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 12
Survivals and Evolution: The Black City Today

The African-American population of this country is now officially counted at about 12 percent of the whole, almost precisely what it was in 1870, the first census following the Civil War and emancipation from slavery. But its geographical setting since then has changed dramatically, as result of the movement out of southern and rural areas into cities across the country. In Philadelphia, during these six generations, the black percentage has risen from perhaps 3 to about 40 percent of the whole. But the old city, once in the forefront, is now less a leading than a representative metropolis, as except perhaps for the severity of its current fiscal plight it ranks not at the top but toward the middle of a host of statistical indices used to compare the bigger cities with each other. 1

More than a century's worth of history has of course brought great changes in the nature and context of the black experience. Here as elsewhere the two most obvious developments have been the growth of local political power and the move from an industrial to a service-based economy. Both of these present great future challenges, but they can be understood only after a look at some of the other aspects of black city life. One way to begin is to look at some of the direct and evolutionary survivals from the previous century, the way in which they fit into the wider city and indeed nation, as prelude to the history which has brought us to this point.

The current state of William Dorsey's city, the places where he and his neighbors went to school and church, the less tangible culture that they helped to develop and share, represents much of the wider history of the black city over the past three generations. Despite all the great national and international changes wrought over that time, and closer to home a black population perhaps fifteen times bigger than it had been, physically and institutionally Philadelphia

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