(Photo by Tony Abraham)
Civil rights in America is historically localized below the Mason-Dixon Line, in towns like Selma, Alabama and cities like Washington, D.C.
But modern day history lessons perpetuate a disappointing irony: By focusing on the fight for racial equality in the South, the stories of marginalized people of color who fought the same battles outside the South have been pushed to the margins of history books.
Cities like Detroit, Boston, Buffalo and Philadelphia are home to civil rights histories of equal importance, said local historian Dr. Thomas Sugrue. Those places, he said, “should be in the middle” of the American civil rights story.
“We can not understand civil rights history in the U.S.or the promises and failures of our struggles for justice in America without putting Germantown in the center of the stories,” Sugrue said recently at Historic Germantown‘s Elephants on the Avenue community breakfast, where he was joined by accomplished African-American Studies professor Dr. Molefi Asante. (Both live in Germantown.)
That was then …
Racial and socioeconomic relations in the northwest Philadelphia neighborhood, Sugrue said, have a complex and dichotomous past tracing back to 1688, when Germantown hosted the first major anti-slavery protest.
But trouble began to brew as Philadelphia blossomed into a textile hub in the early 1800s. During that time, Germantown emerged as the suburban home to Philadelphia’s affluent industrialists, most of whom accumulated their wealth in some way through slave labor.
Germantown’s racial and socioeconomic makeup changed after emancipation, Sugrue said, citing W.E.B. DuBois‘s late-1800s observation of a “substantial class of black entrepreneurs and leaders” in Philadelphia.
“In the middle of the 20th century, many African Americans who were thriving and moving upward looked to Germantown as a place they could live that reflected their aspirations,” Sugrue said.
The doors were slowly opening for people of color, he said, and for enterprising people of color with new wealth, Germantown’s existing black community offered comfort. But with socioeconomic integration came inner conflict — and the rise of Philadelphia’s Center City District drove the wedge even further.
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… this is now.
Those tensions still exist today, and neighbors of all colors and classes have had their fill. How can Germantown become internally integrated and better connect to downtown resources?
Germantown’s 39 neighborhood associations and 90-something churches, said one neighbor at Elephants on the Avenue, is a tell-tale sign of a very real rift in the community. What would “unity” actually look like in Germantown, he asked, and is unification possible?
It is, according to Asante — but the whole community has to take itself to task to create it.
“I don’t think the solution is for other people to do these things. The solution is for the [community] to do these things and to do them at the top level,” he said “Show me a degree of sacrifice. You’ve got to do it. If you make an observation, you give yourself an obligation.”
One neighbor — a local reverend — noted how the beauty of Germantown can gild the inner turmoil felt by residents. For all the mansions, he said, there is no local supermarket. Asante said it’s the community’s responsibility to recognize its own needs and come together to provide for itself.
Sugrue agreed, saying Germantown neighbors of all backgrounds need to pool their resources instead of jostle with one another over who’s “king of the hill.” That means coming together to design a “new vision of what inclusive community should be.”
But building an inclusive community will take work — and investment from the city.
“Integration is something strive for, not something that happens a lot,” he said. “Our past mayors have placed all their eggs in the Center City basket. If Philadelphia wants to be a thriving, growing city, it has to have the amenities and resources here — not just downtown.”-30-
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