This month’s pop-up exhibit in the SCRC Reading Room recognizes Black History Month by highlighting the Papers of Eva Gholson, the first Black women to train at the Merce Cunningham studio in the 1960’s. The Eva Gholson Papers provide a glimpse into Gholson’s career as a professor of dance studies at Temple University, her years with Sybil Dance Company, and the Philadelphia dance scene for a small modern dance troupe during the mid-1970s to the early-1990s.
Gholson earned a Bachelor of Arts in dance from Bard College and an MFA in dance education at Sarah Lawrence College. Gholson also trained as a pianist, graduating from the Peabody Conservatory of Music with a focus on piano theory and violin. She was a professor of dance studies at Temple University from 1972 to 2011. Gholson was also a founding member, artistic director, and choreographer for Sybil Dance Company. Gholson’s choreography was performed not only by Sybil Dance Company but also PHILADANCO!, Philadelphia Civic Ballet, Temple University dance students, various other college dance programs dance companies around the world.
During her career in choreography Gholson created over fifty original works in the modern dance style. Her choreography has been described by various critics as flowing, natural, lyrical, earthy, spiritual, intense, passionate, and formal. As an educator, artistic director, and choreographer, Gholson was recognized for her work in dance with a 1988 award from the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum. In 2004, Gholson published Image of the Singing Air: Presence and Conscience in Dance and Music Collaboration, which combined her personal perspective with her knowledge of music and dance theory.
A selection of ephemera from performances Gholson choreographed is on display in the SCRC Reading room this month.
This month’s pop-up exhibit in the Special Collections Research Center features the work of Samuel R. Joyner, an editorial cartoonist and teacher. He is among the small number of African American cartoonists in the United States. Born in 1924, Joyner graduated from the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts (now the University of the Arts) in 1948. He attended the Teacher Certification program at Temple University and taught graphics communications/silk screening at Rhodes Middle School and Edward Bok Vocational High Schools from 1971 to 1990. Samuel R. Joyner died on March 24, 2020.
This exhibit features historical documents and original cartoons from the Joyner Artwork Collection in the Special Collections Research Center and displays both his talent and his views about popular issue such as the civil rights struggle, social commentary, and black achievement. In addition to the Philadelphia Tribune, his cartoons appeared in major periodicals such as The Houston Sun, The Milwaukee Times, and the Messenger Magazine.
Writing in a largely white-dominated space, Black science fiction authors have been creating fantastical stories since the earliest days of the genre. From space opera to alternative history to time travel to imagined utopias, their stories critique social structures, explore issues of oppression, and imagine futures and alternate realities for Black people throughout the world—and beyond. A pop-up exhibit in the Special Collection Research Center‘s reading room for the month of February 2023 highlights several Black science fiction authors using materials from theSCRC’s collections, including the Paskow Science Fiction Collection.
Martin Delany (1812-1885)
Martin Delany was an abolitionist, author, journalist, physician, Civil War soldier, and one of the most important African American political leaders of his time. Delany’s Blake; or The Huts of America: A Tale of the Mississippi Valley, the Southern United States, and Cuba, is considered to be the first work of science fiction written by an African American author. The story, an alternate history and utopian speculative fiction narrative, was published in multiple parts between 1859 and 1862. The novel as it is now known is unfinished, since the final parts were supposedly published in the May 1862 issue of the Weekly Anglo-African, and no known copies of that issue exist. Harvard University Press published a book version of the story in 2017.
The exhibit features Delaney’s Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party. In 1859, Delany led an African American exploring party to the Niger Valley, seeking a possible location for a new Black nation of African Americans.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)
Frances Harper was one of the leading Black woman poets of the 19th century, as well as an abolitionist, suffragist, speaker, and teacher. Her 1892 novel Iola Leroy was another early African American utopian speculative story.
The exhibit includes a copy of Harper’s Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects.
Samuel R. Delany (1942- )
Samuel Delany is a science fiction writer, memoirist, and literary critic. His work has won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards. Delany has taught literature and creative writing at multiple universities, including at Temple University from 2001 to 2015.
Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006)
Octavia Butler was one of the most important science fiction authors of the twentieth century. She won both the Hugo and Nebula awards multiple times, and she was the first science fiction writer to win the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant.”
The exhibit includes photographs of Octavia Butler at the Inconjunction convention, Indianapolis, Indiana, July 1988, her first published story, “Crossover,” and her novel Kindred. “Crossover” appeared in the 1971 Clarion Writers’ Workshop anthology. Clarion : An Anthology of Speculative Fiction and Criticism from the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, Robin Scott, editor.
Butler’s novel Kindred, perhaps her best-known story, is a time travel narrative in which the heroine, a Black woman named Dana, and her husband, a white man, travel back and forth through time to and from a Maryland plantation.
SCRC’s first edition copy of Kindred (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1979) is inscribed by Butler “To Bea + Aubrey, Thanks for the complements, Octavia E. Butler,” and includes a program from “A tribute to Octavia E. Butler” held June 5, 2006, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, as well as an advertisement for the tribute and a newspaper clipping of the New York Times obituary for Butler, dated March 1, 2006.
Rasheedah Phillips is a Philadelphia activist, artist, author, and housing attorney at Community Legal Services. She founded the Afrofuturist Affair, a science fiction and Afrofuturism community; is co-founder with Camae Ayewa of the Black Quantum Futurism (BQF) artistic collective; and is a founding member of the queer science fiction collective Metropolarity. She is a graduate of Temple University (2005) and Temple University’s Beasley School of Law (2008).
This exhibit includes a copy of Style of Attack Report (Philadelphia: Metropolarity, 2016) and The Telescoping Effect: Part 1 (Philadelphia, Pa.: AfroFuturist Affair, 2017).
–Katy Rawdon, Coordinator of Technical Services, SCRC
Philadelphia’s African-American population grew during World War II and in the decades that followed. Exacerbated by racial segregation, this population growth led to a severe housing shortage among the city’s Black population. In response, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Philadelphia Branch, and the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations led efforts to combat racial discrimination and segregation in housing. Records documenting these efforts are on display in the latest Special Collections Research Center pop-up exhibit in the reading room.
Fair housing efforts of this period at first focused mostly on appeals to principles of justice and fairness in order to reduce barriers to housing for African Americans. In the 1950s and 60s, Philadelphia became an epicenter for fair housing activism. Notably, in 1951 voters approved a Home Rule Charter, which banned discrimination in public employment, public accommodations, and housing. The new charter also created the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (CHR), whose mandate was to enforce the charter’s prohibitions on racial segregation. Under Mayor Joseph Clark, the first Democrat to serve as mayor (1952- 1956) since the nineteenth century, the city instituted reforms on a wide variety of issues, including reforms aimed at fighting racial housing discrimination.
The CHR provided education about housing integration through publications, films, and neighborhood programs, a few of which are on display. Despite these efforts, racial discrimination, tension, and white flight continued. In response, the commission shifted its focus to crafting and supporting fair housing legislation more broadly at the local and state level.
The NAACP, Philadelphia Branch, under the leadership of Charles A. Shorter, also made important strides in extending civil rights during this period. Shorter led successful efforts to force department stores to hire black clerks, end segregated seating in Philadelphia theaters, and integrate the Philadelphia Real Estate Board and the Pennsylvania Parole Board, among other accomplishments in this era. In 1953, the Philadelphia Branch was awarded the Thalheimer Award, the NAACP’s top award given to branches for outstanding achievements.
Included in this pop-up exhibit are a selection of items from the NAACP, Philadelphia Branch Records, the Urban Archives Pamphlet Collection, and clippings and photographs form the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Photograph Collection documenting efforts by CHR and the NAACP Philadelphia Branch to combat housing segregation and white flight during the economic and demographic changes of the post-war years in Philadelphia.
–Josue’ Hurtado, Coordinator of Public Services, SCRC
The George W. South Memorial Church of the Advocate was built between 1887 and 1897, honoring a Philadelphia merchant and civic leader. Noted church architect Charles M. Burns (1838-1922) designed the impressive structure in the Gothic Revival style, adorned with intricate stone carvings, flying buttresses, and striking stained glass windows. The church compound located at 18th and Diamond Streets in North Philadelphia included a chapel, parish house, clergy residence and baptistery.
From its founding, the church leaders believed that religion should be “free for all time” and eliminated the widespread practice during that period of renting pews. This action made it possible for parishioners to attend services regardless of financial or social status. The church also provided missionary services to a growing middle and working-class immigrant community that lived and worked in the surrounding neighborhood. During the 1950s, the evolving social and economic factors in Philadelphia would eventually lead to a change in the church’s social mandate to address the needs of a previously white but now predominantly African American community in North Philadelphia.
Paul M. Washington served as rector for the Church of the Advocate from 1962 until his retirement in 1989. Under his leadership, the church played a significant role in the civil rights movement in Philadelphia. The church hosted major events including the Third National Conference on Black Power in 1968, the Black Panther Party Convention in 1970, and the rally to raise money for the Angela Davis Defense Fund in 1971. The church also offered a variety of social services and outreach programs to the surrounding neighborhood including The Advocate Café (soup kitchen) established in 1983 to provide meals and coordinate the distribution of gently used clothing to those in need.
In support of women’s rights, the Church of the Advocate hosted the ordination of the first eleven women deacons into the Episcopal Church priesthood on July 29, 1974. Episcopalian leadership mounted a challenge to the legitimacy of the ordination which ultimately failed under worldwide public scrutiny and mounting pressure from women’s advocacy groups. The ordination of women priests was approved at the denomination’s General Convention in 1976. Barbara Harris who served as a senior warden at the Church of the Advocate during that historic service would eventually become the first woman consecrated as a bishop in the Anglican Communion in 1989
Between 1973 and 1976, Reverend Washington commissioned local Black artists Walter Edmonds and Richard Watson to paint fourteen murals installed in the main sanctuary. These murals depict scenes from slavery to the civil rights movement and offered a connection between biblical themes and the Black experience in Africa and America.
The church building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and designated a National Historic Landmark on June 19, 1996.
Church of the Advocate remains a showpiece of architectural design with a legacy of social activism amid the ever-changing landscape of North Philadelphia communities.
–Brenda Galloway-Wright, Associate Archivist, Special Collections Research Center
Photographs from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Photograph Collection, SCRC, digital.library.temple.edu
Progress Plaza is the oldest shopping center owned and controlled by African-Americans in the United States. The two-million-dollar development located in the 1500 Block of North Broad Street opened in 1968, and was a dream realized by civil rights leader Reverend Leon Howard Sullivan and members of the Zion Baptist Church in North Philadelphia. Throughout its more than 50-year history Progress Plaza remains a shining example of the power of self-help through community investment, job training, and entrepreneurship.
Reverend Leon Howard Sullivan became pastor of Zion Baptist Church located at Broad and Venango Streets in 1950. From his pulpit Sullivan organized social and economic initiatives designed to uplift the lives of African-Americans and other disadvantaged groups, including the “selective patronage” campaign which boycotted Philadelphia area businesses that followed discriminatory hiring practices; the creation of the job training program Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC); and the 10-36 Investment Plan.
Rev. Sullivan believed that both social and economic activism must exist to address inequality in America. On Sunday, June 15, 1962, he introduced his “10-36 Plan” to his church parishioners. He asked his members to invest 10 dollars per month for 36 months. The Plan generated much support, receiving 200 membership donations in one day. The Plan would eventually grow to include more than 3,000 shareholders. The 10-36 Plan established two organizations, Zion Non-Profit Charitable Trust (ZNPCT) and Zion Investment Associates (ZIA), which became Progress Investment Associates (PIA) in 1977. With $400,000 dollars in investor’s money and a negotiated deal with the Philadelphia Council for Community Development (PCCD) and the Redevelopment Authority to secure land on Broad Street, PIA received a loan from First Pennsylvania Bank to start construction of Progress Plaza.
The dedication ceremony for Progress Plaza took place on October 27, 1968, and nearly 10,000 people attended the historic event. The Plaza officially opened on November 19, 1968, and leased space to nine African-American small businesses and six white owned establishments, including an A&P Supermarket. The large-scale project created numerous construction jobs for graduates from the OIC Training Program and, under a negotiated contract, the chain store tenants at the Plaza agreed to offer managerial opportunities to African American applicants. The ZNPCT also secured funding from the U. S. Department of Commerce, the U. S. Department of Labor, and the Ford Foundation to establish at Progress Plaza the Entrepreneurial Development Training Center to instruct 200 African Americans annually on how to start and manage new businesses.
The Plaza attracted many national figures. In 1968, Presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon toured the facility as part of his campaign to encourage “Black Capitalism.” President Barrack Obama held a campaign rally there in 2008, and Michelle Obama visited Fresh Grocer at Progress Plaza to promote her “Let’s Move” campaign in 2010.
Progress Plaza struggled to survive amid the urban unrest and mass exodus of businesses and population from blighted areas of Philadelphia to the suburbs. After the SuperFresh Market at the Plaza closed in 1999, it would be 10 years before PIA brought in Fresh Grocer to anchor a 22-million-dollar renovation and expansion of the Plaza. The Plaza was later renamed Sullivan Progress Plaza in honor of Sullivan who died in 2001.
In September 2016, the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission (PHMC) erected a historical marker on Broad Street to acknowledge Progress Plaza and its founder Reverend Leon Howard Sullivan’s contribution to this nation’s history.
Progress Plaza celebrated its 50th anniversary on October 27, 2018. It remains a symbol of economic resilience and pride in the surrounding North Philadelphia community.
To learn more about Reverend Sullivan and his work worldwide, view the following finding aids found in the Special Collections Research Center. https://library.temple.edu/finding_aids/opportunities-industrialization-centers-of-america https://library.temple.edu/finding_aids/opportunities-industrialization-centers-international https://library.temple.edu/finding_aids/international-council-for-equality-of-opportunity-principles
– Brenda Galloway-Wright, Associate Archivist, SCRC
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