Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

James Kopaczewski


While Philadelphia has not been alone in experiencing sharp undercurrents of nativism, virulent rhetoric and periodic waves of violence aimed at the foreign-born have often wracked the city. Clashes between nativists and immigrants between the 1720s and the 1920s helped to set the boundaries of the city as well as define the limits of American citizenship. A renewal of nativism in the Philadelphia region in the early twenty-first century rested upon a long history of misunderstanding and exclusion. 

[caption id="attachment_28921" align="alignright" width="226"]Photogrpah of Morton McMichael. The image is sepia toned. McMichael is an older white man wearing a three piece suit, seated and looking slightly to his right. He holds a rolled up paper in one hand and his pipe in the other, which is across his chest. A successful newspaper editor, Morton McMichael (1807-79) was able to use his popularity among nativists to win election as Philadelphia’s sheriff in 1843. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

William Penn (1644-1718) founded Pennsylvania on principles of tolerance, and the earliest settlers of Philadelphia included English, Scots Irish, and German immigrants, among others. By the early eighteenth century, however, the influence of German-speaking peoples, settled primarily in and around Germantown, provoked the antagonism of Philadelphia’s English elites. Comprising nearly one-third of the region’s population, German voters became a vital political bloc courted by both Quaker and Anglican politicians. Germans allied politically with Quakers, who conducted business with German merchants and shared pacifist views. With their failure to sway German voters, Anglican politicians, led by William Allen (1704-1780), initiated a wave of election-day violence in 1842 to prevent Germans from voting. A large group of Anglican-affiliated sailors verbally and physically assaulted German voters, but the Quakers, with their German allies, won in a landslide.

Leading city figures, including Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), harbored some of the most virulent anti-German sentiments. In his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Franklin argued that Germans were of inferior intellectual and biological stock. He asked, “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?”

After the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) suggested that immigrants were unfit for citizenship because many were raised in anti-democratic, monarchical European countries. Fears of immigrants heightened in the 1790s as thousands of men, women, and children fled from the French Revolution. Philadelphia, then serving as the nation’s capital, and its surrounding region became home to a robust French community that included radicals exiled from Paris. Ironically, American officials who came to power via revolution became concerned about the revolutionary rhetoric espoused by French emigrants. In response to tensions between the French and American, and during the Quasi-War with France, the United States Congress passed the Naturalization Act of 1798 as part of the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Naturalization Act, enacted in part due to French naval attacks on American shipping lines, extended residency requirements for citizenship from five to fourteen years and barred newly arrived immigrants from voting.

Irish Catholics

During the first half of the nineteenth century, nativism focused especially on Irish Catholics, then immigrating to the Philadelphia region in increasing numbers. In the early 1840s, Bishop Francis P. Kenrick (1797-1863) set in motion a series of events that hardened nativist sentiments in Philadelphia. Kenrick, an Irish immigrant, questioned an 1838 law that mandated the use of the King James (Protestant) Bible in public schools. In a written appeal to the Philadelphia school board, Kenrick sought to allow Catholic students to read from the Douay Bible used by Roman Catholics. While Kenrick retreated from his position after intense resistance, Protestant clergy and politicians capitalized on the Bible issue to win several elected offices, including Morton McMichael’s (1807-1879) victory as sheriff of Philadelphia. While the Bible controversy metastasized both nativist and anti-Catholic feelings, organizations such as the American Protestant Association and the American Republican Party targeted a wide range of immigrant groups, including German Americans.

Intra-religious debates between natives and immigrants turned to violence in Philadelphia and other cities. As the Irish potato famine sent an influx of Irish men and women fleeing to the United States, native-born Philadelphians grew fearful of the masses of Catholic immigrants. Goaded by the inflammatory rhetoric of publications that stoked racialized fears, nativists violently clashed with immigrants from May to July 1844. The riots began at the Nanny Goat Market in Kensington and quickly spread across the city. Nativist rioters beat, shot, and stabbed immigrants and burned St. Augustine’s, an Irish-Catholic church at Fourth and Vine Streets. Eventually, Sheriff McMichael and Brigadier General George Cadwalader (1806-79) restored order through martial law.

In the aftermath of the riots, nativist candidates swept to significant victories in the election of 1844. Philadelphians elected Lewis C. Levin (1808-60) and John Hull Campbell (1800-68), both members of the nativist American Party, to the United States House of Representatives. Levin, the editor of the Daily Sun, became a vigorous proponent of extending the naturalization period for citizenship to twenty-one years as well as banning immigrants from holding elected office. The American Party’s success in Philadelphia politics solidified with Levin’s reelection in 1846 and 1848 as well as McMichael’s reelection as sheriff. With nativist politicians in office across the Northeast, especially in Boston and New York City, the American Party nominated Daniel Webster (1782-1852) as its candidate for president in 1852. When Webster died a few days before the election, nativists threw their support behind a Philadelphian, Jacob Broom (1808-64). Although Broom received less than 1 percent of the popular vote, he recovered to win election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1854 from Pennsylvania’s Fourth Congressional District.

Consolidation of 1854

The election of 1854 was a watershed moment for nativists in Philadelphia city politics. Samuel J. Randall (1828-90), running on the American Party ticket, won election as a city councilman while Robert T. Conrad (1810-58), a playwright and editor of The North American, was elected mayor with the backing of a coalition of the Whig Party and the Know-Nothings nativist movement. Conrad implemented the Consolidation Act of 1854, which was crafted as response to the lawlessness of the nativist riots and granted the City of Philadelphia enhanced powers while incorporating the county of Philadelphia into the city’s jurisdiction. Conrad used the patronage of his office to fill city positions, especially the Philadelphia Police Department, with his nativist supporters. Under Conrad, the city government became an instrument through which nativists could surveil and police immigrant communities.

Moreover, nativist political candidates co-opted imagery from the American Revolution for political purposes. Nativists argued that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were of virtuous stock, either native-born or born in England. Independence Hall was seen not only as the seat of power for nativist officials (who installed the city council chambers in the second floor) but also a visible symbol of American identity. In 1856, Millard Fillmore (1800-74) ran for president as the candidate of the American Party using slogans such as “Beware of Foreign Influence.” After Fillmore’s defeat, many nativists defected to the fledgling Republican Party, which actively courted the nativist vote by including anti-immigrant planks in its party platform. While many Republicans, especially abolitionists, were uncomfortable with nativist rhetoric, the party subsumed much of the nativist vote.

Following the Civil War, Philadelphians elected stalwart nativists to Philadelphia’s most important political offices. Samuel J. Randall (1828-90), who ran as a Democrat, was elected to the House of Representatives. Randall served in Congress for nearly twenty years and acted as Speaker of the House from 1876 to 1881. In 1866, Morton McMichael, former sheriff of Philadelphia, became the first elected Republican mayor of Philadelphia. While McMichael’s time in office was less inflammatory than his time as sheriff, he held anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant views his entire life.

Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882

By the 1880s, nativists began to target immigrants from Asia, particularly in the western United States. The Page Act of 1875 barred Chinese women from entering the country, and in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act made all immigration from China illegal. Assaults on Asian communities drove Chinese immigrants in the West to escape to northeastern cities, including Philadelphia. A small but vibrant Chinese community formed along the 900 block of Race Street. With limited job opportunities, Chinese workers established laundries, grocery stores, and restaurants. Their shops became targets for police who periodically raided Chinatown under the guise of preventing immorality. After the Philippine-American War in 1898, the Philadelphia chapter of the American League argued that imperialism threatened to open the door to waves of Filipino immigrants.

[caption id="attachment_28922" align="alignright" width="300"]A political cartoon of an Irish-American and a Chinese-American eating Uncle Sam, illustrating xenophobic sentiments in the United States during the late 19th century. The xenophobic and racist mindset of many Americans of the late nineteenth century is graphically illustrated by this political cartoon. Many native-born Caucasian Americans feared the new wave of immigration and many considered Chinese Americans a negative influence on American society. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Millions of Italians, Jews, Poles, and Slavs migrated to the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, generating intense fear and hatred of immigrants among many Americans. Responding to nativists who demanded limits on the number and national origins of immigrants, in 1924 Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, which implemented a rigid quota system. By basing immigration quotas on 1880s census data, politicians slowed immigration levels until after the Second World War. Russian, Polish, and Italian immigrants were particularly targeted by the Johnson-Reed Act, which slowed immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe to a trickle. The act disrupted chain migration patterns and dislocated families who could not enter the United States as a single unit. Support of immigrant quotas undercut the popularity of Pennsylvania U.S. Senator George W. Pepper (1867-1961) among Italian Americans. Pepper lost the 1926 Republican nomination to William Vare (1867-1934), who ran on an anti-Prohibition and anti-Johnson-Reed platform.

The immigration laws of the 1920s remained in place until 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act redistributed the quota system to allow for a greater diversity of immigrants. From the mid-twentieth century into the twenty-first century, Philadelphia received increasing numbers of immigrants from South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. In the 1990s, Philadelphia became a “sanctuary city,” preventing the deportation of undocumented immigrants who had not been charged with a crime, without a warrant. Nevertheless, while new immigrant communities carved out niches in the region’s economy and culture, nativism remained an acute issue. In 2006, Geno’s cheesesteak founder Joey Vento (1939-2011) controversially placed a sign reading “This is America When Ordering Speak English.” Despite media attention and boycotts, Vento defiantly refused to remove the sign. Following a campaign stop by Donald Trump (b. 1946), then Republican nominee for president, in fall 2016, Vento’s son, Geno Vento (b. 1971), quietly removed the sign.

In the first decades of the twenty-first century, vandals targeted mosques and Jewish cemeteries. In December 2015, a severed pig’s head was found outside the Al Aqsa Islamic Society in Kensington. Amid a national wave of anti-Semitism in early 2017, the Mount Carmel Cemetery in the Wissinoming section of Philadelphia was desecrated. In response to these ethnically motivated attacks, Muslim and Jewish activists banded together to raise funds for the restoration of holy sites. With renewed waves of violence, immigration relief organizations, such as the Nationalities Service Center and Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, remained newly arrived immigrants’ best option for sound legal and employment advice.

The historical trajectory of nativism in Philadelphia paralleled that of the rest of the country. In periods of political turmoil, Americans often resorted to nativist rhetoric to defend their position in society. Despite Philadelphia’s reputation as the Cradle of Liberty and the City of Brotherly Love, at times the city repulsed its newest residents. Nativism in Philadelphia served as a reminder of the tensions between American ideals and American actions.

James Kopaczewski is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of History at Temple University.

House of Refuge

[caption id="attachment_24108" align="alignright" width="300"]A 1836 watercolor painting by David Johnson Kennedy showing the original House of Refuge in Philadelphia at Fairmount and Ridge Avenues. This 1836 watercolor painting by David Johnson Kennedy shows the original House of Refuge in Philadelphia at Fairmount and Ridge Avenues before it relocated in 1850. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Established on February 7, 1826, the Philadelphia House of Refuge provided an alternative to prisons for incarcerating juvenile delinquents and child vagrants. Although the House of Refuge purported to aid poor and delinquent children, in practice it became a paternalist organization that strove to implement social control over the city’s lower classes.

A project of wealthy white merchants, philanthropists, and politicians, the House of Refuge began with a Board of Managers that included John Sergeant (1779-1852) and Alexander Henry (1763-1847), two of the city’s wealthiest men. With powerful connections across the city and state, the Board of Managers attained twenty thousand dollars  in government grants and more than eight thousand dollars in private donations. This endowment of public and private funds allowed the board to purchase a five-acre plot at Fairmount and Ridge Avenues in April 1827. By December 1, 1828, construction was complete and the House of Refuge was ready for its first class of eighty boys and girls.

Earlier practices of incarcerating children in prisons perturbed reformers, who argued that delinquents deserved a place of rehabilitation rather than punishment. Advocates for the House of Refuge suggested that delinquents needed “an asylum for poverty and helplessness and ignorance, not a prison for malefactors.” White youth under the age of twenty-one could be referred to the institution through a number of means, such as through an order of a judge or the mayor. As a result, youth who had been abandoned, convicted of a crime, or homeless, became eligible to stay at the House of Refuge for at least one year.

[caption id="attachment_24109" align="alignright" width="300"]A Drwaing of the Department for White Children of the House of Refuge in 1858. The House of Refuge moved in 1850 to a larger location bounded by Twenty-Second, Twenty-Fourth, Parrish, and Poplar Streets to expand its services to both white and African American children. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

In structuring the institution, the board followed the examples of the New York House of Refuge and Boston House of Refuge, where children’s days were highly regimented and aimed towards moral, intellectual, and physical improvement. Days at the Philadelphia House of Refuge began at 5 a.m. with children laboring for six to eight hours and learning for three to four hours. Other than a brief period of play after dinner, the days were devoid of any idleness or frivolity. The managers declared restraint to be “necessary no less for the good of the subject, than for the security of society.” The board also claimed to train children to become self-reliant. Children received lessons in reading, writing, geography, and mathematics and they attended lectures on Protestantism. The children also received vocational training. Boys were assigned to apprentice as farmers, printers, tanners, carpenters, blacksmiths, and shoemakers while girls were trained in housewifery, sewing, washing, and cooking.

During the late 1840s, the board began discussing the possibility of opening a division of the House of Refuge for African American children. After raising nearly fourteen thousand dollars from private donors to cover construction costs, the House of Refuge for Colored Children opened its doors in December 1849 with a speech by Judge William D. Kelley (1814-90). While black and white boys and girls shared curriculum and trained in similar crafts, the House of Refuge was strictly segregated with black and white children occupying separate buildings.

[caption id="attachment_24110" align="alignright" width="300"]Drawing of the Department for Colored Children of the House of Refuge, 1858 During the late 1840s, the board began discussing the possibility of opening a division of the House of Refuge for African American children. After raising nearly fourteen thousand dollars from private donors to cover construction costs, the House of Refuge for Colored Children opened its doors in December 1849. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Despite reformers’ intentions, the House of Refuge rarely lived up to its mission of rehabilitating delinquent children. In 1876, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives initiated a nine-day investigation into abuse and found that the board punished children by banning play, sending them to bed without supper, placing them in solitary confinement, and even imposing lashings. The board forced children to labor in institutional workshops six days a week without pay and, to make matters worse, thousands of dollars in profits from the goods produced went directly to the board. Despite the prevalence of punishments, the House committee deemed that the board’s actions were not abusive.

By the late 1880s, the House of Refuge had grown too large for its quarters in Philadelphia and moved in 1892 to a more spacious location in Thornbury Township, Delaware County. In 1911, the board changed the institution’s name to the Glen Mills Schools and continued operation as an educational institution for troubled youth.

James Kopaczewski is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Temple University.

Christiana Riot Trial

During the 1850s, Northern abolitionism developed, Southern defense of slavery hardened, and debates over the expansion of slavery gripped the nation. When pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions met at Christiana, Pennsylvania, a mere 20 miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the events that followed and the subsequent trial in Philadelphia became flashpoints that deepened the sectional divisions between the North and South.

[caption id="attachment_16513" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of a two-story stone home with a chimney; the first story is white washed. The Christiana Riot took place at the home of William Parker, a free black man who helped organize a mutual protection society for the area's African American population. When Edward Gorsuch and his posse arrived at Parker's home, they were met by at least fifty men who intended to protect the escaped slaves. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

On September 11, 1851, slaveholder Edward Gorsuch (1795-1851) and his party of eight men rode into Christiana from Baltimore County, Maryland, with warrants for the arrests of four fugitive slaves. Upon reaching the home of William Parker (1822-?), a fugitive slave, Gorsuch and his party were met with armed resistance. A large group of armed black men and women surrounded Gorsuch’s party and demanded that they leave Pennsylvania immediately. When Gorsuch refused to vacate Parker’s property, chaos ensued. Indeed, Gorsuch's men fired guns as black men and women attacked Gorsuch's party with clubs, corn cutters, and other crude weapons. While accounts of that day conflict, numerous individuals on both sides of the battle were injured and Gorsuch died of wounds sustained during the fight.

In the immediate aftermath of the Christiana Riot, Parker and two other men, presumably fugitive slaves, escaped for Canada. U.S. officials hastily arrested anyone possibly connected with the riot, including a white miller from Christiana named Castner Hanway (1821-93). Hanway, who rode to Parker’s home on the day of the riot, was mistakenly identified as the mastermind of the riot. Along with forty-one other men, Hanway was charged with treason for “wickedly and traitorously” intending “to levy war” against the United States. Hanway’s trial began on November 24, 1851, at the old Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia (Independence Hall) with Supreme Court Justice Robert C. Grier (1794-1870) and U.S. District Court Judge John K. Kane (1795-1858) presiding.

[caption id="attachment_16512" align="alignright" width="300"]an 1850 lithograph of four African American men being ambushed by six armed caucasian men in a cornfield The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 forced law enforcement officers in free states to help recapture escaped slaves. Under this law, Edward Gorsuch rode into Christiana with warrants for the recapture of four slaves, which led to the Christiana Riot. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The defense of the Christiana Riot participants became a popular cause for the abolitionist movement. Fiery abolitionist and U.S. representative for Lancaster County Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) led Hanway’s defense team, and abolitionist Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) sat in the courtroom on the second floor of Independence Hall throughout the trial. The prosecution was directed by the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, John W. Ashmead (1806-68), and a team of lawyers from the state of Maryland. After opening arguments, Ashmead called the prosecution’s key witness, U.S. Deputy Marshal Henry Kline (1820-85), to the stand. Kline had been among Gorsuch’s party on the day of the riot and testified that Hanway was responsible for inciting Parker and the resisters. Under cross-examination, Kline admitted that he had hidden in a cornfield during the riot, so his view was obstructed. Following Kline’s testimony, the defense called twenty-nine character witnesses, including Judge William D. Kelley (1814-90), who portrayed Kline as a liar and a known kidnapper. This testimony was devastating for the prosecution. Indeed, for many Pennsylvanians—even those who were not in sympathy with the abolitionist cause—there was little interest in prosecution, because the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law seemed to represent an incursion of federal power into state sovereignty. After fifteen minutes of deliberation by the jury, Hanway was found not guilty of treason. Subsequently, federal and state officials declined to press further charges against the riot participants.

The verdict served as a fuel for the abolition movement as it gained momentum in the 1850s. The events at Christiana also showed that African American men and women could organize themselves to actively resist any attempts to kidnap fugitive slaves or disturb their communities. Nevertheless, Southerners viewed the verdict as a product of Northern radicalism and a failure to equally apply the law. The sectional divisions made clear by the Christiana Riot trial deepened throughout the 1850s and ultimately led to the Civil War.

James Kopaczewski is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Temple University.

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