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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One Comment

  1. Tacony
    Posted April 21, 2016 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    $11 in 1918 would be $173.47 in 2016 when adjusted for inflation. Still incredibly cheap rent.

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