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There were Black Civil Rights Movements and Orgs in Philadelphia 170 years Ago

Updated: Dec 17, 2023

I asked Google what Civil Rights are and Google said:

Which is cool. That's pretty much what I had in my head. 🧐

I wanted to be sure because I think that The Black Metropolis had two major Civil Rights movements and multiple Civil Rights organizations starting from 1838 which is a looonnng time ago and 100 years before the 1950s Civil Rights movements.

Matter of fact...1838 is almost 😳 200 year ago. 😳

We've got a whole page on the 1838 movement - which was the fight to prevent the loss of the right to vote.

We also consider all the actions aimed at freeing people - ie the Underground Railroad (UGRR) - as a very long Civil Rights movement. The UGRR helped Freedom Seekers move North, where they could regain some of the rights they did not have in enslavement. Which in our heads makes the Vigilance Committees = Civil Rights organizations.

Around 1860 it started to become clear that this country was going to war.

And Black Philadelphians who were in the movement, like William Still, created new organizations to fight for rights.

The Social, Civil and Statistical Association

Here's one of those organizations. The Social, Civil and Statisitical Association (SCSA).

Front page of the SCSA Minute book, Courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The SCSA for example, was created in 1860 to fight for the right to vote.

SCSA By-Laws, Courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
The object of the society shall be to labor earnestly for the right of Suffrage by the use of petitions, memorials etc. and to gather statistics with regard to the condition and wealth fo the Colored People in general.

Remember, this was before the Civil War - they had no idea that in 10 years the Consititution would be changed to grant citizenship to all Americans as well as the right to vote.

They just knew that they had lost that right in 1838, that the war was going to change everything, and that they needed to keep up the pressure.

💪🏾 Our ancestors never ever stopped fighting for our rights. 💪🏾

Reading through the minute book I came across this page and I realized that it was telling many stories.

Page from the SCSA Minute Book, Courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Leadership Who Had Years of Activism Experience

First, it has names of leaders who had been in the fight for most of thier adult lives.

William Still, Jacob C. White, Sr., Isaiah Wears - these men had been part of the Underground Railroad leadership, leading the Vigilance Committees and helping freedom seekers start new lives for 20 and 30 years.

White and Wears had been in the struggle since 1838 (this page is from 1867), and Still started the second version of the Vigilance Committee in 1850.

Holding Lectures to Fund Actions

Second, this page gives us insight into how the SCSA functioned.

SCSA was conducting education lectures on issues of the day, and using the funds to pay for the movement. Here's an ❤️ all women program❤️; a lecture by Francis Ellen Watkins Harper with a concert by Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield.

SCSA lecture program, Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Collecting Statistics

Third, this page also shows that they continued statistics collection.

This is important because racism was increasing in Philadelphia.

The city government and the US government could not be trusted to take accurate statistics of Black people (trust me the 1840 US Census was ridiculous).

There were three major sets of statistics collected on the free Black community; the 1838 PAS census, the 1847 PAS census and the 1858 PAS Census. This shows that the SCSA was continuing on that path, probably recognizing that in an environment of growning oppression, they would have to derive thier own stats to counter biased press and racism in municipalities.

Fighting for Streetcar Desegregation

Fourth, the legal fees referenced on the page are most likely for the Streetcar Civil Rights movement. Black people were not allowed on streetcars (trolleys) in the 1860s, even after the Civil War. William Still and the SCSA were filing petitions and taking legal action in the movement.

Octavius Catto and Carolyn LeCount led acts of civil disobediance...

thanks Google purposely boarding cars that Black people were prohibited from using. Remember how young Catto and LeCount were - they were in thier 20s - they were students together at the Institute for Colored Youth. And that is yet another thread that connects the past to the present; the fact that student activitsm is often the engine of Civil Rights change.

Caroline LeCount would lead groups of women onto trolleys and when the police told them to get off, they would make thier bodies go limp, so it was hard to carry them off. (Kashatus, page 187)

That's 🔥

Caroline LeCount, Image Public Domain

Caroline felt so strongly about her Civil Rights work that they put it on her headstone.😭

There's a love story for the ages here as well. LeCount and Catto were engaged to be married. Caroline LeCount did not get married after Catto was asssinated 😭 and she is buried very close to Catto at Eden Cemetery.

Read more about all the things Caroline did to fight for our rights in They Carried Us.

Catto and White Jr., however, were in another Civil Rights organization called the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League. Both organizations were involved in the Streetcar movement.

And yes there was stress between the two groups. Kind of like the stress between the SCLC and SNCC in the 1950s Civil Rights movement. To learn more about that read William C. Kashatus biography on William Still.

I know this is a lot of names and a lot of info but the bottom line is that there's a very long arc of Civil Rights happening in Philadelphia in the 1800s. There were movements, and organizations and generations of families that continued the struggle throughout the 19th Century.

Here's a short video that will help tie it all together.

More Resources

ICY Timeline

The Falvey Library has an incredible online exhibit of the Instute for Colored Youth and this timeline will enable you to grasp Catto and LeCount's activism within all the things that were happening for Civil Rights in Philadelphia.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

You can see these resources at HSP. Make an appointment using thier website here Check out all the incredible resources avaliable to you using the Leon Gardiner Collection Finding Aid.

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