When it comes to racism in Pa., not much has changed | Michael Coard

A look at the commonwealth’s history reveals a long and troubling past

February 10, 2023 6:30 am

Cindy Zaman (R), of Philadelphia, speaks out against MOVE members use of God’s name as member Michael Africa (L) shouts to the crowd during a commemorative march held for victims of the 1985 MOVE fire May 14, 2005 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia police dropped explosives onto the headquarters of the radical group MOVE destroying 61 homes and killing eleven people, five of which were children. The tragedy has cost the city of Philadelphia almost $60 million in restitution. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

This is the first of my biweekly columns here at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. And it’s gonna start off with a bang!

The columns will be installments in what will be called “Michael Coard’s Appeal to the Black Citizens (and others) of Pennsylvania.” This title is a tribute to the great and fiery abolitionist David Walker who, in 1830, published the greatest and most fiery edition of “An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World.”

At the outset, allow me to introduce myself. I am a trial attorney, radio/tv host, adjunct professor of African and African-American history, and columnist for two newspapers and one newsmagazine.

But mostly, I’m the self-described “Angriest Black Man in America.” I explain that designation by paraphrasing James Baldwin, arguably America’s greatest writer, scholar, and social critic in the mid-late 20th century, who said “To be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”

Now let’s get the ball rolling. Or, better stated, the fire started, by addressing racism in Pennsylvania. 

As documented by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission: “Approximately, 12,600 years ago, ice glaciers had receded from the area that became Pennsylvania, and about 10,000 years ago …, a period of warming began in which the rivers and coastlines of Pennsylvania started to take their modern form. The earliest known human remains have been found at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, thirty miles south west of Pittsburgh. They are evidence of a food gathering culture in operation probably between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago.” 

The Commission continues by adding, “when first ‘discovered’ by Europeans,

Pennsylvania, like the rest of the continent, was inhabited by groups of people of ‘Mongoloid’ ancestry long known as ‘American Indians.’ Today, they are designated as ‘Native Americans.’”  

Although, to a large extent, I respect the scholarship of the commission, I must pause here for a second and express how repulsed I am by such racist phrases and terms as “first discovered by Europeans” and “Mongoloid” and “American Indian” and “Indian.”

But I digress. There will be more about Euro-centrically racist ostensible scholarship in future columns.  

The manifestation of Pennsylvania’s racism began shortly after English Captain John Smith in 1608 on behalf of the Virginia Company of London and then English explorer Henry Hudson in 1609 on behalf of the Dutch East India Company encroached upon the land originally inhabited by Red people from the Erie, Honniasont, Huron, Iroquois, Leni Lenape, Munsee, Sasquesahanough, Shawnee, and other indigenous nations since before circa 1550. 

That racist encroachment was followed by broken treaties, land robbery, enslavement, colonization, and eventually genocide.  

Fast forward to as early as 1639 when, as noted in “The Negro In Pennsylvania, Slavery-Servitude-Freedom, 1639-1861” by E.R. Turner, the Dutch and the Swedes initiated enslavement of Africans here. In fact, William Penn himself in 1685 enslaved at least three Black human beings at his Pennsbury manor, 20 miles north of Philadelphia. 

These types of incidents are not aberrational or from a long time ago. They’re systemic and current.

You want proof?

Here are just just some of literally thousands of examples that provide irrefutable proof since the late 19th through the early 21st centuries alone:

  • Commonwealth Lynchings: From 1894-1911, at least six Black men were lynched by white mobs
  • Pittsburgh Police 1909: As disclosed by the Equal Justice Initiative, “On February 2, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania police raided the city’s Herron Hill neighbor- indiscriminately raiding every Black home in the neighborhood- and arrested over 200 Black men for being unemployed …. The next day, city officials sent the arrested men to the workhouse and consigned them to forced labor.”
  • Chester Race Riot, 1917: During four days of violent bloodshed in July led by the white Pennsylvania National Guard, the white Pennsylvania State Police, the white mounted city police, and a deputized posse of 150 white men, a total of 28 persons were shot, seven killed, and 360 arrested. 
  • Levittown Race Riot, 1957: As revealed by Jasmine Torres and Alan Singer in their article entitled “Levittown, PA and The ‘Northern Promised Land That Wasn’t,’” after Gov. George Leader on August 15 ordered the state police to the city “to cope with an outbreak of bad feelings over the arrival of the first Negro homeowner, a mob of up to 350 white men, women, and children stoned a house in the Dogwood Hollow sub-division purchased by an African American family …. The [three-day] Levittown protests were led by a group called the Levittown Betterment Association, which identified its main purpose as ‘restoring of our entire white community.’” All of this was after “Levitt & Sons [had] built suburban Levittowns [townhouses] in … Pennsylvania … that barred African Americans … [by inserting a clause mandating that] ‘houses could not be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.’” It was after the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1948 Shelly v. Kraemer case voided that blatantly racist clause that those racist white people in Levittown went crazy- correction, went crazier- for over a decade. 
  • Philadelphia Police Firebombing, 1985: On May 13, white cops dropped a bomb on a Black West Philadelphia neighborhood and nearly 500 of them fired over 10,000 rounds of ammunition on a Black residential street, murdering eleven human beings, including five Black children, and incinerating 61 Black homes.
  • The rise of white supremacy in Pennsylvania: A meticulous report by the Anti-Defamation League disclosed that “Pennsylvania [in 2021] had the highest number of white supremacist incidents in the country.”
  • Pennsylvania’s Republican 2022 gubernatorial nominee, state Sen. Doug Mastriano,  proudly wore a pro-slavery Confederate uniform in 2014, and attended the Jan. 6, 2021 Confederate flag-waving insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, though he says he didn’t participate. He received 2,235,660 votes in the Nov. 8 gubernatorial election. That says much more, i.e. much worse, about the irredeemable racism of at least 41.7 percent of Pennsylvania’s voters than it does about him.

Stay tuned. The next column will continue to enrage some and enlighten others. Either way, it’s gonna be fire!

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Michael Coard
Michael Coard

Opinion contributor Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune. His work appears regularly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @michaelcoard.