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

By Roger Lane | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
Politics, Politicians, and Civil Servants

At the close of the Civil War, Pennsylvania's blacks, while free, were not yet clearly citizens, had no right to vote, held no political offices, and just one single government job, as a menial messenger for the city's health department. Citizenship was granted officially by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, but its meaning, in a still racist and segregated society, would not be clear for generations. The Fifteenth Amendment, passed two years later, was in contrast short and simple. Its first section read:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be abridged on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

And in Philadelphia that was enough to inspire a profound change in the behavior and prospects of the local black elite.

For Afro-Americans after the Civil War the purposes of government were reduced to their simplest: physical safety and jobs. The first of these, while not secured to the south, was essentially won in Philadelphia and other northern cities. The second was important everywhere, and in the thirty years after 1870 no occupational opportunity grew as fast as government service, or matched its significance for the black community as a whole.

But there was, as always, a price. Government jobs offered more security and better pay than any others available, but they had to be won through politics. And while the high politics of racial solidarity and protest, inspired largely by events to the south, were important in binding the community together, the low politics of Philadelphia divided it. Political organization encouraged the already serious problem of crime. And continual battles had to be fought to preserve individual and racial dignity in the face of political dependence on a single, white-dominated, Republican party, a dependence that was continually debated, and even fought, against the odds.

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