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Africans first arrived in Philadelphia in 1684, when the ship Isabella brought 150 slaves. By 1720 around 2,500 Africans had been brought to Pennsylvania as slaves.

The growing abolitionist movement of the next few decades led to a 1780 law that began to dismantle slavery. The 1790 census confirmed that Philadelphia's free black community, numbering 2000, was the largest in the United States. By 1820 slavery had disappeared from Philadelphia, and African Americans flooded into the city. Among the city's 100,622 inhabitants, 12,110 were free blacks.

In the antebellum period, however, African Americans were excluded from the developing industrial economy and grew increasingly poor. As competition for work grew, so did white hostility. Mobs invaded African American homes during numerous race riots in the 1840s. Prohibited from voting by 1838, blacks regained suffrage in 1871, which precipitated more riots and led to the murder of black leader Octavius Catto.

The Banjo Lesson by TannerThe black community continued to develop. In 1830 it hosted the first National Negro Convention. By the end of the nineteenth century, it had founded schools, orphanages, welfare societies, nursing homes, and the renowned Lincoln University in Oxford. The Philadelphia Tribune - the oldest black newspaper still publishing - was founded in 1884 and counted Gertrude Bustill Mosell among its contributors. The Thankful Poor by TannerWith the development of wealth came a religious, business, and cultural elite that included Henry Ossawa Tanner, a leading American painter of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Octavius Catto and Gilbert "Gil" Ball founded the Equal Rights League in 1864. Novelist Frances E. W. Harper and "Fanny" Jackson Coppin were celebrated orators on behalf of black civil rights. In 1871 Coppin succeeded Catto as principal of the Institute for Colored Youth (later Cheyney State College, now University). After the turn of the century, Arthur Huff Fauset fought to improve housing for black Philadelphians, while his sister Jessie Redmon Fauset wrote critically acclaimed novels and became literary editor of The Crisis in the 1920s.

Nonetheless, blacks fled the South for Philadelphia. By 1900, the black community in Philadelphia - numbering 62,613 - was the largest in the North. That increased size initiated segregation of the black population in North and West Philadelphia and the creation of segregated bars, restaurants, and hotels. A race riot in 1918 followed labor conflicts and increased demands from African Americans for equality. Turning inward, the black community further developed its own business and professional class.

In 1938, Democrat Crystal Bird Fauset became the first black woman in the U.S. to be elected to a state assembly.

The labor demand created by World War II precipitated a second, massive migration to Philadelphia, increasing the African American community to 379,000 - 18 percent of the city's population - by 1950.

Prominent entertainers and musicians, including Bill Cosby and John Coltrane, emerged from the postwar generation in Philadelphia, but overall conditions in the black community were bleak, given employment discrimination and housing segregation. In the 1960s, activism grew, the Black Panthers mobilized chapters, and race riots followed. The first black mayor of Philadelphia, W. Wilson Goode, was elected in 1983, then reelected in 1987.

Contributed By: Jim Mendelsohn


Community members included Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, who together pioneered the independent black church movement in the U.S. In a little over a quarter of a century, Philadelphia became home to a number of historic black churches. The African Church, founded in about 1787, became the First African Church of St. Thomas in 1794, with Jones as its pastor. Two years later, Allen became pastor of the Bethel Methodist Church. The First African Baptist Church was founded in 1809, followed in 1811 by the First African Presbyterian Church. In 1816 Allen and others organized the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first African American denomination. Over the next 280 years the black churches of Philadelphia became powerful and important institutions, sustaining everyone from a distinctive and large black elite to the Black Panthers.

A countercultural organization founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, their activities led to two controversial clashes with police in 1978 and 1985 resulting in the imprisonment or death of over two dozen members.

MOVE was founded in 1972 by Vincent Leaphart, an African American handyman. Leaphart believed that various problems plaguing American society such as crime, substance abuse, and violence grew out of humanity's growing alienation from the natural world through technology and various social institutions.

MOVE's early activities included protests against city and school board policies, police brutality, pollution, and other environmental abuses. MOVE's neighbors on North 33rd Street had their own complaints: rats, rotting garbage, fecal odor, unclothed children, the 50 to 60 stray animals adopted by the "family," and increasingly violent arguments with group members. The complaints finally led to a court-ordered inspection that Rizzo hesitated to enforce.

After a politically embarrassing ten-month delay, Rizzo had a four-block area surrounding the MOVE house blockaded by police, cutting off all food, water, and supplies to the house. Three months later, on August 8, 1978, Rizzo sanctioned a police raid, during which five police officers and firefighters were wounded, and one police officer was killed. One MOVE member, Delbert Africa, was beaten by police while he was trying to escape.

In 1980, after a controversial trial in which compelling evidence suggested that "friendly fire" may have been the cause of the officer's death, nine MOVE members were convicted of manslaughter charges stemming from the confrontation, and were sentenced to terms of 30 to 100 years. The three police officers charged with beating Delbert Africa were acquitted in 1981 by a judge, before the case could go to a jury trial.

Goode, Philadelphia's first black mayor, avoided any direct action against the group, and even delayed the arrests of several MOVE members for outstanding warrants. Goode was eventually forced into action because of political pressure from the community and the media. He authorized a hastily planned raid of the MOVE house on May 13, 1985.

The police attempted to break into 6221 Osage Avenue from neighboring houses, but failed. Then they dropped a bomb on the house from a helicopter, presumably in an effort to make an opening in the roof for tear gas. A fire started, but police intentionally allowed it to burn, hoping to disable the rooftop bunkers. In the end, the fire had consumed 61 homes and killed 11 MOVE members, including John Africa and five children. Only two of the members in the house escaped the blaze: Ramona Africa, who was eventually imprisoned for seven years on conspiracy and riot charges, and Birdie Africa, a 13-year-old boy.

Two grand jury investigations found that the decision to drop the bomb had been "unconscionable," and they exposed a police cover-up concerning the use of "C-4," a military-grade explosive, in the bomb. But no criminal charges were ever filed against Goode, the other city officials, or any of the police officers involved.

Wrongful death lawsuits by relatives and surviving MOVE members against the city have already led to nearly $5 million in damages, with more suits pending. There are at least three dozen active MOVE members either still in prison or living in the Philadelphia area.

Contributed By: Marc Mazique



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