Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Race and Rights

The following panel discussion took place at the Encyclopedia’s Civic Partnership and Planning Workshop, held April 16-17, 2009, a the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Please join in the discussion by adding your thoughts below.

Chaired by Joyce Wilkerson, the afternoon panel focusing on race and rights began with Emma Lapsansky-Werner of the Haverford College Quaker Collection, who reminded attendees that “one persons trivia is another’s minutiae.” She then argued that the struggle for civil rights in Philadelphia went back to the days of William Penn’s original vision and that there is an opportunity with the Encyclopedia to talk about the civil rights movement as a moving target, one which was not static but a true movement since it was constantly changing. Lapsansky-Werner argued that the movement, referred to as “negotiated civil rights,” continually created spill-off, and even those with Rights were still subject to rules and regulations. This was also true in religious societies like the Quakers.

The speaker suggested that any discussion of race and rights must involve the tensions over the use of public space—Who can do what in which spaces? And, who was the right to use the streets, and for what purpose? Additionally, the project should not just cover “non-tensions,” it must focus on darker elements such as street riots, gangs, and immigration. However, instead of just identifying the rioters, the Encyclopedia should strive to explore those who chose not to riot. Furthermore, the writers should attempt to look for examples of equality and inequality in unexpected meanings and places–the speaker argued that some parts of the Civil Rights story is more invisible.

In conclusion, Lapsansky-Werner stressed that the Philadelphia story is a great place to move the issue of race and rights outside the traditional economic, legal, political, and gender spheres. Ultimately, she argued, the project is about how knowledge is generated, cycled, stored, and formed and that the indexing of the encyclopedia should match the questions that the people are asking.

The second speaker, Romona Riscoe Benson of the African American Museum of Philadelphia, focused on identifying information needs for the Encyclopedia project with regard to race and rights. Specifically, this should involve the collection and dissemination of African American history, events, and people. She began her list by stating that the history of the civil rights movement in Philadelphia should be traced from the seventeenth century through the twentieth century. Also, the speaker stated that there were many movements and institutions involved in the creation of the city and community of Philadelphia, including: black Baptist, Catholic, and Muslim communities, black political movements, and black educational institutions, as well as people civically involved on a grassroots level.
Benson also argued that black influences in the arts and music of Philadelphia must be included in the project, especially the city’s importance in the development of jazz. Furthermore, many African American social and professional organizations that have contributed in numerous ways to what makes Philadelphia so significant.

Lastly, the speaker argued that the benefits of a successful encyclopedia would be to generate knowledge for everyone to have access to information. She argued that the creation of the work should be an inclusive process that includes diverse expertise so that the content is as comprehensive and authoritative as possible.

Philip Seitz, of Cliveden of the National Trust, spoke about the importance of historic sites to the story of Philadelphia and their value to the project. He argued there is a great diversity of experiences and information to be gleaned from historic sites that would only serve to better the Encyclopedia. Unfortunately, due to the lack of resources and lack of time to perform research, there is a lack of ready-to-present knowledge from most of these historic sites.

As an example, he cited current research at three area historic houses: Cliveden, Stenton, and Bartram’s Garden. All three houses had subsidiary plantations to which to outsource their labor and produce. Therefore, what they put on the table in Germantown came from the hard work of a plantation worker elsewhere. Deeper levels of research into these subsidiary plantations, however, have paid off generously. Seitz explained that at Whitehall, the plantation for Cliveden, letters between the plantation workers and the Chew family back in Germantown provided insight into the lives of these workers and the rights they were allowed.

The speaker argued this type of breakthrough is possible at many other sites if only they have the resources and time for the research. Seitz argued that the problem for the Encyclopedia is that so much of this research is very early in the process and, therefore, none would be ready for print for inclusion in the Encyclopedia project or some type of online database, no matter how desperate the historians of these historic sites are to get the information to the public.

Next, Matthew Countryman, of the University of Michigan, posed the problem of how to think about the history of race in Philadelphia since WWII. He argued that the city is a paradox since it exists as both a liberal beacon and a place with a continual presence of racism. Furthermore, he offered that there are as many narratives of race as there are communities within Philadelphia. As examples, he explained that there are both individual memories of historical moments as well as memories of internal segregation. Also, there are all kinds of knowledge of the history of race and rights. However, he stressed that it was crucial for the Encyclopedia to let these individual stories be told, no matter how challenging. He suggested a melding of stories that may typically be separated, such as traditional tales of struggle and conflict melded with stories that defend racial beliefs.
Countryman then offered some topics for consideration in the project. These included: community formation, great migrations (multiple, not singular), the beginnings of diasporas, and black life in the city (centered on the local community such as North Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, etc.). The flowering of black civic organizations and communities, the role of neighborhood transitions, white racial identity, and contested equality in a multi-racial city were also suggested by the speaker.

The final speaker, John Seitter, of the South Jersey Tourism Commission, argued that there are so many Southern New Jersey connections to Philadelphia that the true story of the city cannot be told without including them. He then provided several examples of such connections in hopes of proving how crucial Southern New Jersey has been in the history and culture of Philadelphia. These examples included: the Underground Railroad’s presence in Camden and Cherry Hill, African American communities and their links to Philadelphia communities, and the role of Native Americans the creation of the original settlement of the city. Furthermore, he showed other connections between the two regions, such as South New Jersey supplying colored troops during the Civil War and the importance of the region in the development of local industries like agriculture and shipbuilding. Also, echoing Philip Seitz of Cliveden, the speaker mentioned the use of slave plantations in Southern New Jersey and their affiliation with Philadelphia-area families. Lastly, Seitter offered the history of segregated schools and even the Ku Klux Klan as historical connections between the two regions.
The speaker finished by suggesting that the Encyclopedia could benefit Southern New Jersey by creating extra interest in its heritage tourism. In addition to bringing more visitors to local and regional historic sites, the Encyclopedia could benefit the economy of the area by helping spur politicians and policymakers to provide funding and support for the sites.

Dialogue: The Q&A session for the panel began with a question of how one categorizes “rights” and what is to be done with those groups and individuals are racially categorized but do not fit into the traditional stories of the struggle for rights? One panelist agreed that there exists a previously construed idea of Philadelphia’s history of race and rights, but suggested that this should be examined for its truth and rewritten in part or in whole as it proves necessary.

A follow-up question asked how one problematizes race in an Encyclopedia. A panelist acknowledged that a lot of the story is lost when the issue is not placed in its proper context and conjectured that an electronic version of the project could be one method of solving this problem. The use of links could show the complexity of the issue by putting race and rights together while still giving the reader the opportunity to see the spaces between them. The panelist conceded that although it is impossible to see at this point how the Encyclopedia will bring all the information together, the issue of race must be seen not just as a regional issue, but as a national issue. Furthermore, the issue is not simply about race and rights, but also about riots, politics, and enforcement.
A panelist suggested that the editors must plan for the technology of tomorrow in creating the Encyclopedia, offering that if one plans for the technology of today it will be obsolete by the time it’s finished. Another person said that the entire project will only have a certain amount of space and that once the size is determined, choices of inclusion and exclusion must be made; there will ultimately be things that will be forced to be left out. The trick, they argued, is to create an encyclopedia that is not encyclopedic.

The final question asked for ways to continue to reach out, involve, and interest the public. A respondent offered that if this is possible, it will involve contending with different voices and radically different narratives of Philadelphia. Someone suggested that perhaps this could be overcome with the online (or Wiki) version being released first. Another attendee offered that perhaps a staged rollout could be used to engage different peoples and groups within the community.

What are the region’s information needs in the area of race and rights? Add your thoughts below.

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