”No Other Life” continued


It was near Christmas in 1964 and I was walking through downtown department stores with my middle sister, Rosalind. I admired Rosalind because she was older and smarter. She just knew and knew and knew. And what a reader she was! Her favorite expression was a line the congregation said during our church service: “As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.” She especially liked the idea of “a world without end.” “Do you know what that means, Jerry?” she said to me once. “It means the world goes on no matter what. God promised us the world and gave it to us. It’s up to us to live up to that promise.” Rosalind and I always spent a great deal of time together, and at Christmas particularly we would go around to the all the stores, Lit Brothers, Strawbridge and Clothier, Gimbel’s and Wanamaker’s, and gaze at the Christmas decorations, walk through the toy departments, listen to the choirs sing, get jostled by the huge crowd of shoppers on Market, Chestnut and Walnut Streets. It was a cold Christmas season as I remember it, and 1964 had been a strange year. In December of 1963, Chubby Checker married a Dutch woman, Catharina Lodders, Miss World of 1962. It came as a shock to everyone. The Italian kids I knew resented it tremendously and began to ridicule Checker. “He oughta stay with his own kind,” I heard them say. Mr. Addio and my mother spent the whole of 1964 talking about this marriage, about how Checker had ruined his career as a result. “The public’s not for that,” I remember Mr. Addio saying. “You can’t buck the public. And you know, Florence, the white kids made Chubby and now they’re gonna break him. He can’t do this. He’s not big enough. It almost killed Sammy Davis, Jr. when he married May Britt. And he had Sinatra behind him. These colored guys gotta marry in their own race. Why not marry a colored woman? What’s the matter with those colored guys? They ashamed of their race or somethin’? You can’t do this kind of thing. Have some white girl on the side. But don’t marry one. The public ain’t ready for this, Florence.”
    He may have been right, as Checker’s career began to slide steadily in 1964. But part of this was undoubtedly because he had hitched his artistic wagon to the star of teen-age dance crazes. This gimmick was bound to run its course in short order, and Checker had little creativity as either a singer or a songwriter. Amazingly, he had 20 Top 40 hits between 1959 and 1964. His marriage, which everyone talked about in South Philadelphia for a long time, probably just accelerated the slide a bit. It did not create it. Checker, from his very name to his imitative style of singing to the blatantly silly songs he sang, was too much of a pop novelty not to fade. In any case, when he married a white beauty queen, the black teen pop idol who had been a kind of raceless figure, or a black who had transcended the limitations of his category, suddenly and intensely, became very racialized and very much a category, indeed.


    On the weekend before the Labor Day weekend in 1964, as I was all a twitter about the Philadelphia Phillies’ run for the National League Pennant, with their first Negro superstar, Dick (Don’t Call Me Richie) Allen, who was on his way to becoming rookie of the year, a race riot broke out in North Philadelphia, the biggest Negro ghetto in Philadelphia, a tough neighborhood that I avoided except on the few instances my sisters took me to see a rock and roll show at the Uptown at Broad and Dauphin or I went with some friends or my grandfather to a Phillies game at Connie Mack Stadium at 21st and Lehigh Streets, still a section of North Philadelphia with a fair number of whites at this late date of 1964, but they were leaving in droves.
    Racial tensions had been high in Philadelphia all year, especially over the issue of police brutality. The Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s black newspaper, ran articles in virtually every edition on police brutality. White policemen who were brought up on charges were routinely acquitted.
    The riot started on Friday night at 9:35 P.M., August 28, 1964, when a woman named Odessa Bradford, a 39-year old waitress (or 34-years old, depending on which source one consults), driving a vehicle on Columbia Avenue with her husband, Rush, got into an argument with two police officers, one black, Robert Wells, and the other white, John Hoff, after their car stalled at 23rd Street and Columbia Avenue (or 22nd Street and Columbia, once again depending on the source). When Mrs. Bradford refused to move the car, the police officer tried to remove her bodily from it. Mrs. Bradford resisted mightily. At this point, a crowd gathered, shouting, “You wouldn’t manhandle a white woman like you did this lady.” A melee ensued in which two police officers were injured and the Bradfords were arrested. Mrs. Bradford bit one of the cops who tried to remove her from the car. James Mettles, 41, a bystander, came to Mrs. Bradford’s aid and attacked the police officers. He was arrested. Rumor spread along Columbia Avenue and its environs that a pregnant black woman had been beaten to death by a white cop. This rumor was started by Raymond Hall, 25, a neighborhood agitator affiliated with no political organization. By nightfall, marauding bands of black looters smashed into stores on Columbia Avenue and cleaned them out. A few years ago, a black lawyer told me that when, as a teenager going to school, she walked along Columbia Avenue a few days after the riot, the smashed plate glass was nearly ankle-deep. It crunched under her feet like an icy snow. Policemen, severely outnumbered by the rioters, were ordered by Police Commissioner Howard Leary, who grew up in what had been the Irish Catholic section of North Philadelphia and worked his way through Temple University Law School at night, to do nothing. Frank Rizzo, who was to become, before the end of the 1960s, the police commissioner, and by 1971, the mayor, and was in 1964 the famous, most admired, and most hated, cop in Philadelphia, intensely disliked this strategy, feeling that a strong show of police force would nip the riot in the bud. He called Leary “a gutless bastard.”
    By Sunday, the fury was all spent, but nearly every store on Columbia Avenue, the central shopping district of North Philadelphia, had been destroyed. The riot signaled the beginning of the end of North Philadelphia as a largely working-poor neighborhood. (It also signaled the rise of Frank Rizzo, the Italian-Catholic from South Philadelphia, drop-out from South Philadelphia High School, who was to wrestle control of the city from both the WASP patricians and the Irish.) Many of the stores never reopened, and the neighborhood began its descent into the chaos of an underclass realm. “If that policeman had only treated me like a human being,” Mrs. Bradford said afterwards, “none of this would have happened.” It seemed so far away from me, this riot. North Philadelphia seemed like another world. I only knew that many of the black cops my mother knew were working a lot of overtime that summer and seemed glad of it.

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