Philadelphia history has not always been brotherly. The first 150 Africans who came here in 1684, when the slave ship Isabella arrived. Waves of enslaved Africans would come to the area in the next thirty years. By 1720, approximately 2,500 people of African descent lived in the city. But unlike most other cities content to exploit slavery, a strong abolitionist streak in Philadelphia fought against that wretched institution.
In 1790, Philadelphia had the largest number of free African Americans in America. This community of free persons of color included Richard Allen, the Founder of the African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) Church, who helped initiate the independent black church movement. In fact, Allen’s church became a pacesetter for the Abolitionist Movement among black churches that followed.
Though slavery in Pennsylvania was abolished in 1820, circumstances did not immediately improve for African Americans. While they constituted 10% of city population and were free, racism and the threat of white mob violence were a constant threat. A race riot ensued in the 1840s when competition for work was fierce. Though hampered from large-scale participation in the local economy, African Americans with assistance in many cases from Quakers, created their own society-within-a-society. They built elementary schools, orphanages, nursing homes, and Lincoln University in nearby Oxford, Pennsylvania.
John Miller Dickey, a white pastor of Oxford Presbyterian Church in Oxford, tried to help an African American student gain admission to two Philadelphia theology schools. When the black applicant was rejected, Dickey decided African Americans needed an institution for higher learning and founded Lincoln University in 1854. Consequently, Lincoln became the first school to provide post-secondary instruction for African Americans. Famous alumni include the great poet Langston Hughes, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first Prime Minister. By the 1920s, Lincoln alumni comprised 20 percent of the black physicians and more than 10 percent of the black lawyers in the United States.
Philadelphia saw a huge increase in the black population, as southerners fled to the city in the 1890s. The Philadelphia Tribune newspaper, Black churches and organizations like the Prince Hall Masons were their survival guides. Newcomers also found bustling segregated Black communities in North and West Philadelphia that continue today.
Black population boomed again by World War II, as African Americans swelled to 18% of the city’s residents and worked in factories converted for weapons production. Following World War II, many job opportunities opened, but African Americans often faced retaliatory economic discrimination by returning European American veterans. There is ample evidence that housing segregation increased as well. Those economic and social conditions were a breeding ground for race riots in the 1960s.
Over eager to get a handle on crime, the majority of voters elected Frank Rizzo, a former police chief, to become mayor in 1971. His administration was best known or loathed for squashing the civil rights of African Americans. In the 1970s, brothers from Philly attending colleges around the country used to brag with good reason, that they had the toughest (most unfair) police force in the nation. One of the best things they could brag about was world champion Joe Frazier, who gave Muhammad Ali all he could handle. Frazier opened a boxing gym that brought people of all stripes together.
The first Black mayor, Wilson Goode, was elected in 1983 and re-elected in 1987. But Goode’s legacy is infamous for authorizing the 1985 bombing of the house that inhabited MOVE, a group of black activists. Better precautions could have been taken to prevent the bombing from killing 11 MOVE members, including children. The devastating fire destroyed two city blocks and only heroic efforts by the fire department prevented it from getting worse. Social turmoil continued through the 1980s, particularly with the incident involving Mumia A. Jamal. Nevertheless, most of Philadelphia’s African Americans saw an economic upswing with more social doors opening.
When the Million Women March was held on 25 October 1997, activists, blue-collar workers, professionals, students, celebrities, single and married mothers all held the national spotlight on Philadelphia in an overwhelming show of unity and purpose. Traffic along Interstate 95 Freeway to the city was backed up. Attendance estimates ran over 1 million. US Congresswoman Maxine Water’s speech set the tone for this gathering that completely filled Ben Franklin Parkway from City Hall to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She stated, “We are profoundly responsible. We don’t need to promise-keep, bemoan or atone. We need to use our collective power to shape public policy, fight discrimination, racism, favoritism and old-boy network-ism.
John Street, elected Philadelphia’s second Black mayor has been restoring African Americans’ confidence in Philadelphia government policy and infrastructure. Though it has problems like every other large city, particularly the risk of gentrification at the expense of the working poor, Philly’s good side has never appeared brighter.