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.

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)


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.

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)


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.

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)


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. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2013, Rutgers University.


James Forten (1766-1842)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

In 1813, when Pennsylvania legislators proposed a law that would have required all African American migrants to register with the state, wealthy Philadelphia businessman James Forten argued against the proposal in an anonymously published pamphlet titled Letters From a Man of Color. Forten evoked language from the Declaration of Independence to make his argument, and began the first letter: "We hold this truth to be self-evident, that GOD created all men equal, and is one of the most prominent features of the Declaration of Independence, and in that glorious fabric of collected wisdom, our noble Constitution. This idea embraces the Indian and the European, the Savage and the Saint, the Peruvian and the Laplander, the white Man and the African, and whatever measures are adopted subversive of this inestimable privilege, are in direct violation of the letter and the spirit of our constitution, and become subject to the animadversion of all, particularly those who are deeply interested in the measure..."

Forten was born to a free African American family in Philadelphia in 1766. Foten's father had a successful career working at Robert Bridges' sail loft and Forten worked beside his father by the age of eight. Forten continued working for Bridges after his fathers death, and only left his position to serve briefly as a Privateer during the Revolutionary War in 1780 and apprentice in a London shipyard for seven months. Forten returned to Philadelphia as Bridges' apprentice and yard foreman. Forten was able to design a series of popular sails that increased the speed and maneuverability of ships. When Bridges retired in 1798, Forten took control of the business and was able to retain Bridges' customer base. Over the next forty years, Forten earned a substantial amount of wealth, some of which he used to fight for the social freedoms of African Americans.

Following his Letters From a Man of Color, in 1817, Forten joined with Richard Allen to organize the Convention of Color to support a settlement in Canada for fugitive slaves. Forten and Allen together believed that freed or fugitive slaves should not be relocated away from the North American continent and frequently allied together against the American Colonization Society (which argued that freed or fugitive slaves would have greater freedoms if they were sent to Africa). In 1831 when William Lloyd Garrison began The Liberator, a weekly newspaper that focused on information about abolitionist initiatives around the United States, James Forten wrote editorials and offered financial assistance to keep the paper in circulation. By his death in 1842, Forten had helped make Philadelphia a center for abolitionism.

Richard Allen (1760-1831)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Richard Allen, born in Philadelphia as a slave in 1760, used his role as a Methodist religious leader to support abolitionism and assist the swelling African American community in Philadelphia from the 1780s through the1830s. Although born in Philadelphia, Allen and the rest of his family were sold to a Delaware plantation owner in the 1760s. While in Delaware, Allen began to attend weekly Methodist Society meetings, and later became a Methodist preacher after he was able to purchase his freedom. The Methodist preaching circuit allowed him to attend Methodist meetings throughout Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. After preaching in Philadelphia numerous times, Allen accepted an offer in 1786 to be a weekly speaker at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Although St. George's was primarily a white church, it had services for the steadily growing African American audience.

Preaching at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church was difficult for Allen and the growing African American congregation that prayed there weekly. Allen had to conduct his sermons at 5 a.m., so that he did not disrupt the service for the white congregation later in the morning. After multiple incidents of white church members forcing African Americans into segregated seating that did not allow room to kneel to pray, Allen and other local religious leaders began to plan churches specifically for the African American population of Philadelphia. Their first step was to create the Free African Society in 1787 to support the local African American community and help recently freed slaves. The Free African Society offered financial assistance to families and educational services for children or adults seeking employment in Philadelphia. Over the next few years, a number of solely African American churches were built in Philadelphia. Allen was part of a council that purchased and renovated an old blacksmith's shop to become the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (later known as Mother Bethel). He became the first African American Methodist minister in 1799 and the first bishop of the African American Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816. Until his death in 1831, Richard used his ties with his growing congregation and the Free African Society to support the African American community of Philadelphia.

Octavius V. Catto (1839-71)

Library of Congress

Although Philadelphia was a center for abolitionism in the nineteenth century, the city still had restrictive laws and segregated practices that harmed working class African Americans. Octavius V. Catto fought against laws that prohibited African Americans from riding railways, segregated education within the city's schools, and limited the right of African Americans to vote. Catto was born, free from slavery, on February 22, 1839 in South Carolina. His family moved to Philadelphia when he was five years old, as his father became the minister of the First African Presbyterian Church. Catto attended a number of segregated public schools, briefly attended an all-white middle school in Allentown, New Jersey, and finished his education at the The Institute for Colored Youth (the precursor to the current Cheney University). Catto was the fourth student to graduate from the Institute in 1858, and within a year became an lecturer at the Institute. The Institute was a prominent center for the African American intellectual community in the greater Philadelphia area, and Catto used his position to become deeply involved with the African American community. Catto focused his career on educating members of the community and strived to help for African Americans progress in a culture that was heavily prejudiced against them. During the Civil War, Catto helped organize eleven regiments of the United States Colored Troops, and was elevated to the rank of Major.

After the Civil War, Catto became involved in civil rights on the state level. Catto served as the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League and Vice President of the State Convention of Colored People in 1865, and joined the Equal Rights League in Harrisburg in 1866. Through these positions, he was able to meet with state officials and his peers to discuss legal changes that would allow the African American people of Pennsylvania better public services, more voting access, and non-segregated educational services. In March of 1867, a law was passed that prevented transportation operators from removing people based on their skin color. Just three days later, the law was tested as Catto's fiancé Caroline LeCount was refused service on a horsecar. The state law was upheld and the conductor was arrested and fined for his actions. Voting restrictions on African Americans were legally prevented with the ratification of the 15th Amendment of the United States Constitution in 1870. Catto would not live to see the Pennsylvania's passage of a law that legally ended segregation of schools in 1881 (although Philadelphia's schools remained segregated by custom for decades afterwards.)

Catto was shot on his way to vote in October 1871. Groups of white Democrats (including a number of police officers) attempted to intimidate the black population of Philadelphia from voting by harassing them on their way to the polls. Catto was walking down South Street when he was confronted by a white male, later identified as Frank Kelly, and the confrontation ended when Catto was shot three times.

Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company Workers

During the Great Migration, Philadelphia's African American population more than doubled as Southern workers moved into the Northern states in search of better employment opportunities. The African American working class often found work with major companies, but in jobs that required limited skills, long hours, physical labor, or hazardous working conditions. This 1917 photograph shows three African American workers for the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, constructing a support girdle for a subway tunnel underneath City Hall.

Migrant Workers at Seabrook Farms

Library of Congress

During World War II, the prospect of jobs attracted another large migration of African Americans from the South to the Philadelphia area. Defense manufacturers required workers, but their discriminatory practices often meant that they hired fewer African Americans. The increased number of jobs within the defense and military fields for white workers meant that lower-paying jobs opened elsewhere. New Jersey's Seabrook Farms offered African American migrant workers jobs in the fields of Cumberland County. The men and women seen here in 1942 were part of a larger workforce that also included Eastern European and Japanese immigrants.

Cecil B. Moore

Temple University Libraries, Special Collection Research Center

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. Born in West Virginia in 1915, Moore moved to Philadelphia after serving in World War II to study law at Temple University. After graduating in 1953, Moore became a defense attorney who specialized in helping working class African American clients. The number of working-class African Americans in Philadelphia grew steadily in the post-World War II period, but an economic downturn beginning in the 1950s made it difficult for working-class individuals to find jobs or afford any services beyond the necessities. Moore's confrontational and direct approach in the courtroom continued when he entered the public sphere to combat social injustice.

African Americans made up roughly one-third of Philadelphia's population by the 1970s, but racially discriminatory practices routinely affected their lives. Moore's confrontational approach to fighting for the African American community was powerful but controversial. He did not opt for private negotiations or compromises for what he felt was the right course of action. While president of the Philadelphia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1963 to 1967, he encouraged African Americans to picket and protest for the right to join labor unions, de-segregate businesses, and receive better public education. He complemented these tactics with programs aimed at getting the growing African American community to vote and become more involved with local politics. Moore also restarted the fight to desegregate Girard College in 1964 and acted as the main attorney on the case until 1968, when the Supreme Court ruled that Girard College's attendance policy was unconstitutional. Some criticized Moore's tactics as too aggressive, but they achieved results and acknowledgement of national civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. This photograph of Moore and King was taken during the struggle to desegregate Girard College in 1965.

Moore died from cardiac arrest at age 63 in 1979, but his legacy as a civil rights leader has lived on in numerous acknowledgements around Philadelphia. A section of Columbia Street between Front and Thirty-Third Street was renamed Cecil B. Moore Avenue in 1987, and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) rededicated the Broad Street line subway station on Cecil B. Moore Avenue as the Cecil B. Moore Station.

Wilson Goode

Temple University Libraries, Special Collection Research Center

Born in a family of North Carolina tenant farmers in 1938, Wilson Goode became Philadelphia's first African American mayor. Goode's parents worked as tenant farmers in Seaboard, North Carolina, during the Great Depression and throughout the 1940s. Goode was fifteen when his family decided to move to Philadelphia in 1954. After graduating from John Bartram High School, Goode earned his undergraduate degree from Morgan State University and a master's degree in government administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Starting in 1969, Goode became president of the Philadelphia Council for Community Advancement (PCCA) and developed stronger programs to support families wishing to purchase or keep housing. The declining economic situation around the city of Philadelphia made it difficult for inner-city residents to find jobs in the manufacturing, textile, and electronic production industries, and as a result many families struggled to find and afford housing.

After being appointed a commissioner on the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission in 1978 and Philadelphia managing director in 1980, Goode ran in the 1983 election for Mayor of Philadelphia. Goode served two terms as mayor (1984-1992) during a time when Philadelphia faced economic decline, which resulted in high unemployment and a large city budget deficit. In 1985, Goode also incurred the negative ramifications of the Philadelphia police bombing of a fortified household in West Philadelphia occupied by the MOVE Organization, which ended up burning down more than sixty adjacent homes. Goode's term as mayor also saw the zoning and construction of more than twenty large commercial buildings, many of which still define Philadelphia's skyline.

Goode went on to serve as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education during the Clinton administration, became an ordained minister for the First Baptist Church of Paschall, and co-created the Amachi Program to mentor children of incarcerated parents.

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Related Reading

Bauman, John. Public Housing, Race, and Renewal: Urban Planning in Philadelphia, 1920-1974. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.

Countryman, Matthew. Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

DuBois, W.E.B. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1899.

Gregg, Robert. Sparks from the Anvil of Oppression: Philadelphia’s African Methodists and Southern Migrants, 1890-1940. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

Levenstein, Lisa. A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Miller, Fredric. “Black Migration to Philadelphia.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 108.3 (July 1984): 315-50.

Nash, Gary. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Simon, Roger. Philadelphia: A Brief History. University Park: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 2003.

Trotter Jr., Joe William and Eric Ledell Smith, African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Weigley, Russell, ed. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982.

Wolfinger, James. Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

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