogist—sat on the porch next to my father interviewing him about his Life. The tape was recorded two years before his death. I listened as his voice mingled with chirping birds and cars whizzing past on the street above.

Daddy saved pieces of paper that were road maps of his life: photographs, tax receipts, fan mail, promotions for band appearances, a journal of payments to band members, a voter registration form, his baptism certificate, letters of praise, legal documents …everything and more associated with the home where he was born and died; and where our family remains today–134 years later.

His voice filled with nostalgia as he talked about “Scar of Shame”, a 1927 silent film  that featured his band in a pivotal nightclub scene. Considered a classic, the film was produced by the Colored Players Film Corporation of Philadelphia with an entire cast of African American actors. My niece Leigh eventually tracked down the DVD a family collector’s item now on every family members’ shelf.

(Stratton Family Archives)       STILL FROM ‘SCAR OF SHAME’

Music had been part of Daddy’s studies during his education at Scotland School for Orphans of the War, a boarding school in Franklin County for children whose fathers had served and died during the Civil War or after returning home. As a Union Navy veteran, after my grandfather Joseph B. Stratton’s death in 1900, his children were eligible to attend the boarding school. My father was four months old when our grandfather died at the age of 68.

As the last born of eight siblings, after graduating in 1917 from Scotland School Daddy returned to Doylestown where he lived with his mother Lily—our grandmother, embracing the role of Stratton Family Steward. By then his seven brothers and sisters were adults, gone from home: Inez, Harold, Joseph, Grace, James, Howard, and Charles.Jps

Hoping to benefit from his love of the written word, Daddy first applied for work in Doylestown at its two newspapers: The Intelligencer told him there were “no openings”. He was then hired at the rival Doylestown Democrat but lasted only one day. In a December 10, 1992 interview by Anne Shultes published in The Intelligencer my father said,

“When I came in the next morning, the boss told me a couple of fellows on the staff objected to me being there and threatened to quit. Because of my race, you know.”

Any thread of bias that lingered after those two rejections was erased when he applied for and was hired at John Wanamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia. Assigned to Elevator #29, Daddy boasted on the tape, “Elevator #29 was the only elevator John Wanamaker (1838-1922) would ride up to his office on the top floor”.

My father had excelled in music while at Scotland School. When John Wanamaker’s son Rodman Wanamaker (1863-1928), took over management of the store he recruited a band among the store’s employees. Daddy was familiar with the piano but when a band member handed him a soprano saxophone a new career was born. The band performed in Wanamaker’s Grand Court of Honor, at times accompanying the famous organ. Dedicated in 1911, the organ towered above the expansive marble quad. After Rodman Wanamaker’s death in 1928 the store was sold.

Prohibition had been in effect since January 17, 1919. Daddy was 26 when he started his band, performing in speakeasies around Philadelphia. He named his group, Sid Stratton’s Four Horsemen Band. The hours in those clubs usually ran from ten at night until six in the morning, with a repertoire of “oldies dance music”. It was around this time that The Colored Players Film Corporation recruited my father’s band to perform in the classic silent film, “Scar of Shame”.

Filmed at the Roadside Hotel on Broad Street, the pivotal scene with Daddy’s band happens during couples on a crowded dance floor. For several seconds viewers can see my father’s band playing their instruments. This film received positive reviews for its portrayal of the Black Experience.

A few years ago, “Scar of Shame” was presented on Turner Classic Movies Silent Film Series. Part of the review published on TMC’s website states–

“The essential crisis of The Scar of Shame is the struggle to rise above the downward pull of the “street,” and this conflict is represented quite effectively in the film’s well-orchestrated (at times overwrought) dramatics. Just as Louise was unable to escape the influence of her stepfather, Alvin finds his promising future endangered by the secret romance of his past, suggesting that every level of black society faces obstacles beyond the obvious black/white struggle.”

Among the memorabilia Daddy had saved was a packet of Fan Mail postmarked in the early months of 1930: Every Friday for an hour, WCAU Radio would broadcast Daddy’s band live from their studio. The letters are rich with praise, asking for songs that must have brought special memories to the listeners.

One of the letters came from a distinguished Doylestown resident: Mrs. Richard Watson, wife of Judge Robert Watson. She asked for 3 songs: ‘Girl of my dreams”, “The Sweetheart of Shamokin”, and “Let me call you Sweetheart”. Before the music played her requests, my father mentioned her name. She later sent him a thank you note adding that she was giving him the saxophone she had played as a little girl.

Prohibition ended in 1933 with the 21st Amendment. The reputation of Daddy’s band flourished beyond those Philadelphia venues, expanding into Doylestown and across Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery Counties. Some of the Doylestown sites that featured the band were the Turk Tavern, VFW, Doylestown Country Club, American Legion, Doylestown Armory and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. By the 1940s into the late 1950s three continued to play with Daddy–Stephen Bullock, Jr., John Cream and Lou Stellabott.

(Stratton Family Archives)
From Left to Right, Drummer Johnny Cream, Sid Stratton, and Guitarist Lou Stellabott


The one image I wasn’t able to find was the tennis court on the rooftop of Wanamaker’s store. Rodman Wanamaker, an advocate for pro golf and athletics in general had ordered the court’s construction. My father was one of the employees allowed to occasionally play on the court. He described the euphoria of hitting a ball on a rooftop tennis court protected by a wire fence. That introduction to the game led him in the 1920s to construct a clay court on a vacant family parcel of land next to our house.

Our tennis court is gone, replaced with a lovely home. I often gaze where the court once was and recall how that piece of ground had reincarnated from a clay tennis court then to a grass tennis court, then a badminton court, a croquet lawn then back to a grass court.

It was for a long time, the only clay tennis court in Doylestown Borough. For multiple dozens of Summer days, feet slid across the clay surface as aces, slices, backhands, deuces or forehands lobbed back and forth over the net. Daddy also taught a lot of youngsters how to play the game. But it was the town’s lawyers and judges that relished the game, often going nose to nose or flipping coins for the thrill to play tennis on that court.

(Stratton Family Archives)
Sid Stratton on unidentified tennis court.

On Wednesday, February 26 the County Theater is showing “Scar of Shame”. It is a one-time only event and staff at the theater have been gracious to invite me, my brother Chris and sister Judith to share memories of our father before the film rolls on the screen. It starts at 7:30. Please join us.

It’s about ‘Time’

President Obama’s speech on July 14 to the NAACP Convention in Philadelphia about the failed criminal justice system recalled a commentary I wrote in 1992 when editor of The Keystone Veteran, a quarterly newspaper of Pennsylvania Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). VVA is the only veteran’s organization that advocates for veterans behind bars.

My commentary, ‘Paying Now or Paying Later’ was published after rumors began flying that our Pennsylvania legislators were considering the closure of a hundred year old school that had been graduating students who went on to higher education.

Scotland School for Orphans of the War is located in Franklin County—south of Harrisburg. The school was established as a boarding school to educate orphans whose fathers had ”… died in the War”. My father and his brothers, sons of a deceased Civil War Navy veteran, would attend Scotland, living on the campus every school year through to graduating from the 12th grade. The school was overseen and received funding from the state. However the school also enjoyed support from hundreds of veteran groups throughout Pennsylvania. Because I edited the Pennsylvania’s VVA quarterly newspaper, circumstances in 1991 found me escorting my father back to his alma mater where he’d not set foot since his 1918 graduation.

Open to children across the Commonwealth, by 1991 very few of the students attending Scotland School had relatives with military service connections. Although there was an aggressive statewide recruiting campaign to enroll youngsters from around Pennsylvania, most of the students attending Scotland came from Philadelphia. Back then it cost close to $25,000 per year to educate and house a Scotland School student. The Harrisburg lawmakers were concerned about this yearly cost per child and that a majority of the student population came from Philadelphia. Many of those city children suffered from learning disabilities or behavior problems–liabilities that in any school require one-on-one attention

In ‘Paying Now or Paying Later, I wrote: Students may also carry the additional hurdles of deteriorating neighborhoods or streets filled with drugs. These are the children who are candidates for the next generation of the $80,000 a year inmate.

The following year I attended Scotland School’s 1992 graduation ceremony where 26 of the 29 graduates (one was a Caucasian)  had been accepted at colleges, junior colleges or technical schools. A few weeks after that graduation I attended a similar ceremony—this one inside the walls of the State Correctional Institute at Graterford. One hundred and eleven men (a few were Caucasian) received diplomas for GEDs, Vocational Certificates and Associate Degrees. One inmate received his Master’s; another received his Bachelor of Arts.

Around that same time a segment appeared on ’60 Minutes’ about inmates receiving federal grants to further their education. Within days of that segment federal legislation put that to a stop. Now inmates wanting to further their education must pay for it themselves or with the help from friends or family. Since then, it just got worse. Mandatory Sentencing, as President Obama described, has made America the country with the most imprisoned people—mostly black–who are serving time for offenses that would keep them locked up for years.

I’d heard and read that a “lot of black people” were locked up in prisons. My reality check came in 1989 when VVA held a State Council meeting inside SCI Graterford. The administration allowed 70 inmates (all veterans) to attend the meeting in the prison’s auditorium. There were only three white faces out of those 70 inmates. It was the same at other state prisons I entered: overwhelmingly black faces. Everywhere.

In 1989 there were less than 10 state prisons in Pennsylvania. Now there are 24. The passing of the Mandatory Sentencing law has been a gold mine for the prison-industrial complex. I never understood why they insisted on using the word corrections to define our prisons. They’re not correcting. They’re punishing. A lifer I know when describing the changes he’d seen in his 35 years at Graterford would begin by saying, “Since coming to this plantation …”

Scotland School closed in 2009. A couple years ago I had a conversation with a man who retired after a career in the juvenile probation and parole system. He shared with me that there was an opportunity for Scotland School to come under the umbrella of Hershey School. In 2013 Scotland School was purchased by the Winebrenner Theological Seminary for $1.8 million.

Distressed neighborhoods in Philadelphia continually deteriorate from poor schools, drugs and violence.