1842 Philadelphia Race Riot Erupts
On Monday morning, Aug. 1, 1842, a violent episode in Philadelphia’s history occurred when a race riot broke out in the streets of the historic Pennsylvania city. Fighting between blacks and whites flared for three days, finally quelled when the local militia separated the antagonists and made some arrests. Dozens of people were injured, many severely, and extensive property damage was done to the African American section of the city.
For over a decade prior to the 1842 riot, confrontations had been flaring up between Philadelphia’s growing population of freed blacks and escaped slaves on the one hand, and Irish immigrants on the other. Both groups occupied the bottom rung on the city’s social ladder, both faced enormous prejudice, and both competed for the lowest-paying, lowest-skilled jobs.
On the morning of Aug. 1, 1842, more than 1,000 African Americans participated in a temperance march through the streets of Philadelphia. August 1 was also the anniversary of the 1834 British Slavery Abolition Act, and some of the temperance marchers carried a banner commemorating that historic law. The banner showed a freed slave with broken chains at his feet. Over his head was the word “Liberty,” while in the background was a rising sun and a sinking slave ship.
A crowd of mainly Irish immigrants had gathered to watch this large display of blacks calling for an end to drinking. Apparently, the “Liberty or Death” banner was the final provocation to spark the onlookers. Taunting escalated to throwing stones and bricks, and suddenly a full-scale riot was underway.
The Irish mob succeeded in dispersing the temperance marchers, but the fighting continued as the rioters stormed into the black section of the city and started destroying houses, churches and businesses. Although the initial attack was on Shippen Street, much of the rioting occurred on Lombard Street and the three-day disturbance has come to be called “The Lombard Street Riot.”
The following six newspaper articles are about the 1842 Philadelphia race riot. The first article is an eyewitness account of the violence, published by the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) on Aug. 3, 1842:
A Riot in Philadelphia
Philadelphia, August 1—P.M.
It is with pain and mortification that I inform you of the events of this day. The old, and I fear inextinguishable enmity between the whites and blacks of the southern section of the city has again broken out, and the eruption has been characterized by fierce turmoil and strife among great bodies of these two classes, and by acts of brutal violence utterly disgraceful to a civilized community. I have deferred until ten o’clock (evening) the task of recounting the causes and extent of the riots, but while I write the alarm is sounded afresh, and the light of a second fire is bursting over the scene of action.
This day was designated for certain temperance festivities and the meeting of a convention of colored men. It is, I believe, the anniversary of the emancipation of the slaves in Jamaica. In the morning a procession of the temperance societies was moving through Southwark, composed, as I learn, both of white and black societies. As the procession moved along Shippen street, the display made by the blacks excited the ridicule and indignation of some boys. Taunting words were soon followed by the throwing of stones and bricks. The American flag borne in the procession was seized—but the blacks being the stronger party turned upon the assailants (who had increased in numbers) and cleared the street. A number of butchers in the lower market attempted to rally the whites, but failed. At this stage of the proceedings a white man was stabbed. The fire bells were then rung, which brought the fire companies to the ground, and for a while there was comparative peace. But as soon as the companies departed, the whites reassembled and attacked the negro houses in South and Lombard streets. The fight now became general and furious and hundreds were engaged in it. Two white men were stabbed, one in the face and another in the abdomen. Many on both sides were more or less hurt by the missiles hurled back and forth, and two deaths were reported from this cause.
Meanwhile the police had been called to the scene of action and arrested many of the rioters. Their interference, however, caused only a temporary cessation of hostilities. All the stores and houses in the neighborhood were closed. The whites then rallied and attacked the church of the Presbyterian colored congregation in St. Mary’s street (all these streets are in the southern part of the city) and broke many of the windows. At some period of these attacks a black child is said to have been killed and a white man was frightfully beaten. A number of the negro houses were stripped of their furniture and the tenants severely injured. About three or four o’clock one of the blacks presented a gun from a window. He fired and wounded three boys. Soon afterward he was dragged from the house and shockingly mangled by the assailants. A witness of the fight informs me that the man was lying in the gutter apparently dead.
The police force was by this time sufficiently augmented to suppress the fury of the mob, and up to nine o’clock this evening, although large crowds were collected in the neighborhood, there were no further active hostilities. At that hour, however, a building known as Smith’s Beneficial Hall, and used for meetings of the blacks, was discovered to be on fire. It was totally destroyed. While yet burning, the church above mentioned, about a hundred yards distant, was also found to be in flames. It is burning while I write.
I have just learned that as yet none of the persons wounded have died, although the injuries of some are very serious. One or more of the volunteer companies have been notified to be ready for service, but are not yet on duty. It is now past eleven o’clock and the alarms have ceased. There is entire confidence in the firmness and vigilance of the Mayor, and although the riots have continued so long, I do not think he has failed in using the force which he could command for the emergency.
These outrageous proceedings are another evidence of the impolicy of extraordinary public displays by the blacks in masses. They never lead to any good, and almost invariably to mischief. In this city, or in that district where the laboring white and black population find themselves on a level in means and in personal and social comforts, jealousies of the fiercest character are naturally engendered, and will be exhibited in acts of the wildest ferocity whenever opportunity may offer. This has been and will be again. How silly, then, how wicked is it in those who profess peculiar interest in the welfare of the blacks to encourage any demonstrations tending to the results which we have witnessed today! On the 30th of this month, a convention is to be held (at least it is announced) of blacks from different parts of the Union, to meet in this city, for the purpose of considering their position in society, their civil rights, &c. So I understand the project. What, in the name of sense, can be effected by such a convocation? On whom will their proceedings operate? What class not already their special friends can they influence? I cannot but regard the movement as most ill-advised. It will, in my opinion, be another signal for violence and bloodshed; and I trust the sober friends of this unfortunate race will interpose their voice in season, and prevent the assemblage.
This article was published by the Philadelphia Gazette on the first day of the riot, August 1, and reprinted by the Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) on Aug. 2, 1842:
This morning, between ten and eleven o’clock, a most alarming riot and fight, attended with much personal injury and bloodshed, took place between white and black persons, in the vicinity of South and Seventh. All ages and sizes and colored persons of both sexes were engaged in it.
The affray began in Shippen street, between Fourth and Fifth, in consequence of an attack made by several white boys upon a procession of temperance colored men and boys who were marching through the streets, intending to participate during the day in a temperance festival over Schuylkill.
Soon after the onset the fight became general and missiles of every description were thrown: clubs, brickbats, stones were thrown and numbers severely hurt. The procession dispersed and the crowd highly incensed proceeded to the neighborhood of South and Sixth to Seventh and through St. Mary’s street, where for a time the melee was of the most violent character. All the houses in the vicinity occupied by black persons were attacked and in a few moments thousands of brickbats hurled through the air, back and forth with the greatest profusion and violence.
A large number of white and black persons were seriously injured—one white man was stabbed in the eye, and one of his arms broken; another was cut in the abdomen; others of both colors were knocked down with clubs and stones, and awfully cut and mangled. The houses and stores in the vicinity were closed, and the inmates sought refuge within doors.
The city police officers with the mayor, soon arrived, and the combatants were dispersed. A number of the ringleaders were arrested and put in confinement. Officer Whisner, of Moyamensing, arrested one desperate character who it is believed stabbed one of the white men.
Between 12 and 1 o’clock, although the throng was immense, the rioters had dispersed and partial quiet was restored.
The houses in the neighborhood were more or less injured by brickbats thrown into the windows. A small church in St. Mary street suffered somewhat in the breaking of the windows.
It was rumored that in the fight a colored child was killed. We did not ascertain it to be a fact, and have some doubts as to its truth.
This article was published by the Daily Ohio State Journal (Columbus, Ohio) on Aug. 6, 1842:
Disgraceful Riot at Philadelphia
Philadelphia was disgraced on Monday last by a disturbance between the black and white population. A procession had been formed by the former to pass through the principal streets, into the country, to attend a Temperance celebration. It was interrupted by some white men whereupon a fight ensued, which led to a general attack upon the quarters of the blacks. Several of the latter were dreadfully beaten, and some arrests were made. The destruction of property was very considerable, and it was supposed that several deaths would ensue.
The next two articles are about the controversial banner that apparently provoked the mob to attack the marchers. The banner was displayed at the mayor’s office after the riot ended.
This article was published by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on Aug. 5, 1842:
It seems that the “Liberty or Death” banner, which was one of the moving causes of the riot, contained merely the figure of a negro, pointing to some broken chains at his feet, the word “Liberty” over his head, while the burning town, so called, was a representation of the rising sun, and a sinking ship, emblematic of the dawn of freedom and the wreck of tyranny. The other side contained merely a plain inscription.
This article was published by the Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) on Aug. 5, 1842:
The Philadelphia Riot
This distressing affair is at an end, and peace and order once more prevail as usual. On Wednesday, a banner, which was said to have caused the first disturbance, was exhibited at the mayor’s office. It displayed the word “Liberty,” with the device of a slave having just broken his chains. In the distance are seen the rising sun and a sinking slave ship. On the reverse of the banner is the following inscription:
“The Young Men’s Vigilant Association of Philadelphia.
How grand in age, how fair in truth,
Are holy Friendship, Love and Truth.
Instituted July 23, 1841.”
This editorial, published after the riot ended, calls for changes in how the civil authorities handle future disturbances and emergencies. It was published by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on Aug. 4, 1842:
The Peace of the City
The recent disturbances in our city cannot be adverted to, but with pain and mortification. Some days will elapse before the whole truth will be known. The spirit of misrepresentation has been busily at work since Monday morning, and stories in some instances of the most unfounded kind, and in many of the most exaggerated character, have passed from lip to lip. It will probably turn out, that the so-called offensive banners of the blacks, were either misunderstood or misrepresented. It is but right to state here, however, that many persons, and among them the city authorities, were not aware that the proposed Temperance Procession on Monday, was to be exclusively of colored persons, as no such declaration was made in the public announcement. Indeed, the riot was in full blast before the Police could be brought to bear upon it, and then the firing of shotguns by the colored persons in Bradford street, and the wounding of two boys, served greatly to swell the wave of excitement which was rolling on, and to render it for a time wholly unmanageable. Philadelphia cannot but suffer deeply in character from these scenes of outrage and blood. The real defects in our system must be ascertained at once, and the remedy forthwith applied. Are the Police adequate to such an emergency under existing regulations? Have the authorities sufficient power with regard to additional civil force, as well as calling out the military? Is there a proper degree of harmony between the City and County authorities to enable them to act together? Is it not possible for a riot to occur in the city, and for the rioters to cross into the county, or for county rioters to escape into the city, and thus defy the authorities? Who has the power of calling out and controlling the military, when the civil power is found inadequate? These are questions which naturally arise in connection with recent events, and we hold it to be a solemn duty on the part of those to whom the people have confided their lives and property, to take immediate measures to supply any deficiency that may exist. The laws must be sustained, the public order must be preserved at any and every hazard; otherwise Philadelphia will sink in character, depreciate in property, and be abandoned by hundreds of the peaceable and peace-loving. The guilty in the outrages which have just been perpetrated, should be punished with severity. Their enormities cannot be palliated. The rioter is not only an incendiary, but a murderer; for he excites and inflames the passions of others, and under such excitement, madness rules the hour. Let us, then, take warning by the deplorable outrages by which we have been disgraced, bring the offenders to condign punishment, adopt all preventive means for the future—preventive as well with regard to the blacks as the whites, and further, strengthen the arm of the law and the authorities, so that the handful who would pillage, fire and murder, may be grasped at once, and dealt with as all such desperadoes deserve to be.
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