By Howard A. Myrick
What?! Germantown Avenue, Chestnut Hill …boarded up shop windows and buildings …shuttered windows in nearby Mt. Airy … looted stores and vandalized historic statues in Center City? This can’t be Philadelphia! Why not? It has happened before – and more times than we’d like to remember. Racial unrest in Chestnut Hill and neighboring communities – areas touted for their unique racial and ethnic diversity within greater Philadelphia?! These questions and exclamations bring to mind the historic admonition “…where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither person nor property is safe.” [Frederick Douglass]
Philadelphia history reveals the fact that this city has experienced numerous dramatic and destructive incidents and episodes of tragic civil unrest – some triggered by racial, ethnic and religious intolerance. Periods preceding and just following the civil war, especially, were marred by bloody riots. The 1840s – 1860s witnessed numerous conflicts, burnings and killings attending Catholic versus Protestant rivalries … some triggered by the rapid influx of immigrants, e.g., from Ireland…illustrating early examples of Nativist-Protestant-Irish-Catholic tensions of the kind that resulted in the 1844 Catholic protest of the reading of the King James Bible in public schools – which led to the burning of a Catholic school and Saint Augustine Catholic Church at 4th and Vine Streets in Philadelphia.
Were not the consequences so tragic, the racial clash that occurred in 1834, triggered by arguments over seats on a merry-go-round (“The Flying Horses”) near 7th and South Streets in Philadelphia, would seem comical. Clashes that year between whites and blacks were triggered by arguments over merry-go-round seats at that location. The results: the destruction of more than 30 black homes and businesses, white mobs beat black citizens, demolished a black church in Southwark and sacked the First African Presbyterian Church. The violence resulted in numerous arrests of rioters. It was Philadelphia’s first widespread race riot
Race relations in Philadelphia grew worse with the rise of the National Abolitionist Movement. The burning by whites in 1838 of Pennsylvania Hall, built by abolitionists – and the refusal of firemen to fight the fire – was yet another example of the consequence of racism. The 1838 rescinding of The Pennsylvania Constitution rescinding the free Black vote was yet another incitement to racial discord.
It should be noted that racial unrest was not confined to Philadelphia. Indeed, the 1830s and 40s were troublesome times throughout the Nation. History reveals “explosive and destructive incidents of rioting occurred in multiple urban centers in the United States in the 1830s and 1840s, including Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.” [Patrick Grubbs, “Bringing Order to the State: How Order Triumphed in Pennsylvania” @ Lehigh Univ., Rutgers 2015 Ph.D. dissertation].
Our nation has known riots.
As we shutter at the fear that naturally attends the present upheaval in Philadelphia and elsewhere, the following observations should be made and kept in mind:
1. No previous civil disturbance (even approaching the magnitude of the George Floyd – triggered riots) has been without the destructive actions of extremists. The following words of former Secretary of Defense and retired 4-star marine general Jim Mattis are worth remembering “We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values – as people and our values as a nation.”
2. Former President George W. Bush’s words too are valuable: it is “…time for America to examine our tragic failures. …The only way to see ourselves in a true light is to listen to the voices of so many who are hurting and grieving. …America’s greatest challenge has long been to unite people of very different backgrounds into a single nation of justice and opportunity…The doctrine and habits of racial superiority, which once nearly split our country, still threaten our union.”
3. Resist seeing the present as the “worst of times” and the past as the “good old days” – the future is ahead of us and if the past is prologue: “We shall overcome!”
Howard A. Myrick, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus, Temple University, Lew Klein College of Media and Communication. He lives in Mt. Airy.