The rise of Philly’s Black political identity

If There Is No Struggle There Is No Progress: Black Politics in Twentieth-Century Philadelphia, edited by James Wolfinger

6 minute read
Book cover. Title, in alternating black, yellow, & red text, over a vintage black & white photo of a political rally crowd.

The title of If There Is No Struggle There Is No Progress: Black Politics in Twentieth-Century Philadelphia, a new book edited by James Wolfinger, comes from an 1857 speech by Frederick Douglass. “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground,” he said. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

In the 20th century, Black people came to Philadelphia, the northern urban center closest to the Mason-Dixon Line, for better jobs and living conditions. Drawn in two great waves by industrial expansions connected to the World Wars, they followed the path of 19th-century forebears who had come seeking freedom from enslavement. This new historical analysis charts the rise of Philadelphia’s Black political identity.

In 1920, Philadelphia’s Black population was 134,000; by 1950, when city population peaked at 2,071,605, Black residents numbered 376,000. Through the 1940s, Wolfinger writes that “nearly every new resident the city gained was African American.”

Seven contributing authors hand the narrative along like a baton. They introduce figures often missing from the historical record, provide perspective on misunderstood or forgotten events, and trace the sweep of Black struggles, setbacks, and successes over a century.

A Republican stronghold

Despite offering better prospects, Philadelphia met Black migrants with the same discrimination they encountered elsewhere, and not only from the white community. Clem Harris writes that the new arrivals worried “Old Philadelphia,” Black people born and raised in the city, who “resented them because they lacked urbane qualities.” Migrants were also seen as interlopers by the European immigrants with whom they competed for jobs and housing. As migrants were met with increasing violence, Black leaders pressed for protection from lynching and police brutality, and for civil rights in voting, representation, and employment.

Well into the 20th century, Philadelphia was solidly Republican, electing a Democratic mayor just once between 1884 and 1952. According to David A. Canton, Philadelphia was slower to abandon the Republican party than other cities, and the first defection came at the national level. In 1912, Black progressives supported Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic presidential candidate, and Theodore Roosevelt, running as a Progressive, over the Republican, William Howard Taft.

Canton writes that until the 1930s, Black constituents were often a swing vote, though their influence was contained by Republican leaders. “Despite the expanding Black vote, racial discrimination continued and, when necessary, white, political elites often overlooked their differences to try to stymie Black political power.”

Turning to Democrats

Party allegiance shifted between 1932 and 1945, writes Stanley Keith Arnold: “Although considerable numbers continued to vote republican in local elections, Black Philadelphians believed the Democratic Party represented their best hope for a just and equal society.”

One important reason for the shift was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By the time Roosevelt took office in 1933, the Great Depression had laid waste to the economy: Black unemployment was 50 percent. Those who owned homes faced foreclosure—and in Philadelphia, Black homeownership was high. Roosevelt’s New Deal helped Americans facing financial catastrophe.

Then there was Executive Order 8802, signed by FDR in June 1941, which prohibited discrimination in the burgeoning defense industry. It was the first presidential directive since Reconstruction that addressed race, and it impacted thousands of Philadelphia defense workers, including 58,000 just at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

The federal government also broke a 1943 transit strike sparked by racism. Philadelphia Transportation Company workers struck to protest the end of discriminatory hiring and promotion, freezing trolleys and buses, and keeping defense workers from essential jobs. Five thousand soldiers were dispatched to get the vehicles moving.

Rising Black voices

Early in the century, Black attorneys and professionals formed organizations to cultivate representation. Black newspapers like The Philadelphia Tribune, which began publishing in 1884, shaped opinion and gave voice to community concerns. And long before winning the vote in 1920, Black women participated in political debates, meetings, and rallies, and strengthened communal ties through a network of institutions, including churches.

The authors introduce—or reintroduce—Harry W. Bass, who in 1911 became the first Black member of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives. His efforts to strengthen civil rights failed, in what Clem Harris calls “a continuation of the Republican Party’s retreat from Black civil rights that began with the U.S. Supreme Court’s nullification of the 1875 Civil Rights Act.”

Bass was followed by Crystal Bird Fauset, who in 1938 became the first Black woman elected to any state legislature in the United States. Her innovative campaign utilized now-standard techniques including contacting voters by telephone, and addressing women voters. Fauset won a district that was 66 percent white.

Lawyer and activist Sadie T. M. Alexander and her husband, civil-rights attorney Raymond Pace Alexander, were prominent leaders whose 1940s political shift foreshadowed the rise of Philadelphia’s Democratic machine.

In the 1960s, disagreement sharpened between moderates like the Alexanders and radicals. Abigail Perkins writes that some, including lawyer and local NAACP President Cecil B. Moore, questioned the value of racial integration, believing it diluted Black culture and identity.

“Public clashes between Moore and the Alexanders spoke to broader tensions,” Perkins notes. Moore’s “more militant tactics, combined with a flamboyant personality and routine charges of anti-Semitism, often drew the ire of the NAACP’s white membership and national leadership [but] … his rise to power laid bare for many the failure of liberalism to create meaningful economic changes for African Americans throughout the city.”

Struggle, setback, success

Black voters’ loyalty worked to their detriment, Clem Harris writes. An overwhelming 1959 Democratic mayoral victory signaled the death of Philadelphia’s strong two-party system, and diminished the value of the Black vote to the machine. “The tension between reformers and regular Democrats, complicated by the Black movement for independent politics during the 1970s, remains one of the most powerful dynamics in the party to this day,” he says.

Timothy J. Lombardo writes about the figure who most brought unity to the ranks of white patricians, progressives, civil rights supporters, and Black Power advocates: Philadelphia’s authoritarian icon Frank Rizzo. As police commissioner and then mayor (1971-1979), Rizzo galvanized everyone fighting for political equity.

More recently, Black mayors W. Wilson Goode, Sr. (1983-1991), John Street (1999-2007), and Michael Nutter (2007-2015) have had to navigate population loss, economic restructuring, and Center City-versus-neighborhood tension. Despite the two-steps-forward, one-step-back nature of progress and equity in Philadelphia, Stephen A. McGovern offers hope.

Despite a decline in downtown business establishments, “the constellation of community-based organizations has expanded and found ways to collaborate effectively,” he notes. That means “the potential for citizens in Black and Latino communities to exercise more influence in Philadelphia over issues of urban development, poverty, job access, housing, education, and criminal justice appears to be on the rise.”

What, When, Where

If There Is No Struggle There Is No Progress: Black Politics in Twentieth-Century Philadelphia. Edited by James Wolfinger. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, July 2022. 275 pages, softcover; $34.95. Get it from Temple University Press.

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