More than 85,000 mostly rural Southerners arrived in Philadelphia in the 1920s seeking opportunity. What they encountered was discrimination, segregation and poverty. The Great Migration, followed by the Great Depression, added up to a double disadvantage for Philadelphia’s African American population. The city founded on principles of tolerance, mercy and justice had managed to modify its original DNA. Hypersegregation had taken hold.
Between 1920 and 1930, the largest increases in the city’s African-American population were seen in only 10 out of 48 Wards. These 10 Wards absorbed more than 57,000 of the newcomers, more than two-thirds of the citywide increase. North, West and South Philadelphia saw the largest rises, as maps created in 1932 by the City Plans Division, Bureau of Engineering and Surveys graphically illustrate. Previously, we examined Distribution of Negro Population By Ward, from 1920 to 1930. This time, we examine a newly-discovered map with even more precision, a block-by-block display of the newly ghettoized and overcrowded neighborhoods immediately to the North, South and West of Center City. The Geographical Distribution of Negro Population from 1932 is a rare, illuminating snapshot of life in Philadelphia.
In many of the city’s other neighborhoods—the nearer and farther stretches of the Northeast, the Northwest beyond Nicetown and Germantown and deep South Philadelphia the African-American population didn’t grow at all.. And where it did, it became more geographically concentrated. No fewer than eight Wards saw declines in African American population, including Center City’s historically Black Seventh Ward (the subject of W. E. B. DuBois’ classic The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, published in 1899). Between 1920 and 1930, this neighborhood stretching west from 7th Street, between Spruce and South Streets, saw a once robust African-American population diminish from 12,241 to 8,430.
Philadelphia’s demographic narrative in the 1920s, when its African-American population became uneven, isolated, clustered, concentrated and centralized—can be summarized in a word: hypersegregated. How would that narrative play out in the 1930s?
Without adequate supports to address overcrowding and poverty, without mechanisms to guide the transition from rural to urban life, tens of thousands of new Philadelphians found themselves without survival strategies on the eve of the Great Depression. And when the Depression arrived, it hit the hypersegregated, African-American neighborhoods the hardest. In 1931, unemployment among Philadelphia’s African Americans exceeded 40 percent; two years later it rose to 50 percent.
By mid 1930s, the collision of place, time and people was presented in another set of powerful graphics: Philadelphia’s redlining maps. Taken with the newly-uncovered maps from the Philadelphia’s Department of Records, we see a progression of unfortunate evidence. Neighborhoods identified as having dramatic increases in African American populations in the 1920s; neighborhoods with concentrations of African-American in the early 1930s, those same blocks—hundreds and hundreds of them—would be systematically designated as occupied by “Colored” and in nothing less “decadent” and “hazardous” condition.
That was in the depths of the Depression. Recovery would take the rest of the 20th century—and then some.
[Listen to the full interview with WHYY’s Dave Heller recorded March 18,2016 and aired on Newsworks.]