William Dorsey's Philadelphia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America

By Roger Lane | Go to book overview

Part II
OCCUPATIONS AND MAKING A LIVING

The intention of the next several chapters is to tell much of the story of late-19th-century black Philadelphia through the history of its several occupational groups. An occupation in this sense, and especially an occupational history, is about a source of income but also about the conduct of a life, as "artist," "laborer," "lawyer," "laundress," "politician," or "teacher," and in many cases about the way in which each occupation shared and shaped the wider history of the community.

In purely economic terms the three most important things about that community are that it was poor, that it offered limited opportunities, and that both of these problems were directly related to racial discrimination. The poverty was shared with other groups, but the racial discrimination and the limited opportunities made the black experience unique from bottom to top. What united these extremes was that top and bottom both were shut out of the dominant development of the era, the urban-industrial revolution which was transforming the economy of Philadelphia and the nation.

The late 19th century was a golden age of city building everywhere, a time when the urban skyline was transformed by high-rise buildings born of structural steel, the work inside revolutionized by typewriters and telephones. In Philadelphia as elsewhere this was when businessmen and governments built the features, some of them now in decay, that for most of a century Americans associated with urbanity itself: electric streetcars and zoos, ballparks and department stores, universities and museums.

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