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Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love

Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love

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Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love

543 pages
7 hours
Feb 1, 2011


In a detailed study of life and politics in Philadelphia between the 1930s and the 1950s, James Wolfinger demonstrates how racial tensions in working-class neighborhoods and job sites shaped the contours of mid-twentieth-century liberal and conservative politics. As racial divisions fractured the working class, he argues, Republican leaders exploited these racial fissures to reposition their party as the champion of ordinary white citizens besieged by black demands and overwhelmed by liberal government orders.

By analyzing Philadelphia's workplaces and neighborhoods, Wolfinger shows the ways in which politics played out on the personal level. People's experiences in their jobs and homes, he argues, fundamentally shaped how they thought about the crucial political issues of the day, including the New Deal and its relationship to the American people, the meaning of World War II in a country with an imperfect democracy, and the growth of the suburbs in the 1950s. As Wolfinger demonstrates, internal fractures in New Deal liberalism, the roots of modern conservatism, and the politics of race were all deeply intertwined. Their interplay highlights how the Republican Party reinvented itself in the mid-twentieth century by using race-based politics to destroy the Democrats' fledgling multiracial alliance while simultaneously building a coalition of its own.

Feb 1, 2011

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James Wolfinger is associate professor of history and education at DePaul University.

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Philadelphia Divided - James Wolfinger

Philadelphia Divided

Philadelphia Divided

Race & Politics in the City of Brotherly Love

by James Wolfinger


Chapel Hill

© 2007 The University of North Carolina Press

All rights reserved

Set in ITC Charter and ITC Franklin Gothic types

by Keystone Typesetting, Inc.

Manufactured in the United States of America

The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Wolfinger, James.

Philadelphia divided : race and politics in the City of Brotherly Love/by James Wolfinger.

  p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-8078-3149-6 (cloth: alk. paper)

1. Philadelphia (Pa.)—Race relations—History—20th century. 2. Philadelphia (Pa.)—Politics and

government—20th century. 3. Liberalism—Pennsylvania—Philadelphia—Politics and government—

20th century. 4. Conservatism—Pennsylvania—Philadelphia—Politics and government—20th

century. 5. African Americans—Pennsylvania—Philadelphia—Politics and government—20th

century. 6. Whites—Pennsylvania—Philadelphia—Politics and government—20th century.

7. Working class—Pennsylvania—Philadelphia—History—20th century. 8. Work environment—

Pennsylvania—Philadelphia—History—20th century. 9. Neighborhood—Pennsylvania—

Philadelphia—History—20th century. I. Title.

F158.5.W65 2007

305.8009748’11—dc22   2007028264

The author wishes to thank The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for authorizing the use of the images on pp. 118 and 119.

Portions of this book have been adapted from previous publications: ‘Liberty . . . That's a lot of bunk!’: The Meaning of the 1944 Philadelphia Transit Strike to Black Philadelphia, in The Past Is before Us, ed. Greg Patmore et al. (Sydney: Australian Society for the Study of Labour History and Business and Labour History Group, 2005); used by permission. ‘An Equal Opportunity to Make a Living—and a Life’: The FEPC and Postwar Black Politics, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 4 (Summer 2007); used by permission. ‘We Are in the Front Lines in the Battle for Democracy’: Carolyn Moore and Black Activism in World War II Philadelphia, Pennsylvania History 72 (Winter 2005); used by permission. World War II Hate Strikes, in Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History, ed. Aaron Brenner (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2007); used by permission. The Philadelphia Transit Strike of 1944, © 2006, from Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History, ed. Eric Arneson; reproduced by permission of Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, a division of Informa plc.

11 10 09 08 07 5 4 3 2 1

For Amy and Elizabeth




Part I. The New Deal Era

1 Philadelphia before the New Deal

2 The Rise of New Deal Liberalism

3 Black Politics

Part II. World War II

4 The Crucible of the Home Front

5 Black Activism and the PTC

6 The Philadelphia Transit Strike

Part III. The Postwar City

7 Moving Out

8 The Politics of the FEPC





Illustrations, Maps, and Tables


African American housing in the 1920s 14

The Ku Klux Klan marches in Philadelphia, 1927 22

Members of the Klan's Kamp No. 1 in Philadelphia, 1927 23

Black hod carriers, 1924 27

Communist Party rally, early 1930s 43

Police break up a Communist Party rally, 1932 46

Tenement collapse that spurred Philadelphia's public housing program, December 1936 59

Mayor S. Davis Wilson surveys the wreckage of the tenement collapse 60

James Weldon Johnson Homes 66

Children playing at the James Weldon Johnson Homes 67

The Edwards family tours the Richard Allen Homes, 1942 94

Shipyard Homes, 1943 97

Philadelphia NAACP, early 1940s 118

Carolyn Davenport Moore soliciting members for the NAACP during World War II 119

African Americans demonstrating against the PTC, 1943 124

Transportation at a standstill, August 1944 145

A soldier guards the 49th Street carbarn during the PTC strike, August 1944 151

James McMenamin rallying the PTC strikers, August 1944 154

Violence in North Philadelphia during the transit strike, August 1944 167

James Stewart in training to be a transit driver, 1944 168

Levittowners protest the arrival of the Myers family, 1957 194

Policeman assaulted in Levittown, 1957 195

White Philadelphians protest public housing, 1956 201

Police break up GE strikers, March 1946 205


Map 1. Philadelphia's neighborhoods 10

Map 2. Philadelphia's African American population, 1930 15

Map 3. Philadelphia's African American population, 1940 88

Map 4. Metropolitan Philadelphia 176

Map 5. Philadelphia's nonwhite population, 1950 181

Map 6. Philadelphia's nonwhite population, 1960 182


Table 1. Percentages of Selected Ethnic Groups Voting Democratic, 1924–32 31

Table 2. Percentages of Selected Ethnic Groups Voting Democratic, 1936–44 172

Table 3. Population of Selected Suburban Counties, 1900–1950 189

Table 4. Percentage Change in Populations of Selected Neighborhoods, 1940–50 191

Table 5. Percentages of Selected Ethnic Groups Voting Democratic, 1944–52 233

Table 6. Percentages of Votes for Democrats in Selected Postwar Elections, 1946–52 239


I began work on this book a decade ago and along the way have accumulated many debts. Within the academy, Michael Sherry, Nancy MacLean, Bryant Simon, Jim Cobb, Henry Binford, Martha Biondi, and Josef Barton offered advice and guidance that shaped my development as a young historian. Three especially deserve my gratitude: Bryant, who introduced me to the discipline of history, teaching me how to think and ask questions like a historian; Nancy, who always knew how to combine her roles as a supportive mentor and my most searching critic; and Mike, who taught me how to write better and think bigger, to answer that question that dogs all historians: Why does all this matter? With this book, I think I finally have an answer to his question. Thanks also to Robert Self for reading the manuscript in its entirety and offering thoughtful commentary that helped me reshape many of my arguments. And thanks to members of the Labor and Working Class History Association, Social Science History Association, the Pennsylvania History Association, and the United Association for Labor Educators who offered helpful feedback on my work.

All historians owe a great debt to archivists and librarians who can find that document, photo, or volume that saves the day. The reference and interlibrary loan staffs at the University of Georgia, Northwestern University, and DePaul University have all been tremendously resourceful in getting the materials I needed. Great thanks to them. Thanks also for all the help from archivists at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Pennsylvania State Archives, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Jewish Archival Center, Swarthmore College, Philadelphia's Free Library, Philadelphia's City Archives, and New York University's Tamiment Library. I could not have written this book without them. One team of archivists merits special recognition. I did much of my research at Temple University's Urban Archives and found its collections to be vast and extraordinarily rich. Temple's unsurpassed trove of resources on Philadelphia's twentieth-century history could have proven bewildering, but the archivists there did an exceptional job of guiding me through the materials. My thanks to them.

Several organizations offered funding that made this project possible. The University of Georgia, Northwestern University, and DePaul University provided grants that helped me complete my research in far-flung archives. The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute funded my research at the FDR library in Hyde Park, N.Y. And the Organization of American Historians awarded me the Horace Samuel and Marion Galbraith Merrill travel grant to do research in political history in Washington, D.C.

A number of editors also have helped me along the way. Chuck Grench, Katy O'Brien, and Paul Betz at the University of North Carolina Press have offered patient guidance as I have revised critical parts of this book. The readers for the press, Joshua Freeman and Roger Simon, were particularly helpful in pushing me to clarify my argument, as was my copyeditor, Leslie Watkins. Editors of Labor, Pennsylvania History, The Past Is before Us, The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History, and The Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working Class History have published articles drawn from this book and given me critical feedback. This book is stronger for their engagement with my ideas.

My final thank you is to my family. My grandparents were all working-class Pennsylvanians, and in some ways this book has been an inadvertent exploration of their life and times. Although (perhaps because) three of them never went beyond high school, they instilled in my parents, Dan and Regina, a love of books and a deep respect for education. Those values have been passed on to me. No one took greater interest in my work than my grandpa, and if he had lived just a couple more years I know this book would have made him proud and provided even more fodder for our running discussions about politics, race, and Philadelphia's past. I miss him even more than those conversations.

In the end, I come to my immediate family, Amy and Elizabeth. In my life I have had one true friend, one person that I could always count on, and I am surpassingly fortunate that she is also my wife. Amy has supported me personally and professionally as I have moved through the itinerant academic world, and for that I will always be grateful. I am also grateful for Elizabeth, not because she helped me write this book, but because she always made me remember that there were things so much more important.

Philadelphia Divided


This is a story about politics in Philadelphia during the first half of the twentieth century. At its root, it is a history of who got elected and how they built support in a major northern city. But this book offers no old-school political history focused on campaigns and platforms, conventions and smoky rooms. Instead, this story approaches politics from the bottom up, paying careful attention to the everyday lives of the ordinary people of Philadelphia, analyzing how they interacted with each other in their neighborhoods and at their workplaces and how those interactions informed their politics. For this book contends that the conflicts and compromises that people made at home and on the job fundamentally shaped their views of the crucial political issues of the day: the New Deal and its relationship to the people, World War II's meaning in a country with an imperfect democracy, and the growth of the suburbs in the 1950s, to name three. Theirs was a politics intimately tied to national issues but also grounded in people's everyday, lived experiences.

Two tenets underpin this story. The first is that racial divisions fundamentally fractured the city's working class, thereby undermining attempts to construct a liberal New Deal coalition. The second is that Republican leaders understood these race-based fissures and exploited them to reconstruct their party as the champion of ordinary white citizens supposedly besieged by black demands and overwhelmed by liberal government orders. And the Republican Party did this in the 1930s and 1940s, not the 1960s.

In many ways, then, this is a story about the fate of liberalism in twentieth-century America. The term liberalism, as a number of historians have pointed out, has had multiple meanings over the years that have allowed people to employ the word to serve many ends. While I acknowledge the slipperiness of political language, this book draws on the work of Lizabeth Cohen and others to define liberalism as a political orientation that deploys the power of the state to improve the lives of working people through legislation and programs that protect their homes and jobs. A liberal or Democratic coalition, then, is an alliance of ordinary people who seek to implement that vision.¹

In Philadelphia, implementing that liberal vision was no simple matter. The early to mid-twentieth century was a time when many peoples of European descent were integrating themselves into America's social order, developing a sense of their white racial identity and figuring out what that identity meant to their prospects in the housing and job markets. To many of these people—who were themselves trying to survive in an indifferent if not hostile city—African Americans represented a threat not just to their homes and jobs, but to their very identity. This sense of feeling threatened fostered a racism among whites that undermined attempts to construct a liberal coalition.²

Housing was the first area that roiled race relations in Philadelphia. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century Euro-Americans (a term I use as mostly interchangeable with white and that denotes people of European descent) relied on a variety of means to fight black access to their neighborhoods. Their tactics evolved over the years and took various forms: organized violence, restrictive covenants, flight to the suburbs. In the 1920s and 1930s in South Philadelphia, where Irish and Italian Americans had established enclaves, the mere suggestion of African Americans looking for homes in the area touched off riots. White residents defended segregation in their neighborhoods by drawing on pervasive stereotypes of blacks as prone to poverty, crime, and sexual promiscuity. In doing so, whites exposed their fears that African Americans would depress their property values and lower their social status. New Dealers who tried to place public housing in these communities saw tensions rise as whites protested against putting projects in their neighborhoods. The situation only worsened during World War II as tens of thousands of African Americans arrived in Philadelphia to find that whites had laid claim to the limited available housing. African Americans responded by arguing that in the midst of a war for democracy the city could no longer tolerate discrimination. After the war, many whites, taking advantage of new government policies ranging from discriminatory loan practices to the construction of highways and sewer systems, moved from neighborhoods where the racial makeup was changing and settled in the newly built suburbs. As whites left inner-city Philadelphia, African Americans continued to arrive, and the city grew increasingly black. The new suburban homeowners used legal and extralegal means to keep their communities all white, and Philadelphia took on the black core–white periphery form of many of America's postwar cities. African Americans understood the way segregation was shaping their city but had little power to stop it. The problems raised by race and housing, then, constituted one major reason why white and black Philadelphians found it difficult to form and maintain a liberal coalition.³

As racially divided as Philadelphia's neighborhoods were, the city's work-places were just as segregated. By the early decades of the twentieth century, Philadelphia's Irish, Jewish, and Italian populations, the largest of the city's Euro-American groups, had established themselves in occupational niches in the city's textile mills, garment factories, road crews, and so on. They clung desperately to their jobs and often reacted with strikes and threats of violence whenever African Americans sought work in their industries. This meant that most African Americans outside the city's small middle class found themselves relegated to Philadelphia's economic margins, doing part-time or seasonal work or carrying out the dirtiest, most dangerous full-time jobs. Occasionally opportunities were open to blacks, particularly during World War I and World War II when employers faced dire labor shortages, but those gains proved ephemeral as the Great Depression of the 1930s and the suburbanization of work in the 1950s effectively robbed African Americans of their advances. Year after year blacks fought for equity in the job market and almost without fail encountered resistance from the white working class. These workplace divisions further undermined any possible inter-racial liberal alliance.

Problems in the housing and job markets had direct implications for liberalism because local Democratic leaders were cementing a closer relationship with Philadelphia's African Americans. Philadelphia had one of the largest black populations in the urban North, and local Democratic leaders knew they had to win a majority of the black vote in order to hold the traditionally Republican city. So they pushed to extend public housing, fought for more black political representation, and supported city and state Fair Employment Practices Committees (fepc). This relationship posed only minor problems to many white Philadelphians in the mid-1930s, when the New Deal was having its greatest impact and noticeably helping everyone. But in the World War II years, many of Philadelphia's white workers came to see the black-Democratic alliance as a threat to their hegemony in the workplace and housing market. These views were most explosively revealed when white workers struck the Philadelphia Transportation Company (ptc) just weeks after D-Day rather than obey an FEPC order to accept black drivers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent in troops to settle the strike primarily because he was concerned about maintaining war production, but his actions did secure some jobs for African Americans. Despite FDR's motivations having more to do with the necessities of war than with racial egalitarianism, many whites saw the government's use of force to support black rights as evidence of an alliance between African Americans and the Democratic Party. This was an alliance they were increasingly unwilling to tolerate, and in the immediate postwar years many white Philadelphians abandoned the Democratic Party because they believed it no longer sought their votes or advanced their interests.

Racial antagonisms, then, clearly pervaded Philadelphia's working class, but for a brief time in the 1930s the Democrats were largely able to overcome these animosities. The Republicans had dominated Philadelphia, and the state of Pennsylvania for that matter, since the Civil War. But with the onset of the Depression in 1929, many Philadelphians for the first time in three generations were willing to consider the Democratic Party. Roosevelt's charisma and the New Deal programs, much as they did in cities across the country, attracted the support of ordinary people, black and white, to the Democrats. The sea change in allegiance brought hundreds of thousands of voters in the mid-1930s to the party of Roosevelt, robbing the Republican political machine and its allies in the business community of the power they had enjoyed for so long.

The question for Republican leadership was how to get that power back, how to regain the support of ordinary Philadelphians. The answer was race. gop (Grand Old Party) leaders first turned in the 1930s to familiar platitudes about self-help, hard work, and moral strength and argued that the New Deal undermined those honorable traits. But in the face of the Great Depression such assertions rang hollow. Charges of Communist domination in the New Deal likewise swayed few voters. But racist fliers, particularly those distributed in Irish and Italian sections of the city, elicited more of a response. The reaction was muted at first—the New Deal was at high tide after all—but by World War II Republican leaders began to tap more overtly into the political power of white racism. Mayor Bernard Samuel embraced this brand of politics to win reelection in 1943, and other politicians followed suit. By the postwar period, as thousands of white Philadelphians moved to the suburbs, the Republican Party demonstrated its willingness to employ race-based politics by fighting the expansion of black public housing, championing the rights of white suburbanites to protect the purity of their communities, and opposing the creation of city and state Fair Employment Practices Committees. In so doing, the Republican Party built a coalition of its own based on cross-class racial interests.

By the mid-1950s, African Americans had built an alliance with the Democratic Party to support their politics of economic and political equality. At the same time, many whites had abandoned the party of FDR in favor of a gop that promised to defend their racial prerogatives. Racial divisions endemic to the New Deal coalition and fostered by the Republican Party pulled liberalism apart and helped set the contours of electoral politics in postwar America.

Only recently have historians begun to pay close attention to the kinds of grassroots divisions this book explores. Until Thomas Sugrue uncovered the origins of the urban crisis in 1996, most scholars and journalists writing about politics in postwar America generally believed there had been a liberal coalition, a New Deal Order as Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle put it, that dominated the nation. This coalition comprised Euro- and African American members of the northern urban working class who followed the beacon of the New Deal into the Democratic Party. There they supported candidates who would, in Cohen's terms, ensure a more activist federal government committed to providing the benefits that over time have become associated with ‘the welfare state.’

Although scholars believed in an era of liberal ascendancy, they did note weaknesses in the Democratic Party. Some of the most obvious included the unsuccessful 1938 purge of conservative southern Democrats, the Dixiecrat revolt over Harry Truman's support of civil rights, and the lack of true political power in the black community. But overall, most scholars assessing the course of twentieth-century American political history agreed that the Democrats maintained a substantial coalition until the late 1960s. At that point, liberalism was overwhelmed by a combination of issues, including rising crime rates, Black Power, and Vietnam. When President Ronald Reagan assumed office in January 1981, he delivered the final blow, shattering, in Fraser and Gerstle's words, the New Deal, as a dominant order of ideas, public policies, and political alliances.

Recent scholarship has complicated, if not toppled, this picture of a liberal coalition that held sway from the Depression through the Great Society of the 1960s. Thomas Sugrue and Arnold Hirsch in particular have demonstrated the racial divisions that plagued the job and housing markets of the urban North in the supposedly placid late 1940s and 1950s. Their studies reveal what Sugrue has called a simmering politics of race that constantly threatened to boil over into violence while shaping the development of Chicago and Detroit. Their findings led Gerstle to wonder if the liberal racial consensus was never anything more than a comforting mirage. This study of Philadelphia helps to confirm his fears.

By building on the work of Sugrue, Hirsch, and others, this book helps revamp the picture of liberalism transcendent. Rather than an era when white and black Americans agreed that they could use the state to reshape their lives, the mid-twentieth century emerges as a time of contested visions of what the government could—and should—do for its citizens. African Americans wanted to use the government to refashion race relations in the housing and job markets. It was America's duty, in their view, to live up to its democratic, egalitarian creed. Many whites had a different vision, believing that government should respond to the will of the majority, even if that meant upholding racist practices. By highlighting this conflict over the meaning of American democracy, this book presents a vision of mid–twentieth century U.S. politics that shows how ordinary whites in the urban North imposed fundamental limitations on liberalism from below. Rather than accepting early on a liberal consensus on race and other matters that events of the 1960s later spoiled, many white working-class Democrats made it clear from the start that certain liberal policies were off-limits. Integrated public housing, fair employment legislation, and meddling by liberal Washington bureaucrats sparked backlashes across Philadelphia as early as the 1930s. Racial divisions were an inherent flaw in Democratic politics from the outset, and they rendered any notion of a liberal consensus largely a myth.

In addition to rethinking the history of liberalism, this book explores the development of Republican politics. Too often in studies of twentieth-century American political history the Republican Party—if examined at all—is treated as a foil to liberals and radicals. Framing political history this way is problematic because it makes American politics seem more dominated by liberals than it was, which leads scholars to see liberal failures as almost entirely the result of internal problems. In fact, Republican leaders in Philadelphia were crafty politicians who actively and successfully worked to dis-mantle liberalism by exacerbating and capitalizing on racial divisions within the working class. By developing and employing a race-baiting politics from the mid-1930s through the 1950s, city and suburban Republicans not only pulled liberal alliances apart; they also forged a cross-class coalition. Focusing on issues of race, housing, and jobs, especially during and after World War II when tens of thousands of black migrants came to Philadelphia, Republicans won local and national races across the metropolitan area. In doing so, they showed that the roots of a conservative coalition lay not only in the suburbs of the South and West in the 1960s, but also, decades earlier, in working-class communities of the urban North. The Philadelphia gop's use of racial politics highlights how we must think more nationally about the origins of the modern conservative movement and place its genesis much earlier than most historical narratives suggest. Conservatism based on the protection of racial advantage was in fact a national phenomenon that, while subdued in the 1930s, grew as the hardest times of the Depression subsided and the pressures of World War II set in.¹⁰

Using a local study of Philadelphia, or any city for that matter, to examine the course of twentieth-century American politics raises questions about how typical Philadelphia's experience was. No city, of course, can stand for the entire nation, and certain aspects of Philadelphia's history do set it apart. For instance, Philadelphia had a much more tenacious Republican political machine than did most cities. Also, Philadelphia's small-scale industries made its job market more diverse than those of large cities dominated by a single industry, such as Detroit with its autos and Pittsburgh with its steel. Then, too, Philadelphia's geography, marked by great stretches of land and tens of thousands of row houses, enabled a much greater opportunity for homeownership than did New York City and Boston, both of which relied on high-rise apartments and tenements to compensate for limited space. Finally, Philadelphia had a huge black population, the third largest in the urban North, trailing only New York City and Chicago. At the same time, almost no Latin Americans or Asians lived there to further complicate the racial picture. Despite these peculiarities, events in Philadelphia nonetheless highlighted experiences that were common to the urban North. The growth of the black population with its activist politics, the rise and fall of liberalism in working-class communities, the rebirth of the Republican Party on the wings of racial politics, the postwar suburbanization of the city's white population, and other trends, I argue, show that any differences between Philadelphia and other large cities were matters of degree, not kind. At key points in the narrative, usually in the notes, I offer suggestions for further reading to those readers wishing to explore comparative histories of other cities.

In the end, this book makes the case that Philadelphia's story reveals much about the course of twentieth-century American politics. By analyzing racial tensions in the workplaces and neighborhoods of ordinary Philadelphians, it demonstrates the limits imposed on liberalism from below. At the same time, it highlights the ways in which the Republicans reconstructed their party by developing a racial politics that portrayed the gop as the last line of defense for embattled whites. This combination of internal division and external Republican politics shows how liberalism faltered and made way for the Republican Party to construct a cross-class coalition that grew powerful in the second half of the twentieth century.

I The New Deal Era

MAP 1. Philadelphia's neighborhoods. Map of Philadelphia on page 4 of Philadelphia Stories: A Photographic History, 1920–1960 by Frederic M. Miller, Morris J. Vogel, and Allen F. Davis. Used by permission of Temple University Press. ©1988 by Temple University. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Temple University Press.

1 Philadelphia before the New Deal

[Philadelphia is] the best place to discuss race relations because there is more race prejudice here than in any other city in the United States.

—W. E. B. DuBois, 1927

Thomas Henry, his wife, and their ten children moved to Philadelphia in the summer of 1923. Henry, like many southern black migrants after World War I, had trouble finding work, but he finally got a job, and he and his family moved into a house on Mifflin Street near the Delaware River in South Philadelphia. The rent was high: forty dollars a month ate up nearly half the income of a fully employed laborer in Philadelphia, and putting food on the table for a dozen people was not easy for any southern migrant. But the Henrys were happy to have a roof over their heads and a regular income. On their block and in their wider neighborhood they did not see any other black faces. Their new home was far removed from the city's black neighborhoods, and they were surrounded by immigrants of Italian, Eastern European, and Irish descent. It did not take long for the Henrys’ neighbors to make their feelings known about African Americans moving into their community. We had hardly become settled when written warnings were received, together with threats of violence, Henry told Frank O'Connor, a city magistrate. The Henrys refused to be intimidated and ignored the warnings. But in a few days, events came to a head when a small mob led by Toney Pecoro came to the house and told Henry to leave at once. Terrified, Henry bolted. The mob, now enraged, broke into Henry's home and set his furniture on fire. When Henry returned to protect his property, he was set upon and badly beaten.¹

The Henrys’ story opens a window on the era of the Great Migration and the conditions blacks faced when they reached Philadelphia. Most migrants came to the city believing that with hard work they could find jobs, housing, and prosperity as well as an escape from the racial oppression of the South. What they found, however, was no haven. Migrants soon realized they had few housing options beyond the slums that lined the Delaware River or the already overcrowded row houses of North Philadelphia. Whenever they tried to move into adjacent territories, usually populated by Irish and Italian immigrants and their descendants, men like Pecoro put up a fierce resistance that sometimes led to riots.²

Philadelphia also proved mostly inhospitable in the workplace. African Americans, who got good jobs and earned decent pay during World War I, found few businesses willing to keep them on after the war's conclusion. Most Philadelphia companies, engaged in such industries as textile manufacturing, publishing, and garment production, needed fewer but more highly skilled workers. Negroes, as the signs read, need not apply. Midvale Steel and the Pennsylvania Railroad, both in need of thousands of unskilled workers, were exceptions that proved the rule. Even working for city government offered few opportunities, as Italian Americans monopolized the unskilled jobs cleaning the streets, collecting garbage, and laying track for the transit company.³

Leaders of the Republican machine, which dominated the city's politics and made Philadelphia infamous for its corruption, liked the city's housing and workplace arrangements just fine. The African American population, while growing, was still small enough in the early 1920s that their votes, and thus their concerns, counted little. Besides, blacks had nowhere else to go, as they knew that only the Republican Party would help with the police and the courts or come through with a few dollars when times were tough. The reminder that the Republicans were the party of Lincoln sealed the deal. Italian Americans, with a larger population, had earned their gop-controlled municipal jobs with overwhelming electoral support of the party. Other recent immigrant groups, Jews for instance, turned to small peddling and garment work and so did not need the municipal jobs, but they too voted Republican because the Democratic Party was ineffective and the machine did help new arrivals find work and housing. The city, then, in the decade before Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term as president, was deeply divided by race and ethnicity in both the job and housing markets. The only thing that united these disparate groups was an allegiance to the Republican Party, a loyalty due more to the lack of alternatives than to any course the party followed.

Black Philadelphians

The Great Migration of World War I and the 1920s brought one million African Americans to the urban North. Some one hundred forty thousand settled in Philadelphia alone between 1910 and 1930, with most coming from the east coast, primarily Virginia and South Carolina. By the end of the era, Philadelphia trailed only New York City and Chicago in the size of its black population. Once in the city, black migrants found few options for housing. For the most part, they either had to settle in South Philadelphia along the Delaware River (the river wards) or move into overcrowded North Philadelphia. For over a century the river wards—with the oldest and worst housing in the city—had been the first stop for the city's newcomers. Many units were Father-Son-Holy Ghost tenements: three stories with one room on each floor, often packed with one family or more per room. One African American woman rented a small room above a garage for herself and fifteen family members. They did not have a toilet or running water, and the family threw its waste into an adjoining vacant lot. Such overcrowding had a dire impact on migrants’ health. Tuberculosis, smallpox, and other diseases regularly swept the community, leading the city to quarantine dozens of blocks at a time. Other cities, like Baltimore and New York, had not experienced that kind of outbreak in almost fifty years.

Despite the desperate living conditions, white property owners welcomed the migration. More African Americans meant greater profits. Bernard Newman, head of the Philadelphia Housing Association, reported that rents climbed 100 percent in the ten years after the start of World War I. One owner, Newman wrote, converted his property, which he had rented for $65 a month, into a tenement that held thirty-eight people and brought in $100 per week but had no running water and only a single privy in the yard. Conditions were so appalling that Otto Eidlitz, a housing inspector for the federal government, called Philadelphia one of the worst centers of rent profiteering in the nation. Migrants knew they had to get out of the inflated renters’ market, and many saved every spare dime for a down payment on a house. Discrimination, however, meant loans from traditional sources were hard to obtain. There is no question, wrote a Philadelphia lawyer, that colored loans are discouraged or refused… The moral risk is considered too great. So African Americans pooled their resources to build savings and loan associations. In 1910, the entire state had eight black associations with $150,000 in capital. By 1924 those numbers had grown to thirty-four organizations controlling $5 million in Philadelphia alone.

Despite the immigrants’ obvious commitment to bettering their lives, there was tension within the city's long-standing black community about how to treat new arrivals. These native Philadelphians (commonly called Old Philadelphians) had lived scattered throughout the city since before the Revolution, with a concentration around South Street on the south side of downtown. Many faced prospects no better than the migrants, but some had managed to gain professional training as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and caterers. Among them, the migration raised ambivalent feelings. African Americans understood that racism meant all blacks—rich and poor, longtime resident and migrant—shared a common destiny. Racial prejudice, wrote Sadie Mossell, an Old Philadelphian and the first black woman to earn a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, meant that not only … migrant families but all the Negro families in Philadelphia… [could not earn] a fair standard of living. To smooth relations, some black ministers invited migrants to attend their services and get involved in church activities. They believed that migrants could invigorate black life in the city by bringing new ideas and energy to an old community.

A child plays in front of dilapidated homes in the 1920s. Poor housing was one of the chief problems African Americans faced upon their arrival in Philadelphia. Courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia PA.

MAP 2.Distribution of Philadelphia's African American population, 1930. As early as 1930, the city's three primary black districts were becoming discernible on the south side of Center City and in North and West Philadelphia. Courtesy of the Housing Association of Delaware Valley.

Other black Philadelphians thought more negatively about the migrants, blaming them for the rising racism in the city. In Germantown, a black church held a debate on whether the migrant was an asset or a liability. Mossell, who well understood that all blacks were tied together, wrote that Old Philadelphians found suddenly thrown into their midst about forty thousand migrants, whose presence in such large numbers crushed and stagnated the progress of Negro life. Such views angered many migrants who believed Old Philadelphians took advantage of them, building only the kinds of relationships that enhanced their financial position. The professional Negroes… are parasites who take all they can from the laboring man, wrote one migrant. [They] give nothing in return… And they have the nerve to term themselves leaders. Leaders? Bah. These tensions can be overblown, however, for all understood that race mattered most. Philadelphia resembled Chicago, where, the historian James Grossman observed, "migrants found a black community that seemed snobbish and condescending at times; but nevertheless the established

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