Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

News » Author Archives: Olivia Errico

Sugar and Sugar Refining

Fueled by extensive trade with sugar islands in the Caribbean, Philadelphia became a leading center of sugar refining in colonial America. Although the city lost its dominance of the industry to New York by the end of the eighteenth century, local sugar refining continued to expand, particularly under the Pennsylvania Sugar Refining Company (“Penn Sugar”). The rise of national sugar conglomerates and increasing production of sugar extracted from sugar beets proved to be insurmountable challenges, howeverAfter acquisition by the National Sugar Refining Company in 1947, the Penn Sugar refinery closed in 1984. Its legacy briefly revived in 2010 with the naming of the SugarHouse Casino, but only until rebranding changed the name to Rivers Casino Philadelphia in 2019.  

[caption id="attachment_35340" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of silver sugar nippers that are slightly tarnished. The bottom of the nippers features two rounded blades to cut sugar. Philadelphians who purchased single- and double-refined sugar loaves used sugar nippers, like those pictured here, to cut small pieces of sugar from the loaf. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Philadelphia’s early dominance as a principal seaport gave the city ready access to sugar. The type of sugar consumed and refined in early Philadelphia was extracted from sugar cane, a plant that grows only in tropical and subtropical zones. At the time, most sugar plantations were located in the Caribbean, where enslaved Africans worked under brutal conditions to harvest tough sugar cane stalks with sharp bladesExtracting the sugary juice of the cane before it spoiled required the cane to be immediately crushed or run through a roller mill. The liquid was then heated to evaporate liquid and concentrate the sucrose. This raw sugar was next packed into wooden casks and transported to cities such as Philadelphia, where it was refined—a labor-intensive process of cooling and heating the sugar repeatedly to remove impurities and produce a finer, whiter sugarPhiladelphia’s status as a center of transatlantic commerce and the availability of laborers—including European immigrants, free blacks, and enslaved people—made it a desirable location for sugar refining. 

Philadelphia consumers had access to a wide range of sugar products. The coarsest and least expensive was raw brown muscavado, a product left over after draining off molasses during the first stage of refining. Consumers also could buy single- and double-refined loaf sugar, formed in earthenware cones at sugar refineries by successive rounds of boiling and evaporation. To use the sugar loaves, which were rock hard, required wielding implements including steel nippers and hammers to break the sugar into smaller chunks. Another laborious process made granulated sugar and powdered sugar by crushing the chunks of sugar in a mortar and pestle to the desired size, using a fine sieve as needed to separate varying sizes. 

[caption id="attachment_35341" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of silver sugar tongs. The top has two rings to fit fingers through and move the tongs. The bottom of the tongs are wider and flat to grip sugar cubes. Wealthy consumers used delicate silver sugar tongs to remove sugar cubes from a sugar bowl—and to communicate their social standing. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Sugar also played an important role in social rituals. In formal settings or social occasions such as taking tea, wealthy Philadelphians used delicate silver tongs to pick up sugar chunks from a sugar bowl in order to sweeten cup of tea. Sugar bowlsoften made from costly materials such as silver and porcelain, sometimes came with larger tea services that also included teapots, cream jugs, cups, and saucersSpecialized tea tables became a popular furniture form, made of either tropical mahogany or local hardwoods such as black walnut. These tables typically had a tripod base and a circular top that swiveled for ease of use and could also be flipped up to store against a wall when not in use. 

 Riverfront Refineries 

By the mid-1700s, Philadelphia had become one of the leading centers of sugar refining in colonial America. Philadelphia sugar refiners (also known as “sugar bakers”) included both English- and German-speaking people, many of them merchants engaged in transatlantic trade who saw an opportunity to increase profits by refining the raw sugar they were importing. Many of these early refineries were located near the waterfront, with convenient access to the wharves where the heavy barrels of raw sugar were unloadedIn 1772, merchant William Coats advertised “loaf, lump, and muscovado SUGARS” in addition to rum, wines, indigo, and spices at his store, identified by the “sign of the Sugar-Loaf.” His handbill depicted the store’s interior, with numerous loaves of sugar prominently arranged in the middle. Another Philadelphia merchant, Edward Pennington (1726–96), kept a notebook in which he compiled "Observations on Making Sugar.” He noted consumers’ preference for white sugar and advocated using more water during the refining process. Prominent Germans also invested in sugar refineries, including David Schaeffer (d. 1787) and his son-in-law Frederick Muhlenberg (1750–1801). After Schaeffer’s death in 1787, Muhlenberg bought out his brothers-in-law’s shares in the sugar refinery and formed a partnership with Jacob Lawerswyler. The business initially thrived, but was terminated in 1799 due to intense competition and the devastating loss of a ship, the Golden Hind, of which Muhlenberg was part-owner. 

By the 1830s, pro-abolitionists in Philadelphia sought to find alternatives to cane sugar due to its reliance on enslaved labor. Sugar beets offered a promising alternative as they could be grown in temperate climates. This prospect gained plausibility after 1747, when German chemist Andreas Marggraf (1709–82) discovered that the sucrose contained in beets was indistinguishable from that in sugar cane. His protégé, Franz Karl Achard (1753–1821), discovered a method of extracting the sucrose from beets to make sugar. Philadelphians founded a Beet Sugar Society in 1836, but it failed due to the poor quality of the product. (Beet sugar later found success in California and by the twenty-first century about half of all sugar produced in the United States came from sugar beets.) 

Philadelphia encountered increasing competition in the sugar industry during the nineteenth century, especially in major port cities with an abundance of labor. By 1810, sugar refineries had opened in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Virginia. Bthe late 1800s, New York, the nation’s greatest port, dominated the industryNew York became home to the largest sugar refinery in the world after an 1882 fire destroyed an earlier plant (est. 1852) and spurred construction of a massive, ten-story structure and sprawling industrial complex in Brooklyn—the American Sugar Refining Company. Owned largely by the wealthy Havemeyer family, American Sugar became the largest manufacturer in the United States. 

[caption id="attachment_35339" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and white photograph depicting men standing on a dock completely covered in barrels full of sugar. Barrels of raw sugar awaiting refining lined the wharves at the Pennsylvania Sugar Refining Company complex, known as the Sugar House. It can be seen in this photograph circa 1883-1896. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Philadelphia, meanwhile, became the base of operations for large sugar refineries such as the Pennsylvania Sugar Refining Company (“Penn Sugar”)Founded in 1868 by German immigrant John Hilgert (1807–81)at Fifth and Girard Streets, the company moved in 1881 to the base of Shackamaxon Street along the Delaware River in the city’s Fishtown section. There, under the leadership of John Hilgert’s son Charles, the company repurposed an earlier whale oil works into a sugar refinery. By the 1950s, the refinery had grown into a massive complex with eighteen buildings and more than 1,500 male and female employeesFormer workers recalled that by that time, most or all of the employees were white, although of varying ethnic backgrounds; previously, during the Second World War, the company had employed many African Americans. In an industrial-scale version of the eighteenth-century process, ships unloaded huge quantities of dark brown, raw sugar (imported from both the Caribbean and now the Pacific basin islands) at Penn Sugar’s wharf along the DelawareThe refinery’s melter house converted the sugar into a thick syrup, then filtered and piped to the pan house to be crystallized, washed, and dried. The refined sugar was then pressed into cubes or packed it into bags, boxes, or large wooden barrels, while pulverizing the rest into powdered sugar. The remnants became black-strap molasses or could used to make solvents, flavorings, and even antifreeze. 

The Decline of Sugar Refining 

During the twentieth century, Philadelphia’s once-thriving sugar refining industry suffered in the face of stiff competition from massive sugar conglomerates and the production of sugar extracted from sugar beetsIn 1947, the New York-based National Sugar Refining Company, also known as Jack Frost, acquired Penn Sugar. The local refinery remained active until 1981when Jack Frost filed for bankruptcyUnable to buy raw sugar, the company laid off its six hundred Philadelphia employees.

[caption id="attachment_35338" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photograph showing the SugarHouse Casino with the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in the background. The former site of Penn Sugar lay vacant until 2010, when the SugarHouse Casino—named for the sugar refinery—opened its doors. (Visit Philadelphia, photograph by G. Widman)[/caption]

The Penn Sugar site lay dormant until it was reborn through adaptive reuse as the SugarHouse Casino, which opened in 2010 (renamed Rivers Casino Philadelphia in 2019). The former refinery’s waterfront location, once a practical necessity, made it appealing for urban redevelopment along the Delaware River. The casino is just one example of Philadelphia’s former sugar refineries being repurposed for new uses; the Sugar Refinery Apartments were one of the first industrial warehouse sites converted to residential use in the Old City historic district.  

Although Philadelphia’s once-thriving sugar refineries disappeared by the late twentieth century, the industry was a major part of the city’s industrial heritage. While no longer actively used for manufacturing, the few remaining physical traces of once-bustling sugar refineries indicate the vast scale of the sugar refining industry. 

Lisa Minardi is executive director of Historic Trappe and a Ph.D. candidate in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware, where she is studying the German community of early Philadelphia for her dissertation. Her publications include numerous books and articles on Pennsylvania furniture, architecture, and folk art.

Children’s Theater

 In Philadelphia, the theater capital of the United States until New York overtook it in the 1830s, an array of children’s theater activity has long sparked creativity and imagination, informed, and educated young people with live performances. Early staged productions for the entire family increasingly gave way to child-specific theater combining education with entertainment. In the twentieth century, the children’s theater company grew to include commercial and non-commercial professional productions, non-professional community groups, and educational theater companies.

[caption id="attachment_34824" align="alignright" width="300"]Color print depicting Ricketts' circus tent in Philadelphia. Starting in 1793, Philadelphia’s children attended the first American circus, depicted in this circa 1840 painting. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

 Throughout the eighteenth and into the late nineteenth century, theatrical entertainment was generally not segmented by age. Rather than “children’s productions” or “adult productions” theater producers assumed attendance by a general audience that included children with their parents or working youths who could afford the price of admission. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, an evening’s dramatic entertainment often included pantomimes (pantos), usually based on fairy or folk tales with strong comic elements. The pantomime Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper by Michael Kelly (1762-1826), first performed in 1804 at London’s Theatre Royal, debuted at the Chestnut Street Theater in 1806 to great success. In addition to legitimate stage productions such as those at the Walnut and Chestnut Street Theaters, Philadelphia’s children and youths attended the first American circus, founded in 1793 at Twelfth and Market Streets by the Scottish circus impresario John Bill Ricketts (1769–1800). Later generations of children and working youth attended vaudeville and minstrel shows at venues such as the Arch Street Opera House (founded in 1870 and later renamed the Trocadero Theater) and spectacles including Philadelphia’s Cyclorama (1888-90), which presented spectacular -360- degree paintings such as The Battle of Gettysburg and Jerusalem on the Day of the Crucifixion in a circular-shaped building at Broad and Cherry Streets. 

While children remained part of a general audience for amusements the city offeredin the late nineteenth century child-specific theater arose in response to the emerging concept of a “protected childhood.” This era of a rising middle class, urbanization, and shifting cultural values produced specialized child-related material culture such as furnishings, clothing, literature, and entertainment. Theaters advertised offerings specifically for children or matinees adapted and advertised as “suitable for ladies and children. For example, in  1891 the Grand Opera House (Broad Street and Montgomery Avenue) produced Gulliver’s Travels with the Lilliputians played by the “Royal Midgets. In 1893 the Walnut Street Theater offered a matinee performance of “Terry’s Funny Pantomime,” and in 1895 a “specially adapted” matinee vaudeville performance took place at Mathews and Bulger’s Company at The Auditorium (Eighth and Walnut Streets).  

Encouraging Creativity

[caption id="attachment_34826" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and white photograph of young women in fantasy costumes doing make up while a child looks on. The Junior League of Philadelphia began sponsoring professionally-produced plays for children in 1927. In this 1961 photograph, Junior League members prepare for a performance while a student looks on. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Educational theater emerged during the Progressive Era (c. 1890-1920) of social and political reform as teachers, social workers, and other child advocates viewed live theater as a venue for introducing language skills, encouraging creativity, and teaching positive values to the growing number of immigrant children in America’s cities. The City of Philadelphia created play spaces for children and youth as well as opportunities for adult-led leisure activities such as sports, arts, and crafts. By the early 1930s, Philadelphia’s fifteen  recreation centers offered a robust dramatic program for children and youth with a reported 1,100 participants. While the Recreation Department’s productions featured child actors participating in a volunteer activity, the Junior League of America also brought theater to Philadelphia’s children in the form of professionally produced plays with adult actors and the goal of promoting literacy and academic achievement. The Children’s Theater, sponsored by the Junior League of Philadelphia beginning in 1927, continued to serve school children in the twenty-first century. The Women’s International League and the Philadelphia Art Alliance also sponsored professional productions such as those by the Clara Tree Major players for area children at theaters across Philadelphia from the 1920s into the 1950s. 

By the latter part of the twentieth century Philadelphia’s children’s theater community became increasingly interactive and participatory, create a new role for child audiences. In the late 1960s the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts sponsored several successful children’s theater initiatives, including the Society Hill Playhouse’s Philadelphia Youth Theater (1970-83); Society Hill’s Street Theater (1968-70), in which young adult and adult actors traveled to Philadelphia neighborhoods with live productions; and the Free Children’s Theater of the Germantown Theater Guild, which offered free children’s programming throughout the 1970s. 

The Children’s Repertory Theater, founded by Dr. Hans Walter Wenkaert (1909-80) and active during the 1960s and 1970s, demonstrated collaboration between adults and children.  Featuring a company of child actors who performed for a child audience, the company originally was located at 1617 Locust Street home of the Philadelphia Musical Academy. Wenkaert, who immigrated to the United States from Germany before World War II, brought to his work the European tradition of regarding children’s theater as a venue for encouraging agency, identity, and creativity. The company produced shows based on fairy tales and children’s literature such as Puss in Boots and Peter Pan  

Child Empowerment

The political climate of the 1960s and 1970s shaped educational theater with progressive themes of child empowerment, tolerance, and acceptance. The Philadelphia Youth Theater under the direction of Susan Turlish (b. 1946) produced versions of A Clockwork Orange and Animal Farm. Laurie Wagman (b. 1932) founded American Theater Arts for Youth in 1971 with the goal of educating and entertaining children through theater arts, particularly children who may not have had access to live theater previously. Performances, based on children’s classics and historical figures, featured high production values and Equity actors. They included Black Journey, an original musical that surveyed three hundred 300 years of African American history. Based in Philadelphia, this organization garnered a national reputation for bringing live theater productions to children for over forty years.

[caption id="attachment_34828" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and white photograph showing a group of actors huddled around and a seated couple and pointing at them. Young actors in the Society Hill Playhouse’s Philadelphia Youth Theater perform a scene from The Serpent, an experimental play by Jean-Claude van Itallie that compares the Book of Genesis to modern times. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

As the baby boom of children born 1946-60 produced an expanded youth audience, children’s shows became a staple of the summer tent music venues such as the Valley Forge Music Fair (active 1954-96), the Camden County Music Fair (active 1956-69 and 1972-73), the Lambertville Music Circus (1949-69), and the Playhouse in the Park in Fairmount Park (1952-79). Performance spaces that hosted children’s shows also included the Electric Factory Children’s Theater at 2201 Arch Street, the Karenga Cultural Arts House at 1711 N. Croskey Street, and the Society Hill Playhouse. University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts became home to the annual Philadelphia International Children’s Festival of performing arts in 1975. 

[caption id="attachment_34829" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photograph showing facade of the Arden Theatre. Many twenty-first century theater companies, like the Arden Theatre, continue to host acting programs and plays aimed towards children. (Photo by M. Kennedy for  Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

By the twenty-first century, children were encouraged to be not only participants but also writers and artists. The children’s theater community consisted of commercial and non-commercial ventures including professional productions (those employing Actor’s Equity members), non-professional community groups, and educational theater companies.  Children’s series and acting programs continued in Philadelphia at the Walnut Street Theater, the Arden Theater, and the MacGuffin Theater and Film Company (Twentieth and Sansom Streets); People’s Light in Malvern; and the Hedgerow Theater in Media. Philadelphia Young Playwrights (1219 Vine Street) worked with elementary and high school-aged children and to encourage creative writing skills and an interest in the lively arts through its classes and, beginning in 1987, an annual Playwriting Festival. 

As the concept of “child audience” evolved in popular culture from the early the nineteenth century to the present, so did productions in children’s theater. In addition to attending adult-created and produced plays, children and youth in Philadelphia gained a hand in writing and directing their own content. By engaging the next generation of thespians, Philadelphia’s theater community continued a centuries-long history of live stage productions for child audiences.      

Vibiana Bowman Cvetkovic is a Librarian Emerita of the Rutgers Universities Libraries and an adjunct professor of English at Atlantic Cape Community College.

Basketball (Professional)

Professional basketball has a long history in the Philadelphia region, from the first professional league, formed in 1898, to the National Basketball Association (NBA). The city produced memorable teams, including the Warriors and 76ers, and Hall of Fame players such as Wilt Chamberlain (1936-99) and Dawn Staley (b. 1970). Philadelphia teams and players from the Philadelphia region contributed to the success of professional basketball in the region and beyond. 

Basketball dates to 1891, when James Naismith (1861-1939) invented the game at the YMCA in Springfield, Mass., as an indoor activity for the winter months. The sport incorporated elements of rugby, lacrosse, and soccer: passing, the jump ball, shooting toward a goal, and the shape and size of the ball. Naismith nailed two peach baskets to the lower rail of the balcony in the gymnasium and drafted rules for the new game. Basketball quickly became a popular winter sport, and by the end of the decade professional leagues formed in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. 

Professional basketball in Philadelphia began in August 1898, when the sports editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Horace Fogel (1861-1928), organized the National Basketball League with three teams from the Philadelphia and three from South Jersey. In this era, a twelve-foot chain link cage ringed the court to separate players from fans, but the cage mainly led to hockey-style body checks and fans sticking pins and lit cigars into the players’ flesh. (Rope replaced the iron cages in the 1920s.) Players from the Philadelphia region competed on teams that included the Clover Wheelmen (also known as the Pennsylvania Bicycle Club), Germantown Nationals, and Hancock Athletic Association, but none of the Philadelphia-based teams won a title before the National Basketball League folded in January 1904.  

Early Game Venues 

During the early years, games took place in local armories and fraternal halls, and most players gained experience with the game by playing for fraternal organizations or athletic clubs. Squads representing fraternal organizations such as the Elks and Moose also played in professional leagues of the early twentieth century: the Philadelphia Basketball League (1902-09, revived 1923-28), the Eastern Basketball League (1909-17 and 1919-20, revived 1929-36), and the American Basketball League (1918-19, revived 1926-28 and 1933-49).   

[caption id="attachment_35165" align="alignright" width="204"]Black and white photograph depicting Eddie Gottlieb from chest up. He is leaning his head in his hand. Eddie Gottlieb, owner of the Philadelphia Warriors, watches as his team plays in this photograph from 1958. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

During the first half of the twentieth century, the Philadelphia SPHAS—named for the team’s original owner, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association—reigned as the region’s top team. Owner Eddie Gottlieb (1898-1979) founded the team with sporting goods magnate Harry Passon (1897-1954) and schoolmate Edwin “Hughie” Black (1897-1986). The majority of the team’s players were Jewish, and enthusiastic fans jammed the ballroom of the Broadwood Hotel on North Broad Street on Saturday nights to watch them play. The team won eleven championships while playing in a series of leagues between 1930 and 1945, but after a change in ownership in 1950 became one of three touring opponents of the Harlem Globetrotters. 

Some of the SPHAS’ top players joined the region’s next professional basketball team: the Philadelphia Warriors, formed when Philadelphia received a franchise in the new Basketball Association of America (BAA) following World War II. Eddie Gottlieb (by this time no longer active with the SPHAS) became coach and general manager of the Warriors, whose players also included athletes from the University of Pennsylvania, St. Joseph’s College, and Temple University. Playing in the Philadelphia Arena at Forty-Fifth and Market Streets, the Warriors attracted crowds of more than eight thousand fans as they won the inaugural league title following the 1946-47 season. After three seasons, the Warriors became a team in the National Basketball Association (NBA), which formed from a merger of the BAA and the National Basketball League. Splitting home games between the Philadelphia Arena and the higher-capacity Civic Center beginning in 1952, the Warriors won the league championship again in 1955-56 with a roster including homegrown players from LaSalle, Penn, and Villanova. 

Enter Wilt Chamberlain

[caption id="attachment_35163" align="alignright" width="239"]Black and white photograph showing Wilt Chamberlain colliding into a player on the opposing team as he jumps to take a shot. 76ers star Wilt Chamberlain bumps Celtic player Bill Russell to win a rebound. (John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

A new star player came to the Warriors in the 1959-60 season. Seven-foot Overbrook High School graduate Wilt Chamberlain (1936-99), who also played for the University of Kansas and the Harlem Globetrotters, led the NBA in scoring and rebounds on the way to winning Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors. In March 1962, in a game against the New York Knicks played at Hershey Sports Arena to expand the Warriors’ fan base, Chamberlain scored 100 points. Remarkably, given Chamberlain’s record as a notoriously bad free throw shooter, he went 28-32 in the game while playing all forty-eight minutes. In Philadelphia and with other teams, Chamberlain ultimately played sixteen seasons in the NBA. 

Following the 1961-62 season, Gottlieb sold the Warriors to a group from San Francisco led by Franklin Mieuli (1920-2010), a radio and television producer. However, the NBA returned to Philadelphia in 1963-64 when investors Irv Kosloff (1912-95) and Ike Richman (1913-65) purchased and relocated the Syracuse Nationals. Renamed the 76ers (or Sixers), the team did not fare well in its first season. The next season, the team acquired Wilt Chamberlain from the Warriors, but it took two more seasons for the Sixers to achieve greatness. During 1966-67, Chamberlain led the 76ers to a 68-13 record and their first NBA championship. After the next seasonthe first season of play in the new, 15,000-seat Spectrum arena in South Philadelphia—the Sixers acceded to Chamberlain’s desire to play on the West Coast and traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers. The trade began a decline that reached its nadir in 1972-73, when the Sixers compiled a 9-73 record, the worst in NBA history. 

The Sixers found a winning path again after acquiring American Basketball Association star Julius Erving (Dr. J) (b. 1950) before the 1976-77 season. As new owner Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr. (1923-2006) increasingly invested in talent, the team reached the finals following the 1976-77, 1979-80, and 1980-81 seasons. Harold Katz (b. 1936), who bought the Sixers in 1981, continued improving the team. Then, after acquiring Moses Malone (1955-2015) from the Houston Rockets before the 1982-83 season, the Sixers swept the Lakers and won the championship. In later years, the Sixers reached the playoffs eighteen times and the NBA finals once. Comcast Spectacor bought the Sixers from Katz in 1996 and expanded the potential attendance for Sixers games to 21,000 with the opening of the CoreStates Center (later renamed First Union, Wachovia, and then Wells Fargo Center). Ownership changed again in 2011 when an investment group led by New York billionaire Joshua Harris (b. 1965) and actor/singer Will Smith (b. 1968), a Philadelphia native, purchased the team. Key players during the post-Erving era included power forward Charles Barkley (b. 1963), point guard Allen Iverson (b. 1975), and swingman Andre Iguodala (b. 1984), who later earned most valuable player honors in the 2015 NBA finals while playing with the Golden State Warriors. In 2019, the Sixers made it to the playoffs but lost to eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors on a last-second shot in the seventh game.  

Women’s Basketball 

[caption id="attachment_35167" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photograph depicting Dawn Staley holding a cellphone to take a selfie with Governor Nikki Haley and her team of women basketball players. Philadelphia-native and coach of the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team Dawn Staley (pictured furthest to the right) snaps a selfie with her team and Governor Nikki Haley. (South Carolina Office of the Governor)[/caption]

Women’s professional basketball came to Philadelphia in 1979during the second season of the first women’s professional league, the short-lived Women’s Professional Basketball League. The Philadelphia Fox played just ten games in November and December 1979, winning two and losing eight, before financial difficulties and ownership disputes ended the team. Nearly two decades passed before the 1996 gold-medal performance of the U.S. women’s basketball team at the Olympics ushered in a new generation of women’s professional leagues—the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBA) created by the NBA and the American Basketball League (ABL)Philadelphia gained a women’s team once again when the Rage, formerly based in Richmond, Virginia, moved before the 1997-98 seasonWith the Rage came team leader Dawn Staley (b. 1970), Philadelphia native who had been a standout player for Dobbins Technical High School, the University of Virginia, and the U.S. Olympic team. Despite Staley’s star power and a home court at the University of Pennsylvania’s Palestra, the Rage attracted lower than expected attendance and compiled a losing season of 13 wins against 31 loses. Staley left for the WNBA, and by December 1998 the bankruptcy of the ABL also brought an end to the Rage. 

Women also played a role in coaching and management. Although Philadelphia has never had a WNBA franchise, in 2019 Collingswood, New Jersey, native and former Lehigh University player Cathy Engelbert (b. c. 1965) became commissioner of the league.  Former WNBA player Lindsey Harding (b. 1984) in 2019 served briefly as an assistant coach for the 76ers before leaving to coach for the Sacramento Kings. A developmental professional women’s team also began play in Philadelphia in 2019 with a goal of growing into a WNBA franchise. The Reign, of the Women’s Basketball Development Association, played home games at Chestnut Hill College during the 2019 season. 

Beyond Philadelphia 

Professional basketball players from the Philadelphia area made their mark elsewhere in the NBA and other leagues. A player from Villanova, Paul Arizin (1928-2006), became the league’s first great scorer and one of the top NBA players of all time. Earl Monroe (b. 1944), who played college basketball at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, helped the New York Knicks win the NBA title in 1973. Rasheed Wallace (b. 1974), who played at the University of North Carolina, led the Detroit Pistons to the NBA title in 2004. Joe Bryant (b. 1954) of LaSalle played eight seasons from the Sixers, San Diego Clippers, and Houston Rockets, and his son Kobe Bryant (1978-2020) went straight from Lower Merion High School to the Los Angeles Lakers and led them to five NBA championships. Louis “Red” Klotz (1920-2004), who started with the Philadelphia SPHAS, later formed the teams that played the Harlem Globetrotters. Dawn Staley, in addition to her play in the ABL and WNBA for more than a decade, was a three-time Olympic gold medalist and coached at Temple University, the University of South Carolina, and the women’s national basketball team. Adding to a professional basketball heritage extending over 120 years, these Philadelphia-area basketball players contributed to the success of Philadelphia teams and others in professional leagues.  

Karen Guenther is Professor of History at Mansfield University and author of Sports in Pennsylvania, published by the Pennsylvania Historical Association. 

Gray Panthers

In 1970, Philadelphian Maggie Kuhn (1905-95), a white middle-class woman and frustrated victim of mandatory retirement at age 65, formed an anti-ageist organization called the Gray Panthers. From challenging mandatory retirement to critiquing ageist media depictions of older Americans, the Gray Panthers fought to recreate the image, expectations, and roles of middle-class retirees in American society. Inspired by social movements of the 1960s, emboldened by their own lengthy activist backgrounds, and frustrated by the absence of an anti-ageist movement, these Gray Panther activists remained politically and socially active by fighting against ageism in their retirement years.

[caption id="attachment_34913" align="alignright" width="213"]Color portrait of Maggie Kuhn. She is wearing a purple blouse, black skirt, and a red necklace. Maggie Kuhn founded the Gray Panthers in 1970 after being subject to mandatory retirement at her previous job. Kuhn urged older people to “get out of their rocking chairs and into public affairs.” (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

After being subjected to mandatory retirement in 1970, months before her sixty-fifth birthday, Kuhn along with five other older, professional women facing retirement founded the Consultation of Older Persons, later named the Gray Panthers. A janitor’s broom closet in the Tabernacle Church in West Philadelphia served as their first office, and retirees volunteered their time to organize local events. These women believed that older persons were “a great national resource which has largely been unrecognized, undervalued and unused” and that retirees should remain politically and socially “involved in new and significant ways.” The movement quickly gained overwhelming support as thousands, both young and old, joined the Gray Panthers to fight against ageism.  

 In 1972, Kuhn, by then 67 and nationally recognized, addressed reporters and introduced the radical Gray Panthers to the nation as a new liberation movement to motivate seniors to “get out of their rocking chairs and into public affairs.” This movement was unlike the economic-driven struggles during the 1930s and the membership organizations for retirees founded during the 1950s and 1960s. Distinctly, Kuhn mobilized the elderly toward social activism. The Gray Panthers was an organization of the aged acting on behalf of the aged. Kuhn and the Gray Panthers encouraged grassroots organization and emboldened older, retired Americans to be vocal and active in society and address political issues that both applied to their specific age-based concerns and transcended age. 

Reform Successes

 The organization’s greatest accomplishments included a role in changing mandatory retirement laws, reforming nursing homes, critiquing media depictions of older Americans, and raising public awareness to the vulnerability of older people. Gray Panther members regularly testified before Congress, served on the White House Council of Aging, and helped found the Older Women’s League, the Black Caucus for the Aged, the National Shared Housing Resource Center, and the National Coalition for Nursing Home Reform as well. At one point, the Gray Panthers recorded over 75,000 members and 122 networks in forty-three states throughout the nation.

[caption id="attachment_34914" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and white photograph of a crowd of people holding protest signs. Like other social movements of the twentieth century, the Gray Panthers engaged in street demonstrations and pickets. In this photograph from June 1974, Gray Panthers protest outside the American Medical Association’s convention in Chicago. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In one example of their activist activity, during the 1976 Christmas season, the Gray Panthers picketed businesses in Philadelphia and Chicago. After being informed that all John Wanamaker department store employees over the age of 65 were going to be let go the day before Christmas, the Gray Panthers networks in Philadelphia; Willingboro, New Jersey; and South Jersey staged a two-hour demonstration at the stores, handing out over three thousand pink slips to shoppers “telling the story of ‘Scrooge Reincarnated.” That same week in Chicago, Gray Panthers in Santa Claus suits picketed the department store Carson, Pirie, and Scott for its mandatory retirement policies. Standing on State Street, Panthers held signs that read, “Santa Claus is too old to work for Carson, Pirie, Scott.” The protesting Santa Clauses sang Christmas carols such as “Deck the Halls” and abruptly stopped and pulled enormous white handkerchiefs to cry into. Both events were well covered by local news and radio stations.

The Gray Panther networks served as gatherings where older, predominantly white middle-class Americans came together to critique society’s social, economic, and cultural expectations of the aged, redefine old age, and be empowered. Indeed, older Americans challenged the social and cultural expectations of older people in various spheres, eschewed images of the aged as static, traditional, and sedentary individuals, and fought to create a new image of older Americans as dynamic, productive, and a necessary component of American society.

The Gray Panthers continued to be active in the early decades of the twenty-first century, though on a much smaller scale. Their national office moved to Washington, D.C., and networks existed in many states—some more active than others. Their primary concerns focused on universal health care, protecting the environment, promoting peace, civil rights and liberties as well as jobs and economic security, extending the legacy of the Philadelphia-born Gray Panthers.  

Emily Krichbaum is an Ohio-based writer and historian whose Ph.D. dissertation was about the Gray Panthers. She has published work on Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Older Women’s League, and other subjects. 

Emily Krichbaum

Emily Krichbaum is an Ohio-based writer and historian whose Ph.D. dissertation was about the Gray Panthers. She has published work on Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Older Women’s League, and other subjects. 

Fire Escapes

Introduced in the nineteenth century, fire escapes supplemented interior stairways to allow people on the upper floors of buildings to escape in case of fire. Fire escapes can be portable or fixed on or in buildings, and they have taken many forms. Philadelphia enacted the first municipal law mandating fire escapes on all sorts of buildings and is associated with an important innovation in fire escape design: the Philadelphia fire tower.

[caption id="attachment_34319" align="alignright" width="200"]Color photograph showing a fire escape decorated with ornate metalwork. Many felt that outside fire escapes disfigured a building. Some building owners ordered ornamental fire escapes, like this one at Thirteenth and Chestnut Streets, to improve their appearance. (Photograph by Sara Wermiel)[/caption]

In 1876, Philadelphia enacted the first municipal fire escape law in the United States. This ordinance had been proposed by the chief engineer of Philadelphia’s newly organized, paid fire department, partly in anticipation of the crowds expected to attend the Centennial Exhibition but mainly because of deadly fires in factories. The law created a Board of Fire Escapes, which could order the construction of fire escapes on any building, in whatever form the board believed best. Significantly, the law applied to existing buildings as well as new construction, and by specifying that fire escapes be “erected,” assumed these would be structures in or on buildings.

Soon thereafter, in 1879, Pennsylvania’s legislature passed a fire escape law. Like the Philadelphia law, the state act specified that fire escapes be “permanent,” and now they also had to be “external.” It obliged not only building owners, but also building managers, to put in the fire escapes. The law was ineffective, however. It gave no guidance on what a fire escape should be like, apart from being permanent and external. Moreover, the legislature provided no resources, no state officers, and no funds to enforce the act. 

Philadelphia’s City Councils took the occasion of this law to discontinue funding for the Fire Escape Board, thereby allowing the city’s ordinance to lapse. Without any enforcement, few building owners voluntarily complied with either law. For example, five years after the ordinance passed, and two after the state law, few factories in Philadelphia had fire escapes.

Randolph Mills Fire of 1881

[caption id="attachment_34320" align="alignright" width="243"]Color photograph showing a brick building with a simple iron fire escape. The ground level of the building has a storefront with many plants. This external iron fire escape at Third and Chestnut Streets is accessed through windows. (Photograph by Sara Wermiel)[/caption]

A deadly fire in a Philadelphia factory, Randolph Mills, on the night of October 12, 1881, exposed the possible catastrophic consequences of a lack of adequate egress. This large textile factory, on Randolph Street in North Philadelphia, was built in 1878--ironically, on the ruins of a mill that burned down the previous year. Before the first mill burned down, the Fire Escape Board had advised the owner to put up a fire escape. But even as he rebuilt the mill, the building owner did not do so–he considered fire escapes unnecessary. About forty people were working the night shift at the time of the second fire. The mill’s new electric lights were believed to have been the cause of the fire, which started on the second floor. Workers on the floors above became trapped when fire engulfed the building’s stairway. Many jumped from windows. Nine died in the fire or after jumping, five of them teenagers. Sixteen other employees suffered serious injuries. 

The fire stirred public indignation and demands for government to compel mill owners to provide adequate means of emergency egress. The coroner’s jury found the building owner criminally responsible for the loss of life, and it also found the City of Philadelphia responsible for not enforcing the fire escape law. The horror of the tragedy--burned, crushed, and broken bodies--motivated city leaders to do something about fire escapes. A few days after the fire, Mayor Samuel King (1816-99, in office 1881-84) ordered the police to notify owners of factories, tenements, and other buildings to erect fire escapes, pursuant to the 1879 state act. However, police officers had no background in the design and installation of fire escapes.

Iron Fire Escapes and the Philadelphia Fire Tower

Soon after the Randolph Mills fire, the Franklin Institute formed a committee to take up the question of fire escapes. This was probably the first time a group of technically-minded men considered the matter of emergency egress and fire escape design. The committee made practical suggestions, but its main contribution was to propose a novel type of fire escape: an enclosed stairway tower that could not fill with smoke and fire. This could be connected to all floors of a mill by bridges, and in cases where buildings covered their lots, it could be an internal enclosed stairway accessed from the outside, by balconies. The committee’s recommendations were not immediately adopted, however. 

In 1885, the state legislature remedied adverse court rulings by amending the 1879 law. Like the earlier law, this act applied to many kinds of buildings in addition to factories, including hotels, schools, hospitals, warehouses, tenement houses and, new to this act, public halls. It included specifications for a fire escape: an outside, iron stairway, not too steep, with treads.

[caption id="attachment_34321" align="alignright" width="200"]Color photograph showing brick building with a Philadelphia fire tower attached. This example of a Philadelphia fire tower, on a building at Thirteenth and Walnut Streets, allows occupants to exit to a balcony and enter a door to the tower with a stairway. (Photograph by Sara Wermiel)[/caption]

Later in the nineteenth century, fire escapes consisting of a stairway enclosed in masonry walls came to be required in factories and then other kinds of buildings in Philadelphia--a design that evolved to become the “Philadelphia fire tower.” Philadelphia’s 1893 building law called for various kinds of buildings to have stairways enclosed in brick walls or “incombustible” partitions. Large stores were to have “a tower fire escape enclosed in incombustible material adjoining one of its fronts.” Larger mills were to have “brick enclosed fire escapes” or other approved escapes. The design of these enclosed stairs developed into the Philadelphia fire tower--constructed so that smoke and flames could not enter. The towers were built usually in one of two forms. The “balcony type” had balconies at each floor connecting doors from the building with doors in the stair tower. A second “vestibule type” had a landing recessed into the wall of a building connecting a floor to the tower. Occupants would exit onto the balcony or the landing and then enter the door of the tower.

Fire protection authorities considered the Philadelphia fire tower, also called a smokeproof tower, the best means of emergency egress. H. Walter Forster (1883-1968), an engineer and at the time (1920) chairman of the National Fire Protection Association’s Committee on Safety to Life, wrote that they provided “the safest means of downward exit for able-bodied persons.” Yet this type of fire escape was rarely built outside of Philadelphia. Other kinds of fire escapes, such as iron skeletons, were allowed in certain cases in Philadelphia and became a common type in other cities.

These towers survived into the twenty-first century in many older Philadelphia buildings. The old type of external, iron fire escapes also remained visible on buildings, although these have long been criticized as sub-optimal means of emergency egress. A Philadelphia ordinance passed in 2017 required inspections of external fire escapes and fire balconies every five years and repair if needed. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia fire tower remained a progressive symbol of the city’s efforts to save lives in building fires and a forerunner of the enclosed, protected stairway, the fire escape of the twenty-first century.

Sara E. Wermiel is a historian of building construction and the construction industry. She has a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her book, The Fireproof Building: Technology and Public Safety in the Nineteenth-Century American City (2000), treats the history of structural fire protection in buildings.

Occupy Philadelphia

For fifty-six days between October 6 and November 30, 2011, local activists participated in Occupy Philadelphia—a leaderless, decentralized movement against social and economic inequality. Their action joined an international wave of dissent against political and economic corruption that ranged from anti-austerity protests in Europe to the Arab Spring demonstrations throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Occupy movements in cities across the globe united protesters and inspired change. 

[caption id="attachment_34314" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photograph showing a camping tent. Spray painted on the side of the tent is Occupy Philly and a heart. Between October 6 and November 30, 2011, local activists joined the Occupy movement erupting in cities around the world. Occupy Philadelphia—a decentralized, leaderless movement—formed to protest economic and social inequality. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

In Philadelphia, the Occupy movement unofficially began on September 29, 2011, when a general assembly of activists gathered at the Arch Street United Methodist Church. A few days later on October 4, a second meeting attracted an even larger crowd to plan a protest similar to the ongoing, nearly month-long Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York City’s Zuccotti Park. At the meeting, the group determined where and when to begin the occupation of a public space in Philadelphia. Possible locations included Love Park, Rittenhouse Square, Independence Hall, and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. After much discussion, the group agreed to begin the demonstration on October 6 at Dilworth Plaza adjacent to City Hall—the epicenter of Philadelphia’s political bureaucracy.  

Occupy Philadelphia transcended age, race, religion, and political affiliation, and this diversity generated incoherent messages, as some protested against corporate greed, bank bailouts, big money’s influence on elections, and other economic injustices while others protested police brutality, foreign wars, and social conservatism. Although many joined the movement for vastly different reasons, collectively the group identified as “the 99 percent.” They argued that a disproportionate 1 percent of the population controlled the majority of political power and wealth. While some opponents criticized the group’s lack of specific goals, members emphasized the movement’s ability to unite dissimilar political factions and rally around a broader message.

Tent City at City Hall

[caption id="attachment_34315" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photograph depicting many tents pitched outside of Philadelphia City Hall. Occupy Philadelphia protesters encamped outside City Hall for eight weeks in 2011. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

A city of tents occupied Dilworth Plaza on the west side of City Hall for eight weeks as Occupy Philadelphia activists executed their public protest with no anticipated end date. The camp included a first-aid station, library and education center, food station, and meeting areas for various subcommittees. Over time, the camp attracted the participation of many of the city’s homeless population and raised public concern regarding crime and sanitation.

Throughout the occupation, demonstrators practiced peaceful, nonviolent protest methods including chanting slogans, raising signs, and practicing civil disobedience. Many felt empowered to join the movement because of the support from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild, who led “Know Your Rights” trainings during the early days of the occupation. The group organized several marches across the city to parade their strength in numbers to locations including to the Liberty Bell, Wells Fargo, the Comcast Center, and the Rittenhouse Hotel where Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (b. 1947) held a fundraising event. On October 21, U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (b. 1963) of Virginia canceled a scheduled talk at the University of Pennsylvania when protesters announced plans to rally outside Penn’s Huntsman Hall in an event dubbed “Occupy Cantor.”

[caption id="attachment_34313" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photograph showing a crowd of protesters, some holding signs, some with instruments, and some chanting. Occupy Philadelphia protestors marched east on Market Street, from their encampment at City Hall toward Independence Hall, for a rally on October 8, 2011. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Occupy Philadelphia attracted the attention of both local and national progressive leaders who spoke in support of the movement. Visitors to the encampment included scholar-activist and author Angela Davis (b. 1944), City University of New York Professor Frances Fox Piven (b. 1932), and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson (b.1941). Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (b. 1957), who was up for reelection on November 8, 2011, expressed support throughout the occupation, stating that he too identified as the 99 percent. Despite the endorsement, many Occupy protesters questioned whether the mayor served as a genuine ally or simply offered his sympathies to avoid becoming a target. Opponents criticized the mayor's legislative track record and suggested his policies did not align with his public statements. They pointed specifically to Nutter’s cuts to education and public services like libraries, pools, recreation centers, and the Fire Department. 

Dispersal Ordered

[caption id="attachment_34311" align="alignright" width="199"]red and black flyer with image of liberty bell and text "Occupy Philly Let Freedom Ring." Although the Occupy Philadelphia movement did not produce direct legislation, it did bring economic inequality into the mainstream political discourse. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

On November 15, city officials posted public notices throughout the encampment ordering protesters to evacuate Dilworth Plaza so a previously planned $50 million renovation project could commence. Unsure of when the police would raid the camp, anticipation grew and many of the occupiers dispersed. Two weeks later, in the early morning hours of November 30, Philadelphia police evacuated the Occupy Philadelphia encampment using heavy equipment to remove the remaining debris. Lingering protestors trekked around Center City until 5 a.m., when police arrested around 50 people on charges including obstruction of a highway, failure to disperse, and conspiracy (most were later acquitted on all charges). At 7 a.m., Nutter spoke with the media and declared the occupation “over.”

Although Occupy Philadelphia failed to produce direct legislation, it helped introduce economic inequality into a broader political discourse. The widening gap between rich and poor became a major talking point during the 2012 presidential election. Locally, the 2011 Occupy Philadelphia movement mobilized progressive activists and prepared them for future protests, including demonstrations following the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 “Occupy ICE” protest at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency’s office in Philadelphia. Occupy Philadelphia may have only lasted for a few weeks in the fall of 2011, but the movement’s ideas and messages remained relevant in shaping Philadelphia’s image as a progressive American city. 

John E. Smith III is a 2018 graduate from Temple University’s Center for Public History. He is the Assistant Archivist at the Chester County Archives in West Chester, Pa.

Sara E. Wermiel

Sara E. Wermiel is a historian of building construction and the construction industry. She has a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her book, The Fireproof Building: Technology and Public Safety in the Nineteenth-Century American City (2000), treats the history of structural fire protection in buildings.

Lawnside, New Jersey

Located approximately nine miles from Philadelphia and with a population of 2,995 as of 2010, Lawnside, New Jersey, has been one of only a handful of jurisdictions in the United States that has maintained a primarily African American population throughout its existence. Formed out of the experience of slavery, the community evolved during the twentieth century into a thriving suburban enclave despite the widespread Jim Crow discrimination that existed in New Jersey until the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s.

[caption id="attachment_34118" align="alignright" width="300"]Color map indicating outline of borough of Lawnside with surrounding towns. Lawnside, highlighted in yellow in the map above, remains one of the few boroughs in the United States that has had a primarily African American population throughout its existence. (United States Census Bureau)[/caption]

In the eighteenth century, New Jersey’s burgeoning industrial and agricultural enterprises generated a great demand for labor, one result of which was the importation and use of enslaved laborers of African ancestry. The presence of slavery in Camden County was mitigated by the abolitionist influence of the Haddonfield Monthly Meeting of the Quaker Society of Friends in conjunction with the Gloucester County Abolition Society. Due to their efforts, the number of slaves in Camden County dropped by more than two-thirds between 1790 and 1800, from 191 to 63. 

Seeking to foster mutual aid and collective security from the widespread threat of kidnapping and return to enslavement, freedmen sought protection by concentrating near Quaker allies in Camden County. For example, people formerly enslaved by the Hugg family founded the community of Guinea Town in the area that later became Bellmawr in the late eighteenth century, and others founded the settlements of Davistown and Hickstown in Gloucester Township. Saddlertown in Haddon Township was founded by Joshua Saddler (1785-1880), whose freedom was purchased by Friends at the site that became Croft Farm in Cherry Hill. Over time the free African American population of Camden County more than doubled between 1790 and 1810, from an estimated 180 to 490, and continued to grow to 1,104 by 1840. In old Union Township, where the original settlement that became Lawnside was located, 22 percent of the population was African American.

African American habitation in Lawnside dated to the eighteenth century. Organized Methodist meetings began in 1797, and in 1811 Philadelphia’s Bishop Richard Allen (1760-1831) formed an African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) Church that later became Mount Pisgah AME Church. The majority of the residents served by these institutions were formerly enslaved people or their descendants. The original male inhabitants worked mostly as farmers and woodcutters, and some women earned income as domestic workers.

First Known as Free Haven

In 1840, a Quaker abolitionist and member of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee named Ralph Smith further advanced the prospects for settlement by purchasing land to convert into inexpensive lots for sale to African Americans. A prominent African American barber, physician, dentist, and community leader from Philadelphia, Jacob C. White Sr. (1806-72), also contributed to Lawnside’s early development by purchasing additional land to expand the village. The community was first named Free Haven because it served as a stop and way station along multiple routes of the Underground Railroad. By 1856, the area had grown to support at least twenty-four buildings.

Shortly after the Civil War, Free Haven’s name changed to Snow Hill, reportedly for the prominence of sugar sand atop the hill where early settlement formed. Following the arrival of the Philadelphia and Atlantic Railroad (later the Reading Railroad) in 1876, the name of the stop changed from Denton to Lawnton and finally Lawnside in 1907. Often attributed to the beautiful sloping lawn that adjoined the station, the name was adopted by the community to conform with the new rail stop.

[caption id="attachment_34117" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photograph depicting white sign that reads "Mount Peace Cemetery Lawnside Established 1900." An American flag is next to the sign. Graves are visible in the background. Mount Peace Cemetery was established in 1900 to inter those who were excluded from white-only cemeteries. It serves as the final resting place for many African Americans freed from slavery and at least seventy-seven Civil War veterans, including Congressional Medal of Honor winner John Lawson. (Jason Romisher)[/caption]

On March 24, 1926, Lawnside was incorporated as an official borough in the state of New Jersey as part of the broader trend of municipal incorporation in Camden County. Located on unincorporated land in old Centre Township from 1855 to 1926, Lawnside as well as other nearby communities felt the need to incorporate. Lawnside’s incorporation bid experienced boundary disputes with both Barrington and Haddonfield. Lawnside resolved matters with Barrington by ceding 170 acres of land along the Clements Bridge Road in exchange for a parcel that included the Mt. Peace Cemetery on the White Horse Pike. With Haddonfield, the issue concerned two parcels with high assessments inhabited by whites who did not want to be included in Lawnside because it was to be governed by African Americans. The parties reached settlement when Lawnside officials handed over the land in exchange for $25,000 payable in five yearly installments.

A small number of whites still remained within Lawnside’s newly incorporated boundaries in an area known as Woodcrest. These families sent their children to Delaware Township schools until 1931, when this municipality began demanding tuition payments for the accommodation of these children. The Woodcrest residents refused to then send their children to the Lawnside elementary school and responded by burning crosses in Lawnside and then launching a failed bid for incorporation as an independent borough. The situation was resolved only when these residents moved out of Lawnside.

Demographics Prevail

[caption id="attachment_34116" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and white photograph depicting a man driving a fire engine out of a garage. Volunteer firefighters, like the one pictured in this Works Progress Administration photograph, protected Lawnside even before the town was officially incorporated in 1926. (New Jersey State Archives, Department of State)[/caption]

Lawnside’s act of incorporation did not designate it as an African American community. Its demographics in 1926, however, allowed African Americans to control the municipal power structure, and its historical trajectory allowed this to continue. After incorporation, residents worked hard to develop new institutional facilities such as a borough council and police force to add to an existing volunteer fire department, post office, and elementary school dating back to 1848.

The town’s rail connection to a string of communities from Philadelphia to Atlantic City opened up employment and travel opportunities for some residents, while also drawing visitors to the community and offering employment to African American professionals such as teachers who lived in other communities. Despite these transportation links, Lawnside remained a largely rural and agricultural community until World War II, when many men gained employment from defense industry jobs. Women in Lawnside commonly worked as domestic workers in nearby communities such as Haddonfield and Haddon Heights. 

Many Lawnside residents attained the American dream of home ownership despite a long history of banks refusing loans to African Americans. In 1909, the Home Mutual Investment Company incorporated in Lawnside to help residents secure mortgages and financing for the construction of homes. It was succeeded in 1915 by the Lawnside Mutual Building and Loan Association. Residents benefitted in the early years of Lawnside’s incorporation by having almost no political red tape for housing construction. Most addresses in the community were simply made up by the homeowners, and there were no restrictions placed on the building of homes on vacant land. Despite such informal control over land use, by the postwar period Lawnside’s rural character began to give way to an advancing suburban look and feel. 

[caption id="attachment_34115" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and white photograph depicting a man behind a bar preparing a drink while talking to a seated man. The bartender at the High Hat Club prepares a drink while chatting with a guest in this Works Progress Administration photograph. (New Jersey State Archives, Department of State)[/caption]

Lawnside’s existence and reputation as a distinctive black community was supported in the 1930s through the presence of a thriving jazz and barbecue scene in the wake of prohibition with venues named the Cotton Club, The High Hat Club, Dreamland Café, and Club Harlem. These establishments attracted patrons from all over the northeast to hear and rub shoulders with top African American performers and celebrities such as Joe Louis (1914-81), Sarah Vaughn (1924-90), Ella Fitzgerald (1917-96), Duke Ellington (1899-1974), Billie Holliday (1915-59), LaWanda Page (1920-2002), Billy Eckstine (1914-93), and Arthur Prysock (1929-97). Arnold Cream (1914-94) worked as a bouncer at the Dreamland Café before becoming heavyweight champion of the world under the fighting name Jersey Joe Walcott.

The Lure of Lawnside Park

Lawnside’s proximity to Philadelphia and reputation as an African American cultural and community space drew talented artists and patrons to the community. Lawnside also attracted visitors because of Lawnside Park, an amusement park and picnic area with two small man-made lakes that began to be developed in the late 1920s. These venues thrived for years, until the 1960s when the clubs and associated dining establishments declined and ultimately closed. Lawnside establishments could no longer compete with the high rates that desegregated mainstream clubs could pay to high-profile African American performers. Lawnside’s conservative and religious community character also played a role in the clubs’ decline, as most locals stayed away from places with reputations for vice and lewd conduct.

At a time when both federal loan procedures and suburban zoning restrictions limited choices for black home ownership, Lawnside’s attractive location and status as an autonomous African American community boosted further settlement. The newcomers included returning servicemen, government employees, and professionals who could afford to purchase new homes constructed in Lawnside by developers. For example, Howard University graduates Dr. William Young Sr. and his wife Dr. Flora Young (1928-2012), a professor at Glassboro State College (later Rowan University), moved to Lawnside in 1954 when Dr. William Young opened a medical practice in Lawnside. The Friendship III Barber Shop, opened in 1959 by its founder Percy Bryant (b. 1938), became a thriving gathering place that provided an essential service for African American men, including celebrities such as Muhammad Ali (1942-2016).

Lawnside grew at a rapid pace in the 1950s and 1960s with the construction of new housing developments. The first, Home Acres (1954), consisted of modest homes and contributed to an increase in population by 369 residents between 1950 and 1960. From 1960 to March 1970, an additional 273 housing structures went up and the population rose from 2,155 to 2,757. This included the stylish Warwick Hills development, which featured modern two-story homes. Commercial investment increased the town valuation 2,000 percent in just a six-year span from 1967 ($1 million) to 1973 ($21.5 million). 

Without a secondary school of its own, as far back as 1916 Lawnside sent some of its young people to nearby Haddon Heights High School, where they paid a per-pupil flat rate tuition fee after 1924. As a distinct minority within the school, children from Lawnside experienced a great deal of discrimination in academics, athletics, extracurricular activities, and school culture. Academically, they were frequently steered into general level courses and discouraged from pursuing the college preparatory track. Although the baseball, football, and basketball teams integrated in 1922, many African American athletes were discouraged from participation. African American students were never elected prom or homecoming king or queen until the late 1970s, few participated in student government or the yearbook, and school dances remained the domain of whites until the 1960s.

Youth Embrace the Rights Movements

As young people in Lawnside were influenced by the wider civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s, they bridled at the discrimination they experienced in school. From 1965 to 1971, students from Lawnside, including several young women, led sit-ins and protest marches, issued demands, served as media spokespersons, and wrote politically themed articles in the student newspaper. These activist efforts took place with little direction from Lawnside parents, civic leaders, or African American organizations. They were successful in forcing a change in the school administration, gaining more equitable representation in student life, instituting black studies courses, and forming the Afro-American Cultural Society.   

As integration progressed, African Americans from Lawnside played important roles in the larger society. Morris L. Smith (b. 1933) had a long and distinguished career as an executive at Scott Paper company. As president of the Lawnside Board of Education he orchestrated a resolution on April 9, 1968, that declared the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68) a holiday. Lawnside civic leaders believe they were the first governmental entity in the United States to bestow this honor, just days after King’s assassination. One of Smith’s sons, Morris G. Smith (b. 1960), developed a successful law firm, served as both a state and federal court judge, and was the vice chairman of the New Jersey State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Wayne Bryant (b. 1947) created a thriving law practice in Camden, served as an assembly member in New Jersey (1982-95) and state senator (1995-2008), before being jailed on corruption charges. Always a welcoming place for other racial and ethnic groups, Lawnside acquired a small degree of diversity in the latter decades of the twentieth century.

Long committed to the preservation of its rich past, the Lawnside Historical Society centered its activities on the Peter Mott House. Built in 1845 and believed to have been used to harbor people fleeing slavery, by the early twenty-first century it survived as the oldest building in Lawnside. Opened to the public as a museum in 2001 after activists saved it from demolition, the Peter Mott House demonstrated Lawnside’s deep regard for its history and close community ties.

Jason Romisher is a Canadian historian whose M.A. thesis, “Youth Activism and the Black Freedom Struggle in Lawnside, New Jersey,” explores the topics of African American high school student activism and black power in a self-governing African American community. He is  working on a research project about Helen Hiett, an American scholar, journalist, and Second World War correspondent. He holds degrees from Simon Fraser University (M.A., 2018), Lakehead University (B.Ed., 2002), and Queen’s University (B.A. Honours, 2001).

John E. Smith III

John E. Smith III is a 2018 graduate from Temple University’s Center for Public History. He is the Assistant Archivist at the Chester County Archives in West Chester, Pa.

Share This Page: