Jim Crow Racism Reported in Philadelphia, Yet Again

In his pathbreaking book North of Slavery, Leon Litwack (quoted by Vann Woodward) showed that Jim Crow segregation was not invented in the South, but long before the end of slavery white northerners used it to subordinate “free” African Americans in the North:

In virtually every phase of existence Negroes found themselves systematically separated from whites. They were either excluded from railway cars, omnibuses, stagecoaches, and steamboats or assigned to special ‘Jim Crow’ sections: they sat, when permitted, in secluded and remote corners of theaters and lecture halls; they could not enter most hotels, restaurants, and resorts, except as servants; they prayed in ‘Negro pews’ in the white churches, and if partaking of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, they waited until the whites had been served bread and wine. Moreover, they were often educated in segregated schools, punished in segregated prisons, nursed in segregated hospitals, and buried in segregated cemeteries. (See also the book Dixie Rising)

segWhen white southerners developed Jim Crow for the newly freed enslaved population, they imitated northern segregation strategies, often enhancing it–infamous segregated restrooms, water fountains, lunch counters, and so forth.

We recently noted attempts at Jim-Crow-like segregation in a swimming pool case in Philadelphia, and now we have a lawsuit alleging informal Jim-Crowing of bathroom and water cooler segregation, and other racial discrimination, in a Philadelphia city government workplace. According to a CNN report

Black employees at a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, waste transfer plant were harassed, humiliated and discriminated against by their supervisor for decades, says an attorney representing two workers who filed a complaint against the city. Among the allegations in the complaint is that for decades . . . [the white] superintendent, limited one restroom to whites only, said the attorney, Howard K. Trubman. The restroom — which he called the “supervisors’ bathroom” — was supposedly for the sole use of upper-level officials with the city’s Streets Department….As far back as 1996, it became apparent to black employees that they were being slighted, said Trubman. They would watch white co-workers walk into the segregated bathroom, conveniently located one floor above Gill’s [the superintendent’s] office. “If you tried to use the bathroom, you might get suspended,” said Leslie Young, a former worker at the facility…. Young said he recalled that a lock was placed on the restroom door, with keys distributed only to white workers. The restroom black workers could use was down five flights of stairs and was “not in the greatest condition,” Trubman said. Some employees were forced to ask … permission before they could make the trip, he said.

Just like when I was growing up in the very segregated South, this is way too familiar a story, but now 50+ years later. And bathroom segregation was not the only thing on the Philadelphia “plantation,” the term the white in charge reportedly used (he says he was kidding) for the workplace:

The issue didn’t end with the bathroom at the facility, which is a transfer station where garbage trucks bring citywide waste to be distributed to various landfills. Black employees complained that they were stuck with the oldest garbage trucks. Whites, they say, were frequently upgraded to newer vehicles…. According to Young, in the sweltering summer of 2007, Gill would only allow whites access to a water cooler kept in his barricaded office. Black employees were forced to use a water fountain elsewhere in the building. “It made me feel like less of a man,” said Young.…When he told Gill about some resentment felt by some of the employees, he said, Gill launched into a diatribe, saying those unhappy at “the Northwest Plantation Station” could leave.

Significantly, the black protest and antiracist counter framing tradition, as reflected in a book the late great African American historian, John Hope Franklin, had a direct impact on these black workers and their protests according to a Philadelphia newspaper:

Recently, after the black workers found in the trash a book titled Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, by historians John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, they began to read it for solace and inspiration, Young said. “When this book turned up on our platform in the trash, …it just made us think that this is like slavery again,” Young said. “So we started keeping the book…as our little Bible in the drivers’ shack, where all the black drivers sit and we relax and eat lunch. And we just try to encourage each other to every now and then, when he does something racist to you or that really pisses you off, to read a couple pages of the book, to show you that this is not the first time this happened, we can get through this, but we got to do it together.”

They protested actively within the department and the city, but got no permanent redress. They took their complaint to the human rights commission (PHRC), but as is the case with many such commissions, nothing got done there either:

Shannon Powers, a PHRC spokeswoman, said that the PHRC deals with several thousand allegations of discrimination a year — 3,382 allegations of employment discrimination alone were initiated in the fiscal year that just ended. “We started the year with 4,393 cases pending from previous years,” she said. If the PHRC hasn’t resolved a complaint within a year, the complainant may take the case to the courts, Powers said.

We have some pretty good civil rights laws in the U.S. but most of them are weakly enforced or unenforced. For the most part whites can discriminate with impunity. Not unexpectedly, the Philadelphia solicitor’s office asserts:

We don’t comment on allegations. … Based on what we know, we have no reason to believe there is any merit, and that will come clear as the litigation proceeds.

The case is set for trial early next year.