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.


  1. Mom - N01KState

    MON@NoKstate-Wow, I heard about this one..I was very surprised..Then, again, I shouldn’t be.. This goes on at my job as well..The upper management gets the better bathrooms..All doors to the facility are locked, so not only can’t we use the nicer bathrooms, but we don’t have access to the building or the front offices. “They say for security reasons” I say to keep us out of the front offices with the nicer facilities…Anyway, don’t forget who started the “Jim Crow” laws.. I don’t understand why the southern people still have a problem with the northern people after all these years…If the Jim Crow laws were emulated from the northern states, I would think it still would of been better to live up north then to live in slavery down south. Maybe that’s why 6 or8 million African American fled to the Northern States after the civil war.. Not saying that any of it is right, but I’m tired of the southern people trying to involve the northern people in what they did and how rotten they treated the African Americans all the way up to the 1960’s, and as mentioned before, the last lynching was in 1946 in the South, the KKK 1865 was started in the South. The southern people still fly the confederate flags in the South, and some southern people still to this day have nooses in there yards…And, not only are the southern people extremely racist, but they don’t like Yankees, and if you are a woman some of the firms in the South will not hire you for management positions. ..So, my suggestion, is to take a harder look at the southern people prejudices, because they have many of them besides black and white, and then come back and talk racism…NO1KState this was not meant for you this runs on a deeper level…Remember what I told you before..Thanks Mom:)

  2. Mom

    And, lets not forget our beloved 7th President Andrew who was responsible for wiping out the eastern seaboard of Native Indians, and I almost forgot to mention he was from the South. Indian Removal Act (1830). Trail of tears may ring a bell.

  3. Joe

    Mom, interesting points. Jim Crow has been bad both North and South….. It is interesting too that most of us carry pictures of the slaveholder/scalper Jackson in our wallets…..

  4. siss

    MOM : [“The southern people still fly the confederate flags in the South, and some southern people still to this day have nooses in there yards…And, not only are the southern people extremely racist, but they don’t like Yankees, and if you are a woman some of the firms in the South will not hire you for management positions. “] This is a blanket statement, where did you read/hear this? Yes the confederate flag is still flown in some places (its got a symbolic meaning, which is 99.9% misunderstood by people and linked to the KKK) but the nooses, where in Vider, TX? Dont Like Yankees? Its not that we dont “like” them, they are just different…

  5. Mom-Joe

    LOL Joe, I’m still trying to figure out why we have “In God We Trust” on our currency.. It has been my experience that God and money are like night and day..I’ll figure all this mess out someday, hopefully…Thanks:)Mom

  6. Joe

    Mom, good point about God on the money! Also, Mom, remember that in many areas of the “South” some 30-40 percent of the folks today are not white. We all need to be more careful about general words like “southerners,” for that reason.

    The African American southerners mostly see the Confederate Battle flag as a sign of danger or oppression, for lots of good reasons–including the fact that many of the most violently racist white folks like to fly and wave it in all regions. And it is historically a symbol of slavery and slaveholders as well.

  7. Mom-Joe

    Joe, I didn’t mean to be so nasty, but because what I’m going through, I guess, I’m taking it out on all southern people.. In fact, I have some good friends that live in the south, and some family members that still live in the south.. Thanks, Mom:)

  8. @ siss – I don’t think many people would take Mom’s statements to mean that all over the South, just about every white household has a Confederate flag. But, on the whole, the South doesn’t look to good.
    – A good number of families do hang the flag outside their houses. In the 6th grade, the bus route took us by a house with a 90ft flag pole flying the Confederate flag. A white family moved into my neighborhood, which is already like 98.6% black, and flew the flag for a month or so. It’s down now. The really sad thing is that a few states have fly the flag at their capital or have the emblem in their state flag design. Not to mention that I’ve even seen at least 1 black guy who said he was “Southern by the grace of God.” The whole “heritage” argument would ring truer to me if it didn’t include the subjegation of people like me. You cannot have an honest discussion over the Confederate flag or what it means without admitting had the South won, who knows when slavery would’ve ended? Even after the Civil War, there was neo-slavery, the black codes, and Jim Crow. So what’s there to the Confederate flag than African Americans shouldn’t be offended by.
    – Then you have the 60% of white Southerns who either don’t believe or aren’t sure that Pres. Obama is really an American. Remember earlier, a lot of states in the South started discussion seccession?
    – And whatever you were told growing up or since moving to the South, white Southerners “hate” the yankees because they’re still bitter over the “War of Northern Aggression,” the great “Lost Cause.” But, yes, the truth has been hidden well enough that once, at breakfast with a white ESL community center teacher and another volunteer, who was white – When she revealed that she was from the North, the guy kinda chuckled and gave me a “knowing” look. He said, “Uh oh. She’s one of dem Yankees.” I’m pretty sure he was just joking, and you’d think he was a hippie, but I’m all for the North and the Yankees!
    @ Mom – I hear ya.
    The South may have had the Bull Conners, but the North had contract buyers who, in the end, had an impact that was just as horrible, if not worse.

  9. Nquest

    I wonder what the strange career of Jim Crow, the progressional fact that regimes in the North move South, says about the country’s post-segregation era we’re in now.

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