Police-Black Community Relations in Postwar Philadelphia: Race and Criminalization in Urban Social Spaces, 1945-1960

By Johnson, Karl E. | The Journal of African American History, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Police-Black Community Relations in Postwar Philadelphia: Race and Criminalization in Urban Social Spaces, 1945-1960


Johnson, Karl E., The Journal of African American History


The racial rioting that flared up outside Samuel Tilden Junior High School in Southwest Philadelphia on 12 March 1946 between black and white youths was in many ways typical of the conflicts that occurred in postwar urban spaces throughout the United States. The fighting had been instigated by older white teenagers who attended the John Bartam High School that was adjacent to Tilden. According to local black leaders Rev. H. Hollis Hooks, pastor of St. John's AME Church and Rev. W. W. Robinson of the Church of God in Christ, the Elmwood and Paschall neighborhoods had long been a racial battleground, and white law enforcement officials from the 32nd Police District called to the scene also acted in typical fashion--they only arrested fourteen black youths and took them to the House of Detention. When black parents and members of the Philadelphia Crime Prevention Society complained about the situation, the police subsequently began to arrest white youth involved in the incidents, which continued to flare up for several days. Rev. Robinson was particularly incensed by the situation because he had personally witnessed white youths, some in military service uniforms, assaulting African American boys, but the police protected the white offenders, and made mass arrests among the black youth. Shortly after the racial incident at Tilden Junior High, black and white clergy came together to calm the situation and agreed to work to set up programs to improve interracial understanding among residents in the neighborhood. (1)

Despite many advances in our understanding of the postwar urban conditions of African Americans, important lacuna remain. (2) One of these is the way urban social spaces were policed by white law enforcement officials. In Philadelphia, African American conflicts with white law enforcement officials were a persistent problem throughout most of the 20th century, and in the post-World War II era volatile incidents involving African American residents and white police officers were common and often made newspaper headlines. (3) Philadelphia during World War II was a strategically important city because of its large population and industrial capacity, which made it a center of wartime activity; however, there have been few studies focusing on the city's African American community and race relations in the early postwar period. (4) In the 1940s African Americans became a more visible and vital presence in Philadelphia. Right before the war began, African Americans numbered 250,907, making up 13 percent of Philadelphia's total population. Migration, however, pushed the city's African American population to 374,459 by 1950, to 18 percent of the total. (5)

This essay explores the relationship between African Americans and white law enforcement officials in Philadelphia's early postwar period, and the impact racial conflict had on restricting African Americans' full use of the city's social space before and during that period. Many recreational areas and social venues were often off limits to African Americans because of the threat of violence from white residents. White policemen often reinforced these limitations on African Americans' social movement. White residents' negative racial stereotypes about African Americans, combined with their xenophobic fears of competition over jobs and housing, made it acceptable for white police officials to abandon traditional law enforcement and turn to incarceration as a means to control the growing African American population. Thus this was the beginning of the modern, postwar criminalization of African Americans that preceded the formation of Philadelphia's "prison-industrial complex" that currently warehouses thousands of black residents.

Many white law enforcement officials viewed the social movement of African Americans as a threat and treated it as a criminal act. Their beliefs mirrored those of whites in the larger society who often viewed African Americans as social outcasts and criminals. …

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