Chester’s early twentieth-century ‘boom-town’ story speaks to rapid changes to urban life but is a partial story at best and not one that fully reflects the lived experiences of the city’s Black residents. By the turn-of-the-century segregation by race and class defined the city’s social geography. Black residents lived in confined areas — from the rowdy and decrepit Bethel Court to the middle-class and established West End, with a full complement of segregated schools, hospitals, funeral homes, theaters, playgrounds and restaurants. This hardened racial and class segregation – meticulously maintained by a resourceful and arguably clever political machine – remained in place as Chester grew, even after industrial production and the demand for workers soared with the onset of World War I in 1914.
America’s First Great Migration — the migration of tens of thousands of southern Blacks fueled by jobs to northern cities roughly between 1910 and 1940 —enveloped Chester but did little to break through the city’s strict Black-and-white social, economic, cultural and geographic divides. Less than 5,000 Blacks called Chester home in 1910. By 1920, that number swelled to 20,000. Newcomers faced two harsh realities: a different but no less harsh system of racism that dictated where they could live, recreate and work and the absence of any public relief, organized support or ready assistance with resettlement and adjustment to city life.The-Negro-Migrations-A-Symposium-1924
For the most part, Black Southerners relied on kin ties or recommendations to adjust to Chester living. For those who did not, they were on their own, thrust into a social reality that was unwelcoming at best and threatening at worst. For those who arrived with limited or no social connections, their situation was dire, with no habitable place to stay, no immediate employment and little money for food. They also arrived in a city still reeling from racial violence and its impact in defining where Chester’s Black residents could live, work, and play.
Within a few years of the Bennetts’ arrival in Chester in 1913, overcrowding and desperate conditions within the city’s Black neighborhoods worsened, as thousands more Black newcomers arrived from the South seeking work and accommodations. But the hardened rules that governed segregation did not budge. In fact, they further hardened, especially after July of 1917, when racial animus toward the city’s rising Black population culminated in a violent race riot. Franklin, Vincent P. 1975. “The Philadelphia Race Riot of 1918.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biology, 99, 3: 336-350.The steady rise in numbers of Black migrants was met with suspicion and antagonism by Chester’s white community, drummed up by news articles and local gossip that portrayed newcomers as potential “scab laborers”, disrespectful and threatening toward whites, immoral and indecent, prone to illegal behavior, and criminals who faced lenient punishment. When a group of young Black men were charged with a fatal stabbing of a white man, an enraged mob of whites marauded through the streets of Chester’s Black neighborhoods, touching off violent street battles that would continue for four days.Chester-Race-Riots-Philadelphia-Inquirer-July-27-1917
The Philadelphia Inquirer, Vol. 177, Iss. 28, Pg. 1, July 28, 1917.
Row houses were torched, with their Black occupants trapped inside, street fights involving hundreds broke out in the West End, and gun battles and random beatings of pedestrians on the city’s streets and sidewalks were reported. The local newspaper, Chester Times, referred to the violence of July 26 as “a night of terror in the city.” Newspaper accounts of the 1917 Chester riot can be found in: Chester Times, 26-31 July 1917; Philadelphia North American, 26-31 July 1917; Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 26-31 July 1917; New York … Continue reading Tragically, seven persons were killed and hundreds were injured or displaced. Chester’s race riot was not unique for the times; it was one of seventeen race riots that occurred in America’s industrial cities between 1915 and 1919.For detailed information on the 1917 riot, see Smith, Eric Ledell. 2008. “The 1917 Race Riot in Chester, Pennsylvania.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 75, no. … Continue reading
In the aftermath of the 1917 riot, the separation of whites and Blacks that defined everyday life became even more pronounced, as segregation – according to the city’s white leaders — provided a semblance of safety and security within Black neighborhoods. Separation only worsened conditions of already poor and overcrowded housing, decrepit and ill-equipped schools, rampant discrimination in employment practices and the looming threat of violence by whites. In 1910s America, the idea of publicly-funded social welfare to alleviate conditions of poverty and decrepit housing was still decades away. Charitable organizations and benevolent associations – organized and run by mostly middle-class white women – operated in many northern cities, including Chester. They were sympathetic to the plight of Black communities but offered little assistance. Any relief would only come from within the Black community, especially from churches and self-help organizations that rose to the challenges posed by the Great Migration and Jim Crow racism. This was not without jeopardy.
In meeting the pressing needs of the community, such efforts could appear to challenge the racial status quo and risk the ire of the white community. Advocates and charitable workers were confronted with the daunting task of ‘threading the needle’: to bring meaningful change and improvement within the Black community while not challenging the immediate cause of such disadvantages — the system of racial segregation.
Such is the environment Ruth Bennett found herself in and, despite clear dangers, chose to operate. To directly attack or challenge the pervasive racism of the time guaranteed unwanted attention, probable violence, and few practical improvements to issues of unequal housing, employment and education. Black women reformers and community advocates of the early 20th century, like Ruth Bennett, worked quietly and persistently within the confines of racial segregation. They picked away at the seams of discrimination and won several seemingly small victories by deploying a self-improvement approach that—naively and from the outside– appeared innocuous and non-threatening. The consequences of these so-called ‘small acts’ were far reaching, including fostering support networks, a greater sense of community cohesiveness and an important defense against discrimination and hardship.
NEXT SECTION: Bennett Home for Women & Girls
|↑1||Franklin, Vincent P. 1975. “The Philadelphia Race Riot of 1918.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biology, 99, 3: 336-350.|
|↑2||Newspaper accounts of the 1917 Chester riot can be found in: Chester Times, 26-31 July 1917; Philadelphia North American, 26-31 July 1917; Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 26-31 July 1917; New York Times, 26,27,29 July 1917|
|↑3||For detailed information on the 1917 riot, see Smith, Eric Ledell. 2008. “The 1917 Race Riot in Chester, Pennsylvania.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 75, no. 2, Penn State University Press, pp. 171–96; Mack, Will. 2017, November 22. The Chester, Pennsylvania Race Riot (1917). BlackPast.org. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/1917-race-riot-chester-pennsylvania-1917/.|