Philadelphians Reflect On City's Racial Legacy Three generations of women from an African-American family in the historic city of Philadelphia reflect on how their city and its people have changed during the past century.
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Philadelphians Reflect On City's Racial Legacy

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Philadelphians Reflect On City's Racial Legacy

Philadelphians Reflect On City's Racial Legacy

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From NPR News this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. For the past two Sundays, we've devoted this segment of our program to the question, who is an American? We've focused on the city of Philadelphia for answers. You heard about the early Quaker settlers in 1708 and the visionary artist Charles Willson Peale in 1808.

By 1908, Philadelphia was a big industrial city. The Pennsylvania Railroad was established, and the wealthy were moving into mansions on the mainline. Today, you're going to hear the story of Philadelphia in the early 20th century from folks who were there. They lived through the depression, prohibition, and the civil rights movement, and they are still there to witness the changes to the city now.

We spoke to three generations of black women in the same family. The matriarch is 108 years old. We also spoke with two white Jewish men in their 80s now. Their Austrian-Polish grandparents arrived in Philadelphia in the 1860s.

Mr. EUGENE SCHARF (Philadelphia Resident): My name is Eugene Scharf, and my brother...

Mr. ERV SCHARF (Philadelphia Resident): Erv Scharf. I'm the younger brother. He's my big brother.

Mr. EUGENE SCHARF: We grew up in West Philadelphia. It was a rowhouse, three bedroom, had a porch and a yard. And it was a typical Philadelphia rowhouse.

Mr. ERV SCHARF: We walked every place. There was no problem. You could leave your door unlocked at night, and no one bothered you. Of course, we had nothing to steal. The neighborhood was all white.


Mr. ERV SCHARF: But it was Italian, Irish, Jewish, everything. It was every nationality on that block.

Mr. EUGENE SCHARF: It was 100 percent white. It's now 100 percent black.

HANSEN: Philadelphia became a destination for the Great Migration north. One-hundred-eight-year-old Anna Henderson was born in Georgia. In 1922 her parents moved to Philadelphia. With some help from her granddaughter, Anna described what her neighborhood looked like then.

Ms. ANNA HENDERSON (Philadelphia Resident): Yeah, it was big. Oh, when I first moved there, I was right between two white families. Very few colored was in there Preston Street, very few. But you know, I don't believe it was a nice neighborhood.

HANSEN: During that time, Irish, German, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants were arriving in droves and settling throughout the city. Although there were divisions between the black and white populations, prejudice and discrimination were not limited to the color of one's skin. Again, the Scharf brothers. First, Eugene.

Mr. EUGENE SCHARF: On our street, the next block was not a - there wasn't a Jewish family in our block, it was mostly Irish Catholic. And they would go to Catholic school, and they would come home and pass by our houses to get to their street. And at that time, occasionally, one or two of them would start a fight with us.

Mr. ERV SCHARF: I remember one time walking home from the neighborhood theater, which was maybe four blocks from our house, with the lady I married. She was a young kid then, and there was a gang of kids chasing us. This is right before the war, and there was a lot of prejudice then. And I told her to run up on a porch, and I outdistanced some and got away. But that incident, of getting beat-up with a girlfriend of mine, it was - I think we were 17 years old, and that remained with me for a long time.

HANSEN: After the Second World War, the civil rights movement was given a boost when President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the military. Integration of civilian life took longer. But Anna Henderson's 70-year-old daughter, Fanny Fisher, remembers that as a teenager the lines between the races were not hard and fast.

Ms. FANNY FISHER (Philadelphia Resident): In 1956, when I was in West Philly High School, it changed. We would go to parties together, we did the proms together, all of that. West Philly High School had more white children than black, and we were all friends.

HANSEN: But by 1964, the inequalities between the races erupted in riots. The demographics of Philadelphia began to change again. White split to the suburbs, and the city's minority population reached an all-time high. The economy worsened, drugs proliferated, and gangs controlled some of the city's neighborhoods.

In the 1970s, Police Commissioner - later Mayor - Frank Rizzo, got tough on crime. But he equated crime with race, and his aggressive tactics focused on the black population of the city. Philadelphia's first black mayor, Wilson Good, was elected in 1983, but it was on his watch that city officials bombed the house belonging to the radical armed group MOVE. This is from a 1985 NPR report.

(Soundbite of 1985 NPR report)

Unidentified Reporter: It's very difficult to get very close to it at all as - you can see flames. There's a tremendous amount of smoke, and I've just got a report from one of our reporters out there that ashes are now falling on the other homes.

HANSEN: The fire wiped out several blocks of homes. It was also a wakeup call for the city, which began to reexamine the state of race relations and economic inequalities. Today, new immigrants from Asia and Latin America are moving into Philadelphia's neighborhoods. Toby Fisher, Anna Henderson's 44-year-old granddaughter, says she misses the benefits of a street where everyone knows your name.

Ms. TOBY FISHER (Philadelphia Resident): Everyone looked out for each other. If your mother wasn't home, you could always go to the neighbor's home because she'd have lunch, she'd have snacks, she'd have juice, and she'd take care of you until your parents got in. And now you're very afraid. We don't even know many of the neighbors on the block.

My father right now, he's the block captain. And we try every six months to have a meet and greet because it's new people moving in all the time. So, you know, you're unsure about the families. You guys weren't here for 20 years like we were, and you don't trust them as much as you used to.

HANSEN: Freedom from fear and persecution, economic opportunity, the chance for a new start. These concepts are what drew many of Philadelphia's first residents, and continue to draw new people to America. So, who is an American? We'll give you the answers the Henderson-Fisher family gave us. First, Fanny Fisher.

Ms. FANNY FISHER: I used to say one that was born here, but I also feel now that when they migrate and they - the cultures mix, we're all American. I began to say, oh, we're all American, you know. You don't just have to be born here. It's what you bring to it and what you put into it, and you feel like you're an American. I know the Chinese feel like they're Americans. I know the - especially the Africans, they're very proud people. You know they feel like they're Americans now because they live here, they work here, and raise their families.

HANSEN: Fanny's daughter, Toby.

Ms. TOBY FISHER: An American to me, they're the epitome of what the Commandments say, love thy neighbor as thyself, and you embrace your neighbor. Like lately, there have been a few shootings, and these folks don't value life. An American values life, to me.

HANSEN: And finally, Toby's grandmother, Anna.

Ms. HENDERSON: I think they like to look out for each other. Don't care what color or kind. Children like to grow up together. Neighborly here, kind of friendly. They're sweet people like people in the streets here. I think that's it.

HANSEN: One-hundred-eight-year-old Anna Henderson who still lives in her West Philadelphia home. Our thanks also to Erv and Eugene Scharf who now live in the northwest section of the city.

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