A Tale of Intolerance in Grays Ferry

Ellsworth Street, south side, 2900-38, east to west, December 6, 1965 (PhillyHistory.org)

Ellsworth Street, south side, 2900-38, east to west, December 6, 1965 – Nearly 50 years after Adella Bond moved in. (PhillyHistory.org)

Adella Bond figured the 2900 block of Ellsworth Street would be a safe place to live.

She figured wrong.

Described as a “short, young woman of light brown color, with a quiet but emphatic manner,” Bond worked by day as probation officer in Municipal Courts. As an African-American, she knew that racial tensions played out poorly in some neighborhoods. She knew of the incidents in early July, 1918, when local “ruffians” welcomed a new family to the 2500 block of Pine Street with racial epithets before burning their furniture in the street. No, Adella Bond wouldn’t be looking at any houses near Fitler Square.

About a mile to the southwest, an African-American real estate agent was showing 2936 Ellsworth Street, a two story brick rowhouse near the end of a block wedged between the Henry Bower Chemical factory and the United States Arsenal. Bond “supposed colored people were welcome” there, and heard another woman of color, a Mrs. Giddings, had previously occupied the very same residence.

Bond wasn’t told that real estate managers were systematically terminating the $11-per-month leases held by working class Irish-Americans and offering rents of $14 or even $16-per-month to incoming working-class African Americans.

And if the new renters wanted to buy, all the better.

“We had a perfect right to dispose of our properties if we wanted to,” said real estate agent A.D. Morgan. “These white tenants have been trying to ‘run this block’ for some time… We have had trouble with them for two years. They were always behind in their rent. … We got tired of dealing with these people. Yes, I employed a negro agent and sought to dispose of the eight houses I owned down there. We almost ‘begged’ the white tenants to buy the properties. They would not.”

“When we got a chance to sell the house to Mrs. Bond we did so. We have sold six of the houses. Yes, all to colored people. We have two more houses on the market. I would like to see them go to colored tenants for they are far better tenants than the element which is there now. … they’ll have to get out as soon as their leases are up. And when they are all gone and the colored people take their places, there will be no more trouble there.”

But there would be trouble.

“The second time I went down that street, I was stoned,” Bond later said. “If I had known that there was any objection to colored people in the block I wouldn’t have taken the house… It was only after I had bought the house that I knew of any objection. But since I could not get my money back, what else was I to do except to live there?”

On Wednesday July 24th, the movers arrived with Bond’s furniture. She answered her door brandishing a gun. The day went smoothly.

On Friday, as Bond later told it, “…about 100 white men and boys gathered in front of my house. I heard them talk about having guns, and I saw the guns and cartridges. At last a man came along with a baby in his arms. He handed the baby to a woman, took a rock and threw it. The rock went through my parlor window. I didn’t know what the mob would do next, and I fired my revolver from my upper window to call the police. A policeman came, but he wouldn’t try to cope with that mob alone, so he turned it into a riot call.”

The rock thrower, Joseph Kelly, 23, who lived a few blocks away on Carpenter near Twenty-third, had been shot in the leg. Both he and his brother, William, would be held without bail, pending investigation. Police arrested Bond for “inciting to riot.”

“LONE WOMAN HOLDS A MOB OF 500 WHITE BRUTES AT BAY,” read the page-one headline in The Philadelphia Tribune. “The plucky little probation officer… shot to kill in defense of her honor and home…” ran the caption below a full-length photograph of Bond.

“Can you blame citizens of color for mobilizing at 29th and Ellsworth Sts. To protect one of their own…?” wrote G. Grant Williams, The Tribune’s editor.

Bond’s attorney, G. Edward Dickerson, considered the irony of this and other incidents, just as American soldiers were being shipped abroad to fight for freedom. “How can a colored man go to France with a clear conscience?” he asked. “How can he willingly give his life for a country that will not protect his family during his absence?”

Unable to move back home for a week, Adella Bond worried about the same thing—and more. In her absence, as police were supposedly guarding her house, “white hoodlums” broke in, “robbed her of…valuables and…demolished her furniture.”

[Sources include: “Dixie methods in Philadelphia,” The Philadelphia Tribune, July 6, 1918; “Man Shot in Race Riot Over Negro Resident,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 28, 1918; “Mrs. Bond Determined to Occupy Her House,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 31, 1918; “Lone Woman Holds a Mob of 500 White Brutes at Bay: Adella Bond Shoots Into Mob Attempting Violence,” The Philadelphia Tribune, August 3, 1918; “The So-Called Race Riot,” The Philadelphia Tribune, August 3, 1918; “White Policeman Clubs a Race Riot Victim on Hospital Cot,” The Philadelphia Tribune, August 10, 1918.]

More on the Riot of 1918 here

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Jack Thayer’s Demons: A Philadelphia Survivor’s Tale

John B. Thayer (highlighted in white) in the c.1916 group portrait of the University of Pennsylvania soccer team. Source: PennHistory.

John B. Thayer Jr. (highlighted in white) in the c.1916 group portrait of the University of Pennsylvania soccer team. Source: PennHistory.

“There was peace and the world had an even tenor to its way. Nothing was revealed in the morning the trend of which was not known the night before. It seems to me that the disaster about to occur was the event that not only made the world rub it’s eyes and awake, but woke it with a start – keeping it moving at a rapidly accelerating pace ever since, with less and less peace, satisfaction and happiness. To my mind the world of today awoke April 15th, 1912.”   -John B. Thayer III, 1940

John B. “Jack” Thayer III seemed to have everything a successful Philadelphian could want.  He was the son of the second vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and educated at the Haverford School and the University of Pennsylvania.  He was married to Lois Buchanan Cassatt, granddaughter of Pennsy’s president Alexander Cassatt, the mastermind of New York’s Penn Station.  After graduating from college in 1916, Thayer served his country with distinction in World War I, and then worked in a series of investment jobs until he became partner in the investment firm of Yarnall & Company. In addition to serving his alma mater as its financial vice president, he also belonged to numerous clubs and societies.

Dr. Thomas Sovereign Gates, president of the University, called him a “loyal and trusted servant.”

Houston Hall undated.ashx

Undated photograph of Houston Hall, the student union at the University of Pennsylvania, 3400 block of Spruce Street. undated. A memorial plaque to John B. Thayer Jr. was placed here by his friends from the class of 1880.

Yet even as America celebrated victory over the Axis in that joyous summer of 1945, a dark cloud seemed to be enveloping the 50-year-old banker.  His beloved mother Marian had died the previous April.  His 22-year-old son Edward had been shot down over the Pacific a year before that.

And then there was the ever-present ghost of his father John B. Thayer Jr., whose legacy as railroad executive and sportsman was memorialized on a plaque in Penn’s Houston Hall.

Jack Thayer had spent the past three decades searching for peace.  And he found none.

On September 19, 1945, Thayer drove from his elegant home in Grays Lane in Haverford to the intersection of 48th and Parkside Avenue, parked his car, took out several wrapped blades, and slit his wrists. Then his throat.

The 4900 block of Parkside on July 2, 1954, near the spot where Jack Thayer committed suicide a decade earler.

The 4900 block of Parkside on July 2, 1954, near the spot where Jack Thayer committed suicide a decade earler.

His body was not discovered for another forty hours.

John B. “Jack” Thayer III left behind a book he had printed privately a few years earlier and inscribed to his friends and family.


On the early morning of April 15, 1912, 17-year-old Jack Thayer and his friend Milton Long found themselves stranded on the sloping decks of the RMS Titanic.  Two hours after the ship’s collision with the iceberg, the Titanic was down by the bow and listing heavily to port. There had been no general alarm or sirens.

The Titanic’s giant engines had stopped shortly after 11:40pm.  “The sudden quiet was startling and disturbing,” Thayer recalled. “Like the subdued quiet in a sleeping car, at a stop, after a continuous run.”

Then came the roar of escaping steam from the ship’s 29 boilers, and an occassional white rocket bursting in the night sky.

The two young men found themselves blocked from entering the lifeboats: “No more boys,” barked Second Officer Charles Lightoller.  In the distance, they saw flickering oil lamps coming from the 18 lifeboats that had made it off the ship. Jack’s mother Marian was in one of them.  The freezing cold Atlantic rose ever closer to the boat deck.  Lights from submerged portholes glowed green for a while in the black water before shorting out. Atop the officers’ quarters, a group of men struggled to free two collapsible liferafts lashed to the deck.  There was no hope of hooking them onto the davits and lowering them properly: they would have be floated off as the ship went down.

The "a la carte" restaurant on the RMS "Titanic."  First class diners who chose this 120-seat restaurant over the 500-seat main dining room paid extra for the privilege of eating here.  Source: Wikipedia.com.

The “a la carte” restaurant on the RMS “Titanic.” First class diners who chose this 120-seat restaurant over the 500-seat main dining room paid extra for the privilege of eating here. Source: Wikipedia.com.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6fQI8NrmqU&w=640&h=360]

“Mr. Moon-Man, Turn off the Light,” a popular song from Jack Thayer’s childhood that was almost certainly part of the Titanic band’s repertoire. From the 1979 film SOS Titanic.

Marian Longstreth Thayer. Source: Wikipedia.com.

Marian Longstreth Thayer. Source: Wikipedia.com.

A few minutes after 2:05am, first class passenger Colonel Archibald Gracie IV, who had helped women and children into the lifeboats for the past hour, was surprised to see a “mass of humanity” come up from below, “several lines deep converging on the Boat Deck facing us and completely blocking our passage to the stern. There were women in the crowd as well as men and these seemed to be steerage passengers who had just come up from the decks below. Even among these people there was no hysterical cry, no evidence of panic. Oh the agony of it.”

First and second class passengers had access to lifeboats from their deck spaces. But not steerage — they had been kept below until now. Except for those lucky enough to find their way through a maze of barriers and corridors to the boat deck level.

Gracie also noticed John B. Thayer Jr. chatting on deck with his fellow Philadelphia millionaire George D. Widener, whose wife Eleanor had also left in a boat.  Only a few hours earlier, the Widener and Thayer families had hosted a celebratory dinner in Titanic’s captain Edward J. Smith honor in the ship’s 120-seat a la carte restaurant on B-deck. Gracie remembered that the elder Thayer looked “pale and determined.”

John Borland Thayer Jr., Vice President of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Source: Wikipedia.

John Borland Thayer Jr., Vice President of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Source: Wikipedia.com.

Jack Thayer lost his father in the milling crowd, which after realizing all the boats were gone, began to surge with panic.

At around 2:10am, the liner’s bow took a rapid plunge downward, as seawater burst through cargo hatches, doors, and windows.

“It was like standing under a steel railway bridge while an express train passes overhead,” he recalled of being stuck on the sinking ship, “mingled with the noise of a pressed steel factory and wholesale breakage of china.

Milton Long got ready to slide down the side of the ship by using one of the dangling lifeboat ropes. “You are coming, boy, aren’t you?” Long said.

“Go ahead, I’ll be with you in a minute.” Thayer responded above the din.

Long slid down the rope. Thayer jumped.  “I never saw him again.”

Thrashing around in freezing water, Thayer could see the ship in full profile as it sank deeper into the Atlantic.

“The ship seemed to be surrounded with a glare,” he recalled, “and stood out of the night as though she were on fire…. The water was over the base of the first funnel. The mass of people on board were surging back, always back toward the floating stern. The rumble and roar continued, with even louder distinct wrenchings and tearings of boilers and engines from their beds.”

The Titanic’s electric lights flickered out, came on again with red glow, and then went out for the last time.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rs9w5bgtJC8&w=640&h=360]
Newly-released CGI by “Titanic: Honor and Glory” showing the “Titanic” sinking in realtime.

Then he saw something even more terrifying: the ship breaking in half. “Suddenly the whole superstructure of the ship appeared to split, well forward to midship, and bow or buckle upwards,” he recalled. “The second funnel, large enough for two automobiles to pass through abreast, seemed to be lifted off, emitting a cloud of sparks It looked as if it would fall on top of me. It missed me by only twenty or thirty feet. The suction of it drew me down and down struggling and swimming, practically spent.”

The water began to numb his limbs, and he looked desperately for something that could support him.  Everything was too small: deck chairs, crates, broken pieces of paneling.  He then banged his head on something big.  It was one of the two collapsible lifeboats, overturned, with about a dozen men scrambling to stay balanced on its wood-planked bottom. With his last bit of strength, he swam for the boat and hauled himself on top.

Jack Thayer's sketch of how he saw the "Titanic" sink. Source: Wikipedia.com.

Jack Thayer’s sketch of how he saw the “Titanic” sink. Source: Wikipedia.com.

He couldn’t just lie there.  To keep the boat from sinking, the men had to stand up, leaning to the right and left at the command of Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the same man who had said no more boys were allowed to board lifeboats.  Also onboard was Colonel Archibald Gracie. As cold and frightened as he was, Jack did not turn his eyes away from the spectacle. “We could see groups of the almost 1,500 people still aboard,” he wrote later, “clinging in clusters or bunches, like swarming bees; only to fall in masses, pairs or singly, as the great after part of the ship, 250 feet of it, rose into the sky, till it reached a 65- or 70-degree angle.”

When the water closed over the Titanic’s stern–at 2:20am, April 15, 1912–Thayer heard a noise that rang in his ears for the rest of his life.

The sound of hundreds of people struggling in the icy water reminded him eerily of the sound of singing locusts on a summer night at the Thayer family estate on the Main Line.  “The partially filled lifeboats standing by, only a few hundred yards away, never came back,” he wrote angrily. “Why on earth they did not come back is a mystery. How could any human being fail to heed those cries?”

Among those voices that cried out in rage and desperation in that mid-Atlantic night were those belonging to his father John Borland Thayer Jr., as well as his friend Milton Long. Over the next thirty minutes, the cries gradually grew fainter and fainter, until there was only the sound of water lapping against the sides of the collapsible boat.

At around 6:30am, the first pink light of dawn shone across the flat calm ocean.  Icebergs glittered all around. One of the partially-filled lifeboats drew up alongside the overturned collapsible.  One by one, the  men who had survived those awful few hours atop the boat scrambled aboard. Most of the 20 or so of his boatmates were crew members.   Thayer, the pampered scion of one of Philadelphia’s richest families, realized how little those distinctions mattered atop Collapsible B.  “They surely were a grimy, wiry, dishevelled, hard-looking lot,” he wrote of the men who had shoveled coal into the steamship’s boilers, seven decks below the paneled salons and suites of first class. “Under the surface they were brave human beings, with generous and charitable hearts.”

With the dawn came another sight: the smoking funnel of the small Cunard liner RMS Carpathia, whose master Arthur Rostron had steamed full-speed through the icefield after his wireless operator had picked up Titanic’s radio distress call.  She came a few hours too late to save everyone from the Titanic, but soon enough to pick up the 705 people who had made it into lifeboats.

“Even through my numbness I began to realize that I was saved,” Thayer wrote in his book, “that I would live.”

John B. "Jack" Thayer III. Source: Wikipedia.com.

John B. “Jack” Thayer III. Source: Wikipedia.com.


Archibald Gracie, Titanic: A Survivor’s Story (Stroud, UK, 2011), p.30.

“John B. Thayer 3d Found Dead in Car,” The New York Times, September 22, 1945.

“John Borland Thayer,” Encyclopedia Titanica, http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/john-borland-thayer.html, accessed April 14, 2016.

“Forgotten Journal Reveals How Man Survived 1912 Disaster,” The New York Post, April 8, 2012. http://nypost.com/2012/04/08/forgotten-journal-reveals-how-man-survived-1912-disaster/


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Retreating from “the Ranks of Acquiescence”

New City Government Shown in Diagram, February 9, 1920. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (PhillyHistory)

City’s New Government Shown in Diagram, February 9, 1920. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (PhillyHistory)

“Spasms of reform” had “accomplished very little … but the spark of ambitions would not be quenched,” claimed William Bennett Munro. Finally, with a new City Charter in hand, Philadelphia had tools to make “heroic efforts” and live down its rightfully earned “corrupt and contented” reputation. With the help of this so-called “epoch-marking piece of legislation” adopted late in 1919, Philadelphia was “well on the way to become one of the best-governed cities in the world.”


Philadelphia Stirreth,” as one snarky reformer put it. But first things had to hit rock bottom.

In 1907, after Philadelphians engaged in Harrisburg’s Capitol building scandal dragged faith in government lower than was ever thought possible, novelist Owen Wister, who generally made a career escaping politics, cut loose. In “The Keystone Crime: Pennsylvania Graft-Cankered Capitol,” Wister blamed the Commonwealth, but pointed the finger back at the corrupt cultures of the Quaker City.

”The government of Pennsylvania has been since the Civil War a monopoly, an enormous trust almost without competition—like Standard Oil, but greatly inferior, because Standard Oil gives good oil, while the Pennsylvania machine gives bad government. It shield and fosters child labor; we have seen how it steals; it had given Philadelphia sewage to drink, smoke to breathe, extravagant gas, a vile street car system, and a police well-nigh contemptible. . . Well-to-do, at ease with no wish but to be left undisturbed, the traditional Philadelphians shrinks from revolt. …he may rouse for a while, but it is grudgingly in his heart of hearts…to…retreat back into the ranks of acquiescence.”

Even so, Wister did sense a whiff of possibility for change. Philadelphia’s “spark of liberty is not quite trampled out,” he wrote and held out hope that the city “may some day cease to be the dirtiest smear on the map of the United States.”

Meanwhile, everyone was asking the same question: “What is the matter with Philadelphia?

Everything, according to reformer John B. Roberts. “The cause of Philadelphia’s ills is the success of its political rulers in collecting bribes, carrying elections, and controlling the occupants of legislative, executive and judicial positions. The public knows that bribes are accepted by the political captains who rule over us. It knows that elections are carried by stuffed ballot boxes, bogus voters coming from policemen’s houses, repeaters travelling from one voting booth to another, and the subservience of judges. It sees that members of Council and of the Legislature, the Mayor, the City Treasurer, the Collector of Taxes, the Recorder, the Register of Wills, the District Attorney, the Judges and other officials are nominated and elected by these same active political leaders.”

“What more is needed, asked Roberts, “to prove that the corrupt and expensive government of this town is due to the men who control affairs in City Hall?” He believed “the blame for our shameful civic condition is due less to the boss, who sells franchises and special privileges, than to the Boards of Directors who buy them. … Let us “seek out, exhibit, prosecute, and put in jail the bribe givers; and it will not be long before we shall have representative councilmen and honest political leaders.”

That would take a deep-set commitment to reform. And it would take a new City Charter, which institutionalized many long-needed changes.

The charter of 1919 “gave the city a trimmer and more representative one-house City Council of twenty-one members,” writes Lloyd M. Abernethy. Abolished were the two cumbersome Select and Common Councils, a whopping 145 members in all—the largest municipal body of its kind. For the first time ever, council members would be salaried as they served their four year terms. Most importantly, no councilperson could hold another political office.

The charter did more: It required the city “to do its own street cleaning, paving and repairing, as well as garbage and refuse collecting,” a “direct attempt to eliminate the political manipulation of public service contracts…” Civil Service would (theoretically) blunt patronage. Police and firefighters were forbidden to engage in political activity or even to make political contributions. The charter of 1919 “offered the possibilities of eliminating some of the worst features of municipal government as practiced in the past.”

But would it be anything like “epoch-marking” legislation?

That depended on how serious Philadelphians actually were about stirring from their sleep and returning from “the ranks of acquiescence.”

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Philadelphia’s Central High School in Perspective (Part 2)

Central HS 5.21.1937

Rendering of Central High School’s Logan Campus at W. Olney and Ogontz Avenues, May 21, 1937.

This past January, I spent an hour speaking with Ron Donatucci, a native South Philadelphian and long-time Register of Wills. He has been a fixture at City Hall for the past three thirty-five years.    Before that, he was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a Democratic ward leader, and a lawyer in private practice.   He also serves on the Board of Directors of City Trusts, and Temple University’s Board of Trustees, the board of Girard College, and Wills Eye Hospital.He was childhood friends with the attorney Frank DeSimone, who I interviewed for a previous piece for PhillyHistory.

When asked what he felt was the most formative experience of his childhood, he replied that it was his three years at Central High School in the mid-1960s.

For Ron Donatucci, asking, “What class were you in?” is his version of the classic Philadelphia question, “Where are you from?”

He grew up in the Girard Estates section of South Philadelphia, a comfortable enclave of 1920s Tudor and Spanish revival homes within the boundaries of St. Monica’s Parish.   With a few, mainly Jewish exceptions, the Girard Estates neighborhood was Italian-American and devoutly Catholic, mostly second and third generation Americans who had become doctors, lawyers, and small business owners. Donatucci’s father, an old school “Roosevelt Democrat” and local ward leader, ran a successful plumbling supply business.

After attending the local parish school at 18th and Ritner, Donatucci went to Bishop Neumann High School for a year.  He then tested into Central’s 224th class, and joined about 15 other neighborhood kids who got on the Broad Street subway each morning to the Logan campus.

Donatucci remembered going up to his English teacher, Dr. Logan, saying, “I’m new here. How many books do we need to read.”

“One book a week,” Logan responded.

Outside of the guidance counselor’s office, Donatucci saw a boy sitting on the floor looking bereft.

“I screwed up,” he muttered sadly. “I got a 1590.”

“You screwed up?” Donatucci replied with amazement over his fellow student’s almost perfect SAT score.

The Central High School of the 1960s took Philadelphia’s smartest boys out of their neighborhood and parish schools and threw them together in a rigorous, competitive environment.

“All of the sudden, I was in a high school that was predominately Jewish.” Donatucci remembered. “These were the students that wanted to pursue an education that was free, and the type of competition was scary.” Among the future stars in Donatucci’s 224th class was Raymond Joseph Teller of the magician duo Penn and Teller. In 1964, the school newspapers reported that Central’s 224th class boasted more National Merit Semi-Finalists than any other school in the country.  At Neumann, he said that he would study about two hours a day after class let out. At Central, he upped his study time to six.

The all-boys experience was a critical part of the Central experience. “We weren’t distracted,” he claimed. So was meeting people of different ethnicities.  At lunchtime, people tended to separate into their neighborhood ethnic groups: African-Americans, Jews, Italians, and Ukrainians.  “The guys from South Philly would sit at the same table,” he said.  Yet the cultural exchange continued with swapping lunches. “I would give them pepper and egg sandwiches,” he said. “The Jewish kids would bring in blintzes. The Ukranians brought in perogis.”

He often found himself at the homes of his Jewish friends for the High Holidays.  When describing Jewish and Italian culture, he said, “They are so similar.” He joked that his Jewish name was “Ronny Dumberg.”

Donatucci graduated from Temple University in 1970, and aside from a stint in Baltimore for law school, has remained in Philadelphia ever since. His two sons did not follow him to Central: they went to St. Joseph’s Preparatory instead, which remains an all-boys school, unlike his now-coed alma mater.  Yet he still remains on the Central board of managers. “I’ve met guys in Central who are my friends today,” he said.  “It’s such a great feeling when you’re talking to someone and you ask, ‘What class are you in?'”

Central High School under construction, August 25, 1938.

Central High School under construction, August 25, 1938.



“Ronald R. Donatucci,” Mationi, Counselors at Law, http://www.mattioni.com/R_Donatucci.aspx, accessed April 5, 2016.

“Central Leads the Nation in Merits,” The Centralizer, October 7, 1964.

Interview with Ronald Donatucci by Steven Ujifusa, January 26, 2016.

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In the Heart of Philadelphia’s “Lead Belt”

Caption (PhillyHistory)

Southeast Corner – 7th and Columbia (Cecil B. Moore) Avenue, August 30, 1904. (PhillyHistory.org)

It didn’t make sense.

In the mid-1960s, several public schools in Kensington and North Philadelphia were performing dramatically below both national and local standards. In reading and arithmetic, fourth graders in these schools (all in Philadelphia’s District 5) were, according to Peter Binzen, “a year and two months behind national norms and three months behind the Philadelphia city average.” Of all the city’s 195 elementary schools, “the one with the lowest fourth-grade reading score was located dead in the middle of District 5,” wrote Binzen. “The total performance of children in this school was abysmal.”

Was it something in the air? Maybe in the water? Or in the street grit?

Herbert Needleman, a public health physician at Penn, had a hunch that might be the case. About the same time as Binzen was conducting research for Whitetown, U.S.A., Needleman set out to measure the lead levels of inner city children, and targeted those of District 5. Ideally, Needleman would have wanted bone biopsies to obtain the most reliable data, but that wasn’t possible. So he adopted a method employed by environmental scientist and peace activist Barry Commoner who raised public awareness about cancer-causing strontium-90 from nuclear tests. Commoner obtained his data by analyzing children’s teeth. Needleman collected 69 baby teeth in District 5 and compared their lead levels to those of a control group from District 8, in the Northeast section of the city.

Detail: Southeast Corner - 7th and Columbia (Cecil B. Moore) Avenue, August 30, 1904. (PhillyHistory.org)

Detail: Southeast Corner – 7th and Columbia (Cecil B. Moore) Avenue, August 30, 1904. (PhillyHistory.org)

Results of the “tooth fairy project,” as it became known, were published in The New England Journal of Medicine. “Urban children had nearly five times the concentration observed in their suburban counterparts.” Lead poisoning in District 5, manifested in psychological and neurological symptoms, including permanent developmental delays, would be described as “stark and startling.” The contrast with data collected in District 8? Cases of lead poisoning in the Northeast were “vanishingly rare.” See this map by Miad Ahmed Alfaqih.

The “tooth fairy project” became a watershed public health moment. District 5 would gain notoriety as Philadelphia’s “lead belt,” and lead would be considered a severe, national, public health problem—one not entirely understood and very much out of control.

Continuing his research, Needleman reported on what he found in District 5’s schools identified only by their initials. “PT” is Potter-Thomas at 6th and Indiana, “PLD” is Paul Laurence Dunbar at 12th and Columbia (Cecil B. Moore); “JRL” is James R. Ludlow, at 6th and Master; “GC” is George Clymer at 12th and Rush; “JE” as James Elverson at 13th and Susquehanna; and “JF” is Joseph Ferguson at 7th and Norris. In these schools, and others, Needleman’s team collected and tested “interior dust,” “playground dirt” and “gutter dirt.” They tested 219 children for lead and confirmed their earlier, grim findings.

Children growing up in Philadelphia’s “lead belt” were seriously at risk.

Lead-laden industrial Philadelphia had left a toxic legacy behind. The area known as Philadelphia’s “lead belt” had long been home to the Philadelphia Lead Works, Standard White Lead, Color and Putty Works, Western White Lead Co., as well as other 19th-century and 20th-century manufacturers upwind from the tested schools. They spewed pollution, tainted the water, soil and dust. More: the very houses citizens called home had been painted, again and again, with “pure white lead” paint. Thousands of deteriorating, 19th-century homes coated with layers of chipping and peeling paint were poisoning their occupants. In an environment this compromised, with lead embedded in everything and everywhere, researchers found startling levels in their samples collected inside the schools, from playgrounds, from the streets. Lead had made its way into the teeth, into the blood and into the brains of growing, learning children.

They didn’t have a chance.

Lead paint would be banned in 1978. But according to the 2014 Childhood Lead Surveillance Annual Report, Philadelphia still ranks as Pennsylvania’s “top county for children under 7 years of age tested for lead.” Experts believe 10 percent of Philadelphia’s children have “elevated blood lead levels”—maybe higher—they don’t really know. Even today, decades later, the vast majority of children are not even tested.

It still doesn’t make sense.

[Sources include: Laura Benshoff, Eleanor Klibanoff, Marielle Segarra and Irina Zhorov, The Legacy of Lead in Pennsylvania Cities, Keystone Crossroads (2016); America’s ‘Lead Wars’ Go Beyond Flint, Mich.: ‘It’s Now Really Everywhere,’ Fresh Air, NPR, March 3, 2016; Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children (California/Milbank Books: 2014); Herbert Needleman, et al. “Lead Levels in Deciduous Teeth of Urban and Suburban American Children,” Nature, January 1972, Vol. 235, Issue 5333; “Subclinical Lead Exposure in Philadelphia Schoolchildren — Identification by Dentine Lead Analysis,The New England Journal of Medicine, 1974, 290: 245-248; and “Dentine Lead Levels in Asymptomatic Philadelphia School Children: Subclinical Exposure in High and Low Risk Groups,” Environmental Health Perspectives, May 1974, Vol. 7; Peter Binzen, Whitetown U.S.A. (Random House, 1970); 1976 Bulletin Almanac (The Evening and Sunday Bulletin, 1976).]

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Philadelphia’s Central High School in Perspective

The original Central High School building, Juniper and Market Streets, c.1850.

The original Central High School building, Juniper and Market Streets, c.1850.

The effort of a free people to provide for the education of their children as a necessity for the maintenance of the their political institutions makes a story of interest and importance. Especially is this true when the movement meets with criticism and opposition, when its leaders are hampered by the absence of any general appreciation of the value of the issue, and when violent prejudice of race, religion, and class is aroused and must be overcome. 

-Franklin Spencer Edmonds, 1902

For some perspective about the dismal state of today’s Philadelphia public school system: a century ago, a high school education was a luxury, not a necessity.  According to a recent article in The Atlantic: “Teens didn’t create ‘high school.’ High schools created teenagers.'”  In the 1920s, only 28 percent of American children attended high school.    For the rest of America’s teenagers, adulthood began at 14. This meant getting a job to help make ends meet: helping their parents out on the family farm, stocking the shelves at the mom-and-pop, or learning a trade such as carpentry, shipbuilding, or baking.  For the very poor, work began even younger than that: rolling cigars or sewing garments in dark, ill-ventilated sweatshops; picking stones out of coal on conveyor belts (breaker boys); collecting full spools of thread in a textile mill (bobbin boys); selling copies of the Philadelphia Inquirer on street corners (newsies), or shoveling coal into the boilers of a foundry. Child labor was not formally abolished by the Federal government until 1938, with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act under the Franklin Roosevelt administration.

During the first half of the twentieth century, those students lucky enough to attend public high school went to classes in grand buildings that looked more like castles than schools.  West Philadelphia High School, completed in 1910, had an auditorium equipped with a pipe organ. In those days, a public high school degree was generally sufficient enough to propel a graduate into the white collar middle class.  The city’s Roman Catholic population turned to an extensive network of parochial schools to provide reasonably priced education to its youth.  St. Joseph’s Preparatory in North Philadelphia was one such institution that traditionally gave working class Roman Catholics a chance at a better life than their Italian, Irish, German, or Polish immigrant parents.

Yet a college education, public or private, was out-of-the-question except for the rich or exceptionally hardworking student. If a public school graduate gained admission to Penn or Temple University, they typically commuted to and from their parents’ house by trolley or elevated rail, and had to juggle jobs and family obligations in addition to their studies.  My grandfather, a 1926 graduate of West Philadelphia High School, paid for his undergraduate studies at Penn’s Wharton School with money earned from dance band gigs.

The city’s expensive preparatory schools–which catered to the Rittenhouse Square/Chestnut Hill aristocracy–were all but closed to the city’s burgeoning immigrant and African-American populations.  They were also the surest feeders to the Ivy League, with few questions asked.

Then there was Central High School, a magnet high school that was arguably one of the most powerful engines of economic mobility in the city.  Founded in 1836, it is the second-oldest continuously operating public school in the United States. Its first home was at the intersection of 13th and Market Streets, and started holding classes only just after the Philadelphia city fathers rather grudgingly conceded to fund a public school system.  Much of the push for free education for Philadelphia’s children came from Quaker activists such as Roberts Vaux, who objected that parents had to declare shameful  “pauper status” in order to send their children to a charity school.

Central High School building at North Broad and Green Streets, March 8, 1910.

Central High School building at North Broad and Green Streets, March 8, 1910.

Once established, Central High School gained the financial support of several of Philadelphia’s richest families, including the Whartons and the Biddles. Central’s first president was Alexander Dallas Bache, a distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania and grandson of Benjamin Franklin.  Over the next century, Central was housed in a series of grand structures until the 1930s, when it settled in its current Art Deco campus in the Logan section of North Philadelphia.  Its counterparts in other cities include Boston Latin in Boston and Stuyvesant High School in New York. An applicant had to pass a grueling entrance examination, but once in, he (it remained all-boys until a 1975 Supreme Court ruling) found himself surrounded–and pushed to excel– by the best and brightest students from all over the city.  For many, it was their best shot at making it into a top college, and then onward to a successful career, in Philadelphia or beyond.  The school’s alumni roster reads like a who’s who of Philadelphia’s meritocracy: linguist Noam Chomsky, artists Thomas Eakins, architect Louis Kahn, mayor Wilson Goode, and industrialist Simon Guggenheim.

Yet students who had grown up in tightly-knit neighborhoods, rigidly segregated by ethnicity and class, the transition could be just as difficult as it was thrilling.

To be continued… 

Rendering for Central High School's Logan campus, August 1936.

Rendering for Central High School’s Logan campus, August 1936.


Derek Thompson, “America in 1915: Long Hours, Crowded Houses, Death by Trolley,” The Atlantic, February 11, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/02/america-in-1915/462360/, accessed March 14, 2016.

Franklin Spencer Edmonds, History of the Central High School of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1902), pp. 7, 13, 35.

“List of Alumni of Central High School,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_alumni_of_Central_High_School_(Philadelphia,_Pennsylvania), accessed March 14, 2016.

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A Trail of Abandoned Cars

East side of 9th St. Between Master & Jefferson Sts. July 12, 1954. (PhillyHistory.org)

East side of 9th St. Between Master & Jefferson Sts. July 12, 1954. (PhillyHistory.org)

Cars transformed America’s landscape and cityscape—and hardly for the better. In 1925, a million vehicles jammed the nation’s junkyards. Before the decade was out, nearly three million cars a year were stopping in their tracks. “A good number ended up working as stationary engines to run farm equipment,” tells Tom McCarthy in Auto Mania. Old cars ended up as landfill, pushed into abandoned quarries or into foundations for new buildings. Along the Mississippi River cars found an afterlife bulking up levees.

“Wrecking and scrapping” became big business. But abandoned cars soon hogged the majority of dump space. So, more and more often they were simply left where they stopped. Best guess: by the mid-1960s, the nation had 30,000,000 car carcasses littering the landscape. That’s a 47-square-mile problem, big enough to blanket more than a third of the entire city of Philadelphia.

Abandoned cars were thought to be “breeding places for rats and mosquitoes” and, worse than eyesores, curbside wrecks “provided a prominent visual index” for the “deteriorating quality of urban life.”

In Detroit, Motor City itself, the number of abandoned cars grew from 2,000 in 1964 to 13,000 two years later. New York’s count quintupled between 1960 and 1963 and again between 1964 and 1969, growing to 70,000. By the late 1980s, New York’s population of abandoned cars would double. But then the New Yorkers successfully cracked down, heading into the Millennium with less than 10,000.

Hmmm. If New York could do it, figured the campaigning candidate John Street as the mayoral election of 1999 approached, certainly Philadelphia could, too.

Philadelphia’s own formidable backlog of abandoned cars also seemed countless, and bottomless. More than 12,500 had been hauled off the streets in 1985. Three years later, authorities towed twice that number. A decade later, 23,000 replacements sat curbside. What better a campaign promise than to rid the city of its most visible and most unwanted?

Junk Car and Trash. 2329 N. 10th St., July 12, 1954. (PhillyHistory.org)

Junk Car and Trash. 2329 N. 10th St., July 12, 1954. (PhillyHistory.org)

Through the Millennium Winter, Philadelphians counted curbside carcasses. Forty thousand. Though the target wasn’t moving, it was expanding. Every week, citizens called in another thousand.

Removing all the wrecks would be a Herculean effort, but Street was committed to “blight removal.” In addition to towing cars, he aimed “to raze dangerous houses and commercial buildings around town in a $250 million program” to be named the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative—NTI.  And, as some liked to point out, it launched, in the Spring of 2000, a promise of “biblical” proportions, a gigantic 40,000-car disappearing act that would last for 40 days.

On the very first day 1,028 vehicles were hauled away from the streets of West and North Philadelphia. Authorities slapped large electric-green stickers onto “trashcars without vehicle identification numbers, those “valued at less than $500.” More than two dozen salvagers directing 127 tow-trucks targeted the stickered vehicles for immediate crushing. For every wreck removed and recycled, the city earned $25.

The whole operation depended on a healthy market for scrap steel, something that had been missing for many decades.

McCarthy writes: “The postwar scrap metal market peaked in 1956,” when 41,000,000 tons of scrap were sold “to domestic and foreign steel makers.” Soon after that, the scrap market collapsed. Steelmakers modernized, replacing open-hearth furnaces that could work with a higher proportion of scrap metal. “The new basic oxygen furnaces used just 20-25 percent scrap. This change alone effectively halved the steel industry’s demand for scrap metal. … When steelmakers began substantially to reduce their overall demand for scrap, the market…practically vanished.”

And American cities found themselves awash in abandoned cars.

Philadelphia salvagers sold their steel at the going rates, which plummeted from $80 to $55 a ton just before Mayor Street’s campaign got underway. The value of a “crushed Chevy” dropped by nearly a third.

So. Was Philly’s biblical-slash-millennial sweep the stuff of legend, or merely urban legend?

Depends who’s asking, who’s talking and how they’re framing the facts. In 2002, Mayor Street spoke of removing 100,000 cars. Before she left office, Councilwoman Marian Tasco reminisced NTI’s “removal of 224,886 abandoned cars.” Deborah Lynn Becher writes of a more modest, but still impressive, 60,000 disappearing cars. But Haverford College political scientist Stephen J. McGovern claimed the city towed 33,318 cars in forty days.

Not quite 40K in 40 days. But in its modest asymmetry, moving, crushing and recycling 33,318 abandoned cars has the makings of a good tale—and maybe even a believable one.

[Sources include: Tom McCarthy, Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment (Yale University Press, 2007); “Fighting the Abandoned Car Problem,” by Bill Price, Philadelphia Inquirer, August 20, 1989; “Street Plans Sweep of 40,000 Junk Cars Starting Monday,” by Cynthia Burton, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 29, 2000; “Abandoned Car Crushes Man Trying To Tow It Away On The 2d Day of Phila.’s Cleanup,” by Monica Yant and Maria Panaritis, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 5, 2000; “What’s Next For Street’s Towing Plan,” by Monica Yant, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 2000.]

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The PRT and the Upwardly-Mobile Bricker Family

The old "streetcar" shopping hub at 49th and Baltimore Avenue, April 20, 1955. The bank building now houses the Mariposa Food Co-op.

The old “streetcar” shopping hub at 49th and Baltimore Avenue, April 20, 1955. The bank building now houses the Mariposa Food Co-op.

My fiancee and I have just purchased a c.1905 twin house in the Cedar Park section of West Philadelphia.  It is a typical house for what was originally an upper-middle class streetcar neighborhood (according to the National Register of Historic Places, West Philadelphia contains America’s largest intact collection of Victorian housing stock): three stories (four including the finished attic), a front and back garden, polychrome brickwork on the front facade, and plenty of carved interior oak woodwork and leaded glass.  The work of those long-dead woodcarvers is truly outstanding– the baroque scrolled staircase and latticed screen in the front parlor made me wonder if these men also plied their craft in Cedar Park’s grand churches, such as Calvary United Methodist and St. Francis de Sales.

The main staircase, with baroque scrollwork. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The main staircase, with baroque-ish scrollwork. The door now leads to the basement staircase, but it originally led to the “telephone room.” In the early 1900s, having a telephone displayed in the parlor was considered quite improper. The servant staircase in the back has been replaced by a powder room. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Cedar Park combined the walkability of the old city with the spaciousness of the country. In fact, before the rise of the mass-produced automobile, Cedar Park was considered a Philadelphia suburb. Unlike the ornate, turreted “Queen Anne” homes in the vicinity, our Cedar Park house is square and stolid, with minimal exterior ornamentation.  The use of space is very efficient. Although the house is almost 3,000 square feet, one wouldn’t guess it when looking at it from the street. Philadelphia architectural historian/photographer Joseph Minardi describes houses built in this idiom as “colonial revival,” but they actually don’t bear much resemblance to the “authentic” colonial models in Society Hill.  Perhaps a hybrid of Colonial Revival and Arts & Crafts would be a fairer description.  These big houses, Minardi states, were “far from fancy,” but still considered “comfortable for an upper-middle class worker and his growing family…spacious and modern with room for servants to assist the lady of the house.”

The intersection of 48th Street and Cedar Avenue, 1907 and 2016. These large "colonial revival/arts & crafts" style homes were built for white collar upper middle class workers and their families, and had every modern convenience for the era, including electric lighting and steam heat. Kitchen stoves and furnaces were still coal-fired and had to be stoked by hand. Upper photograph by Steven Ujifusa, lower photograph a period postcard from Robert Morris Skaler's book "West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street."

The intersection of 48th Street and Cedar Avenue, 1907 and 2016. These large “colonial revival/arts & crafts” style homes were built for white collar workers and their families, and had every modern convenience for the era, including electric lighting and steam heat. Some had telephones. Kitchen stoves and furnaces were still coal-fired and had to be stoked by hand. The first floor contained a formal front parlor, dining room, and kitchen. The second floor had a more informal family living room, illuminated by a bay window. Upper photograph by Steven Ujifusa, lower photograph a period postcard from Robert Morris Skaler’s book “West Philadelphia: University City to 52nd Street.”

4800 block of Hazel Avenue 5.16.27.ashx

The 4800 block of Hazel Avenue, looking west. May 16, 1927. These large houses were only 30 years old or so when this photograph was taken.  Note that there is only one car parked on the block.

The 4800 block of Cedar Avenue, looking west. February 15, 1954. Note the third floor balconies.

The 4800 block of Cedar Avenue, looking west. February 15, 1954. Note the third floor balconies.

One of the first things I did after we decided to buy the Cedar Park house was learn more about its history.  It appears that its first owners were members of the Bricker family. William Elmer Bricker, a “transitman” at the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (headquartered at 730 Market Street) and a 1907 alumnus of Lehigh University, is listed as living at the house in the 1908-1909 proceedings of his alma mater’s alumni association.  According to the mayor of Philadelphia’s annual report, Bricker earned $70 per month, or about $1,700 in today’s money, a solid wage in the early 1900s, and was a son of a veteran of the “War of Rebellion.” As an undergraduate, he belonged to Delta Upsilon fraternity. No spouse or children are listed.  In 1917, he is listed as still working at the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, with an office at 820 Dauphin Street.

It appears that the PRT was a family affair for the Brickers.  On March 20, 1913, the Transit Journal noted the death of James E. Bricker, 70, superintendent of the PRT and Civil War veteran.  A native of Cumberland County, he had started his career as a conductor on the West Philadelphia Street Railway during its “horse car days” and rose to become superintendent of the Union Traction Company until its takeover by Widener’s Philadelphia Traction Company, and then the PRT.  It appears that William Bricker shared the house with his parents, as the Harrisburg Daily Independent notes that Miss Emma Stewart was spending the month of February, 1910 with her sister Mrs. James Bricker on Cedar Avenue.

Carved latticework in the "courting nook." Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Carved latticework in the “courting nook.” Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

To borrow Minardi’s phrase, the PRT was one of many prosperous businesses that employed West Philadelphia’s  “upwardly mobile meritocracy.”   It was chartered on May 1, 1902, with John S. Parsons as its first president.  Its board included Peter Arrell Brown Widener–the richest man in Philadelphia–who had created his $100 million fortune by building electrified trolley lines and developing land around them.  Also on the PRT board was his son George Dunton Widener, who would perish in the RMS Titanic disaster in 1912.   PRT’s purpose was to construct an electrified, high speed rail line that would run from Frankford in North Philadelphia all the way to 69th Street in Upper Darby.  The PRT needed bright young men like Bricker to manage the complicated logistics of constructing an elevated railroad along Market Street: in Center City, where the railroad went underground, the tracks were was built using the “cut-and-cover” technique previously employed in the construction of New York and Boston’s underground system.  In West Philadelphia, the line ran above ground, through what was then largely undeveloped farmland.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mb-Bg4DwZak&w=420&h=315]

By choosing to buy a house in Cedar Park, William Bricker had the best of both worlds when it came to commuting into Center City.  He was only two blocks north from the electric trolley line that ran along Baltimore Avenue, and seven blocks south of the 52nd Street stop on the Market Street Elevated, which opened for business in 1907.  Travel time from West Philadelphia to the Center City business district was cut to a mere 10 minutes. Between 1910 and 1920, West Philadelphia’s population skyrocketed by 110,000 residents, its greatest increase ever, to hit a peak population of 410,000.  Within a few years, the rowhouses and apartment buildings of the Garden Court development filled up the sylvan landscape separating the Bricker house from the elevated line.

Considering the number of Philadelphia transit-related articles I have written over the past several years, I found the purchase of this particular house to be quite a fortunate coincidence. To the PhillyHistory.org readership: if anyone has additional information on the Bricker family, please let me know!

Note: to read about the creation of the Center City Commuter Connection, click here to read my PlanPhilly article from 2008. 

52nd and Market Street, looking south from the PRT elevated railroad stop, November 20, 1914.

52nd and Market Streets, looking south from the PRT elevated railroad stop, November 20, 1914. Note the trolley line that connects the older “trolley suburb” of Cedar Park with the denser, rapidly-growing commercial/residential hub around the 52nd street PRT stop.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zq2FQtAjYhk&w=560&h=315]

Music from the period of our “ragtime” house: the “Top Liner” rag, composed by Joseph Lamb in 1916.


Joseph Minardi, Historic Architecture in West Philadelphia, 1789-1930s (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2011), p.94.

Samuel Bass Warner Jr., The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Growth (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969), p.194.

Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, February 18, 1910.

Catalogue of Delta Upsilon (New York: The Arthur Crist Company, 1917) p.479.

Annual Report of the Bureau of Railways, Department for Internal Affairs, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Part IV: Railroad, Canal, Telephone, and Telegrah Companies (Harrisburg: C.E. Aughinbaugh, 1910), p.507.



Posted in Neighborhoods, Snapshots of History | 3 Comments

Hypersegregation + Redlining + Time = Persistent Decline

Geographical Distribution of Negro Population - Philadelphia 1932. City Plans Division. Bureau of Engineering and Surveys. (PhillyHistory.org)

Geographical Distribution of Negro Population – Philadelphia 1932. City Plans Division. Bureau of Engineering and Surveys. (PhillyHistory.org)

More than 85,000 mostly rural Southerners arrived in Philadelphia in the 1920s seeking opportunity. What they encountered was discrimination, segregation and poverty. The Great Migration, followed by the Great Depression, added up to a double disadvantage for Philadelphia’s African American population. The city founded on principles of tolerance, mercy and justice had managed to modify its original DNA. Hypersegregation had taken hold.

Between 1920 and 1930, the largest increases in the city’s African-American population were seen in only 10 out of 48 Wards. These 10 Wards absorbed more than 57,000 of the newcomers, more than two-thirds of the citywide increase. North, West and South Philadelphia saw the largest rises, as maps created in 1932 by the City Plans Division, Bureau of Engineering and Surveys graphically illustrate. Previously, we examined Distribution of Negro Population By Ward, from 1920 to 1930. This time, we examine a newly-discovered map with even more precision, a block-by-block display of the newly ghettoized and overcrowded neighborhoods immediately to the North, South and West of Center City. The Geographical Distribution of Negro Population from 1932 is a rare, illuminating snapshot of life in Philadelphia.

1934 Appraisal Map, by J. M. Brewer identifying Percy Street as "Decadent." (Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network)

1934 Appraisal Map, by J. M. Brewer identifying Percy Street Real Estate as “Decadent.” (Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network)

In many of the city’s other neighborhoods—the nearer and farther stretches of the Northeast, the Northwest beyond Nicetown and Germantown and deep South Philadelphia the African-American population didn’t grow at all.. And where it did, it became more geographically concentrated. No fewer than eight Wards saw declines in African American population, including Center City’s historically Black Seventh Ward (the subject  of W. E. B. DuBois’ classic The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, published in 1899). Between 1920 and 1930, this neighborhood stretching west from 7th Street, between Spruce and South Streets, saw a once robust African-American population diminish from 12,241 to 8,430.

Philadelphia’s demographic narrative in the 1920s, when its African-American population became uneven, isolated, clustered, concentrated and centralized—can be summarized in a word: hypersegregated.  How would that narrative play out in the 1930s?

926-924 Percy Street, July 13, 1951. (PhillyHistory.org)

926-924 Percy Street, July 13, 1951. (PhillyHistory.org)

Without adequate supports to address overcrowding and poverty, without mechanisms to guide the transition from rural to urban life, tens of thousands of new Philadelphians found themselves without survival strategies on the eve of the Great Depression. And when the Depression arrived, it hit the hypersegregated, African-American neighborhoods the hardest. In 1931, unemployment among Philadelphia’s African Americans exceeded 40 percent; two years later it rose to 50 percent.

By mid 1930s, the collision of place, time and people was presented in another set of powerful graphics: Philadelphia’s redlining maps. Taken with the newly-uncovered maps from the Philadelphia’s Department of Records, we see a progression of unfortunate evidence. Neighborhoods identified as having dramatic increases in African American populations in the 1920s; neighborhoods with concentrations of African-American in the early 1930s, those same blocks—hundreds and hundreds of them—would be systematically designated as occupied by “Colored” and in nothing less “decadent” and “hazardous” condition.

That was in the depths of the Depression. Recovery would take the rest of the 20th century—and then some.

[Listen to the full interview with WHYY’s Dave Heller recorded March 18,2016 and aired on Newsworks.]

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Roots of Hypersegregation in Philadelphia, 1920-1930

Distribution of Negro Population By Wards 1920-1930. William A. Gee, photographer, April 27, 1932. (PhillyHistory.org)

Distribution of Negro Population By Wards 1920-1930. William A. Gee, photographer, April 27, 1932. (PhillyHistory.org)


Philadelphia’s 48 Wards: Changes in African-American Population, 1920 to 1930.

For the first couple of centuries, Philadelphians of different races co-existed in close proximity. Near rows of mansions and shops on Chestnut, Walnut and Spruce stood clusters of modest houses tucked into sidestreets, courts and alleys. The city seemed designed—destined, even—for social, economic and racial integration. Philadelphia’s original DNA wasn’t programmed for the 20th century urban ghetto.

Then came the transformative convergence of the city’s Great Expansion and the nation’s Great Migration.

“The nation’s black people had been overwhelmingly rural and predominantly southern,” wrote Frederic Miller. Seventy three percent lived in rural areas and 89% were Southerners. By 1920, “the outmigration of blacks from the eleven states of the Southeast was about 554,000, nearly 7% of the area’s total black population.” Between 1920 and 1930, about 902,000 more African Americans left the rural South.

This would transform many Northern cities, especially Philadelphia, which had dramatically expanded in cycle after cycle of construction from the Civil War to World War I.

With World War came the collapse of European immigration and the stream of labor it provided. Then the boll weevil devastated agriculture in the American South. Cities in the urban, industrial North seemed like destinations with promise. By 1930, more than two million African Americans had relocated.

Here’s a few snapshots of Philadelphia’s demographic shift: 1910: 84,459 African-American Philadelphians made up 5.5% of the population. 1920: 134,224, made up 7.4% of the total. 1930: 219,599, made up 11.3%. 1940: 250,000, represented 12.94% of the total.At the start of the Great Depression, seven out of ten African Americans living in Philadelphia had come from the American South.

Transformations throughout the 20th century played out on social, economic, education and spacial fronts. According to Robert Gregg: “Not only were there difficulties assimilating such a large number into the community at once, but the racism already evident in the city was heightened. White Philadelphians began to separate themselves from their black neighbors in all spheres, segregating not only housing, but accommodations, services, education, and religion. Black people were barred from all center-city restaurants, hotels, lunch counters, dime-store counters; and theaters. At the same time, attempts were made to segregate Philadelphia’s schools.”

From 1908 to 1935, the city’s expanding African-American neighborhoods found footing with increased homeownership (802 to 9,855); African American owned stores (281 to 787); physicians (28 to 200); clergymen (73 to 250); schoolteachers (54 to 553) and policemen (70 to 219). But at a price, writes Gregg: “African Americans also became more concentrated and more segregated from the white community.” As the city absorbed newcomers in seemingly endless miles of relatively rowhouses stretching to the north, south and west of Center City, Philadelphia’s expanding African-American population settled unevenly in isolated, concentrated and centralized clusters. Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey gave this a name: hypersegregation.

And in Philadelphia, hypersegregation took root in the 1920s, when North Philadelphia’s African-American population about doubled. The western side of North Philadelphia (from Poplar to Lehigh), approximately 3.4 square miles, saw an increase of the African-American population from 16,666 to 41,270. By 1940, according to Gregg, “more than fifteen thousand families, or more than sixty thousand individuals” occupied the three-quarter square mile area from 7th to Broad, Fairmount to Susquehanna.

Similar concentration, and isolation, was seen south of South Street to Washington Avenue, Broad Street to the Schuylkill. In 1910, this half square mile area was 16% African American. By 1920, that population stood at 15,481, just over half of the total. By 1930, the number increased to 19,537. And by 1940, this small swath of South Philadelphia was 80% African American.

In West Philadelphia, the number of African Americans living in a two-square mile expanse north of Market more than doubled from 15,304 to 39,609.

Meanwhile, the African American presence in Center City and the lower Northeast was shrinking. In the 1920s, while Philadelphia’s total African American population increased by more than 85,000, Center City increased by only 61.

Twentieth-century Philadelphia had modified its founding DNA and enabled hypersegregation to take hold.

[Sources include: Robert Gregg, Sparks from the Anvil of Oppression: Philadelphia’s African Methodists and Southern Migrants, 1890-1940 (Temple University Press: 1993); Douglas S. Massey & Jonathan Tannen, “A Research Note on Trends in Black Hypersegregation,” Demography (2015) 52:1025–1034; Frederic Miller, “The Black Migration to Philadelphia, A 1924 Profile,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, July 1984, pp. 315-350; James Wolfinger, “African American Migration,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, 2013.]

[Listen to the full interview with WHYY’s Dave Heller recorded March 18,2016 and aired on Newsworks.]

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