I love America! Most of the people I know, love this country, too. No, it is not perfect; I know we have problems. But, in spite of its shortcomings, the vast majority of us would not trade the United States of America for any other country. In spite of the horrific conditions which many of us have experienced and even find today, things are not as bad as they used to be. After all, many in my age group received reasonably good educations; many have good jobs, live in surroundings far better than those of our parents, drive fancy automobiles, wear fashionable clothing and are products of strong family units that molded us into the upstanding citizens we are today.
Consider that we can go anywhere and do anything our money will allow. There was a time when the things we take for granted today were not available to us. We were precluded from doing or enjoying these things because we lived behind the “Cotton Curtain” under laws of segregation. In some cases, we did not do certain things that were not part of our cultural fabric; we did not want to feel the wrath of whites not wanting us to do certain things. So, right here in our beloved City of Brotherly and Sisterly Love, there were things we could not do would not do simply because of the color of our skin.
Let us look at some of those things that were not done by Black folk back in the day in Greater Philadelphia.
You may have concluded that voting was one of the things we had no difficulty doing in Philadelphia and its surrounding areas. Separate water fountains and separate restrooms were not issues for us. However, some restaurants were off limits to people of color. Yes, we had issues right here in Philadelphia! Being unable to enjoy the rights and privileges that all men and women experienced was not because you lived below the Mason Dixon Line. I was surprised to hear from friends in my age group that they could not think of anything they were precluded from doing because of being Black. While there may not have been Jim Crow laws, there was an understanding by most Blacks that there were things they could not do because of their skin color; things they had dared not try to do, as there would have been strong reprisals by whites. Just think about sections of our city where we would not think of attempting to buy a home or rent an apartment.
So staying in our places was a rule in Philadelphia. Several people have told me they were forced to sit in theater balconies to watch a movie; perhaps not in the heart of the city but certainly on the fringes. If you were Black and patronized the Chelten Theater in West Oak Lane and the Walton Theatre in Germantown, you were subjected to this practice. As an aside, this seemed dumb, as the better seats were in the balcony. In my own West Philadelphia neighborhood, while there were no signs prohibiting Black folk from patronizing movie houses, the ones on the south side of 52nd Street such as the State, Rivioli and the Locust were places that we clearly understood should be avoided. We may have been admitted, but the looks and lack of service made everyone uncomfortable.
If you think that I am exaggerating about this life in Philadelphia and confusing it with life in South Carolina, let me remind you of the “Lion of Zion,” the late Rev. Dr. Leon H. Sullivan and his Selective Patronage Movement.
Sullivan organized Black churches throughout Philadelphia to boycott businesses that refused to hire Black employees. The first company to be confronted with the Selective Patronage Movement was Tastykake, a Philadelphia-based bakery. The slogan of this movement was, “Don’t buy where you don’t work.” As a result, Tastykake’s bottom line was seriously impacted, and the company gave in and hired Black employees. This was just one of several companies denying Blacks employment opportunities in the late 1950s. Even years before the Selective Patronize Movement, on Aug. 1, 1944, white employees of the Philadelphia Transportation Co. (PTC) initiated a strike that grew into a major violent confrontation to protest the company’s decision to promote eight Black workers to the position of trolley driver; a position previously reserved for white men. It took President Franklin Roosevelt to send Army troops to Philadelphia to end the conflict and enable Blacks to work as trolley drivers. Yes, right here in Philadelphia, there were many jobs that did not employ Blacks. As for the Selective Patronage Movement, Tastykake was just one of many companies that were boycotted because they did not hire Blacks back in the day.
Even when employment opportunities were made available to us, our Blackness, not our abilities, prevented us from getting certain jobs or participating in some business activities. Working in a store, Blacks may have waited on customers, but one thing they did not do was to handle money; we may have made the sale, but then a white employee took over to collect the money and complete the transaction.
Now, think back to those who operated heavy-duty equipment at construction sites in the past. While many laborers were Black, none were operating cranes, bulldozers or similar equipment.
Now what was your experience in school back in the ‘50s? If it was in Philadelphia, I bet most of your elementary school teachers were Black. Some of your teachers in junior high school were Black. But I bet none of you knew of Black high school teachers. Also, I doubt you can recall a situation from the past where a Black teacher taught white children. Not by choice, but dictated by a man’s will, Blacks could not attend Girard College. So try to tell me there were nothing you could do because you were Black, back in the day.
Because of the complexion of my skin, Crystal Pool, near Woodside Park, always comes to mind whenever I think about things I could not do as a Black child. I will forever remember those afternoons, walking with my parents and siblings by Crystal Pool and being told that “we” were not welcomed into this facility because we were “colored,” a term most older people used in the past. We did not go to League Island in South Philadelphia even though no one stopped us from going. It was the fear of attacks from “PDT’s” as they were called (poor white trash) who lived in this area and made it clear that going to League Island was not for Black folk. You may also recall trolley rides on routes such as the Number 13 trolley on Chester Avenue. If you were around back then, you might recall having to duck down so you would not be seen in order to avoid having rocks and bottles thrown at you. There were a number of hot spots like this around our city back in the day.
Where you a participant in American Bandstand, at 45th and Market streets? Go back and look at some of the footage for this teenage dance program and you will find no Blacks. We clearly understood that we were not welcomed! When things got better and Blacks and whites attended dances in the same venue, there was no dancing between Blacks and whites; absolutely no dancing. You may also recall that our trips to Atlantic City kept us in a particular section of the beach; you dared not go into the so-called “white section.” Thus, “Chicken Bone Beach” was born; it became our place to congregate.
While I never experienced it, I have been told that some Blacks were not permitted to try on clothing in a store until it was purchased. My father told me this was particularly true when it came to purchasing a hat. A friend told me that someone he knows, not in Philadelphia, went to purchase a pair of shoes. He tried on the shoes and told the salesperson that he did not like them. “Oh, no,” said the salesperson, “you have to purchase these shoes.”
Back in the day, do you recall what happened when a Black man drove a white woman somewhere? The woman would sit in the back; there was an unwritten rule that she never sat up front with the Black man. This is something I recall experiencing during my own lifetime.
Black men were not denied the opportunity to enlist in the Navy, but everyone knew that serving in the Navy was problematic.Black sailors were referred to as “mess stewards” because they were limited to working in kitchens?
Every time I observe a Black couple being intimate on the movie screen or on television, my thoughts go to a time, and it was not that long ago, when passionate kissing was taboo. The most one would see Black couples doing in the past was holding hands or giving pecks on the cheek. Compared to the torrid scenes we see today involving interracial couples, visible signs of lovemaking and caring did not exist. This was not prohibited by law, but views of race prohibited such behavior. Just think back to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Now, this was 1967, not long ago. I do not think Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton would have been limited to an arm embrace had this movie been filmed today. Interracial dating was one thing; interracial marriages took on another dynamic. In fact, for a Black man to just look at a white woman was something we knew we should be avoided; some who engaged in such behavior were victims of horrific brutality.
All of you who complain about life as it used to be in the South and have no desire to travel there, take note of those things I have identified in this column. Life was not a bed of roses for Black folk who lived here in the North. Right here in Philadelphia and its surrounding areas, there were laws, or in many instances, unwritten rules that made us less than human beings simply because of the color of our skin, back in the day.