Old Philadelphians and Southern Newcomers
An Experience of the Great Migration
Backdrop of the First Great Migration
The First Great Migration, between 1916 and 1930, occurred due to a combination of environmental disaster, political oppression, and economic opportunity. Approximately one million African Americans migrated from the South to the North over the course of three decades in their pursuit of better jobs, political clout, and the right to live freely. Escaping hardship and disasters such as the boll weevil infestation and subsequent cotton crop failures, Jim Crow segregation laws and police brutality, and the lack of voting franchise rights, the Black population of the South left in droves, settling into urban, industrialized centers across the North. Philadelphia became an attractive location to settle down and begin a new life and, at the height of the migration, southeastern Pennsylvania had the second highest concentration of African Americans in the country. The Black population swelled from around 50,000 in 1900 to well over 100,000 in 1930, doubling in such a short period of time.
The southern newcomers were not alone, however. Many Black families had been established in the area for generations. People like Ralph Jones and Isadore Martin, families such as the Alexanders and Manlys, and organizations such as The Citizens' Republican Club were all indirect and direct representatives of the upperclass African American community. They spent their time at conventions and political rallies, going to college and visiting theaters and museums, and dealing with the movers and shakers of early twentieth century Philadelphia. Many "Old Philadelphians" were conscious of the change occurring around them and it struck them with great fear and hesitance. Many feared that the newcomers would ruin the respectability that northern Blacks had worked so hard to earn. Northern Blacks feared losing their position in society as the perception of newcomers' association with crime increased. Thus, as the migration continued, tension arose not only between Whites and Blacks, but between the native Philadelphians and the southern newcomers.
"They found suddenly thrown in their midst about 40,000 migrants, whose presence in such large numbers crushed and stagnated the progress of Negro life. The processes of assimilation which the colored citizens are carrying on cannot immediately bring back the pendulum which has swung to a position of depressed social, economic and moral life. Only gradually, as the weights of ignorance, lack of culture and increased racial prejudice against the whole Negro citizenry as a result of the tremendous increase in size of the Negro population, are removed, will the pendulum return to normal…Certainly none of us can deny that the migration retarded the steady march of progress of the colored people in Philadelphia." -- Sadie Tanner Mossell
Southern newcomers quickly found that the North was not the promised land of racial equality, good jobs, and better lives. Instead, they came to a world of economic poverty, where jobs were highly competitive and wages unattractively low. They found a society where not only they were still detested by Whites, but also excluded by members of their own race. Yet the North still held some promise. At least for men, there were enough jobs. School was open to all and, for the time being, Blacks could use the same public services, buildings, transportation, and stores to which Whites had access. It was far from the idealism many southern newcomers had harboured about the North; but for those willing to make the best of the situation, Philadelphia offered the chance to improve one's lot in life and succeed in ways more than one. Individuals such as Hughsey Childs managed to go to school and work his way from a steel mill worker at Midvale to a restaurant chef. Mothers such as Beulah Collins managed to secure education for their children, helping future generations of Phildelphia Blacks get on the track to better jobs and economic stability.
“Well, my first impressions were pretty bad for awhile. They always talkin’ about what the South was doin’, what the South was doin’. And I say now, what the South is doin’, it’s true. It’s no good. In Philadelphia you have resturants here you couldn’t go in and eat. There were beer gardens here out there in Strawberry Mansion. You go in there and buy a glass of beer and soon as you drink it they throw the glass in the trash. You see the people don’t realize that, but it’s true. The only difference I noticed was that they didn’t bother you. But they didn’t care for you.” -- Charles Vance
Native and "Old" Philadelphians
As migrants from the South poured into the city by the thousands, they came into contact with "Old Philadelphians" whose families had been present in the city for generations. Known for their cultural and educational achievements, many of the "Old Philadelphians" (O.P.s), looked down on the Southern newcomers as an inferior class. To the O.P.s, newcomers were loud, boisterous and hadn't adjusted to the ways of the northern city. Many feared the gains they had made in the area of race relations would be lost as more migrants came north and Jim Crow laws increased. For the first time, the color line did not just divide White and Black but existed within the Black community as well.
"But the old Philadelphia Negro, he was clannish as he could be, and they were reluctant to accept this other Negro...They just kept them in their place. Philadelphia Negroes were the worst in the country as far as that’s concerned. If your parents weren’t born here, you were just out." -- John Summers
Many differences existed between the native O.P.s and the newcomers from the South, particularly in the areas of economics, social life, and education. Some of these economic issues included housing and employment in which new migrants sought to achieve more than what they could in the South. In the South, home ownership was considered the norm and so, when migrants came north, many sought to purchase their own home. In Philadelphia, homeownership was not considered a priority. Many O.P. families chose to rent their homes rather than own.
"Yes. It’s a funny thing, but in the South, owning your own home was considered a very important thing; in Philadelphia, it wasn’t. When I was a young man, going around, visit people, I used to visit some homes of very nice people who lived in South Philadelphia. Families had been there for years, and you thought they owned the house, but they’d been renting for twenty, thirty or forty years! They would hand the lease down from father to son!" -- Isadore Martin
The social life of O.P.s also differed from that of the newcomers. Many O.P.s looked down on what Ralph Jones, in his interview, referred to as the "finger popping crowd". Some migrants took to the "sporting life" and engaged in gambling and drinking, which many O.P.s disapproved of. O.P.s tended to socialize at prominent clubs such as the Hotel Brotherhood and The Pyramid Club, giving credence to the impression that the O.P.s were an exclusive aristocracy.
"...back at that time, the demarcations within the Negro group were pretty sharp. You had this so-called O.P. level, and then there was no middle group. You went from the O.P. level down to what they considered a laborer, service work. There was a club in Philadelphia...you had to be born in Philadelphia prior to a certain date, or the son of someone, and of that particular date, or you couldn’t belong. And there was another club called the Bachelor Benedicts. And it was a swanky affair. They would give their top-level type of affairs, and Philadelphians. This was 1910 and around all like that. But that was this upper crust level." -- Milo Manly
Education was an area in which the differences between the migrants and O.P.s became even more pronounced. Many migrants had a minimal education and were thus limited to unskilled labor positions. These migrants were looked down upon by the O.P. class. Those who had been educated to a greater degree might enjoy a higher level of acceptance from the O.P. class. Many O.P.s had been able to attain high levels of education and were able to secure positions in professional fields. One prominent example was Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander who was the first African-American to receive a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. Education helped to contribute to the divide among Black Philadelphians.
"If you had a person coming up out of Hampton, or Tuskegee, or so forth, and come on up, they would be accepted. They were educated. They’d move right in to that circle, if they had money enough to carry themselves. Now a lot depended upon your standard of living. And as the time progressed, more came in. Doctors would come in, and they would move into those circles. It was economic and education. And there was, among the Negro group, you’re either up here, or down here. It isn’t like the white crowd, where you’ve got the millionaire crowd, the management gang level, and then worker. There’s not like that among the Negro group. You’re either in the upper bracket or you’re down in the scratch and scramble." -- Milo Manly
Newcomers to Philadelphia
It proved difficult for entire families to move north all at once, so most southern newcomers to Philadelphia were single men and women or newly married couples without children. Single Black southerners migrated north for a variety of reasons, but they primarily sought better wages and living conditions. For those families or newly married couples who made the journey, they too sought better wages and living standards but they also were motivated by better educational opportunities for themselves and most importantly, their children.
“And many stories that have been told to me by some of the boys that had left Durham and had come back to visit...They told me the beautiful parts. But when I came to Philadelphia, I found that much of it was not the truth. Some of the told me they had nice jobs and were doing jobs that when I came, I found they didn’t have at all. Where they told me they were bartenders, they were janitors. And that was a disappointment.”--David Amey
Fletcher and Utensie Hillian were one such couple, newly married in 1925 and childless, they moved to Philadelphia from Cheraw and Due West South Carolina, respectively, with the intentions of beginning a new life together. Within a few years, Utensie gave birth to their first and only child, Jacqueline. Both Fletcher and Utensie faced discrimination from White Philadelphians, primarily regarding employment, but they were fortunate to purchase a home where their Black neighbors accepted them into the neighborhood with little hesitation. Their ability to purchase a home, instead of renting property, most likely led to this type of acceptance.
“The Bennetts. Not the Bennetts—the Beckets. And they did not want black in here. We were among the, I think it was four black families in here when we came. They did not want blacks in this section of the city...The Remhills, the Masons—oh, quite a few just stayed until their older people passed. They didn’t move. And they were, when we first came in, they were not friendly, but after they found out that we were decent people, they became friendly.” --Utensie Hillian
"We do not regret making the move. Maybe if we had not gotten along as well, we might have regret it, but we do not regret now that we made the move. It hasn’t always been easy. We got by with a struggle, but we do not regret the struggle." --Utensie Hillian
Another southern newcomer to the city was Hughsey Childs. Born and raised in rural Greenwood, South Carolina, he came to the city initially to work in the Midvale Steel Plant. Eventually he returned to Philadelphia and started a family, supporting the household through various culinary positions until finding a permanent position as a restaurant chef. His main reason for going north was to be with his sister and her family, but Childs was quick to jump on the opportunity to escape the degradation, crime, and poverty of the South.
“Well my baby sister would sit in the front seat with me and my two older sisters in the back. But I'd have to have a shotgun between my legs...driving to church to Sunday school because if I would go through those woods and some boys, White boys around 18 or 19 years old, they would just come and snatch my sisters out the surrey and rape them right before me. But if I had this gun, sometimes I would shoot it to let them know I had it before I got in these woods and they didn't bother you." -- Hughsey Childs
Childs also witnessed firsthand the discrimination faced by many southern newcomers, both from Whites and Blacks that had already called Philadelphia their home. The churches, some of the most adament supporters the northern migration, were not inclusive or entirely supportive of the new residents. Many southerners instead chose to create and build their own churches and faith networks, such as Childs' brother did, when establishing the Morris Chapel, around the time Childs migrated to the city. Another schism between the old Philadelphians and the southern newcomers was the topic of relationships, and in particular, dating and marriage. Childs himself had relatives who were against the idea of darker, southern Blacks moving into the city; the ideas of dating and marriage were altogether taboo between lighter and darker skinned people. Many a potential marriage and even family were broken up or prevented from occuring in the first place due to parents and relatives objecting to the relationship.
"...But there were some families...I will admit [who] didn’t allow their children to go with a black boy. If she would bring him home as her boyfriend, that was it. But not too often but in some cases." - Hughsey Childs
"...Now this particular family that I'm speaking about, they were like that but they weren't light. But they didn't like dark people. They were a relation to me but they didn't like dark people...I don't know why, but they just didn't like dark people." - Hughsey Childs
"Now there was a family...that a white gentleman got nine children by his maid. And he gave them [the children] his name. It was seven boys and two girls. Lovely, good lookin'. And this cousin of mine got engaged to be married to him [one of the sons]...They were pretty well to do. But when they found out that he was an illegitimate child, they wouldn't let her marry him." - Hughsey Childs
Another difference between the lives of the newcomers and the lives of Old Philadelphians that Childs experienced firsthand was economic opportunities. Unlike the native city-dwellers, the southern newcomers had to deal with the lack of proper schooling from their backgrounds and were forced into the lower socio-economic class of the city. For men like Childs, work in the factories was the best chance of making money, but the pay was low and the factory work was brutal if not deadly. For women, such as Ella Lee, a newcomer to Philadelphia from Georgia, the opportunities were even slimmer, with the best chance of finding work in the domestic sphere such as laundry and cooking.
“It was so dangerous. People were getting killed just like that. It was just dangerous. Falling in those big vats where they would cool those ballasts to a gun. They had an oil vat. They didn't cool them in water, they cooled them in oil. Sometimes you would see a blue light and...that's where a man had done slipped into one those oil things. You didn't see his body [any] more. That's just how you died." - Hughsey Childs
"I'm a domestic worker. I can't stand crowds. When I came here I had an aunt that was working in a tobacco facotry and [there would not be] any way in the world that I'm going to work in a tobacco factory. I visited her a couple of times and the smell in that tobacco factory, just no way I would work in it. I'd much rather take my laundry home...or go into the White woman's house and clean the basement and do my laundry and all that...than [deal] with all that old stink in the tobacco factory." - Ella Lee
"I saw an ad where they wanted it. I wanted to work. I wanted, because, as he said, in the winter, it was hard for him to continue to work when the weather was so cold, and we wanted to be independent. And welfare was just not in our category at that time—no, at no time. So, then I answered that ad. It was out on Broad Street and in the 6800 block. At that time, out there was, the wealthy people were living. And they wanted a governess for their five-year old child. And I accepted that. And I stayed there about three months. And when they wanted me to do certain things, cook, clean, wash, I said, “No, that’s not my job.” And I quit."--Utensie Hillian, discussing her experience with domestic work
"It was fair. It wasn't all that good. It wasn’t all that. But that's why we had to make a whole lot of over time to make something worthwhile. The pay wasn't all that well." - Hughsey Childs
Education would prove integral to changing the lives of newcomers. Hughsey Childs managed to obtain a brief education at a culinary academy in the city, securing his way for better employment opportunities at restaurants, cafes, cafeterias, and other food service businesses. Childs was one of the lucky ones as many newcomers would never get an advanced education. Instead, they came North to provide a better education for their children, as was the case with Beulah Collins. Collins moved from the eastern shore of Maryland to Philadelphia in the late 1910's, and worked as a house servant in order to pay for her son to get a proper education while living at a boarding house for students. Many new families were faced with the dilemma of how to provide for safety, food, shelter, and education for their children, unlike the native and old Philadelphians, who had more disposable income to cover expenses.
“I wanted my son to have an education more than I had. Because I don't have much of an education. That's the thing I regret today." -- Beulah Collins
"I was led to believe that my children could get somewhat a better education here than they could there and I hoped for them to have a better education than myself. I wasn’t able to go to school very much." --Ella Lee