Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, little did black residents in Philadelphia’s Thirtieth Ward suspect their neigh­borhood would change dramatically and commence a steady regression toward an economically depressed area.



The ward’s grandest and most exciting days were achieved during the Second World War. The war placed money into the hands of unemployed black laborers and young people who had never before known gainful employment. Steady work allowed blacks to enjoy a higher standard of living and regain self-respect long forgotten during the welfare days of the depression years. Given the newly found joys of self-sufficiency, no degree of governmental regimenta­tion – rationing, civil defense and the draft – could under­mine the enthusiasm and awakened spirit of ward residents.

Residents gladly participated in a number of war re­lated agencies, the Red Cross and U.S.O. being the most prominent. The Southwest-Belmont YWCA at 1605 Cath­erine Street which had long been the center of black social life in the ward now became more active than ever. In June 1943 the “Y” boasted that sixty-nine organizations and 25,446 people had used the facility the previous year, holding 1,169 meetings on the premises. Community organizations consumed all available space at the “Y” and even crowded out YWCA groups. And despite the limited use YWCA members had of “Y” facilities, the Southwest­-Belmont membership increased from 1,113 to 2,215 in paid memberships between 1942 and 1943, a growth of over 99 percent. High school clubs enjoyed the gay atmos­phere of “Y” lounges and dance floors, young women visited service men at Fort Dix and Valley Forge and entertained them at “Y” sponsored U.S.O. canteens and service men’s programs, and itinerant women literally burst the Elizabeth Fry Residence House at the seams. The residence director of the Fry House even converted the living room into a dormitory to accommodate visitors during the summer months. By September 1945, South­west-Belmont had done such an outstanding job that 3,766 people had taken out memberships to the associa­tion.

Ironically, the successes of the Southwest-Belmont YWCA and other black community organizations during the war years planted the seeds that would lead to a de­cline in community organizations and contribute to the neighborhood’s eventual decay. Responsible blacks in the ward who had given neighborhood institutions their un­divided attention became lured away by better paying jobs. The more successful and competent a black leader was in running community organizations, the more aggres­sive government and private agencies became in seeking their services for themselves. This pattern began in 1941 when Crystal Bird Fauset, one of the leading black women in the city, moved to Washington, D. C. to work in the Office of Civilian Defense. The following year Southwest­Belmont Executive Secretary Mamie E. Davis resigned her position to engage in defense work. Others who terminated their affiliation with the “Y” included Business and Pro­fessional Secretary Ruth Conyers; Rebecca Abele, the “Y’s” Camp Director; Mrs. J. Otis Carrington of the Com­mittee of Management; and Mamie M. Thomas who headed the Public Affairs division. The flight of gifted blacks from the ward to pursue work elsewhere seemed natural. In 1942 alone the YWCA professional staff had been offered jobs from public and private schools, the American Red Cross (for both national and foreign work), National Family Welfare Agencies, Community and Settlement Houses, the Urban League and, of course, other YWCA branches. In each instance the salary offered exceeded that paid by Southwest-Belmont from a few hundred to fifteen hundred dollars. This trend hardly abated at the war’s end as prom­inent blacks continued to curtail or terminate their activities at the YWCA citing “employment and [the] pressure of other community activities.” Irma Troy Hart, chairman of the Committee of Management, lamented the extreme “leveling off of interest that has made difficult the recruit­ing of volunteers” who could sustain community interest in “Y” activities.

Another contributing factor to this decline was the spectre of unemployment. Usually those hardest hit by the post-war recession and the resulting lay-offs were industrial workers engaged in war related industries. As early as October 1945, observant blacks in the Thirtieth Ward knew of and felt the impact of the termination of defense jobs and recognized the need to develop new skills. In addition, veterans returning to the ward found themselves unable to secure desirable jobs and spent their idle hours using YWCA and YMCA facilities, or idly walking the streets in search of ways to facilitate readjustment to a peace-time society. Even those with job seniority or with college degrees ex­perienced unemployment. One destitute woman told a YWCA director: “I will do anything. I have offered to scrub floors but I haven’t succeeded in even finding that kind of work.” The director then noted: “With that she burst into tears – completely defeated.”

The boredom associated with unemployment, partic­ularly after the relatively good times during the war. soon resulted in disruptive behavior. Although the ward had long been known for its juvenile delinquency problem, few ward residents seemed prepared for the threats upon their safety which evolved during the post-war era. As early as June 1946 Southwest-Belmont secretaries complained about a rising crime wave in the ward, a problem program directors immediately recognized by the sharp curtailment of atten­dance at night activities. The YWCA’s Executive Director sadly reported: “Many girls [do) not venture out, many parents refuse to let them go and even committee women timidly pass dark corners and loiterers … no age feels safe.” With each passing month crime continued to plague the “Y” despite police endeavors to stem the trend toward anarchy. In January 1947, Executive Secretary Mary E. Wood reported:

Gangs – not one but three – have made life generally miserable for us. We have turned to community agencies – Crime Prevention, Ander­son Special Detective Squad, Police District #1 without success. Captain Brown of District #1 said we needed inside protection …. He did suggest the Auxiliary Police. Captain Joseph Booker of the Auxiliary Police was exceedingly cooperative. He lives in the neighborhood and knows our problems.



Although leaders in the ward met as early as the fall of 1947 to discuss and resolve crime related problems, those who should have attended the meeting, the black poor, never appeared. The poor and destitute black majority found themselves in an inextricable position. These people could scarcely think about working to revive the com­munity. Job insecurity and resultant family stress, large numbers of children, boredom attributed to a lowly mun­dane existence and the inability to cope adequately with a myriad of monumental problems made it virtually im­possible for the black poor to address questions dealing with neighborhood issues. Even individuals and heads of families who looked forward to a better future and sought to escape from encroaching community blight appeared far too busy to care about anything but themselves and their families.

One of the primary causes for the Thirtieth Ward’s deterioration appeared evident in the family life of the average black residents, the great mass employed in low level jobs. Ten black families who lived in a nearby housing development between 1940 and 1963 provide evidence comparable to those who had a similar lifestyle in the Thirtieth Ward. Every family that moved into the project initially seemed enterprising and dedicated to hard work, but circumstances and environmental factors often proved overwhelming. The John Smith family (names of families residing in the projects have been changed here to protect individual identities), for example, had lived in the projects as early as October 1941; residing here was a 30 year-old male head of the house, a 19 year-old wife and two children aged 4 and 1 respectively. John Smith worked as a laborer in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and later became a baker’s helper and a porter for Lit Brothers Department Store. While Mr. Smith worked hard to get ahead and paid strict attention to his finances – he paid rent promptly – he and his wife Julia suffered grievously because of the troubles caused by John, Jr. and Valerie, their two eldest children. By 1958, these children (now 19 and 16) had fallen prey to the negative influences of a changing neighborhood; John, Jr., for example, was sent to a house of correction. Though the ambitious Smiths eventually moved from the housing project in 1960 and purchased a home, the future hardly looked promising for the Smith children.

Even without the problems of delinquent children, other difficulties awaited local black families in the homes. When a 36 year-old grandmother, 17 year-old mother and year­-old child moved into the projects in 1941, “lady luck” ap­peared to have smiled upon them. In July 1944, a case worker for the Family Society of Philadelphia said: “We are particularly interested in this family as they have been trying very hard to improve their condition .. .. ” The older woman’s separation from her husband, her subsequent heart condition and her daughter’s illegitimate child failed to deter the family’s desire to make good during the war. Instead, the most distressing aspect of the family’s life occurred when the daughter attempted to leave home and become self-sufficient. Employment as a store keeper. laundry worker and school crossing guard for low pay exacted an enormous toll from the daughter resulting in a nervous collapse. The mother, incapacitated since 1945 with a heart condition, died in 1959 at age 54 and the following year the daughter evacuated the apartment owing 590.30 in back rent, an action classified as a federal offense. As a unit the family declined; the pleasant life never materialized.

Similar patterns existed among other black residents despite the propitious opportunities accruing from the war. Malcolm Williams, a young man employed as a rigger’s helper, earned a substantial salary of $2,588.69 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1944. Despite his training, four years later he suffered a reduction in salary and earned only $2,555.47 as a driver for the Yellow Cab Company. Prob­ably frustrated, Williams left his wife and two sons the following year and, as his wife Fannie reported, began “running with women.” A dutiful father, nevertheless, Williams supported his family and eventually lodged his oldest son with him. His estranged wife, meanwhile, per­formed day work and in 1954 earned $1,935. She kept the younger son. The parents, however, never reconciled their differences and remained separated.

Regrettably, these case histories aU too often represent the trials experienced by black families after the war. In­dividuals who lived under those pressures seldom fared well. There were, of course, some rare exceptions. In December 1940, Thomas Elliott (36), Dora (32), step-daughter Jill (14), sons Leon and Harold (7 and 4 respectively), and 4 month-old daughter Kate moved into the homes. The familiar pattern of job movement by the father occurred. A garage attendant (1940), employee for Foster Brothers Clothing Store, a machinist’s helper at the Philadelphia Navy Yard (all by 1942), and a ship welder, Elliott earned $2,624.44 by the war’s end. By 1946 Elliott could only find work as a truck driver and his annual earnings dropped to $1,470. In October 1947, Mr. Elliott left the family, forcing his wife and children to go on the Department of Public Assistance (DPA) rolls. When employed, Thomas Elliott supplemented his family’s income by sending them $15 each month. By 1951, the eldest son Leon (now 17) searched for odd jobs at places like the Royal Crown Lamp Shade Company until he found a job paying 85 cents an hour. Later, Leon became a delivery boy and janitor, and finally made $1,808 in 1953. Meanwhile, Harold, his younger brother, won a scholarship to La Salle College in 1956 and by September 1960 entered Brown University as a graduate student. By January 1962, Leon, the elder son, purchased a home and moved his mother, wife and 6 year­-old son Leon, Jr. from the projects.

Blacks in possession of college degrees from middle-class families fared much better than their working-class brethren. For them trends toward upward mobility evident during the war continued throughout the 1940s and into the decade of the 1950s. In fact, the number of college grad­uates who Jived in the ward showed a marked decline, from 494 in 1940 to 445 ten years later. Blacks with the academ­ic credentials and talent obviously moved elsewhere. Young women selected to reside at the Southwest-Belmont YWCA, for example, who left the “Y” during the post-war years usually sought to enhance themselves professionally. Miss Margaret D. Barbee, resident director of the Elizabeth Fry House observed: ”We hate to see them go, but each one leaving has been for a step forward. The latest one to leave went to New York to enter nurse [sic] training.” Conse­quently, by 1960 only 258 college-educated people lived in the entire ward, a reduction from the previous decade of 72 percent.

Within the Christian Street YMCA the exodus of profes­sional blacks also became apparent. The number of promin­ent black men who served on the Committee of Management and also lived in the ward declined. When the Chris­tian Street “Y” was founded right after the turn of the century, at least half the fourteen directors lived in the Thirtieth Ward. By World War II this number declined to four of twenty-one – funeral director Charles H. Crew, insurance man Joseph A. Faison, realtor John W. Harris and politician Walker K. Jackson – all with obvious econom­ic ties to the community. Significantly, by I 957 only three of fifty-two “Y’s” men, powerful influential men in the Christian Street YMCA, lived in South Philadelphia. And surprisingly, eleven of the original twenty-four charter members of 1950 either moved away (four) or resigned (seven) from the YMCA. A typical YMCA board meeting in the 1950s, for instance, could show one-third of the representatives absent. And with this poor attendance, Milton Washington, the concerned Executive Secretary of the Christian Street YMCA, realized the “Y” no longer adequately met the needs of local people.

The greater mobility of the ward’s black population also led to considerable problems at both the Christian Street “Y” and the Southwest-Belmont YWCA. Milton Washing­ton noted:

For many years (Negro] members lived in close proximity to the building. Recently, however, movement of Negroes to West, North, Northwest Philadelphia and to Dela­ware Bucks Montgomery, and Chester coun­ties, has spread the base of the branch’s mem­bership to all corners of the Delaware Valley.

Washington then wondered: “How much longer will mem­bers continue to travel across many miles to participate in the association’s program?” Mrs. Robert J. Patience of the YWCA recognized an identical dilemma in her organization and said: “Many of our members who gave years of service to Southwest have moved away and some have joined branches nearer to their homes.”



By the 1950s, organized efforts to eliminate housing and sanitation problems of the Thirtieth Ward vanished com­pletely and no successor to the neighborhood committees of an earlier period appeared. Nevertheless, long-time resi­dents who had been living in the ward individually expressed their concern about the neighborhood’s decline. Charlie Hawthorne, a shipfitter who worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, had lived at 1425 Kater Street more than twenty years. While he enjoyed being in close proximity to his church and liked trading with retail merchants in the neighborhood, he expressed his chagrin at the dirt and filth allowed to collect on the streets. If he had sufficient funds for the down payment on a home, Hawthorne stated, he would move to the suburbs. A similar view was expressed by Sansom Smith of 1538 South Street who Liked the schools and playgrounds for the children but expressed concern about the deterioration of housing in the neighbor­hood. Others in the Thirtieth Ward – ranging from beer distributors and a merchant seaman to a sixty-five year­-old retired woman receiving $61 each month through DPA – liked their neighborhood, but in almost unanimous voices, expressed grave concerns about the general neglect evident in the ward. None appreciated the dirt and litter, rodents, deteriorating houses, crime and other debilitating factors illustrative of omnipresent neighborhood blight. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of ward life during the 1950s was the feeling of despair expressed by Murray Price, Jr., Jerry Smith and Joseph W. Smith (laborer, shipper and liquor store clerk) who stated that they could do nothing to arrest or correct deterioration in the community. The situation required immediate community efforts to im­prove the ward and a positive official response. Evidently, too many forceful leaders had moved away.

Community apathy was pervasive in the ward through­out the 1950s. Blacks poured little money into social institutions. Both the Southwest YWCA and the Christian Street YMCA found themselves in financial difficulty. In 1950 the YWCA branch had been instructed by the Board of Directors to absorb a 9 percent budget cut, a decision which would reduce the number of professionals on the staff by one or two people. Five years later, branch leaders had been instructed to balance the budget or suspend operations. Fortunately, this drastic measure was resolved when branch directors decided to terminate operation of the Elizabeth Fry House. But even this desperate measure failed to eliminate nagging fiscal problems. YWCA branch directors discussed additional belt-tightening measures, including reducing the number of program directors and closing the swimming pool. By 1958, Southwest-Belmont faced an annual deficit for operating expenses of $50,721.

Since the branch merely raised 22 percent of this deficit, as blacks found themselves unable to donate money to the association, Southwest became the least supported com­munity branch in the city. Mrs. Patience explained the reasons for the declining interest shown in the “Y,” say­ing: “A large percentage of the people who live in the com­munity now have migrated from rural areas and know little about the YWCA. It has been difficult to get them into the building or the program.” Then lamenting the golden years of Southwest-Belmont, she added: ” … at one time Southwest was the social life for many Negroes. The large banquets, parties, receptions, etc., were held in the building. Negroes can now hold their functions in any public place [and now] our building is not used to capa­city.” Though several of the branch leaders believed South­west could overcome existing difficulties by changing the program and devising aggressive recruiting schemes, the YWCA – like its male counterpart – had actually been re­duced to a shadow of its former self.

While the financial woes of the ward’s Young Men and Young Women’s associations may be traced to the dif­ficulty branch directors faced in administrating social agencies for a community some distance from their homes, the basic problem existed in the changing character of the ward’s residents. As the barriers of racial segregation re­ceded and permitted an influential segment of the black community to move into white residential areas and use public facilities, the old black neighborhood and black institutions lost their potency. Left behind were new arrivals unfamiliar with the city and the impoverished masses faced with daily problems of survival. Obviously, successes enjoyed by one segment of the community­ – the middle class and middle-class aspirants – worked to the disadvantage of the masses who remained behind. Ward Thirty, the old neighborhood which served as the nerve center for all black Philadelphia, became a waste­land inhabited largely by trapped and defeated people.



Since 1960, Philadelphia’s Thirtieth Ward has con­tinued its down ward trend. At first glance, however, a progressive change for the better appeared evident; be­tween 1960 and 1970 several positive signs occurred which favored ward residents. Unemployment declined and black residents earned more money annually than ever before. Far more families had incomes exceeding $3,000, the poverty level of 1970. Greater earning power also contributed to significant educational achievements in the ward. The percentage of adults twenty-five or older who attended and completed high school increased, so too did median years of school finished from 8.2 in 1960 to 9.2 by 1970, an improvement of one full grade. College enrollment climbed nearly 60 percent (125 to 199), and in the western segment of the ward, the number of college students increased fivefold (19 to 104). Finally, over­crowding subsided somewhat for the 17,000 people who lived in the ward in 1970 (15,900 blacks and nearly 1,500 whites; ten years earlier nearly 24,000 people lived there). Accordingly, the number of persons per household declined from 2.79 to 2.27, the percentage and number of facilities with plumbing installed rose and the median value of homes increased by nearly $500 ($6,066 to $6,530).

Unfortunately, the negative changes within the ward far outweighed these positive developments. Half the white­-collar black employees who found work were concentrated in the service areas. Relatively few found gainful employ­ment in such areas as manufacturing, trade and, oddly enough, construction. But the most dismaying aspect of the decade of the 1960s appeared in the increasing stress placed on the black family. The percentage of households with husbands and wives living together further declined from the already low 36.8 percent in 1960 to 26.7 percent in 1970 and the percentage of divorced and separated mates grew from 47.1 in 1960 to 57.0 by the decade’s end. None of the surrounding areas, moreover, reached the high rate of separation and divorce as black residents of the Thirtieth Ward.

While negative trends like divorce appeared in many other residential wards in the city, particularly among the more fashionable white areas to the north, separation in black households of the Thirtieth Ward would have a greater debilitating effect upon the impoverished black families. Children particularly felt the stress of family disruption, as the percentage of minors fortunate to dwell with both parents declined from 46.7 to 36.9. Not sur­prisingly, juvenile delinquency showed a marked increase of 76 percent as the number of arrests swelled from 1,010 to 1,782 between 1962 and 1970.

The decline of Philadelphia’s Thirtieth Ward appears as a tragedy of the first order. The ward contains more rela­tively poor black people with each passing decade; a trend which will continue into the future. Every cause for this deteriorating neighborhood can hardly be covered here. At certain times individual decisions – conscious or uncon­scious – contributed to the decline, and at other times circumstances beyond human control added to the neigh­borhood skid. Perhaps one of the greatest ironies here is that social and economic progress partially led to the ward’s downfall. Advancements were made by the aggres­sive and more positively positioned blacks who took ad­vantage of the falling color line and obtained better jobs. As they became more fully integrated into white Phila­delphia’s social life, many moved from the old community. Those left behind could not escape the morass in which they found themselves, a predicament reminiscent of many black neighborhoods throughout urban America.


H. Viscount Nelson received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969 and now teaches Afro­-American and urban history at Dartmouth College. Cur­rently he is preparing a manuscript on the history of Philadelphia’s Thirtieth Ward.