Black Homeownership Before World War II

South Front Street House, Philadelphia, PA, (LOC)

On November 2, 1914, twenty eight-year-old James H. Teagle, the “colored” chauffeur for Philadelphia City Controller John Walton, left his trinity house at 215 S. Delhi Street to move into a home at 6112 Spruce Street with his white wife Laura and mother-in-law Aurelia Jones.1

Alhough Teagle knew segregation was strongly enforced by white residents, he chose to leave South Philadelphia where there were unsafe and unsanitary housing conditions for a better life in West Philadelphia. The next day, a white mob gathered outside their home, broke their windows, and demanded the family “vacate immediately.”

On November 4 another white mob of approximately one thousand people surrounded the Teagle home. James Teagle had left for work, leaving his family to face a white mob who taunted the family and began to throw sticks, bricks, and stones at the house. One youth used an ax to shatter the glass on the front door. The stoning of the Teagle house damaged window panes and furniture, and injured Teagle’s mother-in-law who was knocked unconscious by a stone or brick that came through a window. Around 8:00 pm, Teagle arrived home and upon seeing the riot he called the police. When 18th District Police arrived, they dispersed the mob but made no arrests. Two days later, the Teagles agreed to move and their white neighbors raised money to purchase their home and pay for the damages made by the white mob.

Following the incident, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) investigated the riot and concluded that the Teagles were not solely attacked because Teagle was a Black man who moved into their all-white neighborhood. His white neighbors also despised him because of his interracial marriage. The NAACP offered legal support, but Teagle refused and later moved into an apartment located in a Black neighborhood in North Philadelphia. This incident of racial violence was one of thousands involving middle-class African American families attempting to desegregate all-white residential communities.

During the Great Migration (1916-1970), Black migration and settlement into all-white neighborhoods triggered resistance from white segregationists in the form of race riots, police power, and discriminatory housing laws. Additionally, Black people faced de facto segregation in Northern cities where they were banned from patronizing lunch counters, hotels, restaurants, and theaters. However, many African Americans were still able to overcome those racial barriers and achieve homeownership. From 1908 to 1935, many Black Philadelphians achieved middle-class status as teachers, policemen, businessmen, physicians, and clergymen. Black homeownership in Philadelphia increased by over 1,200%, making it an exceptional yet capitalist-driven city with the most Black homeowners above the Mason-Dixon line.

Prior to World War II, middle-class African Americans began to move away from the slums and into adequate housing in all-white neighborhoods for a chance at a better life. However, racial outbursts of residential violence forced many African Americans back into the impoverished slums which they fought to avoid. Moreover, white residents’ belief in racist stereotypes of African Americans as prone to “poverty, crime, and sexual promiscuity” justified their resistance to desegregation with violence, restrictive covenants, and white flight.2

Blackness and poverty were social stigmas often equated with immorality and crime. In sociologist W.E.B. DuBois’ 1899 monograph, The Philadelphia Negro, he discussed the competing theories of nature versus nurture in regard to the “submerged tenth,” a term coined by English theologian William Booth in his 1890 book, In Darkest England, and the Way Out, referring to the bottom tenth of the population that remained entrenched in poverty. DuBois argued that the intersecting stigmas of Blackness and poverty led to stereotyping African American residents of South Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward as inherently vulnerable to vice and crime. From August 1896 to December 1897, DuBois and his assistant Isabel Eaton conducted 5,000 interviews, mapped landmarks and social institutions, and administered questionnaires to residents. Through his research he determined that poor Black people were not a threat to the morality and safety of society. As DuBois explained, “ignorance, poverty, crime, and the dislike of the stranger” were factors supporting white racism against African Americans through socioeconomic inequality, housing discrimination, and racial violence that created conditions in which Black people fell into poverty, illiteracy, vice, and crime. Nevertheless, he concluded that while there were African Americans who engaged in crime, Black people were not inherently immoral or criminal because of their race, as pseudoscientists asserted. These racist myths encouraged many outside of the “submerged tenth” to view the Black poor as threats to middle-class and all-white communities.

By the 1930s, not all Black families experienced violent backlash from their white neighbors like James Teagle’s family did. White flight occurred in some urban metropolises prior to World War II. During the Great Migration, many white residents moved out to all-white neighborhoods on the margins of the city in a phenomenon historian James Wolfinger describes as the “black core–white periphery form of many of America’s postwar cities.” White real estate agents wanted to profit from segregation and desegregation, so they often catered to Black families who had the money to rent and buy homes. In response to Black settlement, white families panicked and sold their homes to realtors at a price below market value and moved to another racially homogenous community. Furthermore, as economists Allison Shertzer and Randall Walsh have explained, it wasn’t overcrowding that initiated this pre-WWII white flight, but racial prejudice because the suburbanization of counties outside of major cities with new and affordable housing had not occurred until the postwar era.

In 1900, the 32nd Ward of North Philadelphia in the area bounded by Norris Street to the North and Montgomery Avenue to the South and extending from 19th Street east to 18th Street, was an all-white neighborhood. Among the 200 English, German, and Irish American families that lived there, the only African Americans who resided there were nineteen servants in private households. By 1930, at least 50% of the neighborhood contained African American families, many of whom were renters from the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, Mississippi, and West Virginia. Among the new arrivals to the neighborhood were middle-class Black people who could afford to purchase their own home. Randolph Thompson, a Virginia-born construction worker and World War I veteran who served in major battles at Saint-Dié-des-Vosges and Meuse-Argonne, moved with his wife Ethel from Southwest Philadelphia to a home at 1813 Berks Street, which they purchased for $5,000. Other newcomers to the neighborhood were real estate agent Elizabeth A. Madison, roofer William Stewart, and dressmaker Maggie E. Cook.

As African Americans moved into the 32nd Ward, many white families moved out. While some white residents moved to suburban areas to avoid desegregation, others frantically moved multiple times throughout the city to find “peace” in an all-white neighborhood. In 1900, Tennessee-born jewelry engraver Thomas Washington Hitchcock lived with his wife and four children in a home at 2047 N. Gratz Street, located in an all-white community. By 1910, Hitchcock sold his house and moved with his family to another home in North Philadelphia located at 1929 N. 19th Street. At this home, the same one James Teagle would eventually live in by 1920, Hitchcock was unsatisfied with the demographic change in the area, sold the house, and moved again. At the time of Hitchcock’s death in 1924, his family lived in a new home, two doors down from their previous residence. Furthermore, Hitchcock’s death did not end the family’s instinct to engage in white flight. In 1930, Hitchcock’s wife Anna moved with her family for a fourth time to an all-white North Philadelphia neighborhood where there were still affordable homes available! Moreover, racism and irrational fear about a “black invasion” drove thousands of white residents to leave their neighborhoods during the early years of the Great Migration.

In March 1935, the Philadelphia Tribune published its investigation into Philadelphia’s housing situation. In the article, “Slums No Accident Claims Tribune Housing Investigator,” journalist Harry B. Webber explained how real estate agents capitalized on racial prejudice and profited from “black and white alike” by engaging in blockbusting. Realtors often “planted” a “colored family” in a “lily white block” in North and West Philadelphia neighborhoods and waited for white families to respond with panic selling. Real estate agents knew white residents would detest their Black neighbors, so they offered white homeowners cash for their homes. White families took the money and put a down payment on a new home in a white neighborhood, while the realtors sold the vacated homes to Black families at a rate of at least a thousand dollars more than what the real estate agents paid. By 1935, this was a citywide realtor scheme done on approximately 5,500 residential blocks in Philadelphia.

Pre-World War II white flight occurred in Philadelphia and other Northern cities like Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, and Cleveland where residential segregation increased nationally by 34% in the 1910s and over 50% during the 1920s. From the 1920s-1940s, North, West, and South Philadelphia saw its Black population increase by 50-80% as white flight occurred. For the white families who either refused to move or could not afford to leave their community as it desegregated, racial tropes about African American communities encouraged white people to stay within their neighborhoods and only utilize public and private resources like schools and businesses that were contained in their communities. However, many African Americans continued to desegregate all-white neighborhoods in urban cities and the suburbs, with a small percentage of Black and mixed-race families experiencing incidents of residential violence through the 1970s. The legacy of housing discrimination in America is not only hypersegregation, but also racial tension and inequality. Since 2000, Philadelphia has consistently ranked one of the top twelve most-segregated cities in America. Additionally, the same disadvantaged, non-white spaces marginalized by segregation and divestment generations ago are now hotspots for COVID cases, food deserts, and defunded education. Housing discrimination has been legally banned on paper since 1968, but there is still more work to do in eliminating the lingering effects of its past existence today.

  1. “Teagle’s White Wife the Cause of Trouble at 60th and Spruce Streets,” Philadelphia Tribune, Nov. 14, 1914, 5. A trinity house, also known as a bandbox house, was an attached, two or three-story townhouse under 1000 square feet with a winding staircase and each floor containing one room. Today, Philadelphia’s “rowhomes” are the closest likeness to a bandbox home of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
  2. James Wolfinger, Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 2.
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Menika Dirkson

Menika Dirkson is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Morgan State University. She received her Ph.D. in History from Temple University while her M.A. in History and B.A. in History, Latin American Studies, and Cultural Studies are from Villanova University. She has received grants from the Philadelphia Foundation and Thomas Jefferson University’s Arlen Specter Center for her research on police-Black community relations in Philadelphia following the Civil Rights Era. Dirkson’s research and writing have appeared in articles for the Urban History Association’s The Metropole and the Washington Post. She is currently working on a book entitled, Hope and Struggle in the Policed City: The Rise of Black Criminalization and Resistance in Philadelphia. You can follow her on Twitter @Philadelphian91.