Black lives do matter. Knowing that and feeling that, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania joins public outrage at police brutality and vigilante violence against African Americans. As a repository of history, we know the importance of taking a hard look at our past so that we can build a better future. Making a clear-eyed analysis, it is certain that our nation has been too slow to address racial discrimination. Repression is wrong; every life has meaning.
More than 50 years ago, Lyndon Johnson steered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. This law, proposed by John F. Kennedy before his assassination, was the first major civil rights legislation in almost a century. It opened some doors to African Americans, particularly in the South where white-only motels, restrooms, and water fountains became relics of a shameful past. However, this legislation did not address all facets of discrimination. Four years after its passage, a presidentially appointed panel examined more than a hundred 1967 riots, and the Kerner Commission found that the primary cause of turmoil in black neighborhoods was white racism, a finding that was quickly buried and forgotten.
Government cannot govern what lies hidden in a person’s heart. And what government can control—systemic racism—has too long been allowed to continue, manifesting itself in the streets, schools, healthcare systems and other infrastructures of Philadelphia, as well as in communities all over the United States. Full equality is vital for everyone, and as long as one race is treated poorly, everyone suffers by losing the benefit of each person’s contribution to making our nation better.
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania places high priority on collecting documents that reflect the lives of those whose stories often are missing from history textbooks, and we commit to continuing that effort with enhanced vigor. Our African American collections document the vibrant black communities of historic Philadelphia and the lives, hopes, dreams, and accomplishments of those who lived before us.
One of our historic treasures is a journal of the Underground Railroad kept by William Still, a free black Philadelphian who risked his personal freedom to assist escaped enslaved people. When these freedom-seekers came to his doorstep, they carried the hope of equality—a dream that remains unfulfilled. Collections speak also to the work of Jacob C. White Jr., Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Octavius Catto, and many others who devoted their lives to achieving equality—Catto, in fact, would pay with his life. African Americans still are far more likely than their white counterparts to live in poverty, to die young, to live in under-resourced neighborhoods, and to attend under-funded schools. Now, as always, African Americans are more likely to have potentially-deadly encounters with police officers.
It is by illuminating history, by holding the documents and ephemera touched by the hands of Philadelphia’s historic black community—hands that worked to shape a more just world—that we can continue their work. The time has arrived for Americans to face injustices as a community—and to end them.