History

Breaking Barriers and the Evolution of Black Female Politicians in Philadelphia

November 9, 2020 | by Keshler Thibert

There is a sense of vulnerability that comes with being Black that is reflected in our neighborhoods, how we are sometimes portrayed in the media, and how we are often treated. Sometimes there is no way to describe it other then yelling, but no audible sound escapes your lungs while the pain inside is deafening.

A debt of gratitude comes with the color. I see it at the voting office when the workers tell their stories of voting for the first time in the late 1960s and early 1970s and how they fought for their rights in protests and endured beatings.

I see it in my neighbors who own their homes and work hard to maintain and beautify them. And I see it in Black women who often carry the heaviest burden, but who still work to uplift all of us.

Crystal Bird Fauset was the first African American woman to win a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. | Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

I often refer to the late 1940s to the 1960s in Philadelphia as the “Musical Chair Period,” more commonly known as “The Revitalization.” Whereas in most major cities, change came by moving major ethnic groups from one part of the city to another in a mix of redevelopment, red lining, and disenfranchising. Prior to that period, I refer to most neighborhoods that housed large populations of “minority” groups as the “leftovers.” These sections of the city were either abandoned or thought of as simply unlivable like the 7th Ward, Chinatown, or Black Bottom in West Philadelphia.

Regardless of where we ended up both prior to and after the redevelopment of the city, Black Philadelphians fought to change their plights, but in the language that can often work best: political power.

Black women have always been the backbone of the fight to improve the lives of African Americans in Philadelphia. Sarah Mapps Douglass (1806–1882) worked not only as an abolitionist, but as a founding member of the Female Anti-Slavery Society, ran a school for free Black children, and, as an educator, lead the Girls Preparatory Department at the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth.

Gertrude Bustill Mossell (1855–1948) argued for suffrage in both the Black community and the press by encouraging other women to learn about the history of the movement.

Suffragist Gertrude Bustill Mossell in 1890. | Image: Public Domain

Yet, it was Crystal Bird Fauset who changed everything by becoming the first African American woman to win a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1938. Fauset’s start in politics began shortly after she registered as a Democrat by assisting in mobilizing Black women to vote in the 1932 presidential election. This, in turn, earned her a position in the Philadelphia Works Progress Administration whose task was to find work during the Great Depression that officially started in 1929. However, due to citywide unemployment after a number of industries, including textile and apparel, began laying off mass numbers of workers because of competition from other plants in Reading, Pennsylvania and in the South. By 1929, the city was already in dire straits.

In 1935, Fauset became chairperson of the Philadelphia Sponsoring Committee for the National Negro Congress, which was committed to political and economic empowerment. She continued to work with the Roosevelt administration and organized the all-female Willing Workers Democratic Organization during the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia that lead to a milestone of getting more Black voters to vote Democrat in 1936.

During her tenure she worked for better housing, jobs, state anti-lynching legislation, and enforcement of the Equal Rights Law. In 1938, the Philadelphia Democratic Party asked Fauset to run for the Pennsylvania state legislature for West Philadelphia’s 18th District, which had a majority of white voters. On November 8, 1938 she was elected to Pennsylvania House of Representatives and introduced amendments on issues on health, housing, public relief, and working women, as well as amending the Pennsylvania Female Labor Law of 1913 to protect women in the workplace.

In 1921 Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in economics in the U.S. and the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. | Image: Public Domain

Although never elected to a public office, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander worked within politics to make strides for the Black community as Philadelphia’s Assistant City Solicitor in 1928 to 1930 and 1934 to 1938. Already a lawyer who was widely thought to be white due to how she carried herself and spoke, Alexander worked to break down color barriers in public spaces throughout Philadelphia and was revealed as the true mastermind behind the National Urban League.

Eventually, her work resulted in her appointment to President Harry S. Truman’s Civil Rights of All Races and Faiths Committee, making her the first Black woman to serve on a presidential commission. Her work for the Black community continued as a member of the Philadelphia Fellowship Committee where she ensured that the new Home Rule Charter guaranteed equal treatment and opportunities. She also continued to accept civic cases well into her 80s.

Dr. Ethel D. Allen described herself as a “BFR–a Black Female Republican, an entity as rare as a black elephant and just as smart.” Her path to politics started in medicine where she had to contend with not only being one of the few Black attendants, but was also told that she should not be at medical school because she was depriving a man of that education. This prompted her to found the Community Committee of Medical School Admissions, which assisted in increasing the admission rates of Black men and women at medical schools.

Dr. Ethel D. Allen at a Philadelphia City Council meeting in 1974 demanding more community participation in a development project. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

Allen’s official entry into the political arena was her election into an at-large seat on the Philadelphia City Council in 1975, which made her the first Black woman to hold the position. Under Mayor Frank Rizzo, she worked to combat crime through the Philadelphia Youth Commission and later she was appointed Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which made her the highest-ranking Black woman in the state. She then successfully requested a proclamation in support of Gay Pride Week as she is openly lesbian.

To better understand the impacts that Fauset, Alexander, and Allen made, I spoke to three different black women involved in various aspects of the political landscape to better understand their individual reasons for getting involved.

For A’Brianna Morgan of Reclaim Philadelphia, it was a simple matter of becoming frustrated with the status quo and deciding to get involved to improve the city in areas that affect Black Philadelphians the most. “There was a point that I was frustrated with structural oppression,” said Morgan.

A’Brianna Morgan is the Mass Liberation and Housing Justice Organizer of Reclaim Philadelphia. | Image: Reclaim Philadelphia

For Jasmine E. Sessoms, Commissioner of Governor Wolf’s Pennsylvania Commission on African American Affairs and CEO of She Can Win, a Philadelphia-based training and resources organization to support women who are interested in public affairs and government relations, it was seeing a noticeable void when it came to Black women involved in politics. Her immediate goal was to create equality for Black women who are not getting the same access that men are receiving and creating a safe space for them. Think of it as boot camp that can currently be done online in three steps: Nonpartisan training program that educates women interested in running for office and holding leadership on political campaigns. Through their Political Action Committee invest capital in Women of Color’s political campaigns. Advocate for policies that directly affect women of color by partnering with non-profits and elected officials to lobby legislation.

Jasmine E. Sessoms is the Commissioner of Governor Tom Wolf’s Pennsylvania Commission on African American Affairs and the CEO of She Can Win. | Image: She Can Win

It was through this “boot camp” that we gained local politicians such as State Representative Morgan B. Cephas of the 192nd District, Regina Young, who is currently running for State Representative PA 185, and Philadelphia Councilmember At-Large Katherine Gilmore Richardson who in 2019 became the first millennial elected to the City Council. “I am part of a long legacy. Proud of my recent victories, of being the youngest Black woman in Council,” said Richardson. “I expect to give back to the next generation and hopefully I will not be the youngest elected for long.” 

While adapting to current COVID-1 restrictions, Councilmember Richardson’s office is working to find better opportunities and jobs for young people, workforce development via diverse work, and pipelines for children to find pathways to City employment. Richardson’s most pressing project is suing Harrisburg to enact gun laws to curb gun violence in Philadelphia as well as work on community environmental and sustainability issues. “My work is a continuation of former At-Large City Councilperson Blondell Brown’s trailblazing legacy that was passed on from former City Councilmember Augusta Clark and Dr. Ethel Clark.” Richardson feels that as part of her legacy she must continue to work and adapt to the times through apps like Instagram and Tik Tok to reach younger constituents and to work against the stigma of being born in a specific zip code which to many determines your life path and expectancy.

Philadelphia Councilmember At-Large Katherine Gilmore Richardson is the youngest Black woman on Council. | Image: Katherine Gilmore Richardson

With such a full plate, Richardson reminds me of former Senator Roxanne Jones, Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker of the 9th District, and Marian B. Tasco who was both head of the Gas Commission and a City Councilmember as wells as other Black women who have gone unrecognized, but whose accomplishments made life a little better for the African American community and opened the door for those that want to follow.

On Saturday, African Americans across the country celebrated the news that Kamala Harris was elected the nation’s first Black and female vice president. With such a legacy of strong Black women in Philadelphia we should not be surprised to hear of the first African American woman running for the mayor in the near future.


 

 


This article is sponsored by a grant from the Centre for the Preservation of Modernism at Thomas Jefferson University College of Architecture and the Built Environment. All funds provided will aid in furthering Hidden City’s commitment to elevating the voices of African American writers.

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About the Author

Keshler Thibert is a voracious reader, book collector, tour guide, and current member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, but has also lived in Atlanta, GA, Santiago de Chile, Madrid, Patras, Greece, and Adelaide, South Australia. Thibert has an interest in social sciences, language, and local history.

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