The Zigzag Drama of a Memorial Day Monument

Colored Soldiers Memorial - Lansdowne Drive East of Belmont Avenue - Fairmount Park, January 15, 1935 (

Colored Soldiers Memorial – [original location] Lansdowne Drive East of Belmont Avenue – Fairmount Park, January 15, 1935 (

“All monuments have a message,” writes Dell Upton in Commemoration in America, “they direct us not simply to remember, but to remember in a certain light.

That’s the first of Upton’s “three rules of thumb for monument-building,” principles especially useful in explaining the zigzag drama of Philadelphia’s All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, dedicated eighty-two years ago today at one of the most off-the-beaten-track places in all of Fairmount Park.

Upton tells us that monuments “interpret the subjects they honor for an intended audience: people who are thought to need the message.” By installing this piece on Landsdowne Drive behind Memorial Hall and not permitting it at the intended public place on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, its message was blunted and stunted; its audience disrespected.

Upton’s second rule of thumb is further revealing: “Monuments always say more about the people, times and places of their creation then they do about the people, times and places they honor.”

On May 30, 1934, if this monument had been dedicated where it was intended, Philadelphia’s Art Jury (the predecessor of the Art Commission) would have made a definitive declaration. By denying that site, and hiding the memorial in one of the farther recesses of the Park, we see a declaration of another kind.


All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, 1934. J. Otto Schweitzer, sculptor. (Wikimedia)

“If a Negro is fit to fight and die for his country on the battlefield then no site is too great for a war memorial,” claimed a contemporary news story. But racial equality in the American Armed Forces was still 14 years off in 1934. Even at the start of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt still worried that the “intermingling of White and Colored personnel” would be a “new social experiment” that might “confuse the issue of prompt preparedness.” By 1948, when President Harry S. Truman finally issued Executive Order 9981 integrating the Armed Forces, the memorial’s move from banishment was still 46 years off.

Can Upton’s third rule of thumb help us understand why? “Monuments are almost always promoted by interested parties who claim to offer ‘the nation’s gratitude.’ By setting a monument in a public space, the builders claim to speak to everyone. This is a fundamental, necessary fiction of monuments,” he writes, “but it is a fiction.”

Ironically, memorials commemorate facts by employing fiction. Between, and rising above, six very representative African-American servicemen on the front of this memorial is an allegorical figure of “Justice” holding a pair of wreaths signifying “Honor” and “Reward.” On the back are four additional, equally unreal human figures. On the left is War” with a shield and “Liberty” with torch and tiara. On the right are “Peace” and “Plenty.” All are abstract allegories, idealistic personifications of classical attributes. All are unflinchingly represented by Anglo-Saxon Caucasian females, idealistic spokesfigures for the same authorities who kept this memorial out of the public view for six long decades.

In 1994, the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors was refurbished, rededicated and finally reinstalled—this time on Logan Circle—a place of prominence and respect.

[Sources include: Bill Duhart, “Monument to Black soldiers may get its due, 67 years late,” The Philadelphia Tribune, December 24, 1993; Peter Landry, “Belated But Monumental Move Sixty Years Later, A Memorial To Black Soldiers Will Go On The Parkway,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 29, 1994.]

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The Center City Conflagration of 1897

Fire - 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (

Fire – 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (

Philadelphians couldn’t imagine their city in ruins. But the fire of January 26, 1897 provided a pretty good idea of how that looked and felt.

That Tuesday morning, a fire started in the basement bakery of Hanscom Brothers, 1309-1317 Market Street, at 6:45 am. A porter sweeping out an upper story room saw smoke and “dashed into the street, calling ‘Fire!’” and a watchman at the corner “rung in an alarm.”

In the panic, “someone bethought himself of the two bakers,” still inside and unconscious, and a pair of Hanscom employees “descended through the smoke and dragged the half-suffocated men out.”

What began as a “little tongue of flame” was soon “caught…by the winds that whirl about City Hall, and fanned…into a pillar of fire” destroying not only the 6-story building, the home of Hanscom, Dennett’s Café and Hirsh’s Umbrella Factory, but also 59 other buildings between 13th and Juniper Streets, Market and Filbert Streets.

“It was a fearful morning to fight a fire,” reported the Inquirer. “The thermometer was near zero, and the first line of hose, as it was unreeled, burst and covered everything surrounding with water that turned to ice the moment it struck. The flames gained on the firemen, and alarm after alarm was rung in, until every engine in the city was hurrying to the scene. Thousands of workers on their way to their places of business were attracted by the fire, and the streets in the vicinity speedily became impassable from the curious and surging throng.”

A conflagration of “spectacular grandeur” that “defied the resources of the city.”

“Firemen worked under the most discouraging conditions, the hosemen and laddermen taking their lives into their hands as they crawled cautiously up the ice coated rungs of their ladders, dragging after them their lines of hose, which were encased in a solid covering of ice. The streets around the fire were coated with ice… The fronts of the surrounding buildings upon which the water had been played presented a beautiful spectacle as they flashed back from their icy walls the rays of the morning sun.”

At time, the smoke “would descend to the street in almost [a] solid cloud, and the firemen were driven back, gasping for breath. … Building after building along Market Street crumbled beneath the touch of the fiery tongues of flame enwrapping them, and when the rear wall of the Hirsch Building fell into Silver Street, the fire leapt across and entered the seven-story double iron building fronting on Filbert Street.” Soon the entire block was “honeycombed by fire.”

Fire - 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (

Fire – 13th and Market Street, January 1897 (

“The firemen feared that the great Wanamaker establishment would go… Mr. Wanamaker himself had arrived early, and, dismissing the greater number of his 3,500 employees, marshaled under his own direction the fire force of the store.” At 8am, when “the Market Street front of the Hirsh building fell into the street…a torrent of fire rolled out and flowed across… and broke against Wanamaker’s. The building shriveled and blistered beneath the fierce deluge, and a tongue of flame shot up from the high clock tower at the corner of Thirteenth and Market Streets.

Much to the dismay of the firefighters—and Wanamaker himself—“the jets from the hose could not reach the flames in the tower and the entire building seemed threatened with destruction.” Just as the chimes in the burning clock were striking 8:15, the “entire tower toppled over and fell with the great crash.” This “proved the salvation of the building, for the firemen were then able to fight the heart of the fire, and soon had it under control…”

“By 5 o’clock the carpenters had completed the temporary repairs, and then they raised large American flag on ruins of the clock tower” which was quickly rebuilt.

To the west, City Hall survived, although the heat was so intense employees couldn’t “bear to stand within five feet of the windows, which, to a one, cracked or broke.

In the days to follow, the ruins were compelling to visit and dangerous to navigate. And with each “severe gust of wind” the “great bulging wall of the Hirsh building… was seen to be swaying dangerously. To all appearances it was on the point of crashing outward….  A shower of loose bricks was whirled off of the crumbling wall….”

The fire was the “worst in a generation.” But so long as there were no casualties due directly to the fire, the loss of buildings seemed welcomed by the Press. “Their destruction will probably be to the ultimate good, if newer and more modern buildings are erected on their sites.”

And, in a historical blink of an eye, new buildings that addressed the needs of the burgeoning city in the new century appeared in their places.

[Sources: “Big Philadelphia Fire,” The New York Times, January 27, 1897; and in The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Many Buildings A Prey to the Flames,” January 27, 1897; “Thousands at the Scene of the Fire,” January 28, 1897; “Tottering Walls Retard the Work,” January 29, 1897; and “New Buildings Soon To Be Erected,” March 12, 1897.]

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Market Street: Fodder for Literary Legends

Market Street, East from 13th Street, ca. 1910 (

Market Street, East from 13th Street, ca. 1910 (

Do Philadelphia streets have distinct personalities? We know they do. Are they potent enough to stand out in the literary imagination? In 1920, Christopher Morley thought so.

Morley considered how Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman and Henry James might have sung the praises of (or, in the case of Poe, bemoaned fears about) a Philadelphia thoroughfare.

But which street had the requisite robustness to nourish literary posterity? Which embodied stature, range, resilience and vitality? Morley’s choice, in Travels in Philadelphiawas Market Street.

“I see the long defile of Market street,” Morley imagined Whitman writing. “And the young libertad offering to shine my shoes (I do not have my shoes shined, for am I not as worthy without them shined? I put it to you, Camerado.)” …

“In a window I see a white-coated savan cooking griddle cakes, And thinking to myself, I am no better than he is, / And he is no better than I am, / And no one is any better than anyone else / (O the dignity of labor, / Particularly the labor that is done by other people; / Let other people do the work, is my manifesto, / Leave me to muse about it) / Work is a wonderful think, and a steady job is a wonderful thing, / And the pay envelope is a wonderful institution, / And I love to meditate on all the work that there is to be done, / And how other people are doing it. / Reader, whether in Kanada or Konshocken, / I strike up for you. / This is my song for you, and a good song, I’ll say so.”

(You didn’t really expect Morley to mount an earnest channeling of Whitman, did you?)

He imagined the return of Poe: “During the whole of a dull and oppressive afternoon, when the very buildings that loomed about me seemed to lean forward threateningly as if to crush me with their stony mass, I had been traveling in fitful jerks in a Market street trolley; and at length found myself, as the sullen shade of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy tower of the City Hall. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.”

And for Henry James (known for his long sentences) Morley reveled in a few of his own making: “Thorncliff was thinking, as he crossed the, to him, intolerably interwoven confusion of Market street, that he had never—unless it was once in a dream which he strangely associated in memory with an overplus of antipasto—never consciously, that is, threaded his way so baffling a predicament of traffic, and it was not until halted, somewhat summarily, though yet kindly, by a blue arm which he after some scrutiny assessed as belonging to a traffic patrolmen, that he bethought himself sufficiently to inquire, in a manner a little breathless still, though understood at once by the kindly envoy of order as the natural mood of one inextricably tangled in mind and not yet wholly untangled in body, but still intact when the propulsive energy of the motortruck had been, by a rapid shift of years and actuating machinery, transformed to a rearward movement, where he might be and how.”

“’This is Market street,’ said the officer. ‘Market street! Ah, thank you.'”

“Market street! Could it be, indeed? His last conscious impression had been of some shop—a milliner’s, perhaps?—on, probably, Walnut street where he had been gazing with mild reproach at the price tickets upon the hats displayed… So this was Market street. …

“Market street? How interesting.”

Yes, Morley did think of Market Street as especially interesting.

In another piece, this time entirely of his own creation and credit, Morley considered a midnight scene: “Market street is still lively. A ‘dance orchard’ emits its patrons down a long stair to the street. Down they come, gaily laughing. The male partners are all either gobs, who love dancing even more than ice cream soda; or youths with tilted straw hats of course weave, with legs that bend backward most oddly below the knee, very tightly and briefly trousered. … The girls all wear very extensive hats, and are notably pretty. ‘Which way do we go?’ is the first question on reaching the street. It is usually the way to the nearest soda fountain.”

When it comes to Market Street one hundred years later, what do we experience? Which way do we go?


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The Station-House Murder of Riley Bullock

Police, Fire and Patrol Stations, 20th and Federal Streets. (

Police, Fire and Patrol Stations, 20th and Federal Streets. (

A day after riots shook the city and a few hours after the Polyclinic incident, patrolmen Robert Ramsey and John Schneider returned to their station house at 20th and Federal before hitting the streets. Within minutes they encountered Riley Bullock, a 38-year old African-American who lived at 2032 Annin Street.

Bullock would soon be dead.

According to one account, Bullock “was being attacked by a crowd of white men when the two policemen came to his rescue and arrested him.” According to another, Ramsey and Schneider “arrested Bullock while he was going on an errand and committing no crime…” They struggled with Bullock, “who wielded a razor with such telling effect that Ramsey’s coat was cut.”

No one challenged that Ramsey and Schneider severely beat Bullock, who the Inquirer described as “a negro rioter.” According to one witness: they “beat him with all their might and force for about two squares until he reached the station.” Another witness, a Mrs. Williams, “testified that she saw Ramsay and Schneider beating Bullock at the corner of Titan and Point Breeze Avenue; that they held both of Bullock’s arms up as he walked … Schneider was beating him with a black jack and Ramsey was beating him with the butt of a revolver…”

Then, “just as soon as they entered the station house door, she heard a shot.”

At first, police said “the bullet which ended Bullocks life was really intended for one of the white policemen…” They claimed Bullock, who was escorted into the station’s rear door, was “shot by ‘a colored man’ [who] was detected running away from the scene of the murder with a revolver in his hand.”

The story soon changed: “In their haste to open the station house door and escape the threatening mob that followed them,” Officer Ramsey slipped on a step and his “revolver was accidentally discharged and Bullock was struck, receiving injuries that resulted in his death.”

Point Breeze Avenue entrance of the 20th and Federal Street Police Station. October 19, 1949. (PhillyHistory,org)

Point Breeze Avenue entrance of the 20th and Federal Street Police Station. October 19, 1949. (PhillyHistory,org)

Lieutenant Harry Meyers issued the statement: “As they came up the steps of the police station on the Point Breeze Avenue side, Ramsey, who still had his gun in his hand to keep the pressing crowd at bay, suddenly slipped. The revolver was accidentally discharged and the bullet struck Bullock in the back, piercing his lungs.” Then Meyers added: “Ramsey did not shoot the negro because of any malice resulting from the killing of Policeman McVey by Negroes.” And then Meyers “ordered all newspaper men from the station house and forbade them to return.”

In the following days, “delegations of Negro clergymen and business men” attempted to meet with the mayor and police officials to send the message that “Afro-Americans of this city are tired of legalized murder.” They “put responsibility for the rioting squarely up to the police of the 20th and Federal Streets station, whom they charged with showing sympathy for the white residents of the turbulent area.” They and others organized “The Colored Protective Association” which retained attorney G. Edward Dickerson “to prosecute Policeman Ramsey,” held at Moyamensing Prison.

Dickerson anticipated the testimony of two African-American policemen in the station house when Ramsey shot Bullock. One officer had even “helped put out the fire which the pistol shot started in Bullock’s clothes” and both had “heard Policeman Ramsey acknowledge that he shot” Bullock. But in court they weren’t reliable witnesses. One of the officers even “swore he never saw Ramsey before.”

2032 Annin Street. The home of Riley Bullock in 1918. (Google Streetview)

2032 Annin Street, home of Riley Bullock, killed by police July 29, 1918. (Google Streetview)

Testimony from the Coroner’s Physician proved the most damaging: “The ball entered into the small part of Bullock’s back and took a downward course through the pelvis [indicating] …that the bullet could not have been accidentally fired when Ramsey slipped going up the steps.” Judge Henry N. Wessel refused bail for Ramsey, who remained in his cell at Moymensing. Wessel criticized the police for their apparent looseness in the investigation and expanded it to include “every policeman who was in the station house at the time of the shooting.”

A month later, Lieutenant Meyers would be transferred to the Fishtown station at Girard and Montgomery Avenues, and a week after that “the entire force of policemen at the 17th District Station House” was transferred. “May the good Lord have mercy on the neighborhood to which this king of thugs has been assigned,” editorialized The Tribune about Meyers’ move.

Now we have a mixed force of colored and white officers,” they noted. “For the first time in six weeks colored children have been able to play in front of their homes…colored people can walk home and feel safe.”

Ramsey and Schneider lost their jobs and went to trial, but would never serve time for the murder of Riley Bullock. Two years later, they were tried and found “not guilty.” The jury had deliberated for a mere 30 minutes.

[Sources: “Race Riots Grow In Fury As Police Fail To Curb Mobs, Negro Is Slain at Door of Station House,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 30, 1918; “Race Riot Area Dry; Detain Policeman In Shooting Probe,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 31, 1918; “Policeman is Held after Rioter’s Death,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 10, 1918; “Meyers Kicked Out 17th District,” by G. Grant Williams, The Philadelphia Tribune, August 31, 1918; “Entire 17th District Police Transferred,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 7, 1918; “Judge Rebukes Police For Killing Of Negro,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 21, 1918; “Coroner Holds Patrolman for Grand Jury,” by G. Grant Williams, The Philadelphia Tribune, September 21, 1918; “Schneider Is In The Jail House Now; Prisoner Held Bullock While Ramsey Shot Him,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 2, 1918; “The Colored Protective Association,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 18, 1918; “Ex-Policemen Freed,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 16, 1920.]

More posts on the South Philadelphia Riot of 1918 herehere, here and here

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Aftermath of the Race Riots of 1918: The Station House at 20th and Federal

Engine House #24 - 17th District, Police Station, 20th and Point Breeze Avenue, November 9, 1896. (

17th District, Police Station and Engine House #24, 20th and Point Breeze Avenue and Federal Streets, November 9, 1896. (

After a weekend of rioting the likes of which Philadelphia had never seen, families of the deceased planned funerals for two of the men killed in the mayhem. Grieving for their fallen 24-year-old patrolman, the McVey’s would have Requiem Mass sung at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, 24th and Fitzwater streets. “Thousands of persons, hours before the services started, began assembling along the route of the funeral procession,” reported the Inquirer. Lieutenant Harry Meyers of the 17th Police District at 20th and Federal Streets would send a 30-man “guard of honor” and largest floral wreath. Six officers from the station stepped up as pallbearers. They’d attempt to console McVey’s bereft mother, who responded: “I have but one wish…to live long enough to see my poor boy’s death avenged. He didn’t deserve to meet with such an end, to be killed by the bullet of a negro.”

Even though he was on vacation, one of those pallbearers-to-be, patrolman John Schneider, reported for duty that Monday, the day after the death of Thomas McVey and two days before his funeral. The streets of South Philadelphia still seethed with a toxic mix of mob violence and martial rule, which would prove nearly fatal for African American men—even those going about their business.

That morning, Preston H. Lewis visited his brother, hoping “to find a place to move because the family with whom he lived, at 2739 Titan Street, was moving on account of the riot,” reported the Inquirer. “He was met on the streets by Officers Ramsay and Schneider” who stopped and frisked Lewis and “finding a small pocket knife, beat him about the head inflicting about 20 wounds.” In fact, Ramsay and Schneider beat Lewis “until he was semiconscious” before sending him to the Polyclinic Hospital at 18th and Lombard Streets. There, with his face and head “a mass of bruises” Lewis “was laid on a cot to await his turn to have his wounds dressed.”

But Schneider wasn’t done. He “walked into the hospital…went to the Accident Ward, and without a word of warning, knocked down Miss Applegate, one of the nurses in attendance” and began to beat Lewis with his fists and then with his black jack. “Lewis was knocked unconscious…”

William Watson, an African-American officer from another district “who was on guard in the hospital drew his gun and threatened to shoot Schneider before he would stop beating Lewis” but “several white officers present wrenched the gun from his hand…” The head nurse telephoned the police of the 19th Police District—not Schneider’s own stationhouse—for assistance. Two officers arrived, resident physician William M. Cooperage would later testify: “I tried to stop [Schneider] but could not, and it took the efforts of three other policemen to drag him from the helpless victim.”

Schneider would later be charged and tried, but that day, right after the incident at the Polyclinic Hospital, Schneider went back to work, rejoining his partner, Robert Ramsey, at the 17th District Station house. From 20th and Federal, Schneider and Ramsey would return to the streets, looking for trouble.

[Sources: “Pays Fine Tribute to Victim of Riot – Rev. Francis A. Brady Praises Policeman McVay for Dying at Duty,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 2, 1918; “White Policeman Clubs a Race Riot Victim on Hospital Cot,” The Philadelphia Tribune, August 10, 1918; “Policeman Tried for Brutal Action,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 30, 1918; G. Grant Williams, “Cop Schneider on Trial,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 7, 1918; “Echo of Race Riot – Policeman Schneider to Be Tried for Deadly Assault,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 1918.]

More posts on the South Philadelphia Riot of 1918 here, here and here. Next time: Schneider and Ramsey encounter Riley Bullock.

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The Riot Continues: Targeting African-Americans on Titan and Stillman Streets

1522 S. Stillman Street. Home of Mrs. Eleanor Grant in 1918. (Google Streetview)

1522 S. Stillman Street. Home of Mrs. Eleanor Grant in 1918. (Google Streetview)

“The fighting spread yesterday,” reported the Inquirer, to include a giant swath of South Philadelphia: Twentieth to Thirtieth streets, Lombard to Dickinson. Pawnbrokers were forbidden to sell “weapons of any kind until further notice” and saloons were ordered closed. Streets were roped off and police stationed at corners, allowing access to residents only.

Still, on Monday July 30, 1918, the violence grew more intense. “With the coming of night the rioting continued unabated, while the police made feeble and frantic efforts to scatter the throngs which gathered in the streets armed with every sort of weapon. Some even carried hatchets but the most frequently used instrument was a blackjack. Hundreds carried bricks with jagged edges.”

Frustrated, Mayor Thomas Smith “confessed that he did not know how order was going to be restored.”

“One of the most serious acts of the infuriated white mob took place at the home of Henry Huff at 2743 Titan Street” (near 28th and Wharton) the man accused of killing police officer Thomas McVey. While Huff sat in a cell in Moyamensing Prison, about fifty men, “many of them neighbors and friends of the dead bluecoat,” reported the Inquirer, “marched into Titan Street, armed with clubs, knives, bricks and revolvers.”

“With wild cries they descended upon the Huff home. The door had been locked and the windows barred. Inside were two women and three children, said to be the children of Huff. … They smashed the [door] panels with axes, tore open the windows and climbed in, one after the other. … Meanwhile the women and children inside the house at fled through the rear gate to the home of neighbors. Once inside, the vengeance seeking crowd started to wreck the place. A piano was shoved through the windows and hurled by willing hands into the centre of the street. Beds followed from the upper floors; chairs were tossed through windows, carrying away sash and glass. Everything removable in the house was sent flying into the street where it was made into a huge pile. Matches were applied to oil soaked mattresses and in an instant the furniture was in flames. Inside the house other members of the raiding party had started a fire.”

When there was nothing left to destroy at the Huff residence, the mob turned to other houses occupied by African-American families. “Mobs of white men” rampaged, wrecking interiors house after house. Police showed up, according to new reports. “only after the damage had been done.”

“Hundreds of colored residents are leaving the danger zone for places of safety,” police told reporters. “Several men were found fleeing clad in women’s garments.”

Four blocks to the southeast of the attack on the Huff home, someone thought a shot might have been fired from a window of 1522 South Stillman Street, the two-story home of Eleanor Grant, an African American woman. “Within a few minutes a struggling, fighting throng had forced its way into the Grant home and swept everything before it.”

2th Street - South of Dickinson Street. National Alloy Company, May 10, 1916. (

25th Street – South of Dickinson Street. National Alloy Company, May 10, 1916. (

“The crowd became a mob of five hundred within a short time.” A dozen policemen “were powerless before the swaying mass of bodies locked in deadly struggle. Every window in the house at 1522 Stillman street was broken. The furniture was cast into the street and broken with axes. From the Grant home the crowd entered houses of five other colored residents, repeating their actions. The street was soon filled with broken furniture and glassware. Half an hour later a mounted squad of twelve policemen arrived and, by sending their horses directly into the crowd managed to break it up.”

Soon after, William Duberry, 33, an African-American resident who lived nearby at 1511 South Stillman Street, returned home. “A crowd of white men who still lingered in defiance of the police” spotted Duberry, chased him through his house, then through the alley behind Stillman Street and across a nearby lot to Dickinson Street. With the mob “at his heels…Duberry ran into the office of the National Alloy Company and sought refuge behind the desk of the president of the company, Henry P. Miller. The crowd demanded admittance, and as Mr. Miller went to the door it gave way before the pushing of the crowd. Duberry managed to evade capture…by scaling the fence.”

But by the time police arrived, the mob had caught and was “pummeling” the now unconscious Duberry. “With their revolvers the policeman held the crowd at bay while they put Duberry into an automobile and took him to St. Agnes hospital” where he was admitted with internal injuries and a fractured skull.

[Source: “Race Riots Grow In Fury As Police Fail To Curb Mobs,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 30, 1918.]

More posts on the South Philadelphia Riot of 1918 herehere and here

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South Philadelphia Erupts: The Race Riot of 1918

Annin Street - West from 25th Street. May 3, 1916. (

Annin Street – West from 25th Street. May 3, 1916. Two years before the riots. (

“Can you blame citizens of color for mobilizing…to protect one of their own…?” wrote Tribune editor G. Grant Williams after the attack on Adella Bond near 29th and Ellsworth.

Earlier the same summer, in 1918, responding to violence against newcomers to 24th and Pine, Williams struck the same chord of warning: “We favor peace but we say to the colored people of the Pine Street warzone, stand your ground like men. This is a free city in a free country and if you are law abiding you need not fear. Be quiet, be decent, maintain clean, wholesome surroundings and if you are attacked defend yourself like American citizens. A man’s home is his castle, defend it if you have to kill some of the dirty, foul-mouthed, thieving Schuylkill rats that infest that district.”

The war of words soon became a war of weapons, one that quickly spread. “2 Slain, 20 Injured As 5000 Fight Race War in South Philadelphia,” read one startling headline Monday July 29, 1918.

“In a series of street battles waged for twenty-four hours yesterday…covering about two square miles, two white men, one a policeman, were shot and killed, several others, both white and colored, are believed to be in a dying condition and scores were seriously injured in the most terrific and bitter race riot that has ever taken place in this city. Half a hundred men were placed under arrest.”

“The rioting…began with the killing of a white man by a negro early yesterday [Sunday] morning, grew in intensity throughout the day with individual fights and mobs engaged in gun fire on nearly every other corner of a section bounded by Washington avenue, Dickinson street, 23rd and 30th streets.”

Facts and rumors swirled after the fatal shooting of Hugh Lavery, 42, of 1234 South 26th Street by Jesse Butler near 26th and Annin Streets. Did Lavery’s pregnant wife die of grief? No. Was their unborn child also a casualty? Untrue.

2506-2508 Federal Street, July 29, 1924. Six years after the riots. (

2506-2508 Federal Street, July 29, 1924. Six years after the riots. (

No matter. “From 9 o’clock in the morning until almost midnight the streets of the district were converted into a battle ground. For several hours it appeared as though the police of five downtown districts would be unable to cope with the situation…”

Fury only grew the next day after Henry Huff shot and killed police officer Thomas McVey, 24.

“In bands of thirty and fifty men the whites and the colored men met in the streets and waged their fight, using guns, razors, knives clubs or any weapons which were certain of inflicting injury. These encounters were taking place over every street in the district…”

“Federal Street was a seething mass of black and white bodies, swinging from one side of the street to the others. Men were trampled underfoot and left unconscious and bleeding. … The sight of men falling, dying and bleeding, failed to stop the rioting and it took a hundred policemen, sparing no heads or bodies, to scatter the men.”

Police closed off the streets, stopping and frisking every male and arresting many bearing weapons. In front of the Naval Home, “the fighting became so terrific that Commander Payne…offered the police the use of two hundred marines to aid in quelling the riot. By that time, there were more than 150 uniformed policemen struggling with the rioters, supplemented by half a hundred detectives from the Central Station and downtown station houses.”

“From barred windows and doors the women and children of the neighborhood listened to the progress of the battle. Shutters were closed tight, but in many instances this fact did not deter the rioters from venting their bitterness. They used axes to chop away the woodwork and then shattered the glass with bullets.” Some women and children, determined to attend church in spite of the situation, “ran screaming through the streets to places of safety when the shooting started.”

At dusk, during a brief pause in the rioting, a reporter looked up and noticed “in several small streets between Federal and Washington avenue, there were few houses which had windows left…”

Then, as nightfall came, chaos returned.

[Sources: “Dixie Methods Now In Vogue in Philadelphia—White Residents of Upper Pine St. Adopt Tactics of South Against Colored Tenants,” The Philadelphia Tribune, July 6, 1918; “2 Slain, 20 Injured As 5000 Fight Race War in South Philadelphia,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 29, 1918; Vincent P. Franklin, “The Philadelphia Race Riot of 1918,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 99 (3) July 1975, pp. 336-350.]

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A Tale of Intolerance in Grays Ferry

Ellsworth Street, south side, 2900-38, east to west, December 6, 1965 (

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

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:

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:


“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:

Marian Longstreth Thayer. Source:

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:

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.

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:

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

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:

John B. “Jack” Thayer III. Source:


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,, accessed April 14, 2016.

“Forgotten Journal Reveals How Man Survived 1912 Disaster,” The New York Post, April 8, 2012.


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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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