The lasting impact of one Chestnut Hill family’s story

by Kristin Holmes
Posted 2/15/23

Chestnut Hill, a neighborhood known as an enclave for the privileged, was a refuge for Rudy Miles at what some might call an unexpected time.

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The lasting impact of one Chestnut Hill family’s story


Chestnut Hill, a neighborhood known as an enclave for the privileged, was a refuge for Rudy Miles at what some might call an unexpected time.

Miles grew up in the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood mostly in the 1940s, part of one of the few African American families living in the community. He faced prejudice as a teen baseball prodigy unwelcome on a team because he was Black.

But for Miles, his fondness for Chestnut Hill outweighed any obstacles he faced. At the very least, he never talked about them to his family, his daughters say.

“When you think about the climate and breaking a barrier, and then to end up being a success? They didn’t want you and you ended up being captain. That’s a story,”daughter Cindy Miles said. “It was amazing to me that none of the bitterness was ever expressed.”

Rudy Miles, who lived in Chestnut Hill at the beginning of his life and at the end, was a pivotal part of one African American family’s history – a family that has lived in Northwest Philadelphia since the early 20th century. 

And Rudy Miles was proud of that history. For him, the Northwest was the place where early guidance from a coach helped him to hone athletic skills that would land him on the verge of a spot in the minor leagues. It was the community where his family and other African American residents played an important role in the Chestnut Hill story alongside the wealthy who settled in stone mansions, and the tradespeople that lived and worked there.

Rudy Miles said so himself in a discussion hosted by the Chestnut Hill Community Association that was covered by the Local before he died in 2010. “There were only a few black families in Chestnut Hill, but we were embraced by the Italians and Irish [families] in the neighborhood,” Rudy Miles said at the event.

Miles shared his experiences and family mementos with the Chestnut Hill Historical Society (now the Chestnut Hill Conservancy) and they are discussed in books including “Images of  America: Chestnut Hill,” published in 2002.

For the Miles family, their Chestnut Hill story begins in the 1930s, when their mother Bessie moved to a house on Hartwell Lane with four of  her children (John, Lillian, Grace and Rudolph, known as Rudy). Bessie Miles had separated from her husband Alfred, an army corporal who served in World War I, and joined her brother Arthur who had earlier moved to Chestnut Hill.

Bessie Miles supported her family by working in the bakery at the Chestnut Hill Community Centre on Germantown Avenue, but finances were a constant struggle. Rent was $16 for a house that had one pot-bellied stove and one cold water tap, according to “Images of America.” Bessie Miles told her children “Be careful because you’re Colored. Don’t complain, and help yourself,” the book excerpt said.

For young Rudy, sports served as a constant inspiration.

“Going to the Water Tower [Recreation Center], that was his outlet ...,” said Cindy Miles, Rudy Miles’ daughter. “That was walking distance from their house and the sports he played there ended up [leading to] his lifelong career.”

Rudy Miles, who graduated from Jenks School, became an athlete with exceptional skills in basketball and football, but it was baseball where he showed star quality

He credited Mike Giantisco, director of the Water Tower Recreation Center, for nurturing his foundational skills and advocating for him to join the Henry H. Houston 2nd Post No. 3 American Legion baseball team when they didn’t have a Black player.

In “Images of America: Chestnut Hill,” authors Thomas H. Keels and Elizabeth Farmer Jarvis write in a caption beneath a 1948 team photo that Chestnut Hill struggled with integration and civil rights after World War II and the community remained “segregated longer than much of Philadelphia.” The book continues “Although some Legionnaires did not want Rudy on the team, Giantisco demanded that he participate,” they write.

“When I look at that picture it breaks my heart,” Cindy Miles said of the photo. “Even if the coach protected him, you know that people don’t want you there.”

Rudy Miles went on to attend Dobbins High School in North Philadelphia where he studied cabinet making and played football, basketball and baseball, racking up a slew of athletic honors. He made the All-Public high school teams in football, and basketball. By then, the Miles family had moved to Germantown.

He was recruited by Central State University, a historically black college in Wilberforce, Ohio. He majored in education, played three sports and was starting pitcher, batting over .300 for the school team.

That’s where noted Philadelphia sports historian, broadcaster and executive Sonny Hill became friends with Rudy Miles, a man Hill calls a hero. Both were talented athletes at the school.

 “When you talk about Rudy Miles,” Hill said, “you are talking about someone who was on the forefront of opening the door and being outstanding but not given the full opportunity to maximize his skill as an athlete, as a baseball player.”

Chestnut Hill re-emerged in Miles’ life when Giantisco was working as a scout with the Detroit Tigers, said Cindy Miles, of Houston, Texas. Giantisco tried to convince them to recruit Miles, but eventually told Rudy Miles “the team wasn’t ready [for a Black player],” Cindy Miles said.

After graduation, Miles was recruited to play for a San Francisco Giants minor league team and reported to training camp in Florida. When he discovered that he would have to move to New Mexico, Miles, then newly engaged, declined the post and decided to settle in Philadelphia. He and his former wife Sylvia settled in Mt. Airy. Rudy Miles had  three daughters Vicki Miles, of East Falls, Cindy Miles and Kim Boddy, of North Wales.

Miles worked as a physical education teacher at Kenderton School in Philadelphia. He continued his sports, playing and coaching, and breaking barriers as one of the first Black players in the Penn Del amateur sports league, Hill said. 

“My dad is teaching me to this day. He could walk into a room and have a conversation with anyone - white, Black, Asian, old,  young -  and he always imparted some wisdom, Vicki Miles said.

 After he and his wife divorced, and he retired, Miles moved back to Chestnut Hill. He crafted an active life in retirement, socializing with longtime friends, playing golf daily, and watching his beloved Philadelphia sports teams.

“Whenever we would visit, we would go by the [Hartwell Lane] house, to the Water Tower, and Jenks,” Cindy Miles said. We would hear the stories of him growing up” in the community that Miles says remained a touchstone for her father until his death at 78.