Black Leadership's Response to the Great Depression in Philadelphia

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This book analyzes the role black leaders in Philadelphia played in addressing problems caused by the Great Depression. The historical significance of Philadelphia as a refuge from slavery, the unique relationship between blacks and whites, and the creativity and penchant for leadership displayed by Philadelphians, made the “Quaker City” an excellent backdrop for study. Since colonial times, black Philadelphians established the standards and norms of leadership emulated by African Americans of prominence. While Philadelphia serves as the primary locale of the study, the roles played by African American leaders residing in cities throughout the United States also received attention. Chapters on the economic crisis as it related to housing, politics, education, the local NAACP, and black institutional life offer insight in to the problems and problem-solving expertise of sable spokespersons in Philadelphia. Class versus racial issues provided an ancillary theme of the book. Black leaders had to decide whether the dedication toward racial amelioration exceeded concerns harbored by the black bourgeoisie. Indeed, the motives of contemporary black spokespersons may be gleaned from the actions and decisions made by Philadelphia’s black leadership during the depression era. This work should appeal to high school and college students and anyone interested in history, sociology, and psychology.


“Dr. Nelson has written an important book. This work brings the African American leadership in Philadelphia during the Great Depression into focus. What Dr. Nelson demonstrates in his well-argued book is that the leadership legacy emanating from the works of James Pennington, William Wells Brown, Martin Robinson Delany, and George Washington Williams, was more complicated than it seems on first reading ... We owe Dr. Nelson a great intellectual debt for tracing the failure of black middle class leadership during the Great Depression and showing us the result of this legacy in our current society. He has challenged us as a society to examine the origins of the black leadership crisis and to see how it has impacted upon our social and political development. This is an extremely brave and provocative reading of the black leadership crisis in a major American city during a period of social and economic upheaval.” – (from the Foreword) Professor Molefi Kete Asante, Temple University

“In a fundamentally historical rather than sociological work, Dr. Nelson has had the liberty of identifying individual actors with the dilemmas that the Depression brought to them, while showing how generations of racial oppression limited their ability to imagine new choices. The great strength of this book lies in its ability to set actors into a long debilitating moment in time, and to illustrate how vulnerable they all were to the accumulated history of white oppression. The daily struggles of leadership in a national crisis have been brought to life for one of the nation’s largest black communities in an extraordinary manner.” – Professor William Toll, University of Oregon

“Dr. Nelson makes a powerful argument, that the main failure of Philadelphia’s, as well as the nation’s, black leadership was that it was primarily concerned with protecting the interests of middle class blacks and only secondarily, if at all, with the well-being of the black masses. He supports this argument with overwhelming primary evidence ... This is an excellent piece of scholarly work, and will make a real contribution to historians interested in black history, social history, and twentieth-century American history ...” – David T. Morgan, Professor Emeritus, University of Montevallo

Table of Contents

Foreword by Molefi Kete Asanti
1. Philadelphia’s Black Elite
2. Strategies for Black Economic Survival
3. Middle Class Leadership and Housing Reform
4. Black Leaders and the Politics of Survival
5. Conflicts over Public Education
6. The Philadelphia NAACP: Epitome of a Middle Class Institution
7. Black Secular and Religious Organizations
8. Postscript
Chapter Notes
Note on Sources

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