James G. Spady, a renowned writer, historian and humanitarian, died on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. He was 75.
He was born on April 2, 1944, in Virginia. He resided in Philadelphia for most of his life, where he had family with deep roots.
During a career that spanned more than a half-century of researching, writing and community-building, Spady made contributions to the world’s understanding of the global African diaspora, receiving the American Book Award’s Lifetime Achievement Award for 1988 at just 45 years old.
Spady authored or edited more than 15 books, published dozens of scholarly journal articles and book chapters, worked in radio and film and wrote hundreds of newspaper articles for various print media, particularly historic Black newspapers including The Philadelphia New Observer and Scoop USA.
Spady’s lifelong commitment to justice found an early home at the Philadelphia NAACP Youth Council, where he encountered civil rights leader and attorney Cecil B. Moore. Under Moore’s mentorship, Spady joined the picket lines in 1965 in the successful fight to desegregate Girard College, a whites-only K-12 school for poor, orphaned boys. Later, he would continue his activism by helping organize Muhammad Ali’s famed 1967 visit to Howard University, where Ali gave his “Black is Best” speech.
Spady’s scholarly work began shortly thereafter, following extensive travels across the African continent and western Europe. In 1968, he and his colleagues founded the Black History Museum Library at Heritage House in North Philadelphia. The library published the Black History Museum UMUM Newsletter, which focused on history, science, music and literature and featured original contributions from writers and scholars across the U.S. and beyond. The formal museum/library space closed in 1972, after a fire and subsequent theft.
But the Black History Museum UMUM Committee continued on in various forms for the rest of Spady’s life via publishing, public seminars and colloquiums, and the circle of UMUM collaborators and contributors that surrounded him.
During the decades, Spady interviewed, wrote about and in many cases befriended notable musicians like Bob Marley, Nina Simone, James Brown, Fela Kuti, Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie; writers like James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ntozake Shange and Sterling Brown; and scholars like Cheikh Anta Diop, Mercer Cook, Merze Tate, Adelaide Cromwell, Charles H. Wesley and Benjamin Quarles.
He spearheaded the effort to document the life and work of pioneering African-American architect Julian Abele, published the booklet “Julian Abele and the Architecture of Bon Vivant” and convinced the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the University of Pennsylvania to officially recognize Abele’s role in designing the museum as well as several Penn campus buildings.
Spady was also instrumental in bringing renewed attention to the pioneering work of poet, folklorist and professor Sterling A. Brown, organizing a major public tribute to him at Washington, D.C.’s Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library in 1976. Spady and the Black History Museum UMUM Committee subsequently edited and published “Sterling A. Brown: A UMUM Tribute,” which featured contributions by Amiri Baraka, Alan Lomax, Ophelia Egypt, Houston Baker, Leon Dumas, Arthur Huff Fauset and Leopold Sedar Senhgor.
Spady carried out this kind of work for a number of other major figures including African-American composer William L. Dawson – publishing “William L. Dawson: A UMUM Tribute and a Marvelous Journey” and Senegalese intellectual Cheikh Anta Diop, writing the first English-language scholarly article to examine his work titled “Negritude, PanBanegritude, and the Diopian Philosophy of African History.” Spady later commissioned and published a tri-lingual poem titled “Cheikh Anta Diop: Poem for the Living.”
Philadelphia was an important thread in Spady’s work throughout his career. He wrote a biography of his late friend, fellow Philadelphian and Black Arts Movement visionary, Larry Neal, titled “Larry Neal: Liberated Black Philly Poet with a Blues Streak of Mellow Wisdom.”
Spady fought for meaningful commemoration of the life and work of his mentor, Cecil B. Moore, about whom he published a booklet, “Cecil B. Moore: A Soldier for Justice” and wrote the text that formed the basis for SEPTA’s recently installed historical exhibit at the Cecil B. Moore Subway Station on the Broad Street Line.
He was also asked by famed Philadelphia radio DJ and civil rights figure Georgie Woods to write his biography, which became “Georgie Woods — ‘I’m Only A Man!’: The Life Story of a Mass Communicator, Promoter, Civil Rights Activist.”
For more than four decades, Spady served as a board member of the Marcus Garvey Memorial Foundation, an educational organization co-founded in 1961 by his mentor, Thomas W. Harvey, who had served as a successor to Marcus Garvey as president-general of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). In 1985, Spady published “Marcus Garvey, Africa, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association.” In 2011, he authored “Marcus Garvey, Jazz, Reggae, Hip Hop, and the African Diaspora” and co-edited “New Perspectives on the History of Marcus Garvey, the UNIA, and the African Diaspora.”
For much of the last 35 years of his life, Spady documented hip hop history and culture. He co-authored four books about hip hop including “Nation Conscious Rap, Twisted Tales: In the Hip Hop Streets of Philly, Street Conscious Rap” and “The Global Cipha: Hip Hop Culture and Consciousness.”
He was preceded in death by his sister, Beatrice Newton-Spady, and nephew, Glynn Spady.
He is survived by: his brother, Larry Allen; sister-in-law, Andrea Allen; niece, Jeriba Allen; cousins, Robert L. and Shirley Bailey; and other relatives and friends.
Services were held Feb. 27 at Francis Funeral Home, 5201 Whitby Ave. He is buried in Merion Memorial Park.