Southern Blacks moving northward during the Great Migration of the 20th century saw freedoms awaiting them in Philadelphia.
But Blacks discovered familiar forms of racial discrimination here in the city between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers — similar to other Northern cities — that they had intended to flee from.
“The struggles that they had to face were similar to the struggles that they had to face in the South,” said Diane D. Turner, a professor, author and curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University Library.
That northward movement of African-Americans from the rural South to cities in the North, Midwest and West known as the Great Migration saw more than six million African Americans resettle from approximately 1916 to 1970. Some historians split the migration into two parts separated by the Great Depression.
Philadelphia was a dichotomy: Listed among the most liberal cities in the country and the home where the Constitution was penned, the city also had the reputation as being the most anti-Black city in the urban North that stemmed back to the 19th century, said Clemmie L. Harris, an assistant professor in the Department of History at Utica College in New York.
“The city itself had long been a place where there were tremendous Southern sympathizers and, within that, significant anti-Black sentiment that was complicated with increased competition for housing and jobs by European immigrants, who themselves were already being discriminated,” Harris said.
Spurring migration to Philadelphia during the early 20th century was the prospect of jobs, said Louis Massiah, founder executive director of the media arts center Scribe who led a media project about the first Great Migration from 1916-30, titled “The Great Migration: A City Transformed.”
Around 1916 the Pennsylvania Railroad began putting job advertisements in some Southern papers seeking laborers in Philadelphia and the region.
“That was the first invitation for people to come to Philadelphia,” Massiah said.
As Southern Blacks considered where to settle as they moved northward, Philadelphia not only offered more economic opportunities but the right to vote. In addition, an established population of free Blacks prior to the Civil War also attracted their Souther relatives to the city.
“They had better educational opportunities and more freedoms than in the South, because the South was just totally repressive,” Turner said.
But many Southern Black found here a system of institutionalized racism — an ideology throughout the nation during that time — in Philadelphia that had de facto segregation in terms of housing, job opportunities, education, and recreation.
“There were a lot of struggles in Philadelphia,” Turner said.
Employment options also turned out to be limited. Blacks were not hired as bus and trolley drivers well into the 1950s, Turner said. Local Black musicians also were not permitted to perform in certain parts of the city and were not hired to play concert music.
In addition, Blacks were denied access to labor unions in Philadelphia, so often times the only jobs available were “the most menial that others didn’t want,” Turner said. For example, Blacks were employed in the shipyards in some of the hardest and most dangerous jobs.
In another example during the first Great Migration, Massiah said some Southern Blacks interested in teaching in Philadelphia public schools during the first Great Migration came to find segregated schools who wouldn’t hire them.
“There was a great deal of disappointment,” Massiah said.
Southern Blacks coming to Philadelphia were pushed into some of the worst housing options that existed in the city. Settlement patterns of African Americans in the city from earlier generations, including those in South Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward, continued into the 20th century.
The poor housing options and job opportunities cultivated a negative perception of the new Southern Blacks in the minds of white Philadelphians, which lasted throughout much of the Great Migration, Harris said. African Americans were also subject to high levels of scrutiny from the Philadelphia Police Department.
“These individuals were perceived of as bringing Philadelphia down,” Harris said.
These social and economic barriers combined with the desire advance compelled many migrating African Americans to participate in the corrupt political machine during the first three decades of the 20th century, Harris said. The political machine controlled by party bosses would trade economic advancement for party allegiance.
“Loyalty meant votes; votes meant jobs,” said Harris, who is authoring an upcoming book on the struggles of African Americans in Philadelphia between the 1830s to 1980s.
But African Americans pushed back.
The discrimination and racism encountered in the city compelled Blacks to find succor in organizations, including the NAACP and Black fraternities and sororities, churches, and the establishment of new businesses.
Churches — including the Tindley Temple United Methodist Church and Mother Bethel A.M.E in Philadelphia — played a critical role in welcoming and assisting new Southern Blacks to Philadelphia. In addition, houses of worship provided an invaluable social network for African Americans.
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