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Philadelphia labor: Joseph Fels and James Samuel Stemons

/unit-plan-items/unit-plan-56/unit-plan-items/unit-plan-56In the early 1900s, the Philadelphia labor movement struggled to overcome the obstacles of the city’s close alliance between politicians and businessmen. Few workers experienced an increase in benefits and wages, let alone the formation and recognition of a union. Many ethnic groups suffered from biased hiring policies and corrupt owners. The African American community in Philadelphia also endured discriminating hiring policies in most skilled and unskilled job positions. Through an analysis of a speech by James Samuel Stemons and a letter from Joseph Fels, students will gain multiple perspectives of business in the city.

James Samuel Stemons spoke out against this injustice through his work as a journalist and speaker. Stemons worked for two African American newspapers, The Philadelphia Courant and The Pilot, and spoke at various Philadelphia churches on the necessity of judging men and women based on their ability. He believed that members of both the white and black communities had their share of people who contributed to society in positive and negative ways. Stemons challenged people of all races to be better citizens and promote a positive image of their community in order eliminate any bias and prejudice.

Joseph Fels owned a soap company in Philadelphia and, unlike most businessmen in the city, believed in raising wages and speaking out on behalf of the working class. Fels did not write or speak on the issue of race and ethnicity, but he championed the idea of fair labor dealings. His company promoted a family atmosphere that benefited all of his workers from bottom to top.

Fels and Stemons did not champion the same cause but worked for greater rights for those disenfranchised laborers who suffered under the corruption of city politics in the early twentieth century.


20th century

African American




Big Ideas

Historical Context

US History

Essential Questions

  • How has social disagreement and collaboration been beneficial to Pennsylvania society?

  • What role does analysis have in historical construction?


  • Historical literacy requires a focus on time and space, and an understanding of the historical context of events and actions.

  • Historical causation involves motives, reasons, and consequences that result in events and actions. Some consequences may be impacted by forces of the irrational or the accidental.

  • Conflict and cooperation among social groups and organizations are critical to comprehending society in the Pennsylvania. Domestic instability, ethnic and racial relations, labor relations, and immigration are examples of social disagreement and collaboration.


  • Summarize how conflict and compromise in Pennsylvania history impact contemporary society.

  • Contrast multiple perspectives of individuals and groups in interpreting other cultures, economic situations, and location.

  • Analyze the interaction of cultural, economic, political, and social relations in nineteenth century Philadelphia.

Background Material for Teacher

The unit and lesson plan are a part of Preserving American Freedom, which presents and interprets fifty of the treasured documents within the vast catalog of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. In this project, documents are digitized with transcriptions and annotations, as well as with other user-friendly elements, that will help both teachers and students to better understand the materials in the lesson.

The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia has several essays on various people, events, and organizations that played a role in the history of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the United States.

The introductions to the collections of both the Joseph and Mary Fels and James Samuel Stemons Papers provide plenty of background material.

End of Unit Assessment

A variety of traditional assessment styles can be applied to these readings. Traditional assessments can include a variety of quizzes (multiple choice or fill in), an essay, or a short paper. To fulfill writing core standard CC.8.6.11-12.A, one possible essay prompt is:  Imagine Fels and Stemons had  to start a union together. Would they get along or would there be conflict? Why? What would each want the purpose of the union to be? Write a short persuasive essay answering questions and using quotes from the speeches to support your argument.

Primary sources may also be incorporated into a larger paper, student presentation, or class discussion led by student based questions. An alternative for those students who are unfamiliar with primary sources may be assessing notes taken during the reading to be used later as an open-notebook quiz.


Plans in this Unit

Philadelphia Labor: Joseph Fels and James Samuel Stemons

Grade Level

High School

Standards/Eligible Content







PA Core Standards





The Freedom Teacher Fellow was funded through a Bank of America grant for the digital history project Preserving American Freedom.

About the Author

This unit was created by David Reader, HSP's Freedom Teacher Fellow in the summer of 2012.  David is a social studies teacher at Camden Catholic High School.



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