A new mural in the Mt Hope neighborhood of Providence celebrates the area’s unique and powerful contributions to music history. Located under the walking bridge that leads to Billy Taylor Park, the mural is based on a plat map of the Mt Hope Neighborhood as it once was, with a timeline of music history featuring musicians who can trace their roots to the neighborhood.
The mural was conceived by Hannah Resseger, who works with young women at the Mt Hope Learning Center. Dr Dannie Ritchie helped to secure the funding for the project from the Providence Department of Arts, Culture and Tourism.
“Every time I drove up this hill and saw that big gray wall I said, ‘This wall needs something. It needs a mural,'” said Hannah Resseger, “I wanted it to be something about the history.”
While researching the history of the neighborhood, Resseger met with Danny Lopes at the East Side Apartments. “And I learned from the elders of the community, who were teenagers at the time, about the Celebrity Club, all about the club, the music, the musicians who came from this neighborhood and the famous musicians who came here and hung out at the Carl’s Diggins record shop [Carl’s Diggins House of Jazz & Soul], and the Cadillacs and I started to envision all that and I said, ‘Let’s make the theme music.'”
“The hotels downtown had pianos inside,” said Danny Lopes. “Whenever you went in there you always heard music playing. And guess where those piano players came from? Right here on the East Side.”
“I’m thankful that everyone is working to keep the memory of the Celebrity Club alive,” said Rhode Island State Representative Blake Filippi (Republican, District 36, Block Island, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly). The Celebrity Club was the first integrated jazz club in New England, and was founded by Paul Filippi, Blake’s father, in 1949.
“My father was born in 1913, poor, had nothing, graduated the sixth grade, and his father passed away and he had to go into the Civilian Conservation Corps [a New Deal a public work relief program] to work and to feed his nine younger brothers and sisters,” said Filippi. “So he went away for years, worked, came back to Providence, worked as a door man downtown and taxi driver, saved up every single penny.”
Paul Filippi, said his son, “was speaking to a lot of his black friends in Providence and they said, ‘We have no place to go. No place to go to listen to live music.’ So my father took his life savings, opened up a little building down the hill, named it the Celebrity Club. On opening night he didn’t even have enough money to put change in the cash registers. Couldn’t even make change.
“The first night the line was around the corner.”
But integration is never without cost, thanks to the evils of government imposed and socially imposed racism, said Filippi.
“It was originally planned to be a black club,” said Filippi, “But the music was so good, the entertainment was so world renowned, that white people from all over the state started saying, ‘Hey, we’d like to hang out there too.’ And of course my father said, ‘Everyone is welcome here.'”
Something that seems commonplace today was heroic in the 1940s and 50s said Filippi. “Some of my father’s lifelong friends stopped talking to him, disowned him as a friend, because he integrated black and white people… The police used to come, beat people up, drag them to jail, and they’d get out and go right back down to the club because the music was still playing.”
Dr Dannie Ritchie also talked about some of the less pleasant history of Providence’s East Side.
“A lot of people have heard about the race riots, right?” asked Ritchie. “The Hard Scrabble and the Snow Town Riots. Everyone knows about it but they don’t realize how much they are a part of the formation of our city.”
Hard Scrabble and Snow Town are neighborhoods in and near present day Mt Hope where working-class whites destroyed multiple black homes in 1824 and 1831.
“At one time, in order to vote, you had to be a homeowner. You had to own property,” said Ritchie. “This multicultural community that was here owned property. And the riots… had a lot to do with destroying property.” Over twenty black homes were destroyed by rioting whites during Hard Scrabble.
“The reaction [to the Hard Scrabble riot] was a slap on the hand,” said Ritchie, “but there was a change in attitudes after the [Snow Town riots]. And there was so much more outrage, that it actually prompted the formalization of the city government.”
During the Snow Town riot the Governor of Rhode Island sent in the militia, which shot and killed four of the rioting whites. Public outrage prompted Providence to form the Providence Police Department to protect people from such riots in the future.
Below is all the video from the event, starting with Dr Ritchie’s introduction.
Hannah Resseger talks about creating the mural.
Long time Mt Hope resident Danny Lopes.
Sylvia Ann Soares gives a lesson on what the Mt Hope Neighborhood used to be like.
Dr Dannie Ritchie provides a little history.
Providence City Councilor Nirva LaFortune (Ward 3) addresses the crowd.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza addressed the crowd and presented Dr Ritchie with a special commendation.
B Mor Seven performed two original spoken word pieces.
Tiana Northup presented a poem.
Representative Blake Filipi (Republican, District 36, Block Island, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly) addresses the crowd.
Raffini, a local storyteller.
Jalia Godette presented some amazing dance moves.
Elisa Perez, Brown University student and researcher and Gina Rodriguez, cultural affairs manager at Providence Arts, Culture and Tourism address the crowd.