- Building the Beloved Community: Philadelphia's Interracial Civil Rights Organizations and Race Relations, 1930–1970 by Stanley Keith Arnold
During recent years, the struggle for civil rights and racial equality north of the Mason-Dixon line has received an increasing amount of scholarly attention, and Stanley Keith Arnold's Building the Beloved Community is a strong addition to that scholarship. Arnold brings a distinctive perspective to his study of Philadelphia race relations during the early and middle twentieth century. Rather than presenting a more conventional account of minority-group activism against white resistance, Arnold focuses on the efforts of interracial advocacy groups to overcome segregation and shape a future of racial "fellowship."
As Arnold explains in presenting the historical background to his study, Philadelphia has had a long history of racial tension and discrimination against its African American residents despite its Quaker origins and its founder's vision of a "city of brotherly love." By the turn of the twentieth century, black Philadelphians were generally limited to poorly paid occupations in personal service or unskilled labor, lived in substandard housing in parts of South, North, and West Philadelphia, and had limited educational opportunities. The northward Great Migration of southern blacks, which began around 1915, exacerbated existing frictions as thousands of newcomers pressed into the city.
Concerned Delaware Valley residents formed a number of nongovernmental organizations in response to these high-profile problems, and while [End Page 425] Arnold surveys the work of quite a few of these, Building the Beloved Community centers its focus upon the efforts of two groups of long standing: Fellowship House and the Fellowship Commission (despite the similarity of their names, these were two distinct organizations). Both organizations represented the work of African American and white activists who joined hands across the color line to weaken discrimination and build a sense of interracial understanding. Fellowship House had its origins in several committees formed in the 1920s by the mostly white Protestant Council of Churches, by Philadelphia's two Quaker denominations, and by local black leaders. By the early 1930s these had evolved into the Young People's Interracial Fellowship, a group in which white and black activists cooperated in leadership and which tried to build ties between young people of both races. In 1941 the YPIF purchased a property near Broad and Brown streets in North Philadelphia and renamed the building and the organization "Fellowship House." The same year also saw the formation of the Fellowship Commission, which functioned as a "clearinghouse" whose members were organizations engaged in some way in the struggle against racial or religious discrimination; its inaugural (and long-time) leader, Maurice Fagan, a veteran of B'nai B'rith, was committed to a wide-ranging campaign to bring an end to racial strife.
While building his account along a generally chronological framework, Arnold has arranged the volume into thematic chapters focusing on issues such as education, employment and housing. This structure leads to some redundancy across chapters and sometimes makes it difficult to follow the efforts of the various organizations as one encounters them addressing these areas of concern over the decades. This is nonetheless a sound method of organization that allows the reader to understand the complexity of issues, such as school desegregation and instances of violent white resistance to new black neighbors, while illustrating the specific efforts the interracial organizations made to ameliorate these issues (and also allowing for a portrayal of the changing Philadelphia political environment within which the groups had to work).
Building the Beloved Community is a work that is in many ways inspiring, not least because Arnold portrays the formidable barriers to racial justice present in the mid-twentieth-century Delaware Valley, and then presents the work of clear-eyed and determined activists to overcome these barriers. We meet, for instance, the Quaker Helen Bryan, who was key in organizing the YPIF; Marjorie Penney, another white activist who [End Page 426] served as longtime director of Fellowship House; the aforementioned...