Browse Tag


4 mins read

From Public Assistance To Building a Multi-Million Dollar Cleaning Business

Donna Allie is the founder and president of Team Clean, a Philadelphia-based commercial cleaning business.

Over the past 40 plus years, her company has serviced major locations including the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Kimmel Center, Citizens Bank Park, the home of the Philadelphia Phillies.

She has also accumulated several awards including the Harriet Tubman Trailblazers Award, the Philadelphia Business Journal’s Women of Distinction Award, and The District Minority Small Business Person of the Year Award to name just a few.

We caught up with Dr. Allie to find out more about her business and entrepreneurial journey.

tean clean
Dr. Donna Allie

What inspired you to start Team Clean?

I was a down on my luck, single mother, and recent college graduate with student loan debt. I literally had no job prospects and no way to feed my daughter.

My family and neighbors were mainly domestic workers for affluent families in the area so I decided to turn my knowledge and expertise in cleaning into a business.

What business milestone are you are most proud of?

A milestone that I’m most proud of is successfully cleaning after 49,000 fans at Oriole Park Camden Yards hours before a doubleheader. We recruited 220 cleaners in 2 days and successfully cleaned the stands in 1.5 hours.

They bet we couldn’t do it. Never underestimate the power of a  committed businesswoman!

How was your business initially affected by the pandemic and what helped you get through it and continue to thrive?

Because of our industry (cleaning) we actually thrived during the pandemic. Thanks to a great team of employees, we didn’t skip a beat. Our infectious disease team headed by Kwasi Ampomah continues to grow even after the worst of the pandemic.

We also have wonderful clients who trusted us to make sure their places of business were safe to open up and to ensure we continue to clean for the health and safety of the end users.

team clean

Describe your experience working with PIDC and the ways they have helped your business. How important is it that business owners research and take advantage of local resources?

I have many years working with PIDC. My first major move was from my place of business in Ardmore to the Navy Yard. Then another move to a larger space and more impressionable office in the Navy Yard.

This was a major step for us and many moons ago. PIDC loaned us the funds to make major renovations and furnish this location. Marla Hamilton and Tom Queenan understand the plight of a Black business and I personally call on them for insight. Everyone at PIDC is reachable and they want to help.

What advice do you have for service-based businesses that want to scale?

Give Gold standard service. I know it may be difficult with some clients. However, you must try. Show up to events and make sure people recall your name and don’t forget to reach back and help someone else.

Tony O. Lawson

Grow your business in Philadelphia with financing from PIDC and register for PIDC’s free Business Builder Workshops.

1 min read

How To Benefit From Government Contracts and Local Business Resources

Milligan Group LLC is a telecommunications cabling, video surveillance, and electrical services installation company.

The Philadelphia-based company specializes in providing voice, data, & fiber optics cabling infrastructure, security cameras, and electrical service solutions in virtually every working environment, including commercial, educational, medical and retail.

The company was founded in 2009 by Kariema Milligan and her husband Joseph Milligan Jr. The election of President Barack Obama was a factor in inspiring the couple to launch their business venture.

“The fact that President Obama was elected was inspiring for me. My husband and I had talked about running our own business for years and once he was elected, a light bulb went off for the both of us simultaneously. We looked at each other and said ‘it’s time’,” she recalled.

In this interview Kariema discusses:

  • Tips on how to get government contracts.
  • Biggest lessons learned doing business with the government.
  • How she and Joseph raised the capital needed to fund their business.
  • The strategies implemented that have made the biggest impact on their business.
  • The effects of support from PIDC, a Philadelphia-based local economic development organization.

Grow your business in Philadelphia with financing from PIDC and register for PIDC’s free Business Builder Workshops.

1 min read

This 43 Year Old Telecom Company Is On a Mission To Close The Tech Gap

Brigitte Daniel is the Executive Vice President of Wilco Electronics Systems, Inc., a Black owned telecom business that has been in operation for over 40 years.

For the past four decades, this family owned business provided affordable cable and technology services to low-income communities as well as commercial, governmental, and educational institutions, in Philadelphia. The cable TV division of the business was acquired by Comcast in 2018.

telecom business
Brigitte Daniel, left, executive vice president of Wilco Electronic Systems, and her father, Will Daniel, founder and president of Wilco Electronic Systems.

Now the company focuses on telecom services that include residential and commercial security and surveillance solutions.

In this interview, we discuss bridging the tech divide, how technology is being used in the real estate industry, and the importance of making technology available and affordable to Black communities. Brigitte also provided details of the Comcast acquisition.

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Tony O. Lawson

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6 mins read

This Black Owned Nail Salon on Wheels Finds Success During a Pandemic

Philly entrepreneur Keesha Brown launched her mini nail salon inside an old bus in February, just as the pandemic descended on the region.

The golden bronze bus allows her to travel to her clients. It also lets her cater to just one person or one small group at a time.

Black Owned Nail Salon

“When the COVID happened is when everything changed,” Brown, 36, told Billy Penn. “It actually boosted my business.”

The pandemic, social media, and support for Black-owned businesses stemming from recent protests have been like a holy trinity for success for Brown’s newest endeavor, which she christened Last Minute Nails.

Brown, who runs seven businesses in total, has a cosmetology degree. She “always wanted to be a nail technician,” she said, but had trouble finding a job in traditional shops.

So this year, she purchased an old CCT bus for about $7,500 and transformed it into a stylish mini spa. For about $3,000 in renovations, Brown painted the walls a magenta pink and added floral wallpaper, a black chandelier, velour navy blue salon chairs, and dark wood-look floors.

With every other traditional nail salon shuttered following Gov. Tom Wolf’s closure of non-life sustaining businesses, people turned to Last Minute Nails.

“We were the only nail salon listed as open,” Brown said.

That won’t be the case soon. City officials announced last week that personal services — salons, barbers, and spas — can reopen come Friday.

But it’s not just the monopoly on the nail hustle right now that’s got business booming.

While working on a client in Philly’s West Oak Lane neighborhood, Brown’s bus caught one neighbor’s eye. That neighbor snapped pics and shared the images on Facebook.

“This sister has a mobile nail salon and I just thought that was so cool!” Facebook user Simone Collucci wrote. Her post went viral. It’s been shared more than 12k times — and gave Brown her next biz boost.

“I literally had over 800 calls coming in regarding my services,” Brown said. That was in one day. The next day, she got 1,000 calls, and now her bookings are double what they were at launch.

Hiding her Black ownership because of past experience

Last Minute Nails proudly lists itself as a Black-owned business on Instagram. But Brown, a serial entrepreneur, said she hid it at first.

“I didn’t want people to know that it was a Black-owned business because of the non-support that we get from being Black owned,” Brown said. “When I would go to certain clients, I would say, ‘No, I don’t own the business. I’m just an employee.’”

The increased support following George Floyd protests, Brown said, is not what she usually receives as a Black woman business owner — and she has plenty of experience.

Her other companies include a staffing agency and job training program, both on pause while Last Minute Nails gets off the ground, and an ice cream and Belgian waffle shop called Late Night Munch & Crunch in Marcus Hook, Pa.

black owned nail salon

Brown recalled a time when one of her staffing agency clients, a doctor’s office where she’d placed three long-term employees, found out she owned the business.

“And all of a sudden, that took a downward spiral,” Brown said of the doctor’s office. “From that, it went to [him] not answering my calls, [him] not answering my text messages. So that made me feel like…I wasn’t good enough being a Black owned business.”

On the Last Minute Nails bus, Brown specializes in dip powder false nails because they’re quicker than acrylic application — and her entire business model is based on speed and convenience.

That jibes perfectly with the reopening guidance for the industry provided by the city this week. Brown said she uses hand sanitizer, sanitizes clients’ hands before and after their appointment, disinfects the pedicure bowl with bleach after each client and wears a mask…most of the time.

She caught a little flak for not wearing a mask in the viral Facebook photos.”That was just one of the customers that I felt comfortable enough not to wear a mask at that time,” she explained.

Ultimately, Brown believes she manifested her successful nail shop.

“Last year, I kept saying, I want to be rich,” Brown said. “Now I feel like, I’m not going to ever have to worry about my income anymore because all I do is answer the phone and say, ‘Hey, I can take you right now.’ And literally I can make money all day, every day.”


Source: Billy Penn


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12 mins read

Daughters of the Diaspora is teaching young Black women about Reproductive Health

When Shanaye Jeffers was in fourth grade, she often skipped touch football and double-dutch jump rope at recess to read a book on puberty. In fifth grade, she jumped at the chance to do a school project on childbirth.

By the time Jeffers got her period in sixth grade, she was already well-versed in reproductive health. She knew that women are most fertile when they’re ovulating. That wearing tight, synthetic clothing can increase the risk of a yeast infection. That it’s important to wash private parts but not with heavily scented products.

And she also knew her dedication to understanding reproductive health was unusual.

Daughters of the Diaspora

Most girls don’t know about the inner workings of their bodies, sexual-health experts say — especially black teenage girls, who often face stigma against asking questions at home and are poorly served by sex-education school curriculums tailored for a white majority.

“Sex ed is not serving young black women really at all,” said Jeffers, now a 28-year-old obstetrics and gynecology resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

She’s trying to change that. As Philadelphia site director for Daughters of the Diaspora, a nonprofit founded in 2012 to teach black teenage girls about reproductive health and self-esteem, Jeffers is working to give other girls the same knowledge and passion to take charge of their health that she had as a child.

The information is often hard to come by, Jeffers said. If girls ask family members about sex or development, they’ll likely be accused of “trying to be grown.” Many parents fear discussing sex is the first step toward having it. For immigrant families from Africa, there can be additional stigma around the topic of HIV, which is widespread among young women there and causes more than half a million deaths on the continent each year.

In U.S. schools, black students are more likely to receive abstinence-only education than white students, according to a Washington University study. And even when they receive a comprehensive curriculum, it is rarely tailored to their lives and culture, experts say.

DAUGHTERS OF THE DIASPORA Shanaye Jeffers (center, front) with girls at a Philadelphia summit held by Daughters of the Diaspora.

The problem is not just about satisfying girls’ curiosity. Studies show that receiving comprehensive sex ed can delay the initiation of sex, increase contraceptive use, and reduce teenage pregnancies.

Though birth rates for black teens have dropped significantly in recent decades, they are still more than twice as likely as white girls to become pregnant. They have a higher risk of facing sexual violence and contracting a sexually transmitted disease, especially in Philadelphia, where rates of transmission are three to five times higher than the national average.

“I really want to break the cycle,” Jeffers said.

Daughters of the Diaspora (DoD) recruits medical students to lead groups of three to five teenage girls, typically from West or Southwest Philadelphia, in lessons on female anatomy, contraception, and goal-setting over a three-month period. The teens are recruited through local schools and community connections.

Though the curriculum is heavy on medical information — describing how different hormones interact with the brain, ovaries and uterus — it’s meant to be relatable. A SEPTA map is used as an analogy for the endocrine system. Quotes from Maya Angelou and Zora Neale Hurston are scattered throughout.

The medical students, as young black women themselves, act as role models, often sharing their own experiences in the hopes of boosting girls’ self-esteem and helping them envision new futures.

“We try to get these young ladies to see themselves in a way they probably haven’t before,” Jeffers said. “As agents of their own health.”

Not just a Philly problem

Joy Cooper can still remember sitting in a health class at Philadelphia High School for Girls, listening to her middle-aged, male volleyball coach recite textbook passages on contraception to an all-female class.

Students were too uncomfortable to answer questions, let alone ask any, said Cooper, a co-founder of DoD and now a 34-year-old ob-gyn in Oakland, Calif. “I realized who’s delivering the information makes a difference,” she said.

More than a decade later, 18-year-old Fatme Chaloub had a similar experience. A 2017 graduate of Girls’ High, she said her sex-ed class was also taught by a middle-aged white man. The class had good information, but “if an older person is talking to me, I feel uncomfortable,” Chaloub said. The DoD curriculum, taught by women just a few years older than she, “was more relatable.”
Nenna Nwazota (left) and Joy Cooper are co-founders of Daughters of the Diaspora.

But this isn’t a Girls’ High problem. Or even a Philadelphia problem. Across the nation, research shows, black girls are poorly served by sex ed, if they’re getting any at all.

In Pennsylvania, schools are required only to provide education on HIV and AIDS, with a focus on abstinence. The Philadelphia School District provides teachers with additional information on contraception and dating violence, but it does not require any specific curriculum. What students learn can vary greatly depending on the teacher.

At Horace Furness High School in South Philadelphia, health and physical education teacher Colleen Hanna supplements the district-provided textbook with song lyrics that discuss sexual stereotypes of women. She is working to include more information on gender identity and sexual violence, too, but it’s a slow process. While the district provides guidance, “a lot of the research comes down to me,” Hanna said.

Though it isn’t the case in Philadelphia, research shows that, nationally, black students are more likely to receive abstinence-only education because they are often in poorer school districts that rely on federal funding. “Schools with few resources can hardly afford to turn away these offers of outside help,” a report in the Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy states.

But abstinence-only curriculums can reinforce harmful stereotypes of black people, said Tracie Gilbert, an independent sex educator with a doctorate in human sexuality education from Widener University. “The narrative is that, without restriction, black girls will be the most amoral sexual beings of society,” she said. Rather than teaching them to make informed decisions about their sex lives, many curriculums suggest they must be abstinent to avoid harming themselves or others.

Even more expansive curriculums, though — often created by white educators and based on research of white subjects — can be tone-deaf for students of color, said Laura McGuire, a certified sexuality educator and founder of the National Center for Equity & Agency. They often tell students to use birth control, but “there might not be easy access to any of those things,” she said. Similarly, telling someone to delay pregnancy because it will help her get to college ignores students who don’t plan to take that path.

Some early, but slow, progress

Daughters of the Diaspora tries to supplement the shortcomings of school-based sex ed by creating a cycle of education within the black community. The idea is to make learning fun and show that it’s not confined to a classroom, Cooper said. The goal is that girls who participate in the curriculum will pass on that knowledge to their friends.

“How we educate people [in schools] is about the majority,” she said. “So when you’re in the minority, it’s left up to people in your community to try to make things better.”

About 40 girls in Philadelphia have gone through the curriculum in the last two years, Cooper said, and there are smaller chapters in New York, Oakland, and Apam, Ghana. Some of the students have started spreading the message.

Chaloub, from Southwest Philly, gave her cousin and her best friend recaps after every DoD class. She’d recount for them the different ways someone can contract an STD, the difference between bacterial and viral infections, and how to treat them.

Fatme Chaloub completed the Daughters of the Diaspora curriculum as a student.

Efforts similar to DoD are underway around the country, with organizations such as In Our Own Voice and Women of Color Sexual Health Network (WOCSHN) pushing for more culturally inclusive sex ed.

“There’s a recognition that the way it’s always worked hasn’t worked well,” said Mariotta Gary-Smith, co-founder of WOCSHN. “These communities are going to continue to find ways to make sure their voices are heard.”

But it’s unclear whether educational efforts will impact the larger health disparities faced by black women in America. Research shows that even highly educated and high-income black people experience higher rates of hypertension, preterm birth, and other negative health outcomes compared with their white peers.

Education is only one piece in addressing this systemic issue, Jeffers said. “I can only hope this program makes women feel more inclined to seek help if there’s something abnormal or off in the future.”


Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

6 mins read

First Black Owned Shopping Center Turns 50

When he was a boy, Howard Sullivan was always excited to join his father at the construction site of what is now Sullivan Progress Plaza in North Philadelphia.

And now, he said, “I’m certainly happy to see that it is still here after 50 years and after a lot of the struggles that we’ve gone through.”

The plaza was the nation’s first shopping center owned and operated by African Americans when it was built in 1968 under the direction of the late Rev. Leon Sullivan. African Americans still own and operate it today as they prepare to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Progress Plaza opening in 1968 – Credit: Temple University Libraries

“This remains a symbol of Black accomplishment and steadfastness,” said Wendell Whitlock, chairman emeritus of Progress Investment Associates, Inc., which owns the plaza.

Throughout the years, a number of presidents and presidential candidates have visited the site, including Richard Nixon in 1968 and Barack Obama in 2008.

It received a marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in September 2016.

Sullivan, then the pastor of Zion Baptist Church, was a legendary business leader, civil rights advocate and humanitarian. The plaza would outlive his other business ventures, which included a garment manufacturing company and Progress Aerospace Enterprises, the first Black-owned aerospace company.

The $2 million construction of Progress Plaza was financed through the 10/36 plan, in which members of Sullivan’s church gave $10 each week for 36 weeks.

“At that time people didn’t believe that Rev. Sullivan was for real,” said Donald “Ducky” Birts, whose menswear shop, Ducky’s Dashery, was located in the plaza for seven years.

Birts was the first entrepreneur to sign a contract for the plaza. And he was instrumental in encouraging other business owners to move to the commercial strip. The plaza soon housed businesses such as an A&P supermarket, Bell Telephone, First Pennsylvania Bank, PFSF (Philadelphia Saving Fund Society), Jim Brady Shoes, Florsheim Shoes and HotShot.

Over the years, businesses left and others came in.

“I survived for seven years but it was rough, because I didn’t have a rainy day fund,” Birts said. “I hung in there for as long as I could.”

A Superfresh replaced A&P, but left in 1999 as other chains left impoverished urban areas around the nation.

“When the supermarket left, the place was struggling for a few years to keep going, but once we had Fresh Grocer and redesigned the whole layout there, things have been going well,” said Howard Sullivan, who served on PIA board in the 1990s.

black owned shopping center

The redesign, which cost $22 million, happened in 2009 under Whitlock’s leadership. The PIA brought in a 46,000 square-foot, supermarket operated by The Fresh Grocer and reconfigured the commercial strip. The supermarket was funded in part by federal, state and city funding, including Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a program championed by U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans.

“For me it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, the rebuilding of this plaza,” Whitlock said. The PIA had problems with funding and construction throughout the process.

New board members of Progress Investment Associates unveil a historical marker at Sullivan Progress Plaza September 14, 2016. ( MARGO REED / Philadelphia Tribune)

Today, the bustling shopping center is anchored by The Fresh Grocer Supermarket and is home to 12 tenants ranging from banking institutions to a Payless Shoe Store and a Democratic campaign office.

United Bank of Philadelphia, the city’s only African-American owned bank, has operated a branch in the center since 1999. The bank is one the plaza’s oldest tenants.

“Progress Plaza has really been our mainstay,” said Evelyn Smalls, president and CEO of United Bank. “It meant a lot to bank being there and at the same time having accessibility to clients that we were attempting to bring into the financial system in a consistent way.”

Smalls noted that in the years since United Bank has operated a branch in the plaza, the site has attracted other financial institutions.

“You’ll probably see some other banks coming to that area because it’s a very vibrant community and economically it’s growing,” she said. “So we’re glad that we were there in the beginning and now can hopefully take advantage of the growth that is occurring in that region because what we want to do is be more of an attraction to small businesses.”

The PIA will hold a 50th anniversary luncheon celebration at 1 p.m. Oct. 27 at PECO, 2301 Market St. During the celebration, the PIA will honor eight individuals for their work in supporting the plaza.

For information about the upcoming anniversary celebration, visit


Source: The Philadelphia Tribune

3 mins read

Featured Professional: Attorney, Marirose Roach

As important as it is to recognize business owners and entrepreneurs, it is just as important to recognize the professionals and service providers who are excelling in their different fields of practice. Marirose Roach is one such professional.
Marirose is a partner with Philadelphia based, Roach-Leite. She is passionate about fighting for the rights of spouses and children, providing legal representation in divorce, custody and support cases.

Marirose Roach – Attorney (Philadelphia)

Marirose Roach
Attorney Marirose Roach

Why did you decide to practice law?

My mom wanted me to become a doctor or a lawyer.  I can’t stomach the sight of blood, so becoming an attorney was the default.  I was intrigued by the law from a young age.  I always wanted to help people and I felt that law would be an effective vehicle to do so.

What do you wish you had known about the legal profession before becoming an attorney?

They do not teach you how to become an attorney in law school.  Well, at least they didn’t when I was there.  There is a great deal of practical education that you do on the job.  Once out of law school, it is crucial to surround yourself with people that will make you great.

Your firm specializes in different types of law. Which do you enjoy the most and why?

It varies, each area has it’s pros and cons.  ​Each case is a window into a stranger’s life.  When you learn about their household, family, friends and struggles and can help them come out with a positive result, it feels absolutely amazing.  It’s a constant reminder of why I decided to practice law.

What do you do in your off time when you aren’t “lawyering”?

I’m a kid and an athlete at heart.  I still play in several recreational adult sport leagues.  It’s a great way to network and relieve stress.  When I’m not playing or working, I spend time with family and cook.

Where do you see your firm in the next 5 years?

We are currently going through a growth spurt at the firm.  ​In five years, if we continue this growth, I’d like to increase our support staff and strategize  marketing to refine the practice and be more efficient in how we target clients.

What advice do you have for students contemplating the legal profession?​

Get to know yourself and hone in on what you are truly passionate about.  Having a legal degree can create opportunities for change, but it’s a grind.  Be ready for a challenge.

Contact info:
Roach Leite LLC
6950 Castor Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19149
Telephone: (267) 343-5818

-Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson (@thebusyafrican)
3 mins read

Philadelphia Printworks: Activism Never Looked so Good

Philadelphia Printworks is a conscious clothing company that creates T-shirts, sweatshirts and other apparel with designs inspired by social issues and the legacies of revolutionary leaders. Even if you’re the most vocal of activists, Philadelphia Printworks will help you expresses your views, thoughts and beliefs without even having to  say a word.

We spoke to co-founder, Maryam Pugh to find out more about the company. This is what she had to say:

Philadelphia Printworks
Maryam Pugh: Owner/Co-Founder and Donte Neal: Product Developer

What inspired the creation of Philadelphia Printworks?

Philadelphia Printworks was created as a way to participate in our civic duty of activism, to delve into the shallow end of the entrepreneurship pool, and to utilize a creative outlet that would continue the DIY legacy of screen printing.

What is the process behind choosing what design or theme to create?

The designs are heavily influenced by the topics discussed by the PPW community; both directly and indirectly.

In an age of social injustice, explain how you feel you are making a difference through your business. How can other businesses do the same?

Activism comes in many forms; from the organizer to the protestor, to the individual who is able to analyze their own behaviors and come to the radical conclusion that they disagree with the status quo. For the most part, we’re just trying to “get in where we fit in”.
Taking the tools that we have and applying them toward dismantling and deconstructing systems of oppression. That same approach can apply to other businesses and individuals no matter where their talents lie.

What is the most challenging part of being an entrepreneur? What is the most fulfilling?

Most times, the path to entrepreneurship is one that you have to pave yourself. It may be uncharted territory. It can get lonely if you’re not surrounded by the right support network. It can also be intimidating. It’s far easier to follow the path that society has already laid out for you.

But, that’s also what makes it the most rewarding. When you succeed you know it’s a result of all of your hard work, ingenuity, and perseverance.

Where do you see the business in 5 years?

I hope to expand to a retail location and explore ways to pursue the hybrid non-profit model.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

Do what you love. It may be the only thing that sustains you until your business becomes financially profitable.
Visit their website to find out more about their work.
– Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson (IG @thebusyafrican)
10 mins read

Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival: Where Black Film is High Art

For the past several years, some of my closest East Coast friends and I have made an annual trek. For me, it’s only required me hopping in the car and driving down Kelly Drive headed towards West Philly. For others, they’ve made their way up or down 95 to experience what has become known as “The Black Sundance.” BlackStar Film Festival (BSFF) is indeed a fantastical experience. It’s kind of like Howard Homecoming for a niche group of very smart, very artistic and very BLACK group of people. Each year, filmmakers from around the Diaspora shoot their best shot and send their films in because at BSFF, it’s not about celebrity or caché, it’s simply about really nuanced storytelling.

Unlike other spaces where our stories are reduced to one dimensional caricature-ridden tales that don’t represent the breath, depth or dynamism of who we are as a people, globally, BlackStar achieves something altogether different. Inside of the films and conversations at the West Philly-based festival, brilliant and quirky Black people get to be.  And by being, we are seen, on a wide screen and mostly importantly, we are able to see ourselves within the fabric of the complexity of the Black human experience.

For its 7th iteration, I sat down with my dear friend, BlackStar Founder, Maori Holmes, to talk about why BlackStar is so amazing and why so many film lovers keep coming back for more.

Shantrelle P. Lewis


SB: You’ve been overseeing the production of the festival since you founded it in 2012. With the enormous task of fundraising and organizing, I know at times it feels like a huge labor of love. Why do you keep coming back?

MH: I am not quite sure. LOL. The first year I was so shocked by the public response that I felt compelled to do it again and when you hear folks’ stories of how they were transformed by seeing someone’s work or meeting a new collaborator, it is enough to continue doing this.  It is also been a really generative opportunity for me–stretching as a leader, sharpening my fundraising and marketing skills, learning some harder lessons along the way, and also having an opportunity to curate just as I see fit to… That’s priceless.

SB: When did you first fall in love with film?

I am not sure about this either. But likely in high school. It occurred to me that my interests in theater, visual arts, fashion, journalism, and history could all be utilized within this one form.

I realized the other day when having a conversation with one of my best friends (Rashid) that most of my “favorite” films that had a deep emotional impact  on me were made in the early 90s when I was in high school and my mom was dating an independent filmmaker and we spent every weekend at the cinema. Much of our family time at home was spent watching films. I was seeing 3-4 films a week at that time and it was glorious.


SB: Illustrator Andrea Pippins has created the principal branding for the festival for the past few years. Additionally, you’ve had collaborations with The Barnes Foundation and the Institute of Contemporary Art. Why has it been so critical for you to infuse visual art in a cinematic festival?

MH: I don’t really see any boundaries between visual art and cinema. They speak the same language for the most part. So many of our filmmakers are themselves finding success bridging spaces, so it’s an organic happening, really.

I didn’t seek it out on purpose. Andrea was my neighborhood and I always wanted to work with her, I was doing some freelance curating at The Barnes (in performance, which is another love) and an opportunity to collaborate on BlackStar emerged, and ICA initially approached me before we collaborated since we were working with many of the same artists.

blackstar film festival

SB: This year’s short program is robust. Are filmmakers leaning more towards shorts as an artistic decision or do you think it’s due to road blocks that Black filmmakers face when trying to make feature length projects?

MH: I think that short films are easier to get made because they cost less money and people are more forgiving of spending 8 or 14 minutes with a work and it not being ‘perfect’ versus 90-120 minutes. Some writers are gifted at short storytelling and it is definitely a different form than features, but I don’t think all shorts are made because there are roadblocks to making features… some people prefer the short form.

Here on out

SB: Storytellers from around the Diaspora submit their projects to the festival. Given the idea that Blackness is not a monolith, do you ever find continuity in the the stories being told? 

MH: There are definitely threads between the stories and it is often how we present the work, exposing or illuminating those threads and connective tissues.


SB: There are several Black focused film festivals. What sets BlackStar apart from the platforms that existed prior to you founded it?

MH: BlackStar is chiefly focused on independent filmmakers and additionally it has politics at its center rather than on the margins or an afterthought.

SB: What are you most excited about for the 7th iteration of the festival?

MH: Terence’s debut of his show RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS.

blackstar film festival

I was absolutely thrilled to hear that Terence’s sneak preview of Random Acts of Flyness would happen at BlackStar the night before it premiers on HBO. The NYTimes asked whether or not America is ready for Terence’s mind. Is America ready? Better yet, is Black America ready?

MH:  I think that Black America is ready… 

SB: What makes Philadelphia the perfect landscape for BlackStar? Have you ever considered taking it to another city?

MH: Philadelphia has an incredible tradition of film scholarship and taking cinema seriously. Our current location in University City is also a great campus vibe with our other venues in walking distance.

Haint Business

SB: What’s next for you as a filmmaker and curator?

MH: I am currently co-curating a series with Kahlil Joseph at the Underground Museum which takes place every Friday. That will run through October. After which I hope to regroup and get focused on what will happen next.

SB: Who are some of the Black vendors/businesses that you support to produce the  festival?

MH: We use Replica for some of our printing. We work with the Artisan Cafe of course. This year we partnered with Akwaaba Inn for our pre-festival reception. We are working with a black yoga instructor (Jean-Jacques Gabriel).

SB: Out of all of the films you’ve seen, what Black stories have yet to be told?

MH: I am still waiting on a story about growing up Pan-African



BlackStar is happening everyday this weekend. In addition to films, there are panels and other programming at Lightbox Film Center, ICA and Pearlstein Gallery. Tickets to individual films are $12 for the general public and $8 for seniors and students. All of the panels are free and open to the public.

Click here to see the full schedule!

7 mins read

Underground Railroad Station Found in Philadelphia

From the outside, 625 South Delhi Street looks like an average Philadelphia rowhouse.

But in the 1850s, it was home to Underground Railroad leaders William and Letitia Still. Within the house’s narrow confines, they sheltered hundreds of escapees and gave well-known figures like Harriet Tubman shelter.

The William & Letitia Still House at 625 South Delhi Street. (PlanPhilly)

Looking at this almost 180-year-old rowhouse just off South Street, preservation activist Oscar Beisert says that its stoop appears to be the original marble from the 19th century.

“We don’t even have basic African-American landmarks protected in Philadelphia…[so] finding that stoop where she [Tubman] potentially arrived with people from Maryland, that’s what I think is really incredible about what we have here,” said Beisert.

On Friday, Beisert and preservationist James Duffin successfully argued that the house deserves a place on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The designation —  unanimously supported by the Philadelphia Historical Commission — means that the structure can’t be demolished or significantly altered unless the commission grants an exemption to the property owner.

The house is owned by an entity called F&J Homes LLC, which acquired it last year. They did not contest the nomination.

The campaign to protect the house featured an unusual amount of backing from experts outside of Philadelphia, including Columbia University Professor of History Eric Foner and Lonnie G. Bunch III, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History.

“In the current cultural moment, Americans are reassessing which historical figures and events are worthy of public remembrance and commemoration,” wrote Bunch in a letter supporting Duffin and Beisert. “In this context, the extraordinary movements in which Still was engaged are becoming increasingly visible and essential elements of a renewed national story.”

The story that the advocates use to bolster their case focuses on William Still, who moved to Philadelphia in 1844 and later began working for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.

As the chairman of the organization’s Vigilance Committee, he orchestrated the Underground Railroad activities in Philadelphia and across the country. One historian described him as “second only to Harriet Tubman in Underground Railroad operations.” Between 1850 and 1855, in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act — which required that Northern states assist in capturing escaped slaves — Stills and his wife Letitia sheltered hundreds of escapees in their home.

In one case cited in the preservationists’ brief, Still rescued a woman and her two sons from enslavement within sight of the white Southerner claiming ownership. The encounter happened as the party was about to cross from Philadelphia to Camden on the ferry.

African-American dock workers barred the white Southerner from making contact with the family while Still and an accomplice spirited them back into the city. The case made national news when Still and his allies were arrested. The story was eventually novelized as The Price of a Child.

In a photo contained in the brief, Stills is shown lifting the lid of a three-foot-long, two-and-a-half foot deep, and two-foot-wide box.  The box held a man: Henry “Box” Brown, who mailed himself from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia to escape slavery.

“Some images have Frederick Douglass lifting the lid of the box,” said Duffin. “But that’s just because everyone knew who he was. Douglass actually wasn’t in Philadelphia at that time. It was Still.”

Still is also renowned for writing one of the only firsthand African-American penned accounts of the movement, titled simply, “The Underground Railroad.” It is 800 pages long and includes dozens of individual tales of escape. (“It was, in essence, the first African-American encyclopedia,” writes Joe Lockard, professor of English at Arizona State University and founder of the Anti-Slavery Literature Project.)

Many prominent historians like Foner and Lockard wrote letters to the Historical Commission in support of the nomination. They uniformly praised the advocates’ scholarship, noting that many properties supposedly connected to the railroad do not hold up to scrutiny. But they found Duffin’s scholarship impeccable.

Duffin discovered the house by poring over city records, cross-referencing the address with maps, and advertisements for Letitia’s business in abolitionist newspapers from the 1850s.

Many of the historians emphasized the house’s importance in the context of the national debate about Confederate monuments, and which aspects of United States history to commemorate.

Foner, for one, said he wants to see more symbols of emancipation and black history elevated rather than simply having the Confederate statues torn down.

“Personally, I prefer to add new historic sites to make the representation of history more accurately reflect our diverse past and present,” writes Foner, author of “Gateway to Freedom,” “and to honor those who fought against slavery as well as those who went to war to defend it. Thus, designating the Still home as a historic property would be a statement… about what in our past we choose to honor and why.”

 by Jake Blumgart – PlanPhilly