Part I of “Creating Community at the Powelton C0-op”
A few years ago, Gwendolyn Bye, daughter of Friendship Co-op founders Jerry and Lois Bye, was thumbing through some old photos from her 1950s West Philadelphia childhood. When she came across a class picture from the Charles Drew Elementary School, which once stood on the 3700 block of Warren Street, she realized something remarkable.
“I saw this wonderful picture of my very first grade class with Mrs. Ruby,” she said. “‘Oh, my God,’ I say to myself. ‘My class is all black, and I’m the only white kid.’ And I didn’t even know it at the time!”
Sixty years ago, her Quaker activist parents decided to send their four children to the local public school near their home on the 3500 block of Hamilton Street. “We could’ve gone to a Quaker school,” she remembered. “But my parents wanted us to go to the local public school. And it was almost like what was going on in the South in the ’50s and ’60s was– unfortunately, they were all-white schools. My parents did the opposite. They wanted their children to go into an all-black school and integrate it.”
Gwen spent her first years at “The Court,” the first home of the Powelton Co-op, where she grew up with the community’s other small children. Many were mixed race: Japanese-African American, Jewish and Protestant, white and African-American. Here, in Powelton Village, in the relaxed surroundings of the co-op, they didn’t feel judged. They didn’t care what the neighbors said. They were simply a group of little kids who played together.
Gwen’s upbringing in Powelton gave her a perspective on race that few Americans in the 1950s had. “Racism is taught by parents,” she said. “If you just let a child experience other human beings, they’re not going to look at them based on their skin color. They’re going to look at them for who they are, other people that they play with, other people that they enjoy or like.”
She also lacked something: fear. “I didn’t have fear growing up,” she said. “I didn’t fear anybody. I didn’t fear you because you were black. I didn’t fear you because you were Jewish. I didn’t fear you because you were white. I guess I would fear people because they had guns. That I feared. I feared police.”
It was only when she entered middle school that she began hearing other kids call each other derogatory names, even at the relatively integrated Powel School on the 3500 block of Powelton Avenue. “One child would say black cracker. Another child would say white cracker. And I’d ask, ‘What is a black cracker, and what’s a white cracker?”
Her father Jerry Bye and his fellow realtor George Funderburg encouraged other like-minded newcomers to move to Powelton Village, bucked the the “blockbusting” so endemic in the real estate profession. In 1951, for example, he rented an apartment to the Lees, an African-American couple from Trenton, New Jersey. He and other residents made sure the Lees felt welcome. “It was a nice neighborhood, an integrated neighborhood, and it was very progressive,” remembered Bob Lee, whose wife was a social worker doing fieldwork at a community healthcare center “We all got along very well.”
By the early 1950s, the Powelton Co-op’s residents could no longer fit into a single large house. In addition to the number of single members, there were a growing number of families with young children. Yet the core families didn’t want to abandon their special corner of West Philadelphia. They adapted by purchasing homes of their own, centered on the 3500 block of Hamilton Street. Real estate was still cheap, and many of the Co-op’s were affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, an easy walk away. They also made plans to create a distinctive neighborhood social infrastructure: a babysitting co-op, cultural events, and their own civic assocation.
Interview with Gwendolyn Bye, October 5, 2017.
Interview with Bob Lee, November 16, 2017.