Black history: Philadelphia’s explosive and violent 19th century race riots

The city was home to the largest free African American population in the country, but racism led to destructive clashes.

'Destruction by Fire of Pennsylvania Hall,' by J.T. Bowen, 1838

'Destruction by Fire of Pennsylvania Hall,' by J.T. Bowen, 1838

Library of Congress
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Early 19th century Philadelphia might have seemed like a budding haven for free Black people. Leading up to the Civil War, the city became home to the largest number of free African Americans in the country, and was a center for the abolitionist movement.

At the same time, immigration from Europe was flourishing. The number Irish immigrants to the U.S., for example, more than tripled during the 1820s, and many of them landed in Philly, which remains home to one of largest Irish-American communities in the nation.

Then the industrial revolution ended, and the jobs boom went kaput.

Historians say this trio of socioeconomic and cultural phenomena created a powder keg that kept exploding. Sparked again and again by fierce competition for scarce work and resources, Black Philadelphians and their allies were most often its casualties.

To better understand how the local history evolved, we took a look at three noteworthy 19th century race riots for which there are public accounts.

Editor’s note: Some readers may find the events recounted below disturbing. However, they are part of Philly history. The victims — and the perpetrators — should not be forgotten.

Three days of melee caused by one fight

A “Flying Horses” merry-go-round was set up near 8th and South Streets for a little early 19th century amusement. The attraction was run by a white proprietor, but the area came to be frequented by neighboring African Americans.

On the night of Monday, Aug. 11, 1834, there was reportedly a fight between Black and white residents. White Philadelphians came out in force the following night, with a mob numbering “several hundred,” according to news accounts. The mob traveled down South Street and destroyed the flying horses structure, then looted the home of a Black family in the neighborhood.

When confronted by law enforcement, the crowd resisted with chants of “Down with the police!”

Officers apprehended more than a dozen perpetrators, causing “considerable personal injury” to the arrested, wrote the National Gazette and Literary Register, a newspaper published between 1822 and  1841.

By Wednesday, police had swept the scene, hoping to clear the area of potential rioters. A mob reassembled later that night, though. “Their vengeance,” the National Gazette wrote in its second hand account, “was wholly directed against the dwellings and persons of unoffending colored inhabitants.”

African Americans under siege in the South Philly neighborhood, then called Moyamensing, fought back. “Battle and bloodshed was the consequence,” the Gazette wrote, along with property and furniture damage.

Before the blood-thirsty rollick concluded, the First African Presbyterian Church was gutted. The National Gazette then called on the general public to financially support the riot victims. It’s unclear if the call was heeded.

‘Racism and Sexism:’ The burning of Pennsylvania Hall

Philadelphia was a bastion for abolition. The American Anti-Slavery Society was organized here in 1833, and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society was formed four years later.

The progressive visionaries faced considerable pushback.

Philly abolitionists were compelled to build their own auditorium because they had trouble securing both churches and secular spaces for their gatherings, explained the late Pennsylvania historian Ira V. Brown in his 1976 journal article, “Racism and Sexism: The Case of Pennsylvania Hall.” Pennsylvania Hall was erected in May 1838 on the Southwest corner of 6th street, between Arch and Race.

There had been a number of speeches and meetings held at the hall in the four days it remained standing.

But serious trouble arose after women’s rights abolitionists, Angelina Grimke, Abby Kelly, Maria Weston Chapman and Lucretia Mott spoke at an informal anti-slavery event on Wednesday, May 16, 1838. Inside, the women were heckled, while outside a mob formed and began stoning the structure. African Americans exiting the event were “pummelled,” according to one observer chronicled in Brown’s piece.

After an official meeting of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women the following day, another menacing mob brewed. The hall requested police and sheriff protection before things escalated, but officials failed to comply.

Rioters broke into the building and torched it. Fire companies that arrived did not put out the blaze. Crews instead focused on neighboring properties — perhaps, Brown allowed, because they were deterred by the mob.

Over the next few days, the lives and homes of prominent abolitionists like Lucretia Mott and Samuel Webb were threatened. A mob tried to destroy a newly built Shelter for Colored Orphans near 13th and Callowhill, and attacked Mother Bethel, the African Methodist Episcopal church on 6th and Lombard. The current version of the church built in the 1880s still stands there today.

A government investigation into the burning of Pennsylvania Hall faulted the abolitionists for their progressive views and actions which stood in opposition to public consensus. Investigators took special issue with a scene where white women were seen arm-in-arm with African American men, and with the Abolitionist Society allowing people of color to sit among whites at events.

Nine years later, the society received $27k in restitution for the destruction of the $40k auditorium, but it was never rebuilt. Smith’s Hall, a property owned by a wealthy African American abolitionist, was used as a replacement — until it too was torched during the Lombard Street Riots.

Celebrations of freedom turn to bloodshed

The Public Ledger chronicled the lengthy, violent chaos that ensued during what came to be known as Philadelphia’s Lombard Street Riots.

A group of Black men and boys of the Vigilant Association, the Philadelphia Encyclopedia says, staged a parade on August 11 celebrating the end of enslavement in Jamaica and other progress made toward temperance and abolition. Some of their signs and banners apparently offended white onlookers. A skirmish ensued when some of those onlookers started chasing the parade and hurling animal innards and waste at the processional.

Tensions and mob violence escalated. The destruction was overwhelming, and included:

  • Attacks and ransacking of Black households, where families were dragged from their homes and beaten
  • At least two stabbings
  • A shooting that injured three people
  • Mass arrests of Black victims, ostensibly for their own “safety” from mob violence
  • The burning and complete destruction of Smith’s Hall, a property owned by a wealthy Black abolitionist named Stephen Smith, near 7th and Lombard
  •  The burning and destruction of Second African Presbyterian Church

In the case of both fires, as in the case of the Pennsylvania Hall firebombing, firefighters dedicated their resources to saving adjacent buildings, and let the targets burn.

Here’s a particularly disturbing excerpt about the beating of an African American man named James Mason from the Public Ledger:

Mason was supposed to be the person who had fired a gun and wounded one or more boys. He was taken in a house on the south side of Lombard street, between Seventh and Eighth. He was spoken to by officer Whisner, and requested to surrender himself to his keeping — that he would take him out the back way and thus rescue him from the immense throng of persons that filled the street in front… the black resisted and, as force was about to be used to take him, the door was bust open, the accused hurled head forward out to the crowd, and before his feet struck the pavement a hundred clubs … were leveled at his person.

The blows were heard to fall fast and heavy upon him, and the blood flew in every direction… after a few minutes beating he was dragged along the street by the head and shoulders, covered with blood and to all appearance dead.

The three-day riot scarred the South Philly landscape from 5th to 8th streets, and from Pine to what’s now called Bainbridge, according to an afterward from the Public Ledger.

A group of white men talking to a reporter the next day actually took off chasing a Black passerby during their interview. Some claimed Black Philadelphians took part in the riot, but a report from the Public Ledger dismissed that accusation as “one of the idle rumors with which the atmosphere is filled.”

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