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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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Youth Spaces in Bandstand's Backyard

These everyday fights over segregation were not confined to housing. For the teens who appeared on Bandstand and for those who watched the program on television, different levels of racial integration and segregation were part of their daily experiences in youth spaces such as schools, parties, snack counters, and roller rinks. As more black families moved into previously all-white neighborhoods in West Philadelphia, for example, some youth spaces became integrated by virtue of the racially mixed neighborhoods in which they were located. At West Philadelphia High School (WPHS) black enrollment grew from 10 percent in 1945 to 30 percent in 1951.[i] Black students held leadership roles in the school, including class president, received class honors in the school yearbook (e.g., most popular, most likely to succeed, peppiest), attended school dances, and participated on the boys' track, basketball, and swimming teams; the girls' sports club; and the school newspaper.[ii] Despite these signs of inclusion in the social life of the school, black students also encountered the anxieties of parents, teachers, administrators, and students who associated their presence with racially changing neighborhoods. In 1951, for example, George Montgomery, the newly appointed principal at WPHS, singled out working-class black students in an assembly after an incident in the school. The Philadelphia Tribune quoted Montgomery as telling the students: “Negroes have become more conspicuous in Philadelphia. There are [a] few intelligent Negroes in the city, there are some fine colored children. However, if you choose to class yourself with them, then it is up to you to go home and ask your parents to which class they prefer you to belong to, the lower or upper class of colored people.”[iii] Class differences among the black students at West Philadelphia, specifically the entrance of working-class students from the “black bottom” neighborhood, motivated at least some of this racial anxiety. Walter Palmer, who lived in the “black bottom” and graduated from West Philadelphia in 1953, recalled that most of his black and white classmates lived in the more prosperous “top” or western part of West Philadelphia. “We dressed differently, talked, walked, danced, and fought differently,” Palmer remembered. “They were folks with better resources. They tolerated people like myself because they needed me to protect them outside of the school. We didn’t get invited to their parties. We would invite them to ours, but they would be too afraid to come.”[iv] While it was far from a model of racial equality, in the early 1950s WPHS was among the only high schools in the city that were neither 90 percent white nor 90 percent black (90 percent being the percentage the city’s civil rights leaders would later use to define segregated schools).

Outside of school, informal youth gatherings at house parties and snack shops offered the possibility of interracial association. Dances in the small basements of row houses were a frequent social outlet for teens in West Philadelphia. Weldon McDougall, who grew up in a subdivided house on 48th and Westminster Avenue, in what he called the “top part” (or northwest side) of the “black bottom” neighborhood, remembered:
In the neighborhoods, this is how it worked. I lived at 48th street. Somebody would say, "hey man, there’s a dance on at Shirley’s house tomorrow." On the way to Shirley’s house which is maybe two blocks away, you could hear a party going on in another basement. So you go down there, and you know there some kids there dancing and having a good time. Well, anybody could come down there. And like I said, we lived next door to white guys and everything so they would come to the dances.
Between twenty and fifty teenagers, mostly black but some Italian and Irish teens from the neighborhood, squeezed into these basements to dance to their favorite R&B songs, and whatever other 45’s they brought to the party. McDougall recalls that there were five or six of these local dances every Friday and Saturday in his West Philadelphia neighborhood.[v]

In addition to weekend dances, young people hung out at a variety of lunch counters, soda fountains, and ice cream parlors in West Philadelphia. While historical evidence of the racial climate of these establishments is difficult to ascertain and surely varied based on proprietor and clientele, at least one attempted to welcome both black and white teenage customers. Joe’s Snack Bar, located across the street from the West Philadelphia High School, placed advertisements in the school’s yearbook every year from 1954 to 1960.[vi] These ads stand out from those of the other shops and services that advertised to West Philadelphia students and their parents because every Joe’s Snack Bar ad pictured the proprietors, a middle-aged white couple, happily serving an interracial group of students.

In contrast to the opportunities for casual and friendly interracial interactions at WPHS, basement parties, and some snack shops, other youth spaces were segregated by policy or by custom. Many popular social and recreational spaces used by young people, such as roller skating rinks, bowling alleys, and swimming pools, had segregated admissions practices that flouted the city’s antidiscrimination policies. The Adelphia Skating Rink in West Philadelphia on 39th and Market Street, for example, operated as a club that required teens to be sponsored by members in order to be admitted. Using this policy, the rink’s manager turned away any potential customers he deemed undesirable, including all black teenagers.[vii] The discriminatory practices at the Adelphia, as well as at rinks in other sections of the city, drew the attention of the local branches of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Working in cooperation with adult members of the ACLU and NAACP, the teenage members of the Fellowship Club formed interracial teams to test the policies of the city’s rinks. With the help of Fellowship Club’s volunteer investigators, the ACLU and NAACP brought the skating rink issue to the Commission on Human Relations (CHR).

In spring of 1953, after receiving reports of discrimination at skating rinks, CHR officials met with the owners of Imperial and Adelphia, as well as four other rinks. The CHR secured written agreements from all of the rink owners to operate in accordance with the city’s anti-discrimination policies.[viii] Despite these agreements, when mixed groups of skaters from the Fellowship Club tested the rinks’ policies, they continued to find evidence of racially exclusive signs and membership practices, and of managers encouraging segregated patronage. In further defiance of the city’s antidiscrimination policies, rink operator Joe Toppi called the CHR before he opened the Imperial skating rink in West Philadelphia on 60th and Walnut Street to ask permission to operate the rink on a segregated basis. After being informed that this would be illegal, Toppi said he would not exclude anyone, but that he would do everything he could to influence white and black teens to come on different nights. With the rink set to open in early September 1953, Toppi posted signs at the rink and distributed fliers in West Philadelphia and South Philadelphia publicizing three “white nights” and three “sepia nights” a week. This practice immediately drew criticism from the black community in West Philadelphia, and on September 17 a group of black teenagers from the NAACP youth council picketed the rink.[ix] This same group of teens gained admission on one of the “white nights” and reported that the white skaters were friendly and that no incidents occurred. Despite the efforts of these black teens, Toppi kept his signs up and continued encouraging white teens to skate on “white” nights and black teens to come on “sepia” nights until at least the following year.[x]

The strongest remedial powers at the CHR’s disposal were public hearings, which it used for the first time in the skating rink discrimination cases. In the internal meeting where it decided to use public hearings, the CHR identified three purposes: First, it would give “the respondent an extra chance to comply before taking him to trial.” Second, it would have a “good psychological effect [and] both the respondent and complainant would be more impressed by the power of the CHR.” And third, the “hearing could be of tremendous community value.” Whereas the CHR lacked the power to address many facets of discrimination in the city, it believed these youth cases would “strengthen the CHR” and show that the group was “coming of age,” without forcing the group to test its authority by confronting the school board or business interests as it would in large-scale education or employment cases.[xi] In May 1954, the CHR held public hearings charging the proprietors of two skating rinks in Northeast Philadelphia of failing to comply with city and state laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations or recreation. The CHR reached a settlement calling for the rinks to stop using membership cards and other discriminatory membership practices, and to post signs stating the new nondiscriminatory admissions policies.[xii] While the agreement reduced the discriminatory practices at most rinks and the CHR did not hear another skating rink case, the Fellowship Club volunteers continued to find evidence of segregation at skating rinks and bowling alleys through the late 1950s.[xiii]

The CHR’s public hearings on discrimination at skating rinks came just days before the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the first Brown decision on May 17, 1954, outlawing de jure racial segregation in education. Although the decision applied only to the southern and midwestern states in which schools were segregated by law, many civil rights advocates in Philadelphia expressed optimism that the decisions would force the city to address the de facto racial segregation of its schools. However, the Philadelphia school board’s independence from the city government insulated the schools from CHR investigations. The CHR’s inability to check housing discrimination or address school segregation made small victories like the skating rink cases all the more important. Yet despite its attention to integration in these youth spaces, the CHR was wholly ineffective when faced with the segregation of Bandstand, the most visible youth space in Philadelphia. If the housing fights in Bandstand’s backyard of West Philadelphia were about the physical proximity of people of different races as neighbors, the struggles over segregation on Bandstand were about the potential for teenage social interactions, and televisual representations of these meetings, to disturb anti-integration sentiments among the viewing public.

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