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Did you know that the first protest against slavery in the country — before there was a country — happened in Philly? Or about the carousel that gave a famous Philly riot its name?

On a day to reflect on social action taken by the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Billy Penn looks back on Philadelphia’s civil rights history.

First protest Against Slavery

In this first act of anti-slavery in 1688 in Germantown, four German Quakers put their pens to paper in a formal document outlining their objections to slave laws. It was later deemed too touchy and controversial of an issue for committees to decide on at the time — so the protest was unsuccessful. It did set a blueprint for other colonial sympathizers.

The Free African Society


In 1787, two leaders in the Philadelphia black community and freed slaves, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, joined together to form the Free African Society or FAS. Being the first organization of its kind anywhere in the country, the society aimed to care for freed slaves as well as encourage its members to become leaders in the community. The FAS paved the way for the foundation of the first African-American church in the city.

The “Flying Horses” Race Riot

Racial tension in Moyamensing broke out on August 12, 1834, as South Philly’s working class took to the streets to protest what they called a higher rate of employment of blacks than whites. This came to be known as the “Flying Houses” riots of Philadelphia. The chaos got its name from the horses around the district’s popular carousel, which was destroyed along with nearly 40 black homes (which were also looted). The riots continued for another three nights and left hundreds homeless.

Philadelphia Transportation Company employees protest

Trolley driver

In July 1944, the War Manpower Commission put pressure on the PTC to adhere to a policy of hiring African-Americans. To dispute this, employees of the PTC went on strike on August 1, 1944. The black community went on to protest the strike holding signs saying, “We drive tanks, why not trolleys?” A large police presence and collaboration with the NAACP helped keep violence in this protest low.

Strawberry Mansion protests

The NAACP in Philadelphia picketed the construction of a new junior high school in Strawberry Mansion in May and June 1963. Protesting against the low rate of blacks on construction crews building the school lead to an outbreak of violence between police and protestors. The altercations and protests halted construction for nearly three weeks.

Mummers blackface protests

The Mummers have been able to stir up controversy even as they turn heads with their march on New Years Day. It took an order from the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to outlaw blackface in the parade in 1964. So the Mummers protested … by dressing in blackface and marching through African-American neighborhoods.

Columbia Avenue Riots

Columbia Ave riot

It all started with a woman and her car on August 28, 1964. Odessa Bradford, an African-American woman, was sitting in her stalled car at the intersection of 22nd and Columbia (renamed Cecil B. Moore Ave. in 1987) and tensions began to build as police officers argued with Bradford and then forcefully removed her from the car. Rumor stirred around the city that white police beat a black, pregnant woman to death. (They did not.) For the next two days, chaos: Rioters looted and burned down stores in the area, and left over 340 people injured.

Girard College protests

Girard College

In light of the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, six African-American men applied for enrollment at Girard College (originally a boarding school for white boys). They were turned away. Protests to combat segregation at the school were lead by famous local Philadelphia NAACP leader and civil rights activist Cecil B. Moore. Picket protestors took to the neighboring streets on May 1, 1965 chanting for integration. On May 20, 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the school’s whites-only rule.

Black Panther Party

Estimates of how many attended varies — police say 7,000, but the Black Panthers say 15,000 — but activists and supporters definitely gathered for the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention on September 5, 1970 in Philadelphia. Taking an aggressive stand on liberty and justice for the black community, the BBP held the convention at Temple University.

#blacklivesmatter protests

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Finally, more than 1,000 people marched in Center City on December 22 — there had been protests before, though, and there were protests after. The pre-Christmas march was named the Philadelphia “Blackout;” protestors chaned “black lives matter” and “hands up, don’t shoot,” referencing the killings of two African-American men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Historical photos are from The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin via Temple Libraries.