Shared from the 3/17/2021 Philadelphia Inquirer - Philly Edition eEdition


Frank Stephens, library ‘institution’


Frank Stephens Jr., an awardwinning artist, was the first Black manager at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Courtesy of the family


Frank Stephens Jr., 89, of Philadelphia, a celebrated artist who created countless works, and the first Black manager at the Free Library of Philadelphia, died Thursday, March 11, of lung cancer at his home in Mount Airy.

Known for his humor, humility, and mentorship, Mr. Stephens won dozens of awards for his paintings, exhibits, brochures, programs, posters, and other projects as the library’s longtime arts and graphics administrator, and on his own.

A prolific painter, he championed the work of other Black artists, oversaw more than 300 major exhibits about authors and social trends in his 40-year career, and made the library at Logan Square a must-see destination.

Acel Moore, a Pulitzer Prizewinning former writer and editor at The Inquirer, wrote in 1993 that Mr. Stephens “has become a leader whose images have spoken louder than those of renowned orators or writers. He has literally influenced thousands of people with his powerful exhibits.”

“In my work at the library, if the topic was American culture, whether it was gardening or patents, I’ve always felt an obligation to show the contribution of Blacks to the American dream,” Mr. Stephens told Moore.

Mr. Stephens was honored by the library in October 1993 for his achievements to that point, and Elliot Shelkrot, then the library president and director, said: “Frank has been an institution within an institution. His influence goes far beyond the wonderful work that he and his staff have done over the years.”

Much of Mr. Stephens’ work showed bright African masks and scenes from his wife’s garden at home. He did, among other things, landscapes, seascapes, and portraits that one curator described as “strong, colorful, and moving.”

His 1970 image To Be Black in America — a Black fist clenched above a chain and shackle that is the American flag — became a symbol of the civil rights movement.

Mr. Stephens also worked as an artist and photographer with the legendary singer Marian Anderson and pored over Black history with renown colleague and mentor Charles Blockson.

Mr. Stephens was born Feb. 16, 1932, in Augusta, Ga. His family moved to South Philadelphia when he was 10, and he graduated from Bok Vocational Technical High School after studying commercial art.

His father had doubts about his being an artist, but his mother bought him all the supplies he needed and urged him on. He enlisted in the Air Force after high school in 1950 and honed his skills in the graphic arts unit at Harlingen Air Force Base in Texas.

He attended the Hussian School of Art, now Hussian College, after the service, and graduated from the Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts, in 1961 with a degree in advertising design.

He got a job at the library as an illustrator, and became exhibits manager in 1965. He was promoted to arts and graphics administrator in 1990.

Mr. Stephens and his wife, Jeannette, were introduced by her girlfriend and got married in 1954. They lived in North Philadelphia, then moved to their home in Mount Airy in 1972.

He called that house his “resort” and liked to wander through his wife’s rose garden, watch the Eagles on Sundays, and touch up the pieces in his home studio. He collected anything to do with owls, and every wall of the house remains covered with his creations.

“He loved his family,” his wife said. “He lived a good life, and so did we.”

“He took care of us all,” said grandson Ronald Stephens Jr. “If anything was wrong, he could magically make it disappear.”

In addition to his wife and grandson, Mr. Stephens is survived by his sons, Frank Stephens III and Ronald Stephens Sr.; one brother; four other grandchildren; two great-granddaughters; and other relatives. Three brothers and two daughters died earlier.

A public viewing under COVID-19 restrictions is scheduled for Tuesday, March 23, from 9-10:30 a.m. at Batchelor Brothers Funeral Services, 7112 N. Broad St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19126. A private service is to follow at 11 a.m.

Interment is to be at Washington Crossing National Cemetery. GaryLMiles

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