Cliveden Conversations forum focuses on history of West Mt. Airy integration

Abigail Perkiss

Abigail Perkiss

The 25th forum in the Cliveden Conversations series featured Abigail Perkiss, author of “Making Good Neighbors: Civil Rights, Liberalism, and Integration in Postwar Philadelphia.”

A Wednesday night gathering of about 25 people at Cliveden’s Carriage House heard the Kean University history professor discuss “The Flight to Integrate West Mt. Airy.”

“I grew up in this area,” she said. “The integration of this section is very much a part of my personal story.”

Historical recap

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West Mt. Airy was one of the first successful and intentional neighborhoods in America to racially integrate its community in the late 1940s and early 1950s, she said.

Perkiss noted that World War II created economic opportunities for African Americans as many white American males enlisted, creating job opportunities that, in turn, paved the way for a black middle class.

The post-war emergence of black consciousness, equality and democracy — along with a push to soothe racial tensions — helped shape West Mt. Airy’s integration, she said.

Perkiss noted that many blacks moved into a neighborhood — known for its high-achieving, liberal-minded population — to avoid inner-city overcrowding.

“The struggle for residential space lay at the heart of America’s struggle for racial/social justice,” she said, noting that the neighborhood was unique in its cultural pluralism.

Instead of total assimilation, racial groups worked with religious institutions and civic groups for the betterment of the community.

“They were focusing more of their efforts on cultural similarities, instead of racial similarities,” she said. “They believe racial integrating does not lead to a neighborhood decline.”

Today, Perkiss noted, West Mt. Airy represents the city’s seventh wealthiest zip code. With a diverse population, its integration provides a case study in effectiveness.

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