A rumor spread 50 years ago this week that police officers had assaulted — maybe even killed — a pregnant African-American woman in North Philadelphia.
While that description was a vast exaggeration, it sparked two days of riots starting the night of Aug. 28.
When the riots started, Ruth Birchett was an 11-year-old kid, sitting on the front steps of her family’s house in North Philly.
“I remember there was just a big commotion amongst the adults, and they weren’t saying anything to us children, but they were running back and forth and you could tell something really serious was happening,” Birchett said.
It was something serious. The chaos soon made national news, as told here on WOR in New York.
“Fires have been set in shops throughout the riot zone. The seriousness of the trouble seems not to have diminished tonight with each hour of the evening, the reports of ‘Assist officer,’ on the police radio become more and more frequent.”
Birchett said she remembers her brother came running home. He’d been at a nearby bar and couldn’t believe the destruction he saw when he stepped to the door to leave.
“He shook his head and blinked his eyes and went back in the bar. He said, ‘I know I’m not drinking that much. The Avenue was tore up!'” she remembered.
Birchett said when she got up off the steps she too saw evidence of the chaos.
“Columbia Avenue is just three blocks up and I could see orange. And I could smell fire and you could hear the confusion and the police car sirens,” she said.
WOR in New York kept listeners abreast of the damage in North Philadelphia:
“Good evening, 11 p.m., here is the Late hour News, Ed Petit reporting: What began as a minor traffic dispute last night in the Negro section of Philadelphia has since resulted in rioting and looting with damage running to more than half a million dollars…”
Some stores protected from looting
Ruth Birchett said the looters didn’t hit every store. She recalled overhearing a conversation among her neighbors who agreed to protect a store at Gratz and Norris Streets. The store was owned by a kind man referred to as “Mr. Ben.”
“Because a lot of people in this neighborhood ate because of Mr. Ben,” she said. “You could buy food on credit and then, when pay day came, you would come and pay your bill. He was Jewish and he was the nicest man. No one touched his store.”
Birchett said looters targeted other stores that were perceived to treat shoppers unfairly.
“A store at 20th and Page, Mack’s Store, and he was grumpy and mean even to the children and sometimes he would cheat us out of money.”
Birchett said Mack’s store was the first store that she knew of that was hit.
Birchett said her father, who worked at a South Philadelphia oil refinery, was troubled by the looting.
‘Stay the hell in the house’
Cecily Banks’ father, too, was unhappy about the chaos on Columbia Avenue. A stretch of the street was later renamed for the civil rights leader as Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
Banks is his oldest daughter and at the time of the ’64 riots she was 17.
“I actually had a date that night, and I had to call the guy and tell him not to come. That was Saturday,” she said.
The house her family lived in during the riots now features a huge mural of the family.
She said her father thought the riots were useless and he issued a blunt warning to her: “Stay the hell in the house!”
The violence got so bad that a round-the-clock curfew was imposed. Banks said she remembers seeing the scene when her mother took her to the doctor’s office the following week.
“That was the first time that I had seen The Avenue. The glass was still there.”
The glass, Banks said, seems all these years later like it was probably ankle-deep.
WOR Radio documented the damage:
“Despite the efforts of more than 1,500 law enforcement officers, efforts to quell rioting and looting in North Philadelphia have not been successful. A rash of police injuries have been reported and the arrest total has now climbed above the 200 mark but as yet it’s been impossible to prevent outbreaks of rock throwing, looting and attacks on police.”
Diversity in Philly spared city from worst
For many, memories are sharp even decades later.
Renowned journalist Acel Moore was working at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1964 — as a copy boy.
Moore said Philadelphia stood out from other cities at the time because it had such a strong group of African-American leaders. That included judges and politicians and figures like Cecil B. Moore.
“Philadelphia’s police department was double digit — I believe it was 20 percent — was African-American,” Moore said. “And you had political leaders who had a lot of influence in the city government. I don’t think Detroit had any black judges at that point, Los Angeles, Newark, but Philadelphia did. There were city councilpeople who were African-American.”
Moore said because the city had such strong leadership, “the urban disturbance in Philadelphia was not as destructive and did not cost the loss of life as it did in other cities.”
The riots did leave a lasting mark in Philadelphia, said Ruth Birchett, who still lives in her childhood home. President Obama’s picture now hangs in the window. She remembers the old days, when neighborhood families shopped on Columbia Avenue and other nearby thriving business corridors — instead of heading all the way to Center City.
“There was an ice cream parlor at the corner of 20th and Norris, and there was a big yellow store that was more like a grocery store. And at 19th and Norris, there was a pharmacy and a cleaner’s.”
Then, came the riots, and the neighborhood was changed forever.
Calculating costs of the chaos
Cecily Banks said her civil rights leader father was frustrated by the chaos on The Avenue.
“My father’s position was it was a fairly useless demonstration since what it really did was to create some more problems in the community, and he was very much concerned about fallout. Though Philadelphia was in no way as bad as Detroit and some of the other places, it was sort of a death knell for the community in some respects,” Banks said.
Hundreds of people were injured and arrested; more than 200 stores were damaged or destroyed. Many of those businesses never reopened. Many blocks fell into disrepair until recently with Temple University helping spark a revitalization of the corridor.