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 III
THE WEB OF ORGANIZATION: RELIGION, RACE, CLASS, AND RECREATION

The most powerful contrast in late 19th-century black Philadelphia is the one between the weakness of its economic base, the poverty of its occupational opportunities, and the great strength and variety of its religious, associational, and social life. And there was another contrast embedded in this one. Differing economic opportunities tended to divide Afro- Americans, as some groups and individuals did relatively well, and others, including the great majority of wage-earners, were left behind. In contrast many of the most important forms of associational life tended to pull people together, as the leadership needed the numbers provided by the majority.

The numbers were needed, as example, in the churches, as the city's Afro-Americans by 1897 supported some fifty-five different mainstream churches alone, almost as many as those maintained by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in the city, although the Catholic population was then six or eight times bigger than the black. Beyond its purely religious functions each of these churches also housed or hosted a number of other organizations, racial, fraternal, and social, while still more, hundreds more, of purely secular organizations, bands, ball clubs, and dancing schools, flourished outside of their walls. 1

The variety of these groups, and the links between them, make it in some ways artificial to draw the lines which divide the chapters in Part III from each other or from those earlier, in Part II. Economic conditions had implications for virtually all Afro-American activities; the church was the

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