Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

James Wolfinger

Civil Rights (African American)

Black Philadelphians have fought for civil rights since the nineteenth century and even before. Early demands focused on the abolition of slavery and desegregation of public accommodations. The movement gained greater power as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth and the World War I-era Great Migration brought tens of thousands of African Americans to the Philadelphia region. This exponential growth in the African American population gave black Philadelphians the numbers and resources necessary to effect political change. Such efforts were never limited to the ballot box, access to which had been legally gained by constitutional amendment, but were instead linked to community needs for adequate housing, economic opportunity, and social and educational services. As African Americans gained greater rights, especially in the post-World War II period, black Philadelphians shifted more to emphasizing the need to achieve results based on their legal equality. The struggle to maintain civil rights and translate those rights into concrete results extended beyond the classic period of the 1960s and continued to shape Philadelphia into the twenty-first century.

[caption id="attachment_28220" align="alignright" width="226"]Sketch of Octavius Catto After the Civil War, Octavius Catto served as secretary of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League and vice president of the State Convention of Colored People in 1865. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Civil rights activists in the nineteenth century focused on the abolition of slavery, securing voting rights, and gaining equal access to public accommodations. Richard Allen (1760-1831), who was born into slavery and became a prominent minister, founded the Free African Society that pushed for the abolition of slavery. Octavius Catto (1839-71) helped raise troops to fight in the Civil War and afterward led the campaign for voting rights, until he was assassinated while trying to exercise the franchise in 1871. Catto also worked with William Still (1821-1902) to desegregate the city’s streetcars, which led the Pennsylvania state legislature to pass a law in 1867 requiring streetcar companies to carry passengers regardless of color. Such activism helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which declared African Americans were entitled to equal treatment in public accommodations. Reverend Fields Cook (1817-97) tested the law and won a case against Philadelphia’s Bingham House Hotel when he was denied a room in 1876.

The civil rights movement gained greater momentum in the early twentieth century with the Great Migration. The black population in Philadelphia surged from some 63,000 in 1900 to over 134,000 twenty years later. New arrivals lent their energy to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and the city's black newspaper, the Philadelphia Tribune, (published by E. Washington Rhodes [1895-1970], established 1884). Through these organizations, they demanded greater access to jobs and adequate housing. Yet a brutal race riot over housing desegregation in 1918 that left two people dead and dozens injured demonstrated that Philadelphia was not the land of hope that many prayed they had found.

Expanding Residential Access

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, African Americans deepened their commitment to securing civil rights. In the 1920s, they expanded their access to residential areas in North, South, and West Philadelphia. They also supported a flowering of black culture with authors such as Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961) from Fredricksville in Camden County, New Jersey, and venues such as the Dunbar Theater at Broad and Lombard in Philadelphia, giving Philadelphia a smaller version of the Harlem Renaissance. The Great Depression devastated African American efforts to secure more housing and create a vibrant community, and in the process, radicalized black political activism. In the early 1930s, African American unemployment crested at 61 percent, and tens of thousands of people lost their homes. In response, black Philadelphians joined the Democratic Party, the National Negro Congress, and the Communist Party. They engaged in “Don’t buy where you can't work” campaigns to pressure employers to end discrimination. And they demanded that political leaders meet a number of pressing needs: public housing to make up for the lack of decent and affordable housing, access to government-funded jobs, and an Equal Rights Bill (passed by the state legislature in 1935) to once again guarantee access to public accommodations.

[caption id="attachment_28965" align="alignright" width="255"] Bayard Rustin, born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, became one of its most famous natives as a prominent activist during the civil rights era of the 1960s. Rustin was a pivotal organizer of the March on Washington held on August 28, 1963. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Demands for civil rights in the area of jobs, housing, and political recognition continued into World War II. As the federal government poured billions of dollars into Philadelphia industries, African Americans flocked to the city. The black population grew from some 250,000 in 1940 to 376,000 by the end of the war decade, and many of these residents supported the national Double V campaign that called for victory over fascism abroad and over Jim Crow at home. A presidential executive order, prompted by A. Philip Randolph’s (1889-1979) March on Washington Movement, prohibited discrimination in hiring at industries receiving defense contracts and was a reminder that the federal government could be an ally in pushing for civil rights. Nonetheless, many companies tried to maintain a segmented system that confined black workers to specific jobs. Employment practices at the Philadelphia Transportation Company, for example, led to a campaign promoted by the NAACP and its leader Carolyn D. Moore (1916-1998) (who had started in the organization in Norristown, Pennsylvania) to secure driving jobs for African Americans. When the federal government ordered the desegregation of the workforce in August 1944, white workers staged one of the largest hate strikes of World War II, shutting down the city for nearly a week. African Americans also had to continue their struggle in the city’s neighborhoods, where redlining and other discriminatory loan policies restricted African Americans to the most dilapidated communities. Federal Housing Administration policies as well as violence perpetrated by some white Philadelphians kept new public housing segregated as well.

The experience of World War II transformed civil rights in Philadelphia as the concerted efforts of the NAACP and local interracial organizations energized the black community. Although there were fears that interracial strife would grow after the war, a strong economy and the diligence of the civil rights community prevented the rise of racial violence. Economic concerns took particular precedence in this era, as African Americans who had been hired in defense-related industries feared they would lose their jobs. Civil rights activists such as the Reverend E. Luther Cunningham (1909-1964) seized the moment and in 1948 secured passage of a municipal Fair Employment Practices ordinance that the state later adopted in similar form. New Jersey already had such a law on the books (passed in 1945), and Delaware added its own version of the law in 1960. Black Philadelphians also helped elect Democrat Joseph Clark (1901-90) as mayor in 1951, which cemented the political reorientation of the city and led to the implementation of the Home Rule Charter that provided for a Commission on Human Relations, one of the first agencies in the nation dedicated to preventing discrimination.

Decades of Job Losses

Although the new Democratic administration paid greater attention to African American rights and increased civil service opportunities, deindustrialization and persistent housing segregation showed the need for continued civil rights agitation. Philadelphia lost some 250,000 industrial jobs between the 1950s and the 1980s, and as workplace opportunities evaporated many African Americans were disproportionately affected because they could not follow the jobs to the suburbs. Many white Philadelphians moved to suburban developments such as Levittown, Pennsylvania. Suburbanization freed up housing stock for some middle class blacks to move into city neighborhoods that had previously been off limits, but racist lending practices and white violence meant most suburban housing excluded black settlement. In 1957, a race riot broke out when white homeowners protested the arrival of the Myers family in Levittown.

[caption id="attachment_28959" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of Cecil B. Moore and Dr. Martin Luther King linking hands Cecil B. Moore (center, to the left of Martin Luther King Jr.) was a prominent figure in Philadelphia's civil rights movement at a time when the African American population of Philadelphia was steadily growing but racially discriminatory practices still prevailed. (Temple University Libraries, Special Collection Research Center)[/caption]

White intransigence sharpened black Philadelphians’ commitment to a civil rights movement that transformed Philadelphia in the 1960s. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68) had been introduced to Satyagraha (Mahatma Gandhi’s movement based on passive political resistance) at Philadelphia’s Fellowship House, an interracial organization in the late 1940s. King studied at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, and lived in Camden, New Jersey, from 1949 to 1951. As a result, King was well acquainted with Philadelphia’s civil rights community. Local civil rights activists provided moral and material support to King, who visited the city several times in the 1960s. Inspired by the national movement, local civil rights leaders such as the Reverend Leon Sullivan (1922-2001) and NAACP branch president Cecil B. Moore employed new tactics. In 1960, Sullivan and other black ministers launched a boycott of Tasty Baking Company, one of the city’s largest businesses, over its refusal to hire black workers. The success of the boycott influenced Moore to initiate street protests against racial discrimination in the construction industry and in food markets that did not hire blacks. This activism drew greater power with the passage of federal affirmative action legislation and found support from white allies in the Northern Student Movement, Fellowship House, and other area organizations.

While increasing protests contributed to a rising level of consciousness among black Philadelphians, they were unable to stem the tide of frustration in the city’s poorest communities, especially in North Philadelphia. In the early 1960s, North Philadelphia had the city’s highest poverty and unemployment rates and tense relations with the police. On August 28, 1964, rioting broke out after an altercation between two black motorists and two police officers. Hundreds were arrested and injured, and the uprising indicated the emergence of a new militancy among many black Philadelphians. Some activists turned to more militant organizations such as the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers, and the Black People’s Unity Movement in Camden. Although the Philadelphia area had a long history of interracial civil rights organizing, an increasing number of activists influenced by Black Power ideology criticized the role of whites in the movement.

The Black Power Movement

[caption id="attachment_28663" align="alignright" width="300"] After numerous attempts in the 1950s to desegregate Girard College through the courts, African Americans began organizing demonstrations outside the school, as in this photograph from 1965. (National Archives)[/caption]

By the late 1960s, the Black Power movement had significant influence in the civil rights community. Both traditional civil rights activists and younger black militants coalesced around the issue of education. Thousands protested the exclusion of African Americans from an all-white private school, Girard College, located in North Philadelphia. The movement against educational racism involved parents (mainly African American women), educators, and students. In addition to enduring inferior schools, black students criticized dress codes that excluded traditional African garb and demanded a curriculum that included black history. In late 1967, black students launched a major protest at Board of Education headquarters and were attacked by police. The clash exemplified persistent tensions between the black community and the police.

While street protests continued in the late 1960s, an increasing number of civil rights activists sought public office. Buoyed by the passage of significant federal civil rights legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, these activists believed that they could considerably influence the political process. C. Delores Tucker (1927-2005) became the first black Pennsylvanian appointed to the office of secretary of state. David P. Richardson (1948-1995) was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1972. In 1984, W. Wilson Goode (b. 1938) became Philadelphia’s first black mayor. Although this new generation of political leaders had its roots in activism, their different power bases reflected an increasing maturation of the movement. Tucker had been active in the mainstream civil rights struggle and the rapidly emerging feminist movement. Richardson began his activism as a community organizer, while Goode’s rise was propelled by his support among the city’s black religious establishment. Goode’s success was in part fueled by the work of the city’s first black deputy mayor, Charles W. Bowser (1930-2010), who had run unsuccessfully for mayor in the 1970s. In turn, Goode’s administration paved the way for future black mayors John Street (b. 1943) and Michael Nutter (b. 1957). While black officials took power at a more formal level, a growing number of community based organizations recognized the limits of their offices. The Kensington Welfare Rights Union, for example, articulated the demands of poor and working-class people of all races beyond what was provided in legislation.

Although the election of President Barack Obama (b. 1961) demonstrated the gains made by civil rights activists, black Philadelphians recognized the many problems they still faced. In the 2000s, Philadelphia’s civil rights movement witnessed the emergence of organizations that addressed crime, joblessness, education, and immigration among other issues. In all, the changing demographics and economic environment of the Philadelphia region represented new challenges and extensions of old ones for the next generation of civil rights activists. Yet despite these challenges, the history of Philadelphia’s civil rights movement demonstrated the gains African Americans made.

James Wolfinger is Professor of History and Education at DePaul University. He is the author of Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love and Running the Rails: Capital and Labor in the Philadelphia Transit Industry.

Stanley Keith Arnold is associate professor of history at Northern Illinois University. He is the author of Building the Beloved Community: Philadelphia Interracial Civil Rights Organizations and Race Relations, 1930-1970

African American Migration

People of African descent have migrated to Philadelphia since the seventeenth century. First arriving in bondage, either directly from Africa or by way of the Caribbean, they soon developed a small but robust community that grew throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although African Americans faced employment discrimination, disfranchisement, and periodic race riots in the 1800s, the community attracted tens of thousands of people during World War I's Great Migration. Drawn by the promise of jobs during the two world wars, Philadelphia's African Americans created one of the largest black communities in the urban North in the twentieth century. Deindustrialization and suburbanization from the post-World War II period to the early 2000s contributed to rising rates of poverty, racial tensions, and disinvestment in black neighborhoods, but the black community continued to attract new migrants. 

Arriving as early as 1639 with the Delaware Valley’s earliest European settlers, the region's first African residents were few in number and worked as slaves for Swedish, Dutch, and Finnish settlers. Their population grew in 1684 when the ship Isabella brought 150 African slaves to Philadelphia. But with European immigrants available to do the bulk of the region's manual labor, the slave trade brought only a few Africans each year until the 1750s, when the Seven Years' War limited German and Scotch-Irish immigration. At that point, the slave trade spiked and anywhere from 100 to 500 Africans came to Philadelphia each year in the 1750s and 1760s. Most new arrivals came on ships from Africa but some fugitive slaves entered the city from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. By the Revolutionary era, slaves accounted for some one-twelfth of Philadelphia's population of roughly 16,000 people.

 As Philadelphia's black population grew, it both encountered social problems and developed community institutions that endured for generations. The law often limited black immigrants' advancement, with, for example, Black Codes in the 1720s defining Africans as "an idle, slothful people" and emancipation legislation in the 1780s providing only for gradual manumission, which meant the state still held a few slaves as late as the 1840s. Schools, except for those run by concerned citizens such as the Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet (1713-84), seldom accepted black children. And adults--slave or free--generally found themselves relegated to menial labor, which meant lifelong poverty. 

[caption id="attachment_7266" align="alignright" width="230"]Portrait of Richard Allen Richard Allen was born a slave in Philadelphia in 1760. After gaining his freedom and becoming a Methodist preacher, Allen began the Free African Society and helped the African American community of Philadelphia into the 1830s. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]


The Free African Society

Black Philadelphians countered these problems in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by building institutions such as the Free African Society (America's first independent black organization), founded by Richard Allen (1760-1831) and Absalom Jones (1746-1818), and Allen's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (later known as Mother Bethel), and by supporting Freedom's Journal (the nation's first black newspaper). Such activity made Philadelphia a center of abolitionism, especially after James Forten (1766-1842), one of the richest black men in America, gained fame for funding the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's (1805-79) Boston-based newspaper, The Liberator.

 In the half century leading up to the Civil War, Philadelphia attracted the largest black population outside the slave states even though the city's acceptance of African Americans was mixed at best. The number of black Philadelphians stood at 15,000 in 1830, grew to nearly 20,000 by 1850, and topped 22,000 in 1860. The population clustered in South Philadelphia near what is today Center City, but smaller concentrations also developed in Kensington, Northern Liberties, and Spring Garden. African Americans came because of the black community's reputation as a vibrant political, cultural, and economic center, and Philadelphia, true to its antislavery reputation, became a major stop on the Underground Railroad, especially for slaves making their escapes through Maryland and Delaware. But jobs--the great lure for most immigrants--were mostly physically demanding and low-paying, with only a few people managing to secure positions as barbers, caterers, doctors, ministers, and teachers. Competition for work, coupled with antiabolitionist sentiment, fired conflicts between African Americans and working-class whites, especially Irish immigrants. Between 1828 and 1849 Philadelphia experienced five major race riots that destroyed black homes, businesses, and abolitionist halls, leading one observer to call the city "illiberal, unjust and oppressive." Such sentiment was not limited to the city: In 1838, Pennsylvania ratified a new constitution that officially disfranchised African Americans.

Despite the problems confronting black Philadelphia, the community continued to attract migrants in the second half of the nineteenth century. The population grew to nearly 32,000 in 1880 and almost doubled to some 63,000 in 1900. Black Philadelphia was large enough to muster eleven regiments to serve in the Civil War, and in the ensuing decades it supported approximately 300 black-owned businesses, including the Philadelphia Tribune (established in 1884) and Douglas Hospital (opened in 1895). By the 1890s, the community had the size and vitality to command sociological investigation, which took the form of W.E.B. Du Bois's (1868-1963) classic study The Philadelphia Negro (1899).

The Civil War experience plus black Philadelphia's size led to greater activism on the "race question." African Americans, led by Octavius V. Catto (1839-71), pushed to regain the right to vote, end segregation of the city's schools, and desegregate the streetcars. Feeling the pressure, the Pennsylvania state legislature passed a law requiring street railways to carry passengers regardless of color in 1867 and ended legal segregation of the education system in 1881 (although the city's schools remained segregated by custom for decades afterwards).  The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution compelled Pennsylvania to grant African Americans the franchise in 1870, but, signaling Philadelphia's continuing racial difficulties, Catto was shot and killed attempting to vote in 1871.

[caption id="attachment_7268" align="alignright" width="300"]Migrant workers in the fields of New Jersey's Seabrook Farms during World War II. (Library of Congress) Migrant workers in the fields of New Jersey's Seabrook Farms during World War II. (Library of Congress)[/caption]


Black Migration North

The greatest wave of black migrants in Philadelphia's history to that point came during World War I when the conflict overseas choked off European migration and Northern businesses across the United States looked to the South for labor. This massive population movement, known as the Great Migration, changed the face of American cities from Boston and New York City to Detroit, Chicago, and beyond. Philadelphia's black population more than doubled, rising from 63,000 in 1900 to 134,000 in 1920, with most of the migrants coming from the Eastern seaboard. Other industrial cities in the area, such as Camden, Chester, and Norristown, also saw their black communities grow, but the great bulk of the immigrants moved to Philadelphia.  Women played a critical role in the migration, helping establish communal and kin networks that brought migrants to Philadelphia.

Most newly arrived African Americans were best described as the "working poor" and they sought employment at the area's major companies such as the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads, Baldwin Locomotive, Midvale Steel, Cramps Shipyard, and the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company. White Philadelphians, many from families only recently arrived in the United States as immigrants, regarded African Americans as competitors for jobs and decent housing. Their consternation about blacks in their workplaces and neighborhoods led to a number of racial conflicts that mirrored events across the nation. Philadelphia and Chester, Pennsylvania, both had riots in 1918 that killed five people in each city, and Coatesville (45 miles west of Philadelphia) a few years earlier in 1911 witnessed the lynching of a steelworker named Zachariah Walker. Surveys showed that Philadelphia was so inhospitable that many new residents contemplated returning to the South. Some formed the Colored Protective Association or supported the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to assert their rights.

Philadelphia’s in-migration continued in the ensuing decades, tapering off only during the Great Depression. By the end of the 1920s, Philadelphia’s black population grew to 220,000 people and the community established a much larger presence in North and West Philadelphia.  Enough African Americans enjoyed the era’s prosperity that some critics accused better-off black Philadelphians of shirking their responsibilities to the poor and working class. Such criticisms diminished in the 1930s when the Depression devastated the city, especially its black community where unemployment exceeded 50 percent. Across Philadelphia, at textile mills, metal shops, and other places of employment,  African Americans faced the age-old problem of “last hired, first fired.”  For many working-class blacks, like the city’s white ethnic groups, economic hard times led them to support Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, a sea change in a city dominated by the Republican Party for a century.  Only with the coming of World War II and its attendant federal military supply contracts did the situation improve. African Americans, although some of the last people to gain employment, got jobs at Sun Shipyard, the Philadelphia Transportation Company, and elsewhere.  Still, they faced discrimination as Sun Ship created a segregated yard and the transit company endured one of the costliest hate strikes of World War II.

[caption id="attachment_7762" align="alignright" width="300"]Cecil B. Moore (Center) was a prominent figure in Philadelphia's Civil Rights movement. He is pictured here with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965, during the struggle to desegregate Girard College. Cecil B. Moore (center) was a prominent figure in Philadelphia's civil rights movement. He is pictured here with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965, during the struggle to desegregate Girard College. (Temple University Libraries, Special Collection Research Center)[/caption]


Migration Despite Discrimination

Despite the continued workplace discrimination, Philadelphia attracted tens of thousands of migrants during the war and the numbers continued to rise for decades afterwards.  The city’s black population stood at 250,000 in 1940, grew to 375,000 in 1950, and peaked at some 655,000 residents in 1970. By that year, African Americans represented one-third of the population. Unfortunately for black Philadelphians, their numbers grew just as the city’s economy declined. For generations a national industrial leader, especially in smaller craft occupations, Philadelphia lost textile, metal manufacturing, and electronic production jobs by the tens of thousands from the 1950s-1970s. Some of the jobs moved to the South and foreign countries while others migrated to the suburbs. African Americans found that because of discriminatory housing practices they could not follow the jobs to suburban Bucks and Montgomery counties, and they increasingly became locked in poor inner-city neighborhoods shorn of jobs and resources. These circumstances led to a more radicalized civil rights movement championed by Cecil B. Moore (1915-79) as well as activism by women who demanded the support of public institutions for their families.

In the last three decades of the twentieth century, Philadelphia’s black population stabilized at between 630,000 and 655,000 people. As white Philadelphians moved to the suburbs, African Americans became a larger portion of the overall population, 43 percent in 2000. The changing population mix created tense political contests, with law-and-order candidate Frank Rizzo (1920-91) serving two mayoral terms from 1972 to 1980. Wilson Goode (b. 1938) finally secured a representative share of political power for the black community when he served as mayor from 1984 to 1992, although his first term was marred by an infamous conflict with the black liberation group MOVE.

Goode’s emergence along with that of Judge Leon Higginbotham, Reverend Leon Sullivan, and others showed the vitality of Philadelphia’s African American community that continued into the first decade of the twenty-first century. The 2010 census demonstrated that Philadelphia remained attractive to black migrants: the total population stood at 1,526,000, with African Americans comprising 43.4 percent of that total (662,000 residents) and whites comprising 41 percent (626,000 residents). Philadelphia attracted more Hispanic and Asian immigrants in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century (12 percent and 6 percent of the population, respectively in 2010), but it remained a magnet mostly for African American migrants who continued to find opportunities as well as stony ground in the city. John Street (b. 1943) and Michael Nutter (b. 1957) were elected mayor and Congressman Chaka Fattah emerged as a senior member on the House Appropriations Committee. Unemployment, high public school dropout rates, and other problems persisted, but the vibrancy of Philadelphia's black community continued, a vibrancy built by migrants over nearly four centuries.

 James Wolfinger is associate professor of history and education at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.  He is the author of numerous articles on Philadelphia's history as well as the book Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love.


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