For the first couple of centuries, Philadelphians of different races co-existed in close proximity. Near rows of mansions and shops on Chestnut, Walnut and Spruce stood clusters of modest houses tucked into sidestreets, courts and alleys. The city seemed designed—destined, even—for social, economic and racial integration. Philadelphia’s original DNA wasn’t programmed for the 20th century urban ghetto.
Then came the transformative convergence of the city’s Great Expansion and the nation’s Great Migration.
“The nation’s black people had been overwhelmingly rural and predominantly southern,” wrote Frederic Miller. Seventy three percent lived in rural areas and 89% were Southerners. By 1920, “the outmigration of blacks from the eleven states of the Southeast was about 554,000, nearly 7% of the area’s total black population.” Between 1920 and 1930, about 902,000 more African Americans left the rural South.
This would transform many Northern cities, especially Philadelphia, which had dramatically expanded in cycle after cycle of construction from the Civil War to World War I.
With World War came the collapse of European immigration and the stream of labor it provided. Then the boll weevil devastated agriculture in the American South. Cities in the urban, industrial North seemed like destinations with promise. By 1930, more than two million African Americans had relocated.
Here’s a few snapshots of Philadelphia’s demographic shift: 1910: 84,459 African-American Philadelphians made up 5.5% of the population. 1920: 134,224, made up 7.4% of the total. 1930: 219,599, made up 11.3%. 1940: 250,000, represented 12.94% of the total.At the start of the Great Depression, seven out of ten African Americans living in Philadelphia had come from the American South.
Transformations throughout the 20th century played out on social, economic, education and spacial fronts. According to Robert Gregg: “Not only were there difficulties assimilating such a large number into the community at once, but the racism already evident in the city was heightened. White Philadelphians began to separate themselves from their black neighbors in all spheres, segregating not only housing, but accommodations, services, education, and religion. Black people were barred from all center-city restaurants, hotels, lunch counters, dime-store counters; and theaters. At the same time, attempts were made to segregate Philadelphia’s schools.”
From 1908 to 1935, the city’s expanding African-American neighborhoods found footing with increased homeownership (802 to 9,855); African American owned stores (281 to 787); physicians (28 to 200); clergymen (73 to 250); schoolteachers (54 to 553) and policemen (70 to 219). But at a price, writes Gregg: “African Americans also became more concentrated and more segregated from the white community.” As the city absorbed newcomers in seemingly endless miles of relatively rowhouses stretching to the north, south and west of Center City, Philadelphia’s expanding African-American population settled unevenly in isolated, concentrated and centralized clusters. Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey gave this a name: hypersegregation.
And in Philadelphia, hypersegregation took root in the 1920s, when North Philadelphia’s African-American population about doubled. The western side of North Philadelphia (from Poplar to Lehigh), approximately 3.4 square miles, saw an increase of the African-American population from 16,666 to 41,270. By 1940, according to Gregg, “more than fifteen thousand families, or more than sixty thousand individuals” occupied the three-quarter square mile area from 7th to Broad, Fairmount to Susquehanna.
Similar concentration, and isolation, was seen south of South Street to Washington Avenue, Broad Street to the Schuylkill. In 1910, this half square mile area was 16% African American. By 1920, that population stood at 15,481, just over half of the total. By 1930, the number increased to 19,537. And by 1940, this small swath of South Philadelphia was 80% African American.
In West Philadelphia, the number of African Americans living in a two-square mile expanse north of Market more than doubled from 15,304 to 39,609.
Meanwhile, the African American presence in Center City and the lower Northeast was shrinking. In the 1920s, while Philadelphia’s total African American population increased by more than 85,000, Center City increased by only 61.
Twentieth-century Philadelphia had modified its founding DNA and enabled hypersegregation to take hold.
[Sources include: Robert Gregg, Sparks from the Anvil of Oppression: Philadelphia’s African Methodists and Southern Migrants, 1890-1940 (Temple University Press: 1993); Douglas S. Massey & Jonathan Tannen, “A Research Note on Trends in Black Hypersegregation,” Demography (2015) 52:1025–1034; Frederic Miller, “The Black Migration to Philadelphia, A 1924 Profile,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, July 1984, pp. 315-350; James Wolfinger, “African American Migration,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, 2013.]
[Listen to the full interview with WHYY’s Dave Heller recorded March 18,2016 and aired on Newsworks.]