William Dandridge, Jr.’s family remembers him as one who taught them to love community and to share their gifts with their neighbors. They describe him as a father of his home, father of the arts and father of community.
“He always told the children, ‘You can be anything you want to be if you set your mind to it,’” said Ruth Dandridge as she stared lovingly at her husband’s paintings on the wall of their home.
Throughout the entire house, paintings of various community scenes in Chester and Africa fill the wall space. The oil paintings serve as an aesthetic feature of the house and a precious timeline of her husband’s remarkable life.
“I remember the store on Third and Fulton, an Italian store they called Papana’s,” said Dandridge softly. She points to a painting of a butcher cutting fresh meat for a customer. “This is how we used to get our meat. It was hanging up like that and they would use the scales.”
Dandridge, Jr. was born and raised in Chester.
“We lived around the corner from each other when we were kids,” said (Ruth) Dandridge.
He and his wife, the former Ruth Broadway, would live much of their childhood lives just around the corner from each other but would marry in 1956, having 10 children.
Dandridge was a self-taught artist who loved oil painting and shared his affinity for the continent of Africa and community through his artwork. Over the years he would gain notoriety among many organizations and sponsoring afterschool programs to teach children painting and drawing.
Rosetta Carter, director for Community Health Education for the City of Chester, called Dandrige, “a champion.” She said he was considered “the Father of Arts and Culture in the City of Chester. He was a mentor to many folks.” Carter recalled, “I was one of his art students many years ago. Chester has lost a great legend. Not only has Chester lost an artist, but the whole state. I think, maybe, I can say our country has lost a great hero.”
She (Ruth) points to another painting crafted by her husband: a cluster of Black children sitting around a dark skinned woman who is instructing them. She explains the children in the picture are learning about Egypt. His paintings show a passion for community fellowship.
She recalls how gathered neighborhood children to take tours in Philadelphia where they would learn history and he would also bring exotic animals to the Bennett Homes development giving neighborhood children a chance to see new animals up close. He often thought outside the box.
“All of our children had exotic pets and he was teaching them how to take care of them. We were the only family in the projects that had a squirrel monkey,” said Dandridge.
Anything new and exciting that happened for his family was a learning opportunity for the neighborhood.
“The kids would go to the store down the street and buy all kinds of vegetables and bring them back and give it to us so that we could take care of Peanut, the monkey,” she continued.
Whatever gains the Dandridge family made, he wanted to share it with his neighbors. The Bennett Homes development was an extended family to Dandridge. All children who lived in the projects were treated like his own.
Dennis Broadway, Dandridge’s son, recalls when his father got the neighborhood’s first color TV. His father was working as a salesman for Muntz TV and had acquired a color TV set for the family. It was the only color TV in the neighborhood at the time.
“We were first to have color TV in the projects,” said Broadway, as family members all laughed, remembering the neighborhood excitement over their TV as neighbors would pack their living room floor just to see color TV.
“He would invite them in to see (it). I would be like, ‘Where are they gonna sit? I got myself a seat, I know that much,” laughed Broadway.
Dandridge’s life of sharing reached well beyond Chester.
Early in life he served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War (1951-1954) and received a National Defense Service Medal, a Bronze Star and other service awards. His wife believes it was during those years that he developed a strong desire to travel to Africa and many other places in the world. He shared these journeys with his family and friends, making frequent visits to different countries along West Africa and taking friends and family with him.
He developed a close relationship with a village in Senegal named Tuba Fana and in 1997, was declared “Chief of Tuba Fana,” also making Chester a sister city when he was invited to the United Nations Summit for Indigenous People of Africa as an international cultural ambassador.
During the 1960’s Dandridge participated in Civil Rights demonstrations as part of the “Committee for Freedom Now” run by then-local legend Stanley Branche. Broadway said his father made sure the family was engaged in the fight for equality and justice, creating picket signs and participating in protests. Many protests revolved around integration of schools, housing developments and for voting rights.
“Stanley Branche was the local leader here. I was on my way to school and I thought I’d get a protest in. I tried to go to school but I got arrested,” recalled Broadway.
Dandridge had been arrested as well. Civic duty was of high importance in Dandridge’s home. Charisse Dandridge, the eldest daughter, said voting is still a high priority in their home and no one is allowed NOT to vote.
“The principle to vote is what my dad gave me. When I went to school in California, I registered people to vote regardless of party. That came from my father,” said (Charisse) Dandridge. “In my family, when it comes to voting, you better take off and vote because if you don’t, mom and dad are going to be mad at you.”
Charisse said she loved that her father was not only a father to his children, but also to the community they lived in.
“We did not feel threatened or deprived because my father made time for other kids,” she said passionately. “In the summer when (dad) got up, we got up and we went to work with (him),” she said, adding, “We knew that’s what we do. We were out teaching our peers.”