For Many Philadelphia Residents, Bill Cosby Is Still Their 'Hometown Boy'

May 25, 2017
Originally published on May 26, 2017 2:20 pm

No matter how successful Comedian Bill Cosby became, he always considered Philadelphia home. He would often mention the city in his comedy routines and on his '80s sit-com, The Cosby Show. And despite how Philadelphians may view him since sexual assault allegations have surfaced, they still see him as one of their own.

Cosby will go on trial in Montgomery County, outside of Philadelphia, next week. The 79-year-old entertainer faces three felony charges of aggravated indecent assault. The charges stem from an incident that allegedly occurred with Temple University employee Andrea Constand at his suburban Philadelphia mansion in 2004.

Cosby grew up poor in North Philadelphia's Richard Allen Homes, a public housing project named for Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

After dropping out of high school, Cosby did a stint in the Navy, where he earned his diploma through correspondence courses. He then attended Temple University on a track, basketball and football scholarship.

"Me growing up down here, the inspiration [from Cosby] was that you don't have to do negative things to grow up and be successful," said Billy Brown, a Richard Allen Homes resident.

Cosby's house has since been torn down and the housing complex was renovated in early 2000s. Now the units look like suburban townehomes.

Mary Jefferson lived in the Richard Allen Homes for decades. She was a big fan of The Cosby Show, but she can't ignore the claims scores of women have made against him.

"I took him to be a father figure," Jefferson said, "but when I heard that, I called him a dirty bastard."

"There's two sides to every story," Jefferson added. "But if it was my daughter and she came to me? I would have to believe her."

Cosby literally wore Philly on his chest. On his TV show, he repped his city by wearing Temple, Cheyney and Lincoln University sweatshirts. He also featured Philly jazz musicians, like the Heath Brothers, and managed to work his favorite sandwich — a hoagie — into comedic bits.

When Wilson Goode ran against Frank Rizzo in a bid to become Philadelphia's first black mayor in the mid-'80s, Cosby hosted a fundraiser for Goode at his Pacific Palisades home.

Goode, who is about the same age as Cosby, admires the entertainer for overcoming obstacles that African-Americans faced at the time.

"He was a hometown boy who grew up here and made good," said Goode, now a Baptist minister. "I grew up in the segregated South, where African-Americans were denied basic and fundamental rights. The likelihood of seeing a black man on television was as remote as seeing a black man in the White House."

Cosby gave money to the city, and whenever he could, his time. In the early 2000s, he participated in "call-back sessions" with public housing residents in North Philadelphia, where they would talk about education, violence and teen pregnancy, among other issues.

Bilal Qayyum, a community organizer who facilitated the sessions with Cosby, said sometimes the work took place in dangerous neighborhoods.

"No other entertainer came in and walked the streets with us," Qayyum said.

While he doesn't condone anyone doing what Cosby is alleged to have done, Qayyum believes it's unfair to prejudge the comedian.

"America has basically convicted him before he has a trial," Qayyum said. "I mean, they stripped him of everything. All the money he has donated to black colleges, and all the good stuff he has done."

Jazz bassist and five-time Grammy winner Christian McBride is a Philly native who got to know Cosby through their mutual love of jazz. McBride considers Cosby his hometown hero, so the heinous allegations against him are difficult to process.

"It's deeply disappointing," said McBride, who also hosts NPR's Jazz Night in America. "I am personally as stumped as everyone else. But you just can't wash away the inspiration and the happiness and the laughs that he got."

As Cosby heads to trial, many Philadelphians will be watching — and wrestling with a legacy that has already been severely tarnished.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When Bill Cosby's trial begins early next month, people in Philadelphia will be watching closely. Cosby grew up in Philly. He maintains deep ties to the city. Now he's on trial for aggravated indecent assault, and his relationship with the city is on the line, too, as Annette John-Hall of member station WHYY reports.

ANNETTE JOHN-HALL, BYLINE: Bill Cosby spent most of his childhood in the Richard Allen homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL COSBY: We lived in the projects - two-bedroom apartment in the projects with beautiful linoleum floors...

(LAUGHTER)

COSBY: ...A two-bedroom apartment with a wall so thin that you could hear a fly in the other room crawling on it.

JOHN-HALL: The Richard Allen homes don't look like what you'd imagine. They're like suburban townhomes. Cosby's house has been torn down, but to the neighbors who remain, his influence and legacy loom large.

BILLY BROWN: Me growing up down here - his inspiration was that you can - you don't have to do negative things grow, you know, and become successful, you know?

JOHN-HALL: Billy Brown and others were proud to claim Cosby as one of their own, but the allegations against him are disturbing to many.

MARY JEFFERSON: I took him to be a father figure, and when I heard that, I called him a dirty bastard.

JOHN-HALL: Mary Jefferson lived in the Richard Allen homes for decades. She was a big fan of "The Cosby Show" in the '80s, but she can't ignore the claims women have made against him.

JEFFERSON: There's two sides to every story, but if it was my daughter and she came to me, I'm going to have to believe her. I'm going to have to believe her.

JOHN-HALL: Cosby's come a long way from the Richard Allen homes, but he's always been a cheerleader for the city he grew up in. He repped Philly and even worked his favorite snack into "The Cosby Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COSBY SHOW")

COSBY: (As Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable) Now, here we have a giant hoagie. It's full of preservatives and additives and you may not live as long. Let's try it. OK.

WILSON GOODE: He was a hometown boy who grew up here and made good.

JOHN-HALL: Wilson Goode became Philly's first black mayor in the mid-'80s when "The Cosby Show" lived on top of the ratings. Goode and Cosby are the same age.

GOODE: I grew up in the segregated South where African-Americans were denied basic and fundamental rights. The likelihood of seeing a black man on television was as remote as seeing a black man in the White House.

JOHN-HALL: Cosby gave lots of money to causes in Philadelphia and gave his time as well.

BILAL QAYYUM: No other entertainer came and walked the streets with us.

JOHN-HALL: Philadelphia community activist Bilal Qayyum says it's not fair that the public already sees Cosby as guilty.

QAYYUM: America has basically convicted him before he has his trial. I mean, they stripped him of everything - I mean, all of his money that he donated to black colleges and all that great stuff he's done.

JOHN-HALL: As Cosby heads to trial June 5, many Philadelphians will be watching and wrestling with a legacy that has already been severely tarnished. For NPR News, I'm Annette John-Hall in Philadelphia.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Annette John-Hall is the host of Cosby Unraveled, a new podcast from WHYY. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.