Oral History and Community in the Inner City: Blacks in Philadelphia Since World War II

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

This brief commentary is framed as reflections on a project that is just getting underway rather than one in its final stages. It is based on my previous experience in black history and the first returns of what I hope will be an in-depth oral history project among black workers and community residents in Philadelphia. This project is being conducted in a series of predominantly black neighborhoods and employment sites in West Phila­delphia.

All work in oral history has explicit and implicit ob­jectives that the researcher hopes to reach. Yet in working with black Americans of low-income levels peculiar prob­lems are present in both conceptualizing and executing the project. These problems, arise not from the so-called “ghetto lifestyles,” “lack of written records,” or “dis­organization” of the black community. Rather they orig­inate instead from the inadequacies in historical methods, and the historian’s own inability to minimize socio-economic and racial biases.

The historian’s overbearing methodology and perspec­tives prevent the accurate representation of the memories of the urban poor blacks and cause both “definitional” and “interpretive” problems. Definitional problems appear during the early phase of the project when the historian seeks a research subject and a group of people to be inter­viewed. Interpretive problems surface later in the project during the interview and after the interviews have been collected.


“Philadelphia is a city of homeowners” goes a popular saying. Yet the city is known to be among the nation’s most racially polarized, as well as for having some of the worst social conditions for many black citizens. Because many whites go to the parochial and private schools, the public schools are over 60 per cent black although blacks comprise about one-third of the city’s population. More­over, a prominent black journalist recently wrote “there is also no adequate plan in existence for any countermove in the direction of more integration.” Black homeownership has risen in the past fifteen years, yet the situation is dif­ferent for the high proportion of blacks on public assistance or unemployed. The journalist found “among the poorer blacks, the only housing available is the oldest, most de­lapidated structures, which lean rather than stand.”*

Indeed, the problem confronting many among the recent generations of the city’s black residents was: how does one outlive surrounding hostility or decadence, as well as maintain strong feelings of hope and advancement? In this situation how does the oral historian devise an adequate definitional framework?

It has been common for some historians to use their scholastic instincts by adopting concepts from other disciplines such as anthropology, sociology and so forth. Yet, in looking at the historical persistence and overall depth of the problems in urban black life, these are of questionable value. If the social scientific concepts of neighborhood and community have been so “scientific,” one could easily ask, then why was life for blacks a continuous struggle for many periods of the 20th century in Philadelphia? Were these concepts really usable or of any interest to the people and popular institutions of the city’s communities? These questions cannot be addressed unless one is willing to examine the wider subject of the origins of meanings of “community.”

Whether one wants to admit it or not, the content of conventional ideas or perspectives on community cohere around certain assumed and pre-emptive ideas. I will delineate these ideas under three main categories: manager­ial, theoretical and specious historical. As an alternative, I want to introduce the “subject-oriented historical” con­cept. This last concept seems the most effective for developing the modern history of black working class commun­ity members.

Managerial or bureaucratic approaches to community are those used in the area of political, large-scale business and public welfare institution activity. In political opera­tions such terms as districts, zones and wards are key. As for social and mental health agencies, the functional con­cepts are, for example, client population, catchment areas and also districts. For big business the concern is for “market” areas. The temporal focus of this approach is present, and to a lesser extent, future. Political measures and social services are rendered daily while monitoring and planning is carried out to revise programs for efficiency and compliance with operating budgets.

A theoretical or spatial approach to the concept of community is the abstract side of a bureaucratic approach. It emanates from higher education and research institutes. The forms these theories take are subjects such as urbanology, sociology, economics and ecology. Within the general scope of these subjects is an emphasis on what their theorists call a “spatial” community interpretation. This “spatial” idea is actually removed from the concrete life of the community and obscures real problems and conflicts within these neighborhoods. They are often utilized to reinforce practical bureaucratic management by means of “urban planning” (i.e., urbanology + public administration) or “cost effective” programs (i.e., theoretical economics + fiscal administration). To most ordinary people these academic disciplines are merely “intellectualizing.” Given its abstractness the temporal emphasis of this field in inter­preting community is scattered and often a historical. People are viewed as quantities, consumers or units (i.e., objects). and society as structures within certain spatial bounds. Communities are considered as small sociological parts of the larger spatial terrain.

Specious historical approaches to community are similar to spatial approaches in that they originate from intellectuals of academic centers. Such mainstream social or urban history, however, is primarily concerned with case histories in city formation and city growth or decline in a given historical period. The source materials that are employed in this urban history are usually the deactivated (i.e., no longer used) records of public and social service institutions – i.e., institutions of the managerial sphere. With this historical approach there is an implicit subservience to or reinforcement of the managerial community approach. This is the case when the historical approach aims at describing the operation of these practical agencies, first, solely on the basis of the reports and documents produced by these agencies; and, second, by reusing the census bureau categories. Herein lies the weakness of the “historical approach.” It has accepted those social problems, locales, or clients that have been defined significant by certain political administrative or business interest groupings. Foremost, it regurgitates the managerial concept of community inherent in these materials.

“Subject-oriented history” also aims at reconstructing the historical forms and changes in community life. However, unlike the historical approach which relies on printed, organizational materials as the only primary sources, this approach seeks the nature of community as the people of a given locale experienced it. Through the mechanism of oral history, the residents of a community may record their lived experiences within a community to the most minute detail. In the other, preceding three approaches to community, the individual is not emphasized. In the subject-oriented history, on the other hand, the individual is key.

Because blacks of low-income levels have often been considered the cause of the “crisis” or “decline” in urban America, they have been on the receiving end of the first three approaches to community in recent times. That is, they are the “clients” served by the bureaucratic (mana­gerial) apparatus, or the subjects of study in spatial and historical community research. The conditions of being in the lower-class usually entails a lack of both general and specialized formal education, little means for input into urban policy-making forums, and token input into those intellectual centers which are the seat of spatial and historical community studies. Thus, only when the subject-oriented approach is employed is genuine and constructive insight possible into the experiences of low-income black community members.


It would be inaccurate and romantic to contend that blacks who populated Philadelphia from World War I through the Vietnam War years exercised power in shaping their communities. The Southern-born blacks who came to Philadelphia during the high periods of migration such as during the World War I, the 1920’s and World War II periods sought jobs and housing. Yet they were usually forced out of stable involvement in these areas by economic manipulation. The European immigrants were almost as poor but often racially hostile, albeit misled. In addition, most overriding was the negative reception of black mi­grants by the more middle and upper class sectors of the city.

For instance, a great number of blacks migrated to Philadelphia in the early 1920’s. The living conditions for these newcomers were unspeakably bad. Landlords subdivided single and two family units and crammed tenants into these structures regardless of the destructive health effects on these occupants. In 1922 a study done in cooperation with the Armstrong Association (Phila­delphia’s branch of the Urban League) found case after case of severe overcrowding throughout the city areas where black adult migrants and their families had settled:

One four-room house was found occupied by four new families, one family consisting of a man, his wife and six children. Another six-room house was found with five families, and within two weeks the house next door, which had been occupied by one family, had increased to three-family occupancy. Above a small West Philadelphia garage a migrant rented a single room for herself, an adopted son, three married children, and their children, making a total of 16 persons.

Black Southern migrants to Philadelphia during the World War II years found themselves in similar tracts of slum housing. As one municipal study done in 1947 revealed, “for the city as a whole, 17 percent of the occupied units are substandard; for the whites, 14.4 percent; and for the Negroes, 40.3 percent.”**

The two interviews that we will focus on here are good examples of the ways in which working class blacks in Philadelphia experienced their community life. This ex­perience is not detected by any of the three approaches to community other than the subject-oriented historical ap­proach. Those interviewed were chosen on the basis of in­formal canvassing of young adult neighborhood residents. They were asked to recommend older people on their blocks who were respected, considered informed, and would not mind giving a taped interview on their lives. Interview schedules covered four main areas: migration, family, work life and neighborhood life. For some time this writer had resided in the same neighborhood as that of the people interviewed. Therefore, we knew common residents, relatives and neighborhood features, and the interviews usually moved smoothly.

The first interview is with Mrs. E. G., now seventy years old and residing in the Mantua section of lower West Phila­delphia. This section is considered an all-black, low income area. Mrs. G. came to Philadelphia from Beaufort, S.C. during W.W. II when she was in her thirties. Her mother, sister and one of Mrs. G.’s sons were already in the city when she arrived. Mrs. G. moved North with her ten other children, one leaving home to enter the armed services when she arrived in Philadelphia. When Mrs. G. first came to the city she lived in North Philadelphia where she stayed for about 20 years. In her early years there she received assistance from public welfare and was separated from her husband.

When asked if she stayed in the same house during the time she lived in North Philadelphia, she replied:

… You know I’m a person that don’t like to move around too much. Move, you know, ‘like to be stationary. One apartment I got in I stayed there long. I guess I stayed there with that man (pause) about eight or nine years with ah [Mr. X.], he was the rent man on Eighth Street.

In the early 1950’s, Mrs. G. began working in a factory which manufactured rubber hoses and was also located in North Philadelphia. This became her permanent employ­ment for the following twenty years until her retirement 3 or 4 years ago. During her last years in North Philadel­phia, Mrs. G. lived in various rented houses within a block or two radius of the “Mr. X.” house. It is interesting that her moves were based on the maturation of her sons, and that her older sons remained in the homes she vacated:

Mc.: Why did you move, because you said usual­ly you don’t like to move?

Mrs. G.: Well, as the boys got larger I needed a larger place. You know, they young men they wasn’t leaving no time soon. So there was no need for me to keep them all squabbled up together like that.

Many middle-class Americans moved out to the suburbs for better homes, higher status, racial homogeneity and so forth. By contrast, Mrs. G., fixed with a low wage job, managed to save enough money to move from North to West Philadelphia. Her reasons for moving were threats to the physical security of herself and family. She felt that a crosstown move was necessary even though it meant the expense and inconvenience of taking a bus everyday back to North Philadelphia to get to work. When asked how she compared her current neighborhood with North Philadel­phia, she responded:

Oh, well I compare this neighborhood better than the one in North Philadelphia ’cause that was pretty rough [referring to youth gangs and pol ice activity). Oh yea, that was pretty rough and I had those boys and I had to be the man at night and the woman in the day. You know, with the boys.

Although Mrs. G. had fear of the situation in her North Philadelphia neighborhood, it never turned into the paran­oia or quiet hysteria characteristic of those who “take flight to the suburbs.” When asked if she was scared that her children would eventually get hurt or in trouble, Mrs. G. replied:

Well, yea in a way I was but I would sit down and teach and tell them this, that and the other. To show him this one and that. My boys turned out pretty fine, now none of them have ever been in jail and they finished school. I did it by myself …. I want my boys to do better than I did.

Mrs. G. discussed her relationship with her husband (not to be detailed here). and stressed the burden their separation placed on her during her North Philadelphia residence.

Still reflecting on her family’s life while they lived in North Philadelphia during the 1950’s and early 1960’s, Mrs. G. said the chances of her boys getting into trouble in the neighborhood were increasing. This occurred as more of her sons reached their teenage years. Mrs. G. recalled that she had to put greater physical and emotional restraints on her sons. At the same time Mrs. G. was compelled to place restrictions on the quality and quantity of her contacts with other adults in the neighborhood: ” … there was always tough, rough gangs. But nobody bothered me be­cause I didn’t visit much you know. I didn’t have too many friends. 1 had friends and 1 didn’t have friends. Hello and goodbye.”

The subtlety of her social behavior while under the stress of potentially harmful neighborhood conditions was re­current throughout her conversation. Discussing the ways that she stayed out of neighborhood friction, Mrs. G. illus­trated a typical encounter:

No, I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to get all involved. So when they see me on the street going “Oh hello Miss G. how,” [my response] oh just fine, oh “Why don’t you come and see me ” I’d be so busy trying to wash and keep those boys clean when they go to school.

Her life during these years became centered on child care:

I was always busy. Always. I ain’t have no time for fun. I never did get, like how the young women get out and have a good time and you know just have a good time forget about they children, or they let the children go to bed and they get out and pramble [go to parties] all night. I never did that. Anytime of night them boys could call me.

During these years when Mrs. G. was living in the poorer sections of North Philadelphia, it was important for her to retain a strong philosophy of faith. This was apparent when she was on the subject of neighborhood help agencies. When asked if there were any social, recreational or police related agencies that helped with the juvenile problems, Mrs. G. responded: “No, there wasn’t too much of that. You had to just pray on your children yourself.” As to police harassment, “No honey I ain’t never had that kind of stuff.” All in all, she considered herself “blessed … to say well I’m just got it alone with [the] boys you know.”

After Mrs. G. worked in the factory for several years, in about 1963 she was able to move out of the North section of Philadelphia to the West section. There she lived with her family near 46th Street in the upper floors of a rented four-story house. Again family exigencies, as well as questions of her physical endurance necessitated another move in the late 1960’s. This move was to lower West Philadelphia and her current residence. Her reasons for wanting to move from upper to lower West Philadelphia were recalled as follows:

Well the crowd had slimmed down of the children … and I didn’t need a house …. Then ah by working everyday it was tiresome and it was killing me by the week. Going upstairs, have to come back down and all that stuff.

As had been the case with her previous relocations, her family needs were decisive in moving to another apartment:

So one of my sons was staying right here while I was in North, ah while I was on 46th Street and ah the apartments above me [she points to ceiling] was empty. And ah he kept on begging and pleading for me to come stay and live where he could sort of watch over me like, you know. Somehow if somebody rapped at the door, he could get to the door first in his apartment and want to know who’s who? You know, and so ah, I stayed that way here for a number of years.

Now under the self-protection of one of her older sons, Mrs. G. went on to describe her daily schedule. It was important for her to get in from work early enough to rest, do her housework and also avoid the bad elements in the community which tended to gather at dusk. She stated that people in her neighborhood liked to “mingle, which is why I didn’t mingle.” Although she had to dodge certain types of neighborhood groups, she still had a small, selected num­ber of friends. On an adjacent block, Mrs. G. pointed out from her window, there were rows of homes of cordial families. One woman in particular lived in an apartment on the corner across the street. They would eat meals and socialize at one anothers’ homes on regular occasions. Most of Mrs. G.’s day, however, revolved around her home where she looked after her sons. After retirement and her sons had moved out of the apartment, she moved two granddaughters in with her whom she is currently raising.

Mrs. G.’s life in three poorer black neighborhoods of the city is illustrative of the centricity of family life in her community life and participation. Mr. O. P. offers another most interesting example of a working class black’s experiences as a migrant to Philadelphia from the South. He too faced a neighborhood in which he had no general control. Yet the oral history sessions with him revealed his keen conscious­ness of the changes made in his neighborhood by outside forces.

Mr. P. is a handyman and building superintendent. He was born in 1910 in Norfolk, Virginia, moving to Philadel­phia from that city in 1960. He never received any formal education having had to work all his life. He has lived in the same first floor/basement apartment in West Philadel­phia for the past eighteen years. The neighborhood in the early 1960’s was entirely different from its condition by the late 1960’s:

When I first moved [to 35th St.] there was from 32nd Street all the way to 38 Street, there were … beergardens, stores, grocery stores, houses, people living all along there. They tore all them houses down.

There was, also according to Mr. P. a mix of working people living in the neighborhood at that time – Italians, Jews and blacks, as well as a variety of churches.

Asked the reason for the vacating and tearing down of large numbers of houses in the West Philadelphia area, Mr. P. responded:

I was going to get there in a little while. Anyway [name of wealthy Philadelphia family] was in some of it, and ah, it was ah (pause) what you call it ve, ve, I can’t pronounce it (with help) redevelopment.

Mr. P. gave detailed descriptions of how all characteristics of the neighborhood were drastically altered after the 1968 demolition and “rebuilding ” program. Movie houses, drug­stores, a small post-office and a small government office all were features of the neighborhood earlier in the sixties decade. The rendering of public services after the demolition, for instance, greatly changed:

Mc.: Were the police any different before they tore down and the neighborhood changed?

Mr. P.: Police were more stricker then cause the people would understand them and ah wouldn’t turn against them, but now the police not so good now with the gangs. See one policeman would go then by himself and handled all, handled people a whole lot better. Then they had police out on the street every night walking. One police walk all night .. . then another one come on in his place.

As for places to purchase food, Mr. P. stated “you could go on Market Street (within walking distance] and get food quick then you ain’t gotta go all the way to [names a large supermarket]. There were four shopping markets and a grocery store down there. They have almost anything you want pretty reasonable then.”

The dispersal of the population was also fresh in Mr. P.’s mind. Not only did the working class white ethnic groups move out of the area, but black homeowners also had to relocate. The latter moved to other sections of the city such as Germantown or West Oak Lane, or public housing projects. Mr. P. stated “now it students after all the older people moved out–now the students come around.”

It is not possible in this limited space to bring out all of the details of Mr. P.’s interviews. The key point to be made is that his recollection of his neighborhood undergoing drastic change is extremely rich and impressionistic. He described everything from the physical nature of the housing and layout of the neighborhood, to the racial, ethnic and class characteristics of its former residents.


The sample interviews are significant in several ways to the larger question of understanding the nature of community for blacks in the working class and urban setting. First, we find that certain urban blacks have keen mechan­isms for remaining autonomous within “controlled” com­munities, and consciousness when their neighborhood is physically altered. This autonomy, as represented by the security and protection Mrs. G. found within her family, and perceptiveness, as evidenced in Mr. P.’s memories, is apparently widespread in poor black areas of the city.

Although powerless to control the fundamental aspects of their neighborhood such as certain municipal services, large-scale real estate business and public utilities, many poor blacks of Philadelphia sustain themselves through “interior neighborhoods.” These neighborhoods are “in­terior” in the sense that family, selective friendship net­works, religion and shared social perspectives have been the basis for community for many blacks among the work­ing poor. Furthermore, the members of these communities utilize language that is effective and meaningful for their shared life spheres, even if unintelligible to formally “edu­cated” middle and upper class people.

Secondly, the concept of community that emerges from subject-oriented oral history can neither be detected nor, in the end, humanistically addressed by managerial, theoretical or superficial historical approaches. In fact, to the extent political, business and educational interest groups utilize only these latter three community ap­proaches, to an equal extent these groups tend to ignore or even victimize the city’s poor blacks.

Likewise, the oral historian involved in a community project must be as open-ended as possible. The most accurate definition of community evolves from the people themselves. The residents not only have experienced their community life through a historical period, but must be allowed to formulate their own definitions of such ex­periences. When the residents themselves have critically preserved their community experiences, they are at the point of refusing community definitions which do not take into account their own.


* Claude Lewis, “Some Success But Not Enough Power,” Black Enterprise, Special Issue on Blacks in Philadelphia, November, 1976, pp. 25-28.

** G. G. Brown, Law Administration and Negro-White Relations in Philadelphia: A Study in Race Relations (Phila.: Bureau of Municipal Research, 1947), p. 38.


The author wishes to acknowledge valuable suggestions on this article by Carl Oblinger, Director of Oral History Projects at the PHMC and Ron Grele of the New Jersey Historical Commission.


David McBride is an Associate Historian with the Pennsyl­vania Historical and Museum Commission.