The Special Collections Research Center is pleased to announce the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia Records are now open for research use. The JCRC records were donated to the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center between 1976 and 2006 and acquired by the Special Collections Research Center in June 2009 where they were the focus of a two-year processing project. View the online finding aid or guide to the collection on the Libraries’ website.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia (JCRC) was founded on January 30, 1939, as the Anti-Defamation Council but changed their name in 1943. The impetus for the formation of the JCRC was the rise of antisemitism in America after fascism took hold of much of Europe in the late 1930s. Jewish community leaders perceived the need for a unified voice dedicated specifically to fighting antisemitism and protecting the rights of the Jewish Community in Philadelphia. The JCRC’s mission has traditionally been defined as “…helping members of all religious, racial and ethnic groups to work and live together democratically and cooperatively by equalizing their treatment, enlarging their opportunities and deepening their mutual appreciation.” The Jewish Community Relations Council is still in existence and works as a constituent agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
The bulk of the records span JCRC history from its founding in 1939 through the mid-1990s. Subject strengths include the struggle against antisemitism and racism in any form, including violence, vandalism, and propaganda, or in any aspect of society, such as education, employment, and housing. Other well-documented subjects include prayer in schools, interreligious relations, the relationship between the black and Jewish communities, Holocaust remembrance, Soviet Jewry, and the state of Israel.
Of particular interest are data, surveys, and compiled reports on the admissions practices of Philadelphia’s professional schools in the 1940s.
Also noteworthy are records pertaining to the Black-Jewish Loan Fund, a JCRC–created program which offered low or no interest loans to members of the black community interested in purchasing Jewish-owned business in neighborhoods of shifting demographics.
In mid-December 1963, members of the Philadelphia chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) approached Elias Myers, the city appointed director of the 1964 Mummers Parade, to demand that blackface be banned from the upcoming event. Myers announced on December 16 that the use of blackface would be prohibited, but this decision did not sit well with some Mummers and Myers soon found his home picketed by over a hundred dissenters. The city tried to reach a compromise, but a few days later the ban on black face was rescinded.
1963 had been a turbulent year, punctuated by imagery of police dogs and fire hoses turned on young African American protesters, church bombings, mass civil rights demonstrations, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was in this context of activism and struggle, that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a petition in court on December 30 seeking to have the use of blackface by the Mummers banned. The NAACP argued that permitting ridicule of a large percentage of the city’s population was unacceptable given that the parade was subsidized by taxpayers and subject to the issuance of a city permit.
At the hearing, Jules Cohen, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia (JCRC), offered this testimony, “Not too long ago, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia and other Jewish organizations were constrained to take action to end the caricaturizing of Jews on the vaudeville stage, in plays and movies. Stereotyping through the use of blackface in the Mummers Day Parade is an insult to the Negro community and offensive to Negro and white citizens alike.” Nevertheless, the court denied the petition on the basis that there was no law prohibiting the wearing of blackface and that the Mummers’ intent was not to ridicule.
Due to bad weather on New Year’s Day, the Mummers Parade was postponed until January 4, which allowed tensions over the controversy to rise to alarming heights. Reports surfaced that Mummers, motivated by what they saw as an intrusion on their traditions, intended to have over 1,000 marchers wearing blackface at their parade. Meanwhile, CORE announced their intent to disrupt the march, and Police Commissioner Howard Leary was informed that he should expect demonstrators to arrive from across the Mid-Atlantic. As fears of a violent confrontation escalated, Philadelphia’s Council on Human Relations spearheaded talks on how to resolve what they feared was an impending disaster peacefully.
Officers of the JCRC participated in talks with representatives of the Greater Philadelphia Council of Churches, the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. This resulted in a new court petition on January 2 emphasizing the threat to public safety and seeking to ban the use of blackface as well as prevent any protests at the parade. The petitioners were chosen to represent an interfaith consensus and included JCRC’s Vice-President, Fanny Goldsmith. The court issued an injunction, citing the “clear and present danger” to the city, and as a result the parade was held on January 4 without blackface or significant disruptions.
On January 6th, Jules Cohen wrote a report to the Council of National Jewish Agencies that stated in part: “By New Years Eve, those of us close to the picture were convinced that rioting and disorder were inevitable. All of the ingredients for an explosion were present–an issue about which both sides felt strongly…. I am satisfied the police could not have controlled these extraordinary crowds and that granting of the injunction prevented property damage, physical harm and perhaps even some killings. Such an explosion would have set us back 100 years in civil rights and it would have done untold economic damage to the city in the loss of conventions and other business.”
Following these events there was widespread discussion in the press over the controversy and whether or not the prohibitions on both blackface and protest went too far. Indeed, the JCRC’s Civil Liberties Committee expressed mixed feelings about the outcome in a statement that both sympathized with the motivations of those involved, but also worried about the implications of a court decision that infringed on the right to protest.
On August 13, 1957, William and Daisy Myers and their three children, an African American family, moved into the all-white community of Levittown, Pennsylvania, and shortly thereafter found themselves confronted by angry residents displeased with their arrival. Large crowds gathered during the day and hurled insults towards the home, while at night, cars drove by flashing their lights and honking their horns. The situation escalated over the course of eight days, with rocks being thrown through the windows of the Myers’ home and another stone knocking a local police officer unconscious. In response, the Pennsylvania State Police were sent to Levittown to restore order, where they would remain for nearly two months before a semblance of calm returned.
The events in Levittown attracted the attention of the national press and a wide range of civic and religious organizations that shared a common mission to combat prejudice and discrimination. One of these organizations was Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), which frequently worked to promote fairness and equal opportunity in housing for African Americans throughout Philadelphia. The JCRC would not take a direct role in events taking place in Levittown, but correspondence between JCRC executive director Maurice Fagan, and several other regional Jewish organizations, demonstrates the level of interest they shared. On October 18, Stephen Remsen, the director of the Philadelphia based Jewish Labor Committee, wrote to Fagan saying, “The pressures of time and the fact that my Levittown file is at home preparing itself for some more speeches to everybody and his brother make it difficult for me to do justice to your request.”
The apparent request was for an account of the role of Levittown’s Jews in response to the unrest. The letter praises the activities of the local Jewish Community Council, which worked in cooperation with Protestant and Quaker groups to actively support the rights of the Myers. Remsen notes that there were some “individual” Jews who were either neutral or opposed to the racial integration of their community, yet also stresses that he could find no evidence that any Jew took part in any of the protests or acts of mob violence. Perhaps the most interesting comments in the letter come when Remsen expresses concern to Fagan about the way Jews are sometimes perceived and how this could influence events in Levittown.
Remsen writes: “If there was any problem, it was the identification of the Myers move-in as a Negro-Jewish-Quaker movement and cause. While the Rabbi and all the others of Jewish faith who were in this fight tried to remain in the background, it was impossible to do this. I am convinced that the enemy – smelling one Jew in the community – would have played the anti-Semitic game even if that one Jew did nothing but study the Torah.”
Fred Grossman, director of the regional Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, also wrote to Fagan on October 18 about his assessment of events in Levittown. Grossman describes some of the harassment endured by the Myers family and their supporters over the previous weeks and similarly lauds the work of Jewish groups, despite, “reports of anti-Semitic comments and instances of hostility from non-Jewish neighbors previously friendly or at least indifferent.” Grossman also makes it clear that Jewish support for racial integration was not universal, and, in terms that are a bit more stark than Remsen’s, says that, “Although there are many Jews who are strongly opposed to integration and who resent the Myers, few if any of these agree with the violence or the attrition techniques aimed at driving the Myers out.”
Following these letters, Fagan submitted a report on October 23, 1957, to the JCRC board of directors that outlined what he saw as four key reasons why Jews had a stake in Levittown: “(1) the family which sold the home [to Myers] is Jewish; (2) the friendly family next door is Jewish; (3) organized Jewish groups and synagogues were called upon to make a public stand; and (4) Levitt of Levittown is Jewish.”
A local group, the Levittown Citizens Committee, took the lead in organizing support for the Myers and appealing for peace in their community. Comprised of Levittown residents, as well as local rabbis, Protestant ministers, and members of the Society of Friends, the group lent direct support to the embattled Myers and campaigned against the racism on their streets. Before it was over, the Myers and their friends would endure numerous forms of intimidation, including the burning of several crosses and the painting of “KKK” on the home of Myers’ Jewish neighbor. For several weeks, a vacant house situated next to the Myers’ home was occupied by members of the Levittown Betterment Committee–a hastily organized group that wanted to preserve Levittown’s whiteness. This vacant house was used as a rallying point for the demonstrators, which featured a Confederate flag flying above and the loud broadcast of songs, such as “Old Man River” and “Dixie.”
Eventually, William and Daisy Myers appealed to the Pennsylvania State Attorney General and charges were filed against members of the Levittown Betterment Committee, followed by a court ordered injunction issued on October 23, 1957–the same day as Fagan’s report. Records show that the JCRC was ready to lend aid if called upon, but no such request came from Levittown’s Jewish community, which had no formal relationship with their organization. The JCRC’s board of directors issued formal resolutions of commendation to both the Levittown Citizens Committee and the Levittown Jewish Community Council on December 20, 1957. Their commendation to the Levittown Jewish Community Council read, in part:
“The Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council notes with pride and gratification the courage, dignity and integrity with which the Jewish Community of Levittown, in the main under the leadership of the Levittown Jewish Community Council, expressed its regard for human dignity and democracy when the Myers family was threatened by mob harassment and violence.”
The events that took place in Levittown, Pennsylvania, are a small chapter in the larger story of American’s struggle over civil rights, but in many ways it represents themes that would reverberate in numerous communities across the country. While not all Jews took up the fight against segregation, in many cases American Jews could be found either on the front lines or working to support the efforts of those who were.
Additional photographs of crowds protesting the Meyers’ family move to Levittown, PA, can be found in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin photograph collection.
To learn more about the Levittown communities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, see Suzanne Lashner Dadyanim’s essay on The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia’s website.
–Kenneth Cleary, Project Archivist, Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collection, SCRC
This is the first post of an occasional series highlighting the work of Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). The records of the JCRC, housed in Temple University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center, are currently being processed and will be available for research in early 2018.
One of the most notorious and controversial episodes in Philadelphia’s history occurred on May 13, 1985: the bombing of the MOVE Organization’s house in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia.
After years of tension and conflict among MOVE, city authorities, and some local residents, including a shootout with police in 1978 which left one officer dead, Philadelphia officials decided to evict members of the communal-living, back-to-nature Black Liberation group from their fortified house at 6221 Osage Avenue. (Accounts differ on who actually fired the shots that killed the police officer.)
On the morning of May 13, 1985, a violent confrontation erupted, with tear gas and thousands of rounds of bullets exchanged–resulting in a daylong standoff. To break the stalemate, Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor ordered the Police Bomb Unit to drop two satchel bombs from a helicopter onto a wooden bunker that had been constructed on top of the house. A tremendous fire broke out. Witnesses say that when MOVE members ran out of the burning building, police continued to shoot at them. The Fire Department, ordered by police to “let the fire burn,” delayed putting out the flames, claiming that MOVE members were still firing, but witnesses assert that the wait was deliberate.
The fire spread to adjoining houses, and two entire city blocks went up in flames, leaving 11 members of the group dead, including MOVE’s founder John Africa and five children who were in the house. Two hundred-fifty local residents were left homeless.
In the aftermath of these events, Mayor W. Wilson Goode convened the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (PSIC) to examine the incident. The head of the Commission, William Brown III, had led the Federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, and the rest of the commission’s eleven members included prominent individuals from a variety of backgrounds.
The commission conducted dozens of interviews, gathered a large amount of evidence, and held public hearings. In March 1986, it issued a scathing report which was highly critical of government actions, stating that “Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable.”
Consisting of 29 cubic feet of materials, PSIC Records provide a comprehensive account of the tragic events of that day. At the core of this collection are interviews the commission conducted, under subpoena power, with every policemen, firemen, public official, and resident involved. Supporting and related documentary evidence submitted by witnesses are also a part of these files, as well as approximately 700 photographs gathered or produce by the commission.
There are also hours of footage and transcripts from the televised hearings that ran on WHYY, as well as television news coverage of the event itself and of MOVE before and after the 1985 incident from WPVI and KYW.
There are hundreds of images in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Evening Bulletin photograph collections. The Inquirer Photographs contain over 300 images, the majority of which pertain to the 1985 conflict, the PSIC hearings, rebuilding, and the impact on the surrounding community. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Photographs have over 550 images, documenting the communal life of MOVE as well as its previous clashes with the police during the 1970s. (The Evening Bulletin closed in 1982). Many of the Evening Bulletin photographs have been digitized and can be found in our digital collections.
It is safe to say that the SCRC houses the most comprehensive collection of primary sources available on this topic. Numerous students, documentarians, historians, and community members have drawn upon the archives to try to make sense of the events of that day. In 2013, a documentary by film maker Jason Osder made extensive use of these materials in his award winning film Let the Fire Burn.
To view these or other materials in the SCRC, please contact us at SCRC@temple.edu or visit our website.
–Josué Hurtado, Coordinator of Public Services & Outreach, SCRC
Born in Philadelphia in 1924, Samuel R. Joyner is among a small number of early African-American cartoonists in the United States. His pioneering work influenced many generations of African American comics and commercial artists. While working as a paper boy for the Philadelphia Tribune, his artistic talents were first recognized by publisher E. Washington Rhodes. Following his service in the United States Navy during World War II, Joyner enrolled in the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now known as the University of the Arts) to pursue a career as a commercial artist. He graduated in 1948.
After some difficulty finding employment, Joyner succeeded in selling his work to the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Courier. However, he soon realized that he was not fully valued for his creations at these papers because he was not allowed to attach his name to his art work or draw any non-white characters. In the 1950s, Joyner secured employment as an art director for the African American magazine Color. The magazine was originally based in Charleston West, Virginia, but moved its headquarters to Philadelphia in 1954. While working there Joyner gained national attention for his social and political commentary and satire and used it to encourage other African Americans to engage in activities and dialogues toward the defeat of discrimination and injustice.
In the 1960s, Joyner operated a print and graphics shop with his wife and four children. He continued to further his education by taking classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Temple University. From 1974 until his retirement in 1990, he taught art classes and graphic communications at Rhodes Middle School, and Bok Technical High School in Philadelphia. His work was published in over 40 different publications, and he received awards and recognitions from Temple University, The National Newspapers Publishers Association, and the Houston Sun Times, among other organizations.
Located in the Special Collections Research Center, the Samuel R. Joyner Artwork Collection includes photographs, original artwork and sketches, posters, news articles, publications, and ephemera, dating from 1947 to 2005. Joyner’s art work reveals how greatly influenced he was by the sociopolitical happening in society ,and how he used his talents to challenge racism, discrimination, exploitation, and American political culture in order to give a critical “visual voice” to a range of frustrations in the African American community.