Editor’s Note: With the 50th anniversary of the start of the Columbia Avenue riot, we turned to our friends at History Making Productions, who have amassed hundreds of hours of interviews and archival footage from the period. Episode 3 of the HMP’s documentary film series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” took on the riot in portraying the city 1944-1964. Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin was one of the writers of this episode. Below, we present clips of interviews done for the documentary with historians and other experts and witnesses of the time and on the days of the riot. Sam Katz, the producer of “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” interviewed each of them. What’s remarkable here is the garnering of multiple perspectives on a single event.
In addition, we’ve included Episode 3, “Promise,” as well as the video clips of some of the interviews. History Making Productions is rapidly creating a significant digital archive of Philadelphia history on its website HERE.
“When Columbia Avenue Erupted” is the first installment of a four-part series that begins today.
Episode 3, “Promise, 1944-1964”
Elestine Ashlock, resident of North Philadelphia
Sam Katz: Do you remember the riots on Columbia Avenue?
Elestine Ashlock: Yes absolutely. I’m not certain of the cause of the riots but it had to be about not being treated equally for jobs and what have you. I’m not certain but it came as a shock more or less to us because we knew most of the people that owned the stores. That’s where they went to buy groceries clothes, you know, and whatever, but I really don’t recall the actual reason for it.
SK: Was there resentment in the community toward the white merchants?
EA: Some of them. I think it was a time of the black panthers. And of course they wanted things to change right now and they fought for it. But they tore up a community–the stores. They inconvenienced others and I don’t think that they gained recognition that they wanted to.
SK: Do you have any thoughts about the difference in tactics of 1944, during the trolley strike, versus 1964?
EA: A little. I think that in 1964, they were rough. We couldn’t go near the area. And we tried to understand more, and we didn’t, but they still had to rebuild and they moved to another community where some of those same people that owned those stores, that operated that business, came into our community a few blocks up. But they had a good fight, a good battle there. And I think that there was something gained but we didn’t appreciate the roughness of it, but it had to be done. It had to be done their way, you know.
Thomas J. Sugrue, historian, University of Pennsylvania
SK: Tell us what happened on Columbia Avenue.
Thomas Sugrue: One of the areas of the greatest tension in Philadelphia was between the city’s predominantly white police force, and rapidly growing African-American population. Often petty arrests, incidents of harassments, accelerated into something bigger.
A routine arrest led to rumors spreading like wildfire in North Philadelphia that it had gone bad, that someone was injured or killed by the police, folks poured out of their houses and apartments onto Columbia Avenue and protest, loot, burn, clashed with police on the streets. Civil rights leaders came to the scene, tried to get the crowd to calm down and return home. But there was an enormous amount of pent up anger. At that time, the police chief, Leary, was out of town and his deputy, a rising star, a proud son of Italian Philadelphia, Rizzo, came onto the scene and used the riot and aftermath as a way to bolster his already rapidly growing rep as a defender of law and order, as someone who could put down disturbance on Philadelphia’s streets.
TS: So the riot in some ways was a symbol of two sides of clashing Philadelphia in the 1960s. On one side, African-Americans alienated by the police, concentrated in isolated neighborhoods going through population loss and economic decline, on the other hand, Rizzo, defenders of law and order, white ethnic Philadelphians wanted to put down those uprising by any means necessary. And those two visions of Philadelphia would continue to play out in the neighborhoods, city politics, on the streets in the 60’s and into the 70’s and beyond.
Robert Nelson, former president OIC Philadelphia
SK: What were the factors in the Philadelphia economy that motivated LS?
Robert Nelson: The factors in the 1960s, they were talking about the civil rights era, a push for equality, the era of MLK and others who were trying to make things happen, probably not dissimilar to 1944, a great push. The problem at that time, a historic irony, because people were reacting to jobs, early to late 60s, riots. People were angry about the same things, in north central Philadelphia, the neighborhood was burning down. Leon Sullivan said there must be a constructive way: burning down buildings won’t get us anywhere. His strategy was to find out where the jobs are, he went to major companies in Philadelphia, said you can see something’s happening, people are angry, I need you to open the doors, he was rebuffed, because in the 60s he could be rebuffed, we don’t have to do anything you’re asking us to do.
What Leon Sullivan then did, went back to 400 ministers, his army of protestors, said to them, preach every Sunday morning, don’t buy goods and services from these companies who won’t open up the doors of opportunity. After a year of that these same companies, for self-interest, financial impact, in effect, started to have an impact, so grudgingly doors opened.
Erik McDuffie, historian, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne
SK: Let me shift gears a little bit and ask you to talk about the perception and reality of police power.
Erik McDuffie: The history of the police in Philadelphia is a long and contentious and, for African Americans, a deadly history…The history of police power in Philadelphia is complicated and contentious. For many people in the city of Philadelphia, especially amongst African-Americans, the police are seen as an occupying force, seen as a very violent, oppressive force in their life. As folks often say within the African American community that when you need the police they aren’t around and they’re around when you don’t need them, so to speak. And certainly, of course, by the ‘50s, by the late ‘50s, by the early ‘60s, we see real contention between African Americans and the police. At the same time, the police–and this isn’t true only for Philadelphia, but it’s true for the other old, urban northeastern cities, New York, Boston–the police were a sight of social mobility for Irish, Italians, what have you. Especially for the Irish in Boston, in New York City, here in Philadelphia, Italians and Irish. And so what happens, that during the post-war period, we see both a coming together of racial and ethnic minorities, working class people, at the same time, we see tension. So this is in some ways the history of Philadelphia: this both tension and coming together, conflict, movement, what have you. So by the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, African Americans became increasingly frustrated with what they saw as the heavy-handedness of the police, certainly the 1964 riot–some called it a rebellion–was a result of a encounter between an African-American couple and the police.
Rumors spread that a pregnant black woman had been shot and killed–that was actually not true, but that was the word in the streets. And North Philadelphia, especially the Columbia Avenue corridor, exploded. Folks were angry, folks were upset with police brutality, bad jobs, poor schools, substandard housing. So all those frustrations and tensions, right, came together or were sparked by police brutality.
SK: It’s somewhat clear to say that a number of those shops that were looted were owned by Jewish businesspeople, and if we could trace a fracturing in the coalition in Philadelphia, the ’64 riots in August on Columbia Avenue might be that.
EM: Certainly, the riots helped to fracture the New Deal post-World War II coalition between blacks, Jews, Irish, labor…but again, it’s very important for us to understand that there was always tension between these various groups, so there was never a moment where there weren’t tensions. So I think it’s very important, that again, that we don’t romanticize the coalition or the ways in which folks came together. Certainly with what happened in August of 1964, the looting of white-owned businesses, many of those of course were owned by Jewish folk, many people in the African American community looked at or saw those businesses being predatory, that many of the business owners were disrespectful toward African-Americans, making inappropriate comments, physically, sexually harassing folk–so certainly, there are real material reasons to help explain these tensions and again, this contest over urban space, right, that racial equality is always fought out around urban space. So again, going back to gentrification, urban renewal, the ways in which city policy brokers did not consult with the very people that were being removed from their homes and the kind of anger and frustration that that created. And without question, black power or the emergence of black power in the early ‘60s in the city, the emergence of a very militant civil rights movement in the city of Philadelphia was very much a response to everyday people feeling like they didn’t have control or say over their lives, over where they lived, where they could send their kids to school, the concern about their very bodily integrity. If I go ‘Wow, will my son or daughter be stopped and harassed by the police?’ Again, these were very much lived experiences that confronted and faced working class black people on a daily basis.
SK: In the ‘60s, some cities burned. I would divide the city riots into two sets–ones that took place in the early ‘60s such as the Philadelphia riots and the ones that followed the assassination of Dr. King. So I just want to stick with the early group. Philadelphians, ’64 August, ’64 riots by comparison to a lot of other cities was less violent and placed more restraint and was shorter. And there are three personalities that kind of struck us as having a big hand in that–George E. Woods, Cecil B. Moore, and Leon Sullivan. So, having said all of what I just said, if you could tell us a little story that puts this riot into comparative..if there’s such a thing as a scale of bad riots, whether it’s death toll or destruction or brutality or whatever it is, where does this one stand and why?
EM: It’s important to understand that there were more than 250 urban disturbances in this country from 1964 through the early 1970s, and it’s important to keep in mind that some folks referred to these events as riots, other folks referred to them as uprisings and rebellions. The riot, the upheaval, in August of 1964 in Philadelphia that lasted for three days, in comparison to say the Watts riot or rebellion of 1965 or the Detroit riot of 1967, was much smaller in terms of its scale and in terms of death toll, physical damage. But I also think it’s important to keep in mind that the Philadelphia riot was one of the earlier social disturbances of the 1960s and it’s important for us to understand that all of this unrest was precipitated by black peoples’ frustration with grinding poverty, police brutality, poor housing, bad schools and indifference–real and perceived indifference–from policy makers from mayors on down. So in Philadelphia, Cecil B. Moore –a very, very prominent, charismatic, brilliant civil rights leader born in West Virginia, served in the marines during World War II, earned his law degree at Temple University–becomes the head of the NAACP in 1963. And what’s so important about Cecil B. Moore was his ability to connect with working class and poor black folks in North Philadelphia, that he was able to get along with…he gained the respect of everyday black people, but what’s interesting, though–come the 1964 riot, at first when he went out on Columbia Avenue and told people to go home, he got heckled and booed by a whole lot of people. But even Cecil B. Moore, a person who had won the respect from so many black, working class and poor people in Philadelphia, here he was being shot down. And at first, I don’t think he even understood the depth of frustration and anger amongst black people in North Philadelphia. Certainly Reverend Leon Sullivan, Pastor of Zion Baptist Church on North Broad Street in North Philadelphia–a leader of North Philadelphia, a central figure in struggles for civil rights in the city–he, too, I think, at first caught off-guard by the anger and frustration that occurred. Now certainly Cecil B. Moore is credited, they’re credited–Leon Sullivan, Georgie Woods, Cecil B. Moore–credited with helping to contain or helping to end the uprising, the riot. But what came out of the riot really surprised a whole lot of people. And again, the riot of August 1964 in some ways lay the foundation or prefigured or anticipated the social unrest that we would see for the rest of the decade.
There was a range of people that participated in the riot of 1964. People were on the streets for varying reasons. There was a famous quote, or a statement that one woman said, she said as she was breaking into a building, she said ‘This is my only opportunity that I’ll ever have to own this stuff’–so some folks would say she’s stealing, but from her point of view, given that she lived in substandard, filthy homes, that her children or folks that she knew, that their kids went to poor schools, that so often black patrons of various businesses were treated with such disrespect. Now black people were constantly being stopped and harassed and sometimes shot and killed by the police. Folks believed that they had a right to do this. Now certainly, for some folks it’s ‘Oh, my goodness, this is awful. How could folks do it?’ But again, given the kind of grinding poverty and the real, intractable racism that folks encountered and felt, this made perfect sense. And I think what Cecil B. Moore did, or helped to do–he helped people to understand that people had to work through the electoral system, that people had to work through the system. But what’s equally important for us to understand–at the very same moment that we see the emergence of Cecil B. Moore as a figure, as a leading figure in Philadelphia, as a leading figure in the national civil rights movement. There was also a growing black radical movement in Philadelphia.
Gerald Early, professor, Washington University
SK: What do you remember about the riots in 1964?
Gerald Early: I think the major thing I remember about the riots in 1964 was the rise of a gentleman named Frank Rizzo who then entered my radar screen as a rising figure, rising political figure even though he was then on the police force. But a rising figure of significance during that time. I believe at that time–if my memory serves–that the police commissioner was a guy named Leary and I think Leary was sort of kind of a liberal and certainly had certain liberal approach and trying to approach crime in a certain kind of new–I don’t want to use the word enlightened because it sounds pejorative–but a new and modern sort of way. And Rizzo came along as this kind of figure who seemed like a kind of throwback to a certain kind of law. He seemed kind of like a cowboy and because I was growing up in an Italian neighborhood, Rizzo was highly thought of. So it was interesting because the black people mostly didn’t like him at all.They thought he was a racist guy who was capitalizing on racial division at the time and so forth in order to propel a political career. Even then, all the black people around me were saying he wanted a political career. That this was all part of his wanting to have a political career.
So what I remember about that was a kind of conflict going on between Rizzo and Leary about how to deal with what was going on. And the other thing I remember was Cecil B. Moore. And I remember that Moore was going around telling people that the woman who everybody thought had been beaten by the cops or shot by the police or whatever people thought which sparked the riot, he was going around on a bullhorn trying to tell people that hadn’t happened and the woman was fine, that sort of thing. And I think that that was the first time, at the age of 12, that Cecil B. Moore came into my consciousness as a leader. He was to become more indelibly branded on my conscious in years to come–in the ’60s. But that was when I got my first first awareness Rizzo and Moore who were to be significant names–really significant names as the 60s progressed and into the 70s. I think it was–as I kind of look back at that now, first of all I was–the black folks that were around in South Philly were sort of thinking yeah something like that would happen in North Philadelphia. Cause we always thought in North Philadelphia they were more likely to do something like that in North Philadelphia. Kind of thought they were tougher in North Philadelphia. I mean North Philadelphia was called the jungle. I mean to black folk in North Philadelphia–it was called that for a reason. So we were kind of thinking, yeah I could see that happening in North Philadelphia. I don’t think anybody ever thought it was gonna happen city wide. I don’t think anybody thought North Philadelphia was gonna happen in South Philly. They thought it would happen where it did. And it needed to happen in a place where the overwhelming majority of the people were black. It kind of had to happen in a location like that. But I do think it was the beginning of a kind of political awakening for me as a kid just becoming aware of certain things I hadn’t been aware of before. And in some ways I do think it was a beginning of a certain kind of radicalizing of some people in a way.
Sonny Driver, publisher, Scoop
SK: What was the environment on Columbia Avenue?
Sonny Driver: Well, truthfully, I like I have in the paper there a–it started around 22nd street where a police man either the riot was starter around 22nd street where a police man kind of–he did something and there was a pregnant woman involved. Knocked her down or that’s the rumor that went out and that’s what started. And at that time you know you’re talking about when North Philadelphia is starting to make that unrest feeling, you know? And that riot–that was something that was kindling to happen someway shape or form in some part of Philadelphia because of the attitude of the people were not–they were getting tired of what the policemen were doing. You know, just walking in the clubs, locking up people down, knocking people down. I mean it was a rough situation. I had a couple of scrimmages with police. I had a gun put in my gut.
SK: It was pretty tame, though. I mean, a lot of other cities burned. Philadelphia did not.
SD: Yeah. No, because it was a–truthfully the way I look at what happened and how it happened it was like a spur of the moment thing. When the rumor got out that this policeman abused this pregnant woman, you know, trying to make an arrest or something or break up a fight or whatever, it just went out. The way I see it, people weren’t at ease with some of the store merchants. And the people were in the neighborhood and all so this was a chance for them to get even. Otherwise, if that riot, that started on Columbia Avenue–if it was an organized thing – if you look at most riots and all, it’s a little organization. It’s organized together–a spurt would’ve broken out in West Philadelphia, Center City, and other places, but it didn’t happened. It just happened in that section of North Philadelphia on Columbia Avenue. They broke out windows of merchants that they feel as though was cheating. And then they also gave the bad boys a chance to do their thing, and that was, you seen them walking the street with couches and refrigerators and furniture stores and all. They actually looted, did a lot of looting. If you see some of the pictures I have what was left on Columbia Avenue, you wouldn’t believe it. So it was a riot of, say fighting. I remember, I don’t want to go back that far. But I remember a riot they had up in Harlem, New York. It was the same way. You didn’t have people fighting the cops. You didn’t have people shouting out the windows and beating. All you had was looting of the stores.
SK: Why do you think it was so spur of the moment? Were there voices of reason trying to keep the lid on this thing?
SD: Well, the calming down was done by Georgie Woods and Cecil Moore. They were out there. They came out there and in fact Georgie had a show going on at the Uptown Theater. And he got the word. Georgie, they arrived and they were fighting on Columbia Avenue. And Georgie came down, and cause Cecil Moore was the president of NAACP at the time he came down. And then you had Reverend Sullivan making a speech on television and all. And they’re the ones that calmed it down, but actually the riot–I couldn’t see it being a riot. I’d say it–they were looting those stores. That’s all they did. They looted the stores. There wasn’t no body being beaten up. It wasn’t a riot where blacks were walking the street and all. But that’s the way it was. But those three they calmed things down. And it only lasted that night. Friday, August something and the next day the trucks were out there to clean up some of the mess of the trash that was thrown in the streets and all. They did turn over a police car. Cause the police were out there in full riot gear. And they didn’t beat up anybody. They more or less just stood back. And the firemen put out the fires. One thing you would say is that you say a riot is you see policemen be out there knocking people down. But that didn’t happen. They turned over a police car. And if you look at some of the pictures I have in the paper, there you see all the policemen. They had the whole force out there. If anything broke out in any other part of the city, I don’t know if they had enough people out there. Enough policemen to go.