Home and Freedom:
Black-Jewish Connection and the Unsolved Murder of William Seidler
by April Rosenblum
142-719 Bloor Street West
Toronto, ON Canada M6G1L5
Platform & Marketing
Specifications & Delivery
In a poor Philadelphia neighborhood in 1971, an elderly white Jewish shopkeeper is killed by a young Black man. Reporters call it a robbery gone wrong, until his widow makes a declaration that stuns everyone: “My husband was assassinated.” The only ones who can decode her words are a group who cherished the couple like family: the neighborhood’s young Black Panthers.
Home and Freedom unlocks this mystery and the intertwined history of Black/Jewish resistance at its heart. Through the lives of two rebellious women – a white Jewish veteran of the 1950s Red Scare and the Black Panther she calls her daughter – we peer into the Black Power movement’s private spheres, where many Black/Jewish interconnections were deepening just as public Black/Jewish alliances were coming to an end. As the elderly man’s mourners piece together an understanding of the unsolved crime, Home and Freedom parcels out clues about the forces that weighed on 20th century Black and Jewish Americans and the Black Jews caught in the middle, inviting readers to look with fresh curiosity at the unfinished business that hangs between them still.
As news publications know well, stories about Black/Jewish relations sell. Many of these stories capitalize off of painful divisions: fractious debates over charges of antisemitism against Black gentile leaders; violence against Jews by Black alleged perpetrators; and in between, Black Jews scrutinized or harassed when they are noticed at all. These stories don’t only captivate the communities who are directly impacted. A much wider audience is magnetized by watching the drama that ensues when vulnerable groups are pitted against each other.
The Trump era heightened these stakes. Rising grassroots white supremacist mobilizing has underlined the need for Black/Jewish coalition-building. Yet multiracial coalitions – from the Women’s March to local campaigns against cash bail – very often become flashpoints for historic, unresolved Black/Jewish tensions. Opponents of these coalitions help to fan the flames, turning concerns about antisemitism into public campaigns against Black leaders such as Angela Davis, Marc Lamont Hill or Tamika Mallory. The ripples of these attacks disrupt individual Black leaders’ careers, threaten carefully built coalitions and – as the high-stakes 2020 Georgia senate race made clear – can have far-reaching impacts on the nation. The Trump era may be ending, but it has shaken many people out of denial about the real and present need to organize multiracial coalitions for structural change.
Despite the broad interest Black/Jewish themes spark, publishers have not yet harnessed their appeal. Google News data shows that readers’ interest in this issue has been energized by the Trump era [see graphs, below]. But while readers seeking to understand present-day Black/Jewish dynamics can turn to news reports, up-to-date literature for popular audiences is scarce. Apart from memoirs, most Black/Jewish literature targets narrow audiences, via scholarly historical surveys, academic anthologies and apologetic works, most over a decade old. [See recent titles in Comps.]
For both readers and publishers, something is missing: A good story.
Home and Freedom will appeal to a far broader readership. A carefully researched microhistory organized to feel like a mystery, it offers swift pacing and compelling characters and centers relationships of intimacy between rebellious women. General readers will pick it up for its intriguing plot. Scholars will take notice of the new questions it opens about Black/Jewish relations after the mid-1960s. But sales will endure because this story meets a widespread emotional need: Readers in an age of dangerous political polarization need reasons for hope.
This is a work for the era we find ourselves in, with all its risks and new openings. After decades of Black/Jewish relations literature with despairing titles – Bridges and Boundaries, Broken Alliance, Struggles in the Promised Land, What Went Wrong?, Strangers and Neighbors, Bittersweet Encounter – this book breaks out of the doldrums to tell a Black/Jewish story modeled on the words of Audre Lorde: “Differences must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.” Home and Freedom’s mystery of radical Black/Jewish interdependence declares that even the tensions in these overlapping communities are not a burned bridge to memorialize or a landmine to be averted, but a buried treasure to be unearthed.
Google News searches for the combined terms Black and Jewish (2008-2020)
Google Trends data demonstrates not only sustained US interest in this issue, but a recent increase in the numbers of people searching it out. Between 2008-2020, US news readers searched in steady spikes for news related to the combination “Black” and “Jewish”. (Source: Google Trends)
2016 saw a marked change in these searches. Compared to spikes of interest in the previous four years, the number of readers searching for this news increased dramatically. The frequency with which US readers (above) search for news on this issue continues at a steady pace. Globally, these years also marked a turning point throughout English-speaking markets, as readers in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia began to search for the term in unprecedented numbers (below).
PLATFORM & MARKETING
My interest in Black/Jewish interconnection arises from my personal story, as a lone white girl raised by Jewish radicals in a working-class Black neighborhood of Philadelphia in the 1980s and 1990s. My life has been an attempt to make meaning of that experience – from my early advocacy on race and criminal justice, to my writings on antisemitism, to my current academic research on Black/Jewish relations (see CV).
I write what I know, and my followers count on it. Although my social media presence is in its infancy (I joined Twitter in 2019 to prepare for marketing this book), my 5:1 follower-to-follow ratio without any targeted self-promotion reflects the impact of my most well-known work: The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, a manual on antisemitism for social justice movements.
The Past gained recognition for being what one reader called “shockingly inclusive": for threading the needle of a highly polarizing issue with clarity, honesty and without selling any of the involved communities short. Since publication in 2007, it has shaped the thinking of leading progressive Jewish millennials and has become a go-to text for educators seeking to promote healthy dialogue in organizations torn apart by concerns over antisemitism, including Britain’s Labour Party and the Women’s March. Although my dedicated followers are a niche audience, they are a well-placed one. Their enthusiasm and public engagement means that any future work of mine will be aided by powerful word of mouth, in physical communities and online.
I am an experienced public speaker with media training and bylines in publications both general (The Washington Post) and Jewish (Haaretz, Jewish Currents). I have long-standing relationships with NPR reporters and producers (both nationally and in Philadelphia, where the story is set) and with journalists and editors at major Jewish press outlets. My marketing efforts in Philadelphia itself will be boosted by my lifelong local connections.
An invaluable asset in marketing this book will be the participation of one of the story’s central figures, Barbara Easley Cox. A leading Black Panther who lived and worked with Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver, Barbara is an active lecturer and traveler who draws enthusiastic audiences.
As a lifelong activist, I am accustomed to spearheading my own marketing. In addition to promoting the book through my own social media and traditional press outlets, I will seek out:
Twitter amplification from my supporters at @IfNotNowOrg (64,600 followers) and @NeverAgainActn (72,400 followers), organizations with shared interests, such as the African American Intellectual History Society, and individual influencers who follow me and have 30,000+ followers.
Guest appearances on radio programs and podcasts, alongside the book’s interviewees
Op-eds and multiracial panel events on issues such as hate crimes against Black/Jewish communities, controversies over “Black antisemitism” and Black/Jewish political conflict
Speaking events on college campuses, in synagogues and at community organizations
Academic networking opportunities, to promote the book for undergraduate use
Reader’s guides for book clubs, interfaith groups and grassroots anti-racism coalitions
Author Site: www.aprilrosenblum.com
This book will appeal to the kind of varied audiences who followed Season One of the podcast Serial, who were drawn in by the atmospheric, compassionately presented mystery in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, or who appreciated the raw but nuanced look at the human level of an American city in The Wire. It will attract adult readers of mystery and true crime, as well as college-educated readers interested in race relations, including many NPR listeners.
Younger millennials who follow the revamped, socially conscious Teen Vogue will find that Home and Freedom’s fast pace and timeliness captures their attention. White readers seeking to educate themselves in the wake of George Floyd’s death, such as many newer readers of Ibram X. Kendi, will find meaning in a story of cross-racial relationships. The exploration of a crime with political significance for the Black Power era will draw in a portion of the audiences for works such as Judas and the Black Messiah and Who Killed Malcolm X?
With rigorous research and the clear tone needed to engage popular audiences, this book will be an ideal assigned text for undergraduate race, history, sociology, American studies and Jewish studies courses.
SPECIFICATIONS & DELIVERY
This is intended to be a work of 70,000 words, divided into sixteen short chapters plus conclusion. Roughly one quarter is written. I think that the quality of the work would be best served by having two years to complete this. However, I work well under pressure and if my agent or publishers feel that the timeliness of the subject material necessitates a shorter timeline, I could aim to complete writing within 12-18 months.
No part of this work has been previously published. Some images require archival permissions (primarily from Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center, whose permissions process is generally smooth). Some maps may need to be generated. Commercial reproduction of a photo from USC’s Digital Library requires a $132 fee, and I am seeking out relevant FBI files which I expect will be substantial and require duplication fees. Under ideal circumstances I would travel in person to Virginia and Atlanta to conduct some of my remaining interviews, which would incur airfare expense.
NARRATIVE NONFICTION COMPARISONS
(Following these four comps, I mention other notable recent works with Black/Jewish themes.)
Title: Becky Cooper, We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence (William Heinemann, 2020) ISBN: 9781785151989
Title: David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (Vintage, 2018) ISBN: 9780307742483
Feature unsolved or partly-solved murders
Use of dramatic tension to emphasize a larger message about social justice
Sense of mystery, without the sensationalism or gore associated with true crime
Characters and events not widely known to U.S. readers
How Home and Freedom differs:
The racialized figures in Home and Freedom, a circle of Black activists, are neither victims (Grann) nor bad guys (Cooper) but complex heroes with agency
Main source of drama is freedom struggle and political repression, not the crime or its investigation
Title: Julie Salamon, An Innocent Bystander: The Killing of Leon Klinghoffer (Little, Brown, 2019) ISBN: 9780316433105
Examines the murder of an elderly Jewish husband
Sensitive approach to multiple perspectives of a political conflict
Centers the women impacted by the crime
Emphasizes characters’ everyday lives, not just high drama
Examines the impact of Israel/Palestine conflict on American Jewish life
How Home and Freedom differs:
Emphasis on mystery
Examines a lesser-known crime that attracted limited media attention
Title: Timothy Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name (Crown, 2004) ISBN: 9781400083114
(Although this book is considerably older, I include it for its strong overlaps.)
Examines a lesser-known 1970s murder
Highlights a Black uprising
Set during the transition from Civil Rights to Black Power
Aimed at / appeals to readers who want to heal racial divides
How Home and Freedom differs:
Women play central roles in the story
Greater suspense; focus on mystery
Centers the key figures, not the white narrator
A Note on Black/Jewish Works:
Most recent work on Black/Jewish themes has been directed at academic audiences and has received limited attention. There are some notable exceptions. The following recent works examine issues that have separately impacted Black and European Jewish communities. Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, 2020; ISBN 9780593230251) frames the experiences of Black Americans, Jews in Nazi Germany and Dalits in India in parallel, analyzing each society as a caste system. Steven J. Zipperstein’s Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History (Liveright, 2018; ISBN: 9781631495991) and Mitchell Duneier’s Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016; ISBN: 9780374536770) each explore communal traumas – mob racial violence and ghettoization – as they have impacted both European Jews and Black Americans.
See a list of notable academic works on Black/Jewish themes at the end of this proposal.
Introduction: Most U.S. “Black-Jewish relations” literature takes as a given that ties between Black non-Jews and white Jews deteriorated after the mid-1960s. The murder of William (Bill) Seidler tells a different story. Home and Freedom unpacks the 1971 mystery of Seidler’s death by asking four key questions about the crime. Each of the book’s four parts delves into one of these questions, using archival sources, press coverage, memoirs and interviews, until the crime – and an interwoven history of Black gentiles, white Jews and Black Jews – becomes clear.
Note on Tense: At the beginning of each of Home and Freedom’s four parts, the storytelling pauses to examine a question about the crime that the story’s figures faced in its aftermath in 1971. The storytelling then resumes in the time period where it left off. In this proposal, the pause in storytelling is indicated by a change in tense.
PROLOGUE - March 18, 1971: Police and neighbors alike saw the crime as a “robbery gone wrong” - until Bill’s widow came forward with a revelation that threw everything into question.
PART ONE - JEWISH GEOGRAPHY: Of all the inconsistencies at the crime scene, the greatest was the Seidlers’ presence itself. What was the elderly white couple doing in this struggling Black neighborhood? Why had they returned, moving back from the suburbs in the late 1960s, just when nearly all of North Philadelphia’s other white Jews had left?
1. A Slap in the Face to the Angel of Death: Young Jewish radicals Bill and Miriam Seidler (b. 1908) come of age in an era of revolution, the Great Depression, violence against African Americans and rising antisemitism. In 1943, after ten years of traveling the US, the Seidlers turn toward a future in Philadelphia. That same year, a nearby African American girl named Barbara Brooks is born.
2. Jewish Geography: In North Philadelphia after World War II, the racial terrain is shifting. Two Jewish worlds occupy this space: one of white Jews, many of whom are being lured to the suburbs by new housing incentives for white families; one of Black Jews and Israelites, who are experiencing a spiritual renaissance in postwar Philadelphia, even as they are trapped in place by racist housing policies. The Seidlers make the choice to stay, setting down roots with their young son and opening a dress shop on Columbia Avenue.
3. "Like Jumping into Cold Water": In a small, rented rowhouse filled with three generations of her family, young Barbara Brooks experiences the overcrowding crisis affecting the city’s Black families. Black neighbors begin to inquire about vacancies on white Jewish blocks of North Philadelphia. White liberal Jewish communal leaders respond supportively: kicking into action, rallying their peers together and training white Jewish neighbors to be confident supporters of integration. But their liberal commitments soon collide with reality in a society that doesn’t allow African Americans to progress as white Jews have.
4. “Disaster Preparedness and Relief”: The 1950s Red Scare hits home in North Philadelphia. Local Jewish Communists awaken to being arrested in the middle of the night, sending shockwaves through the neighborhood and splitting the white Jewish community. As Bill and Miriam battle against the chilling, nationally-publicized execution of a Jewish couple, the neighborhood’s liberal Jews hold worried meetings about how to separate Communist Jews from the community, fearing dire consequences if America sees Jews as Communists. Barbara’s teenage years begin with an unwelcome lesson about race, power and property, when a white landlord evicts her family and forces her out of the diverse neighborhood she loves.
5. “Jews and Negroes Are One Race”: In the nation’s courts, segregation is ending. But in the streets, mid-1950s realities are pushing white Jewish and Black Philadelphians farther apart, with Black Jews stranded uneasily in the middle. The leader of North Philadelphia’s most vibrant Black Jewish congregation, Abel Respes, is guided by visions of cross-racial harmony. But when Respes comes into contact with white Jewish leaders, he is met with suspicion – and surveillance. Barbara experiences her first taste of the bitterness of segregation, and the joy of living fully immersed in Black culture. After years of resisting pressures to leave North Philadelphia, Bill and Miriam come to the unwilling conclusion that, while they can run their business on Columbia Avenue, they must find a new home.
6. Alone in America: Two fateful run-ins with white Jewish friends from her past leave Barbara cautious about trusting white people and more deeply grounded in her Black identity. An unusual marriage proposal brings Barbara across the country to settle in San Francisco in 1963.
When his congregation’s Black Jewish children face hostility in North Philly schools, Rabbi Respes comes to a bold decision: to pool the congregation’s resources and collectively restart their lives in a secluded rural area.
The dust settles from the Red Scare, leaving a changed Jewish community in its wake. As a New Left emerges, a new generation of Jewish radicals join in – but leave their Jewishness unannounced. Bill and Miriam bide their time in suburban isolation, finding joy instead in their deep and growing ties to their Black neighbors on Columbia Avenue.
PART TWO - CRIMES: The crime seemed simple at first: Young Black man kills elderly white shopkeeper and flees with cash. But under the surface was an inconsistency only Miriam picked up: If it was really a robbery, why did the assailant shoot first, before taking any money?
7. August 1964: “The Sparks Came Out the Ground”: Barbara feels change in the air, as the coming of Black Power is foretold in one fateful week in Philadelphia. The highly anticipated Democratic National Convention kicks off nearby, met by a historic contingent of Civil Rights workers. But when the DNC's leadership sides with the Party’s segregationist wing against Black freedom, young Black activists face life-changing decisions about the way forward.
That weekend, rumors of a police murder set off massive riots in North Philadelphia - with the Seidlers and other Jewish shops at ground zero. White Jewish shopkeepers, haunted by reminders of the pogroms their families fled in Europe, question their future in North Philadelphia. The Seidlers’ Black customers make moving sacrifices to help them rebuild.
8. “Carefully Planned and Perfectly Executed”: A manhunt is on for the riot’s leaders as police go door-to-door in North Philadelphia. The FBI steps in, first accusing Communists of orchestrating the riot, but soon turning their attention to the city’s Black Muslims instead. Three blocks from Bill and Miriam’s shop, police capture Shaykh Muhammad Hassan, a prolific Black nationalist organizer whose life offers a window into early 20th century Black nationalism, the Great Migration and the rise of Malcolm X. On the other side of the country, Barbara parts ways with her husband and takes her first steps into a vibrant new world of Black freedom organizing.
9. “Separation is the Only Honorable Solution”: Philadelphians on all sides question the ideal of integration. Black nationalist leaders like Shaykh Muhammad inspire the neighborhood, replacing media images of Black criminality with proud images of Black nobility. Liberal white Jewish leaders respond to gun violence against white Jewish shopkeepers in North Philadelphia with a new tactic: encouraging white Jews to move out. But the liberal leaders’ hopeful campaign to broker transfers of the businesses to Black North Philadelphians proves more difficult than expected. A new generation of Black Jews weighs whether to seek recognition from white Jews or to carve their own path. In San Francisco, Barbara finds a place for herself in the Black Panther Party – and meets her partner, Black Panther Field Marshal Don Cox, in the process.
10. “These Brothers are Very Important in Our Struggle for Survival”: The Seidlers mark a homecoming to Columbia Avenue in January 1969. That spring, an intriguing young group of neighbors arrives on the block: the nation’s newest chapter of the Black Panther Party.
The Black Panthers set to work, negotiating truces between North Philadelphia’s street gangs and organizing the young gang members into activism. Miriam’s closeness to her Black neighbors enables her, too, to see past the media image of young Black men as criminals. This quality will later become crucial, when she notices details about Bill’s murder that the police overlook and comes to understand: the shooter’s motive was never robbery.
PART THREE - CHOSEN FAMILY: Bill was beloved in North Philadelphia. If Miriam was correct that his killing was intentional, what would motivate someone to kill him?
11. Chosen Family: The Seidlers and the Panthers embrace each other, sharing meals, books and debates about political strategy. In the summer of 1969, they welcome 25-year-old Barbara, who has been sent by the Party to help guide the progress of Philly young Panthers. But when a clash with her mother prompts Barbara to look for new housing, the Seidlers invite her to live with them. Bill and Miriam come to treat Barbara as a daughter.
Around the US and the world, Panther leaders work in close cooperation with radical white Jewish supporters. Although these Jews rarely discuss their shared background, many have one thing in common: They are finding homes for themselves in Black liberation work, after growing up in Jewish families and communities profoundly altered by the trauma of the Red Scare.
12. “We Know the Story by Heart”: As the transition from Civil Rights to Black Power solidifies, white liberal Jewish communal leaders eulogize the end of an era of Black/Jewish cooperation. Around the country, Black radicals hold a series of church occupations to call on religious institutions to pay reparations. Philadelphia’s white Jewish leaders prepare anxiously for the possibility of occupations in local synagogues, but a meeting with local reparations activist Muhammad Kenyatta leaves white Jewish leaders surprised at his openness to cooperation. Instead, the Jewish clash over reparations comes in a different form. Young Black Jewish leader Rudolph Windsor forms a bold coalition with progressive white Jews and calls on white Jewish leaders to prove their inclusiveness through material support to Black Jews.
13. Together in the World: Growing ties to Arab, African, Asian and Latin American liberation struggles bring joy to Black activists - and fear to many American Jews. In the aftermath of Israel’s 1967 war, mainstream Jewish communities turn inward, channeling resources once spent on urban race relations toward Holocaust commemoration, Soviet Jews and rallying behind Israel.
When the Black Panther Party establishes an international headquarters in revolutionary Algeria, Barbara crosses the globe to join Don, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. The Panthers settle into Algiers with the help of their official liaison to the revolutionary government: Elaine Klein, a white Jewish radical who fled the U.S. Red Scare and embraced the Algerian struggle. With Elaine’s help, Barbara visits Paris, where she meets with Jewish elders who went underground to resist the Nazis, who train her in skills for clandestine political life.
From his post in Algiers, Don senses growing dangers inside the Black Panther Party. Tensions heighten, factions form and increasingly violent punishments are meted out to dissenting Party members until, finally, in February, 1971, Panther leaders Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver publicly expel each other from the Party. Anticipating a showdown with Newton’s supporters, the Panthers in Algiers ask Bill and Miriam to take on a critical mission on their behalf. Bill’s intimate connections to the Black Panthers put him in the line of fire.
PART FOUR - THE FIGHT OF THE CENTURY: Bill’s survivors work to resolve their biggest question: Who killed Bill Seidler? The answer seems clear – at first.
14. The Fight of the Century: Ten days before Bill’s death, during a historic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, a group of Philadelphia activists burglarize the FBI’s local office in search of evidence that the FBI is repressing antiwar dissent. They find much more: proof not only of FBI misdeeds since Bill and Miriam’s youth, but of a special FBI campaign underway to destroy Black radicals and their supporters. COINTELPRO gives activists a name for the ways that the government is undermining them from the outside: pitting activists against each other, sowing mistrust and masterfully orchestrating fights to prevent meaningful coalitions from emerging. But another force is at work in Left organizations, which Don Cox watches with concern: the internal authoritarian dynamics threatening the Panthers and other activist groups from within.
15. Dreams Deferred: In the weeks that follow the Party’s split, a rash of targeted killings of Panthers take place around the country. In the middle of it, Bill is killed before Miriam’s eyes. When Miriam declines to aid police, they close their investigation of the murder. Instead, Bill’s mourners search for their own answers. At first, Barbara’s husband Don believes that the FBI has killed Bill – a theory that takes root in the minds of Miriam and her friends. But as time passes and tensions between former Panthers slowly ease, it becomes publicly safe for Don to voice his final interpretation of events: the painful conclusion that Bill was killed by Panthers on one side of the split, as an act of retribution and a warning to the other side.
16. Miriam’s Daughters: Miriam and Barbara sustain each other as they rebuild their lives. After years of organizing in Europe and Africa, Barbara chooses North Philadelphia as her permanent home and dedicates herself to helping Black families become homeowners and keeping the legacy of the Panthers alive. Miriam recreates the dream she shared with Bill – a world free of barriers – on a small scale, leaving behind a growing multiracial family of “adopted” activist daughters and teaching them to keep cultures of resistance alive through dangerous times.
Conclusion - Survivors: In the 20th century, the search for home and freedom divided Black gentiles from white Jews, and Jews from each other. Jews leaving Europe moved from a society which defined them as inherent rule-breakers into a new society which permitted them to play by racial rules and win. Liberal white Jewish attempts at political cooperation with Black Americans, sincere though they often were, could not succeed because they failed to account for how deeply Black freedom itself stood in opposition to America’s historic rules.
Nevertheless, Black Americans did not turn away from meaningful relationships with white Jews. Such relationships particularly flourished between Black Americans and those white Jews who became defined in the postwar era as communal rule-breakers. These Jews, in turn, found refuge and comfort in such relationships when the lingering trauma of the Red Scare pushed them to establish new political homes and families.
As early 21st century politics have proven, white supremacy is not a surface feature of US society. It remains embedded in our society’s deepest rules. The legacy of the Black Panthers, the life and death of William Seidler and the choices of his survivors to create a culture of lifelong resistance and mutual support are reminders that it is when we triumph over attempts to divide us that we become powerful enough to change the game.
For brevity, all endnotes are online: https://www.aprilrosenblum.com/endnotes
VICTIM: WILLIAM SEIDLER
RESIDENCE: 1937 WEST COLUMBIA AVENUE
PLACE OF OCCURRENCE: INSIDE CLOTHING STORE - 1937 COLUMBIA AVE.
DATE AND TIME OF OCCURRENCE: MARCH 18, 1971 - 4:45 PM
CAUSE OF DEATH: GUNSHOT WOUND OF CHEST AND RIGHT ARM
MR. SEIDLER, OWNER OF A CHILDREN'S CLOTHING STORE AT 1937 WEST COLUMBIA AVENUE, WAS SHOT DURING A HOLDUP.
THE SUSPECT, A NEGRO MALE, ESCAPED ON FOOT AFTER SHOOTING THE VICTIM TWICE, AND EMPTYING THE CASH REGISTER.
Figure 1: Police summary of William Seidler’s death.1
PROLOGUE: MARCH 18, 1971
On March 18, 1971, a Black man walked into a clothing store at 1937 West Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia. He pulled out a pistol and shot 62-year-old William Seidler – the white, Jewish owner of the store. After taking a handful of cash, the shooter fled, leaving Seidler dying on the floor of his shop. Beside him, awaiting an ambulance, was his wife of thirty-nine years, Miriam. Although she survived her husband for decades, Miriam never opened her shop again. The shooter was never apprehended. 2
Police labeled the crime a holdup, dismissing Seidler’s death as the unfortunate result of a robbery gone wrong. It was a poor neighborhood; theft and violent crime were common. Once, it had been a thriving Jewish business district, but the end of the Second World War had changed that. Most of the area’s white families had started new lives in the suburbs, beckoned by easy mortgages and new homes. Black families had been shut out. North Philadelphia was a Black community now, with the Seidlers among the last of its white Jewish business owners.* 3
Although they had never suffered more than petty theft at their clothing shop, the older couple had recently been taking precautions at work. “Storekeeper William Seidler always kept the door locked,” wrote reporter Rich Sapok in the next morning’s Daily News. “He opened it only to customers he knew.” But just before five o’clock that Thursday, he had made an exception and it had cost him his life.
At the scene of the crime, reporters described a hurt, frustrated crowd gathering outside of Seidler’s Shelley Shop. The Jewish couple had not merely done business in the neighborhood – they had lived there, too. Fifty-three-year-old Lela Green reminisced that from the time Seidler arrived a quarter-century earlier, “he treated a customer like you were a member of his own family.” A Black Muslim merchant standing in front of the shop recalled how he had just spoken to the Seidlers about his plans to open a deli beside them. “They came over and congratulated me,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “They offered to help me paint the outside.”
Violent crimes were common in North Philadelphia. Still, the murder of William Seidler shocked the neighborhood. Bill, as he was known, had been a fixture on Columbia Avenue for decades. Neighbors described him as gentle, uniquely kind and committed to the community – an emblem of hope for warm interracial relations in the years when the neighborhood had changed so quickly. At his memorial ten days later, friends eulogized a man who saw no difference between people, no matter their color. 4
Yet for other white business owners on the block, Seidler’s murder pointed to a more cynical, color-conscious reality. An elderly white Jewish butcher asked reporters to keep him anonymous, fearing Seidler’s “death would bring further polarization between the races. ‘Seidler had me 80 percent convinced about being fair, trying to help the black man, but since this has happened it has turned me inside out. No matter what you do or how much you do[,] when you step outside of your store, you’re just a white man.’” Murray Rosenberg, a white Jewish optometrist, echoed the butcher’s concerns. Since the shooting, he had taken to “peering nervously through a small glass plate window” before opening his door to patients. “Seidler leaned over backwards to be a good man. This is what happens to you,” he lamented. “If this keeps up the stores along Columbia Avenue will die.” 5
The block had already been struggling. “The scene of the murder is in the heart of the Columbia Ave. business district,” wrote the Evening Bulletin, “an area that has deteriorated greatly in the past few years.” Seven years earlier, a massive riot had left a mile of Columbia Avenue in ruins and triggered a final, decisive wave of white flight. Now, “many of the stores are deserted and boarded up... Names of gangs and gang members are scrawled with spray paint on nearly every available wall.” “Everybody’s talking about moving away from here,” said Lela Green. “Pretty soon, there won’t be anything here anymore.” 6
By the day after the murder, journalists were reporting that more merchants on the block – of all races – were arming themselves at work. The butcher’s son, Carl Potnick, willingly gave his name to reporters – perhaps emboldened by the revolver strapped to his apron. Potnick voiced his frustration that there were plenty of police to write parking tickets, but none to patrol the neighborhood by foot, as they once had. “’I’ve even demonstrated at the 22nd Police District for better protection,’ said Potnick, ‘but they tell us they can’t spare the manpower.’” 7
On its face, the story of William Seidler – an older white man dead at the hands of a younger Black one – blended seamlessly into the headlines of out-of-control crime and chronic racial tensions filling white-owned U.S. newspapers in the 1960s and ‘70s. The image of the nice older man gunned down by a mugger in a crumbling neighborhood confirmed exactly the picture of the city that certain local white politicians preferred to paint. And for about a year, that was how the story was told. 8
But near the one-year anniversary of the crime, the gears of this standard narrative came to a sudden, grinding halt. Seated in front of a veteran reporter from the Philadelphia Daily News, William Seidler’s widow delivered a shocking statement: “They say my husband was murdered,” said Miriam firmly, “but I say he was assassinated.” The term was loaded, but the 63-year-old woman hesitated to say anything more. 9
Were these the words of a traumatized widow, pushed over the edge from despair into delusion? Or did Miriam Seidler know something that other people didn’t?
Had the crime been a robbery gone wrong, as had seemed completely plausible until then? Or could it have been something more worrisome? A trap walked into by an overly-trusting elderly couple? A racially-motivated incident in a tense neighborhood – or, more anxiety-provoking for some, an attack on Jews? Could it have been the escalation of something small – a simple neighborhood disagreement that culminated in violence? Or was it none of those things?
What, indeed, was the crime?
[*] Although local Black Jewish communities had been active for decades, contemporary accounts treated “Black” and “Jewish” as mutually exclusive terms. For a discussion of these terms, see the Introduction. See chapters 2, 4 and 8 for more on Philadelphia’s Black Jews, Hebrews and Israelites; see chapters 11 and 12 on North African Jews.
Anyone who looked closely at newspapers the morning after William Seidler’s death would have noticed the sort of curious details that might catch the attention of police. Hours before the shooting, for instance, a holdup had occurred just two doors down, at J’s Five-and-Ten-Cent Store. Why had Seidler, who did not usually unlock his shop door to strangers, loosen his usual rules just after a robbery on the block? 10
But there was a different detail altogether that would have stuck out most to one group reading the news. That Friday, white Jews all around the city’s outskirts, in working class developments and middle class suburbs, would have awoken to news of Seidler’s death. These were Jews with recent memories of living in Philly’s urban neighborhoods; many had lived in North Philadelphia itself. But North Philadelphia’s white Jewish community had been making steady efforts to leave the neighborhood for 25 years, first enticed by chances to move to the new suburbs and finally, after the riots seven years ago, admitting that the last days of Jewish life in North Philadelphia were over. Conditions in the area had only worsened since. 11
A Daily News reporter captured the sentiments many might have murmured to each other in kitchens and dining rooms, as they picked up their newspapers in the morning to see news of Seidler’s death.
When North Philadelphia burned in 1964, William and Miriam Seidler lost their store. So did many other merchants. Most of the other merchants never returned…But Bill Seidler and his wife did… Bill Seidler is dead now, shot down during a robbery attempt in his store less than two weeks ago. A lot of people warned Bill Seidler not to return; they told him it was no place for whites, that something like this would happen sooner or later. 12
Yet it wasn’t just that they had chosen to re-open after the riots. After all, there were some white Jews who still carried on their business in North Philadelphia, locking up each night, pulling down protective metal grates and setting burglar alarms before they made their way home to safer, more comfortable neighborhoods. But this couple, it seemed, were living there by choice. At a time when nearly all of North Philadelphia’s white Jews had pulled up roots, the Seidlers were planting seeds. Why? 13
CHAPTER 1: A SLAP IN THE FACE OF THE ANGEL OF DEATH
The sky feels very close on the 1900 block of Cecil B. Moore Avenue. The buildings are low, nestled here and there between overgrown lots, so that nothing separates parts of this block from the sky. Many days in Philadelphia’s humid air, a muted blanket of cloud hovers overhead, so that the block has the feel of a stage set: dimly lit, with walls close enough to touch if you stand in the middle. Blink, let your eyes adjust. You’ll notice that this street is wider than it seems; large enough for a whole neighborhood’s business to pulse through it, as it once did in the days when they called this street Columbia Avenue.
If we were to watch time-lapse photography of this block, the sky might change in different eras. We could rewind and watch the sky heighten; move back in time just far enough to see older, taller buildings reconstruct themselves; glance out toward other blocks to see stories raising themselves back up in all directions. We could lift our lens higher and sweep out, to where the topography changes: eastward to Broad Street, the wide, rushing river that courses through North Philadelphia’s center, with its rumbling underground rapids of the subway below, its grand peaks of old hotel and office towers, the sculpted rock ledges of theaters and banks and ballrooms that crowd it on both sides. We could sweep back westward once more, skimming over the lowlands of brick homes and brownstones, until we reach the western edge of North Philadelphia’s world, Strawberry Mansion, where the homes suddenly drop off and the green fields, rolling hills and forests of the park begin.
We need this map to understand how two women in this story burst through the pages of history. Miriam Seidler and Barbara Easley-Cox came to know each other in this space, when they crossed Columbia Avenue. Miriam’s piece in the puzzle comes earliest. But this story wouldn’t be complete – it wouldn’t even exist – without other women, many of whom went without commemoration in books or newspapers. So let us pause first at the door of Beatrice Brooks: daughter of Clara Bullard, granddaughter of Mattie Davis, great-granddaughter of Melvina Wright and of other women and men like Melvina, who were born into slavery, who built America and created its wealth. 14
In August of 1945, Beatrice Brooks was 21 years old, with a husband, Joseph, and two small daughters. She was a shy Black woman with a sense of humor that came out when she was most at ease, playing cards at night with friends. Her parents, raised in the Carolinas, had made their way North as a young couple in the 1920s, in one of the early waves of the Great Migration. She and her sisters and brothers had grown up in Philadelphia’s old immigrant neighborhood on the south end of town, where Black families lived side-by-side with newcomers from Europe. With Joseph, however, she was making her home in North Philadelphia. They had rented this apartment in a slim building on Wallace Street, where they were raising their girls: eight-month-old baby Brenda and their firstborn, nearly two years old: Barbara. 15
On August 14th, 1945, a sudden stillness and then a roar of sound shook the world around Beatrice and her family. It came first from the airwaves at 7 p.m., when President Harry Truman declared an end to the Second World War. “For about three minutes after the announcement hit the ether, there was a sort of stunned silence which hovered over the city as though everyone had been shocked, momentarily, by the news which all had expected but which few had really hoped would come so soon,” wrote the city’s Black newspaper of record, the Tribune. “Then it came, in swelling crescendo, gathering volume, like the rear of a bursted dam.” 16
First the city’s air raid siren, a signal from the mayor, pierced the air. Then church bells rang, crowds filled the streets tossing confetti, drivers leaned on car horns. On North Philadelphia’s southern edge, at the beautiful ivory tower of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the newspaper’s staff fired off a cannon. North Philadelphians on the east and west sides of Broad Street watched traffic on their neighborhood’s main artery come to a standstill, as cars flooded in from the outskirts of the city to join the central celebrations. Elsewhere, neighborhood revelers added their own sounds to an illicit orchestra: gunshots skyward, illegal firecrackers, crackling bonfires in the street. 17
Readying themselves for a turbulent night in the city, Philadelphia’s officials immediately ordered bars to close and stationed police officers all over the city, on foot, motorcycle and horse. But riots broke out anyway, from working-class Italian streets in South Philly to the wealthy, lily-white campus of the University of Pennsylvania, where students fought with police, ripped down street signs and sabotaged trolleys. Still, the unrest paled in comparison to the tumult elsewhere. In San Francisco, thousands had filled the streets for three nights. Celebrants had assaulted women, used cars as battering rams against buildings and looted the city’s shops. By the end of the week, eleven people were dead and national newspapers were running photos of white crowds carousing in the streets, calling them the exuberant Navy boys behind San Francisco’s “peace riots.” 18
Not everyone reveled with the same abandon. When the Tribune came out, two headlines vied for space on the Black newspaper’s front page: “War’s End Brings Joy” and “V-J Day Presents Special Problems.” Photo tributes captured the joy, commending Black soldiers while reporting that “hundreds of colored citizens who shunned the company of their pale faced brethren” had gathered at the USO hall instead of in the streets. The second article hinted further at why, beyond the joy of basking in each other’s company, Black people might wish to celebrate away from the crowds. 19
“Like other Americans, Negroes must now go about the task of reconstruction,” wrote Associated Negro Press journalist Ernest E. Johnson, speaking in carefully measured tones about the demobilization that lay ahead. There was reason for hope – signs that some new leaders in the Veterans administration might defend Black veterans’ access to the GI Bill of Rights. But “[g]rowing like a spectre now is the prospect of unemployment” for veterans and for those on the home front. The wartime production boom had forced employers to open up jobs to Black workers. Beatrice’s husband Joseph, who worked at the Navy Yard, was one of them. The looming cutbacks would throw “millions of Negroes out [of] high-paying jobs” and into competition for work with returning servicemen, many of them white. For Tribune readers who were old enough to remember the end of the First World War and the years of white terror that had followed, the parallels were unmistakable. Johnson left his readers with a note of caution. 20
[A]ttention is beginning to focus upon threats of outbreaks. Sociologists and other observers in recent years have been viewing with unguarded alarm the possibility that racial incidents will develop with increasing frequency when the war emergency is behind us. The Federal Bureau of Investigations has been and is on the alert for signs of domestic unrest, and steps are being taken to check any such incidents. 21
The night the war ended, the sounds of celebrations and street fights lasted long into the night. It would have been hard for any children to sleep, even if the city’s mothers weren’t already too giddy to enforce bedtime routines. Three miles west of Beatrice Brooks, 37-year-old Miriam Seidler would have listened to the night’s clamor with her young son, David. For the last two years – most of David’s life – her husband had been away at war, serving the troops through the Red Cross. Now Bill would come home for good. 22
Change was in the air. The August night literally vibrated with it. But Miriam was no stranger to change. Her childhood had been full of it. At four years old, in 1912, she had immigrated to the U.S. from Russia. Her family had only been in their new country for two years when the world spiraled into the Great War. By the time she was nine, the Tsar had fallen, and Jews all around her were following news of the Russian Revolution with rapt attention. Philadelphia itself was not so peaceful, either. The summer she turned ten, a Black woman named Adella Bond had purchased a home on a white street near the center of town. Thousands of white people had formed mobs that terrorized Black people in the area for four days. 23
That fall, the flu pandemic that had been whispering its way around the world arrived in Philadelphia with a vengeance. As the pandemic continued its spread throughout the U.S. in 1919, so did the white terror attacks. Mob actions that mounted over the course of the year against Black communities were so bloody that the renowned Black poet James Weldon Johnson had dubbed the period Red Summer. In the newspapers Miriam’s family read, Yiddish writers printed ringing denunciations of the riots against Black communities, calling them by the only word European Jews had for such orgies of violence: pogroms. Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s Jews had their own anxieties: A series of bombings in the city by radical immigrants had attracted the harsh national spotlight of the Red Scare. Two years after that, as Miriam started her first year at a prestigious local high school for girls, Mussolini’s fascists captured Rome. The era of European fascism had opened with a bang. 24
If some girls in her demure high school were square pegs trying to fit themselves into round holes, Miriam was the firecracker in the pegboard. She was the youngest girl in a family of lively female role models. Her three sisters had all grown up in Russia; here they had become labor organizers. The Greenberg daughters specialized in battling wills with older male garment bosses; their mother, Rose, rallied their spirits when the union went on strike. They had been born into a Yiddish culture where songs serenaded young women by comparing their dark eyes to black cherries; where curvy, powerful bodies like Miriam’s were called zaftik – “juicy.” 25
Now Miriam was coming of age in 1920s America, in a nation that worshipped blue-eyed blondes and a decade when hard, flat waif-like frames were so coveted that newspapers raised alarms about young women suffering grave medical harm as they raced to “reduce.” At her prestigious public High School for Girls, Miriam’s teachers were tasked with turning a multiracial student body of immigrants’ and workers’ daughters into elite young ladies of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant mold. They trained working-class girls to hold teas in elegant downtown hotels and let Jewish girls aspire to roles in the school’s genteel Christmas plays. 26
Miriam did not fully translate into this setting; even her class yearbook editors seemed to struggle to understand her Yiddish nickname and categorize her political fire. She was vocal and irrepressible: the kind of girl who delighted in sneaking away with boyfriends in private to pass time in the shadows of the elegant statues by the river and making her political views known in public. She was the most American member of her family; the only one to have an American childhood. Yet in an age of fierce patriotism, Miriam wasn’t afraid to criticize American norms. 27
By the time she was a senior in the class of 1926, Miriam’s boldness and her budding anti-racist politics fueled her to lead a small-scale revolt against that most American of institutions: the senior prom. Although the school’s student body was racially integrated, Girls’ High administrators had agreed to the Bellevue Hotel’s stipulation requiring Black students to enter the dance through a side door. Miriam was incensed. For the rest of her life, she took pride in retelling how she helped to organize protests until, finally, Girls’ High staff decided to cancel the prom entirely. 28
She graduated the summer America marked its 150th birthday. In the fall, the Inquirer printed a picture of smiling Girls’ High girls standing bare-headed in the rain to accept the gift of a new American flag from the Patriotic Order Sons of America. The caption cheered: “Rain didn’t dampen the youthful patriotism of 1500 girls.” Decorating the same page were other human-interest photos of the day, notable to the editors for nothing apart from their elegance: the dapper Fascist ruler of Italy, Mussolini, complimenting his army pilots on their splendid work; the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan at the Klan’s “magnificent capital headquarters” in Washington, D.C. 29
Not pictured was the girl with the rebel heart. Miriam was off, moving forward, building a life with friends who shared her vision for the world. They celebrated May Day, the international workers’ holiday, and gathered to see the day’s socially conscious artists at the John Reed Club. 30
Thus, when Miriam met her future husband, she had her own political credentials. Bill was a gentle man, just her age, a classically trained musician with a college education. But he had grown up in cramped working-class quarters in South Philadelphia as the son of a cigar factory worker and was even more active and politically conscious than Miriam. In Bill, Miriam had found not only a match but an inspiration. 31
It was a spring weekend in 1932 when the two twenty-three-year-olds married in New York City. In the midst of the Depression, they were starting out with luck: Bill had landed a respectable position as music supervisor for the public schools of Bristol, Pennsylvania. 32
But if they were buffered from the economic crisis, they could not shield themselves from news of world events. That winter, in the homeland of one of the world’s most vibrant socialist movements, the Nazis came to power. The new government wasted no time – first cracking down on critics such as Communists and then turning to Jews. On the morning of Bill and Miriam’s first anniversary, they awoke to morbid newspaper reports of a different kind of festivity: a national boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany. In Berlin, a “vast cheering throng” of non-Jews rallied to hear speakers threaten to crush the Jews and promenaded to brass bands “as on a holiday.” 33
Around the U.S. that summer, Jews gathered to protest worsening Nazi attacks. For Jews in general, the news from Europe brought anxiety. But for young Jewish activists on the 1930s Left, work to stop the spread of fascism was charged with adrenaline. Every action mattered. Every person who stood up might help to tilt the balance. The consequences of failure were clear even to the Jewish Left’s young children, who woke from nightmares of lynchings and pogroms and were only too familiar with the fascist movements in their own backyard: the German American Bund, the KKK, the Black Legion, the Silver Shirts, the energetic followers of the popular radio priest Father Coughlin. Growing up in the 1930s, one boy later recalled, “I expected that fascism would come to the United States and that I would die young.” 34
As the Depression wore on, Bill and Miriam travelled west, living in places like tiny Aberdeen, Washington, where Miriam enrolled in college courses. Bill found work selling music lessons door-to-door. Across the land, unemployment was high, labor unrest was sharp and Jews were feeling a palpable rise in antisemitism. As the threat of war escalated in Europe, so too did the scapegoating of Jews, whom antisemitic leaders decried as an enemy that could push the U.S. into war. Finally, in 1938, they settled in in Houston, Texas, where Bill joined the Symphony. 35
Years later, Miriam would shiver when telling her younger friends what antisemitism in Texas was like. Still, at least in Houston – unlike some of the smaller towns they had lived in – there were a considerable number of Jews. Among them were Irving Wadler, Bill’s fellow musician in the Symphony, and his wife Ida Kaplan Wadler. 36
In the spring of 1940, Ida and Irving accompanied Miriam to a local courthouse. Although America was the only country Miriam had ever really known, she had spent her life categorized legally as an alien. Now she was asking to become a citizen of the United States.
The court clerk recorded a few essential details: legal name (Marion), occupation (housewife), birthplace (Kipin, Russia). Next to “race,” the clerk typed “Hebrew.” Miriam was asked to confirm that she did not fall into categories threatening to the government: she was not an anarchist, like those who had been deported during the Red Scare of her childhood years, nor a polygamist, nor loyal to any foreign prince. Then Miriam was allowed to make one request: “I, your petitioner, pray that I may be admitted as a citizen of the United States of America, and that my name be changed to: Miriam Seidler.” Of all her siblings, she had been the one to start life in America with the gift of an English name. Now she returned the gift and took a Hebrew name. 37
Nearly two years passed. Bill played for the Symphony; the war raged on in Europe. He registered with the local draft board (Age: 32. Height: 5’4”. Race: White. Complexion: Dark.). Then, in December 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked. But as the reality of entering a war sank in for people around the country, Bill and Miriam contemplated different news: They were expecting a baby. 38
The following summer, Miriam gave birth to David William. Their new son’s name was a study in contrasts. “David” was likely a tribute to Miriam’s father, who had died early in their marriage. William was more complicated. To the average Texan, it would have simply seemed like an honor to Bill. But any Eastern European Jew would have recognized a slap in the face to tradition. Custom strictly prohibited naming a Jewish child after someone living. Superstition held that it was dangerous; it could divert harm meant for an elder to a child instead, by confusing the Angel of Death. 39
Or perhaps, to Bill and Miriam, it was the reverse. Perhaps – as news reports from overseas that spring told of a dictatorship engaged in an “open hunt” of the Hebrew race, as they prepared for the possibility of Bill going to war – it was not David’s name but his birth that was an act of defiance: a slap in the face to the Angel of Death itself. 40
In August 1943, Bill was called up to Scott Field, Illinois. He would train with the Red Cross, then ship out to use his new skills to serve the war effort. It was time to leave Texas. With whatever she was able to pack from ten years of travelling America, Miriam started for home. 41
CHAPTER SEVEN: AUGUST 1964: "THE SPARKS CAME OUT THE GROUND"
[on the North Philadelphia riots of 1964]
Q: What have you heard about Philadelphia?
- Interview with John Lennon
Philadelphia Daily News, 9/3/64 42
In the last week of August 1964, a buzz of excitement surrounded Philadelphia. Delegates from around the nation were descending on nearby Atlantic City for the highly anticipated Democratic National Convention. Meanwhile, young people throughout the region were holding their breath for the arrival of a popular new British band called the Beatles, who had been touring the world and would swing through Atlantic City and Philadelphia in a matter of days. 43
Miriam had just marked her 56th birthday. She and Bill had lived for eight years in the house on Cobden Road, but she had never quite managed to adapt to the role of suburban wife, happy in her garden. Instead, she and Bill stayed active in their usual causes in the city – donating clothes from Seidler’s Shelley Shop to striking miners in Kentucky, taking part in the new and growing anti-nuclear movement, attending lectures downtown at the Communist Party’s Social Science Forum. 44
In their two storefronts on Columbia Avenue, they had work to do and friendships to keep up – especially with Janie Banks, whom they had first met as one of their customers from the Black community neighboring the stores. Janie had come into the shop as a girl more than a decade ago and was now like a member of the family, at least as far as Miriam and Bill were concerned. Both Janie and David were growing up. Bill and Miriam had moved here, to the ranch house on Cobden Road, when they could no longer deny that David needed to start high school in a place where he wasn’t the only white boy. Now David was a college graduate. 45
The Seidlers moved through two different worlds – unlike some of their white neighbors in this small suburb, who could relax on summer nights with a newspaper, surrounded by the music of crickets and the flicker of fireflies, and ponder North Philadelphia as a distant, troubled land in the headlines. Miriam and Bill saw the realities of Columbia Avenue each day: the gangs, the poverty, the housing conditions that, in any other part of the city, would be cause for scandal. 46
Around them in North Philadelphia, patience was wearing thin. Just over a year ago, weeks of fierce protests had broken out against a nearby construction site for withholding jobs from Black workers. Then, in October, a short-lived riot had broken out a few blocks north of the shop when police shot a young, disabled Black man, Willie Phylaw, to death. 47
This summer had been a waiting game. Beginning in July, scattered riots had been breaking out in Black communities around the country, often touched off by an arrest or an act of aggression by police. As news hit the airwaves of unrest in Harlem, Rochester and Jersey City, human relations advocates waited anxiously to see whether Philadelphia would come next. 48
Now, with summer waning, they were voicing relief that Philadelphia appeared to have emerged unscathed. The new leader of the local NAACP, Cecil B. Moore, had a strategy in the works to defuse tensions. Moore was not one to beg and plead. He intended to station NAACP lawyers in police precincts, to restrain the behavior of police and calm the nerves of Black arrestees. Cecil Moore was disliked by many whites for his brashness, but he had earned the loyalty of Black Philadelphians for his uncompromising response to any hint of discrimination. A West Virginia man by birth, he had no problem raising hell when he saw Northern racial problems that were just as disgraceful as the South’s. His last few days of summer at the Democratic Convention would offer a close-up view of both. 49
On the shores of the Atlantic, two gatherings were in progress. Inside Convention Hall mingled Democratic delegates. Outside, in the salty air of the beach town, young activists stood on the boardwalk with haunting signs, the faces emblazoned on them of three young voting rights workers who had been found murdered in Mississippi a few weeks earlier. The vigil was sometimes silent, sometimes punctuated by speeches. One day a thunderstorm clapped down on them and everyone broke out in freedom songs, singing their way through the downpour. 50
Stating their case inside the convention was 46-year-old Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer was a sharecropper from Mississippi who had not known until she was 44 that Black people had a legal right to vote. Hamer was making up for lost time, working tenaciously to see her people get real voting rights. But to be a Black voter meant taking one’s life into one’s hands. The white-ruled Southern wing of the Democratic Party was committed to ensuring that Black communities would not cast votes. Throughout the South, local white leaders enforced this through violence and intimidation. While the Party’s Northern liberals had made sympathetic utterances about conditions in the South, they stopped short of intervening in the Southern wing’s illegal practices, lest any rift undermine the Party’s national chances. 51
For nearly a year, Civil Rights workers – volunteers and poorly paid staff, most of them young and Black – had painstakingly organized 80,000 Black Mississippians. By spring they had formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. They had come to Atlantic City to show the world that the South operated not as a democracy but as an authoritarian regime backed by violence. 52
On the eve of the Convention, Fannie Lou Hamer addressed the floor. Speaking to the Democratic credentialing committee, she urged the DNC to seat the new, law-abiding Freedom Democratic Party delegation in place of the old, corrupt delegation of white rule. Her voice pealed out as she spoke of the price that Black Mississippians paid for registering “to become first-class citizens”: how, for attempting to vote, she’d been thrown off the land she’d sharecropped for eighteen years and local police had beaten her near to death.
“If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated,” said Hamer, “I question America. Is this America, the land of the free…[where] our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” 53
The DNC was slow to answer. Layers of negotiation were taking place within the Convention, some directly with Freedom Democrats and some maneuvering around them. Then, on Wednesday, August 26th, with heated dialogue still in progress, Democratic Party leaders appeared on television to announce a “compromise” – one which MFDP members had never agreed to. Mississippi’s law-breaking white Democrats would retain control, and two symbolic seats would be offered to the MFDP. The Freedom Democrats declined. 54
John Lewis, then the twenty-four-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, would always recall August 1964 as a turning point. At the summer’s beginning, it had seemed possible that those in power could be moved to do right on moral grounds. “We had played by the rules, done everything we were supposed to do, had played the game exactly as required…and found the door slammed in our face. …Those who chose to stay [in the Movement] were ready now to play by a different set of rules, their own rules.” Young Black activists would now struggle, internally and among one other, to decide those new rules. 55
The question had been asked and answered. For Black people, it seemed, wherever they stood, that land was not America.
Barbara Brooks lived in California now. She was twenty-one, newly married to a GI and known to all as Barbara Easley. By chance, she had been back home to visit family in Philadelphia the week of the Convention – although neither the Democrats nor the Beatles had registered in her consciousness more than faintly. If she marveled at the Beatles-induced euphoria that was overtaking the white girls in her old South Philly neighborhood, she did not join in. She had never had much use for Elvis Presley and other popular white musicians. Growing up, her home had been filled with the sounds of the jazz her mother loved: Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington. With the wealth of Black music around her, she rarely got swept up into white people’s music crazes. “I had Chuck Berry. So what did I need Elvis Presley for? What did I care about The Beatles? We had our people, so no big deal, you know? As far as we were concerned, they were copying all of us.” 56
She had never been the kind of teenager who hungrily sought out politics and she paid little mind to the Convention now. To her, Atlantic City conjured up memories of traveling with her mother: sumptuous memories of her mother showing her how to eat oysters straight from the shell, or painful ones, of Atlantic City as a borderline during bus rides. To ride farther south than the New Jersey border meant peeing in the grass by the side of the road rather than risk danger or humiliation by seeking out a bathroom open to a Black woman or young girl. 57
Her week at home had been uneventful. It was on Saturday, when she arrived back in California, that the phone rang with a jolt of news from Philadelphia. She had just missed it, her family told her: North Philadelphia was being set aflame. Hundreds of rioters had flooded the streets and outnumbered police. It had all started with a traffic stop on Columbia Avenue; word was that a pregnant woman had been killed by police. As Barbara reached out to her family members, checking to see that all was well, she found herself scanning memories of world political events she had heard discussed, sensing new connections, feeling her mind recalibrate. “All of a sudden, it was like, whatever was happening in the rest of the world was also happening to Black people in America. …All of it started a little thing churning within me.” 58
Shortly before dawn on Saturday, August 29th, Cecil B. Moore returned from Atlantic City to find North Philadelphia in a whirlwind. Normally, it was his voice that spurred his people to action. This time, the crowd was out of his control. He urged the people filling the streets to go home; this was not the way to get the change they needed. But out of the crowd came a mocking woman’s voice: “We don’t need the NAACP, we don’t need civil rights and we don’t need Cecil Moore.” 59
The riots continued for three nights. Thousands of people milled about the streets – some looking to participate, others simply awestruck or curious. Under orders, the police dutifully held back their gunfire. They brought out their nightsticks instead. 60
Fifteen-year-old Kenneth Smith was one of those who wandered the streets, observing North Philadelphia in chaos. Police violence was nothing new to Smith; he had had his first run-in with them when he was just a child. He and his young friends had discovered a local construction site that was inactive after work hours. One evening they were pretending to be knights, jousting together with iron rods from the construction debris, when police spotted them. The officers chased them, slamming Smith’s small, skinny body against a wall. For decades, he would remember the thoughts that burned in his mind as they kicked and beat him with a force that shocked him: how he longed for the moment when it would be over; the fear he felt when he saw that they really seemed to have enough anger to kill him. 61
Tonight, however, the police were unleashing a level of violence against the rioters that Kenneth Smith had never seen. For the first time, as he watched police beating a man on the ground, it dawned on him that police nightsticks held a metal bar inside them. Every time the officers missed the man’s body, as their nightsticks pounded the ground instead, “the sparks would come out the side-walk. That’s how hard they was trying to kill you!” Later on, when he grew older and took part in Civil Rights demonstrations that were beaten back by police, this kind of knowledge would become second nature to him. “But that was the first time I saw [that]: the sparks came out the ground.” 62
Wandering around in the August night, Smith felt pulled to join in with the looters. Although both of his parents worked, in a family with eight children, there was never money to spare. He yearned to dress nicely – like the impressive, clean-cut Black men he saw in the neighborhood, in their sweaters, tweed slacks, hats and wingtip shoes. With five brothers in line for the same hand-me-down clothes, he knew that this kind of finery would always be off-limits to him. But even more than clothes, what he wanted on the night of the riot was to be able to give something to his mother: “My beautiful mother, she never had a real good toaster.” 63
These were years of plenty in America; kids in North Philadelphia knew this. They could see it in the advertisements that beckoned housewives to enjoy gleaming new technologies “on the threshold of the fabulous Sixties!” But the makers of these lustrous appliances did not seem to envision Kenneth Smith’s beautiful mother as their customer. A typical ad would show a smartly dressed white couple and their blond child, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over a refrigerator. The lucky purchasers would receive a free gift of White Shoulders cologne. The fabulous Sixties had been made for some other mother in some other place, with a body protected from hard labor and porcelain skin. 64
Nearly fifty years after the riot, Kenneth Smith – now Kenneth Salaam, a storied Civil Rights activist – was interviewed about living through those August nights. When asked how he viewed the looters in retrospect, he worked to find the right words. “I didn’t feel, I didn’t feel—I didn’t feel that [the looters] were—were wrong. …I didn’t say, ‘Well, they shouldn’t be going in these people's stores, stealing their stuff.’ I didn’t feel that.” In his teenage mind, there was a kind of imperfect justice in the looting. He and his neighbors had long felt certain that many of the neighborhood’s white storekeepers cheated them. Families in his neighborhood pinched pennies for the necessities and walked by the finer things in the windows with the knowledge that those things would never be theirs. For one fleeting moment, the looting was their chance to take something back. When the sun rose on the last day of August, nine blocks were filled with shattered glass. 65
In the days that followed, the memory of looting stood between Blacks and white Jews in North Philadelphia as though it were a photograph and its negative: one event, two alternate realities. For Black youth such as Kenneth Smith, the looting was a moment of jubilation: an ecstatic, temporary reprieve from an economy that had worn their families down for generations and seemed destined to continue. For the white, mostly Jewish storekeepers whose businesses were destroyed by the riot, the impression was precisely reversed. The looting was a sudden crack: a fault line of fear and ruin that fractured the peace and stability which had begun to feel normal to them in America.
Most Jews who worked in North Philadelphia had European roots. Some of the neighborhood’s oldest Jews had lived through European pogroms, while those born in the U.S. had grown up hearing stories of the anti-Jewish riots their elders had fled: periodic waves of terror which had left Jewish homes, livelihoods and families in pieces.
Sometimes the pogroms had followed seasonal rhythms, bubbling over from non-Jews’ local celebrations. Other times, violence rained down without warning. In Europe, Jews had learned to prepare for danger when Christians were in a festive mood – and to prepare for local authorities, whether out of indifference or enthusiasm, to stand by and allow the violence.
The riots on Columbia Avenue – especially the scenes of police so vastly outnumbered that they simply stood back and let looters take control – awakened these memories. In the testimony of Jewish business owners, two emotional themes came through. One was the indignation of white shop owners who had expected that police would protect them. But there was a second, contradictory emotion, a feeling with older and longer roots in their families’ experiences as Jews: an expectation that help would not arrive.
For drugstore owner Morris Gerson, writing a shaken letter to the city’s Jewish leaders, the riots were a horrible nightmare that left him preoccupied by images of the “Old Russian Pogroms.” For Elsie Finkelstein, the riots provoked a sense of powerlessness. She had been at home with her young children when word reached her that her wallpaper store was being ravaged. She had called police multiple times, but they said there was nothing they could do to help her. “As an American,” she said, “I have lost my feeling of security.” 66
On Columbia Avenue, Miriam and Bill inspected their two stores for damage. The looting had started one block west of them. Within a few hours, both of their shops were in ruins. One was “just a rubble of glass from back to front.” That Wednesday at City Hall, Miriam attended a public meeting for business owners to air their grievances. Exasperated shopkeepers lashed out at city officials and at each other. A few others tried to promote calm. Samuel Evans, a local Black concert manager and Civil Rights activist, pleaded with the group. “I’ve lived in this area for 45 years,” Evans told the gathering. “What happened was a disgrace and a tragedy…You need patience.” 67
Miriam, too, urged patience. With her dark hair coiffed, wearing a flowered dress, dark lipstick and large cat’s-eye glasses, she spoke of how moved she was by the compassion the Seidlers’ Black neighbors were showing them. “Yesterday, a little colored woman came up to me and offered me $100,” she said, “and I went home crying.” Others offered to help in any way they could, even volunteering to lend a hand with ironing. There was no question in her mind, Miriam said: She was staying. 68
Not everyone was so certain. City official Frederic Mann tried to assure business owners that police would protect them going forward. Even during the riot, he said, “We were pretty tough with them.” The businesspeople jeered at Mann’s assertion. Mann shot back, defending city government by insisting that police had been violent. “I saw a lotta busted-open heads and they didn’t come from nowhere.” 69
That night, the Beatles went onstage in a graceful arena near the University of Pennsylvania to a “wiggling, jiggling mob” of 13,000 girls. The concert was proclaimed a rousing success. Afterward, the band’s drummer met with the city’s police commissioner to convey his affection and thanks for the fine job Philadelphia’s police had done protecting the Beatles and their fans. “You chaps gave us the safest and most orderly protection we’ve had in any city,” he told Commissioner Howard Leary. As if to drive home how comfortable he felt, Ringo Starr reached out to ruffle the police commissioner’s hair. The commissioner blushed, wrote the Daily News. “After North Philadelphia, this was a lovely way to spend an evening.” 70
See endnotes online: https://www.aprilrosenblum.com/endnotes
719 Bloor St W, Unit 142, Toronto ON M6G 1L5, Canada
Master of Arts program, History
York University (Toronto, ON)
Fall 2018 –
Expected completion: Spring 2021
Bachelor of Arts, History
Summa Cum Laude (GPA 3.88); Phi Beta Kappa
“Bernie Sanders May Soon Have to Confront This Anti-Semitic Myth.” The Washington Post, January 27, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/01/27/anti-semites-see-socialism-jewish-plot-what-will-they-say-about-bernie-sanders/
“Trump and Giuliani's Crude, Coercive and Conditional 'Love' for Jews.” Haaretz, January 26, 2020. https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-why-trump-and-giuliani-may-truly-believe-they-re-more-jewish-than-soros-or-sanders-1.8438205
“What Dreams of Canada Tell Us about Race in America.” History News Network, January 19, 2020. https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/174074
“Want to Fight Anti-Semitism, a Year after Pittsburgh? Here’s One Easy Way.” The Washington Post, October 27, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/10/27/want-fight-anti-semitism-year-after-pittsburgh-heres-one-easy-way/
“Coming Clean.” In Class Lives: Stories from across Our Economic Divide, edited by Chuck Collins, Jennifer Ladd, Maynard Seider and Felice Yeskel, 193-197. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2014.
“The Jewish Bund.” In The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, 8 Volume Set: 1500 to the Present, edited by Immanuel Ness, 1966-1988. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Continued online at http://www.revolutionprotestencyclopedia.com.
“How to Split the Sea: Anti-Semitism and Social Change.” In Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice, edited by Or Rose, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser and Margie Klein, 312-318. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2009.
“Offers We Couldn’t Refuse: The Decline of Actively Secular Jewish Identity in the 20th Century United States,” Jewish Currents, May-June 2009, 8-28. https://www.aprilrosenblum.com/offers
The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Resistance to Antisemitism Part of All of Our Movements. Online and print version, April 2007. http://www.aprilrosenblum.com/thepast
“All I Really Need to Know: On Growing Up White in East Germantown.” Germantown Crier, Fall 2001. Germantown Historical Society.
Conference Presentations & Lectures
“Levelling the Earth By Hand: Afro-Jewish Leadership in Postwar Philadelphia,” Afro-Jewish Studies Association 2021 conference (accepted), at the Caribbean Philosophical Association 2021 conference, online, June 18-19, 2021.
“Chosen Family: Anti-Communism, Black Power and the Invisible Jewish Left,” Association for Jewish Studies 51st Annual Conference, San Diego, CA, December 15-17, 2019.
“Disinherited: Racial Politics, Anti-Communism and Jewish Family Re-Imagined,” lunch presentation, Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies, York University, Toronto, December 2, 2019.
“Unindicted Co-Conspirators: White Jews on the Periphery of Black Power,” Humber College Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences 2019 Conference, at the Toronto International Festival of Authors, November 2-3, 2019.
“Black-Jewish Connection and the Murder of William Seidler: Putting Microhistory to Work," New Frontiers Graduate Conference in History, York University, Toronto, February 21-23, 2019.
Distinctions and Awards
2019 Summer Fellowship, Feinstein Center for American Jewish History ($3,000)
2019 Feminist Historical Research Scholarship, York University ($2,600)
2019 Robert Cuff Fellowship, York University ($1,200)
2007 “Forward 50” – Annual list of the ‘most influential’ Jews in the U.S. (under "Ideas & Activism")
2005 Arthur Cook Memorial Prize for outstanding performance in History, Temple University
2005 Ronald Schwarzkopf Jewish Studies Award, Temple University
2005 Presidential Scholar, Temple University
2004 Phi Beta Kappa induction, Rho of Pennsylvania
2003 Phi Alpha Theta, International History Honor Society
2003 Carolyn Karcher Prize for academic excellence & social justice activism, Temple University
Lead Trainer, “Undoing White Supremacy and Ashkenazi Dominance in Jewish Space”
March 20-22, 2020
Developed and facilitated key content for the first national training on white supremacy in Jewish spaces and Jewish Eurocentrism for IfNotNow, a network of young Jewish activists fighting the Israeli Occupation
Consultant, “Understanding Anti-Semitism”
May 2015 – November 2017
Assisted a collaborative team (Leo Ferguson, Dove Kent, Aurora Levins Morales and Keren Soffer Sharon) in their writing of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s white paper, “Understanding Anti-Semitism: An Offering to our Movement Allies,” published online, November 2017. http://jfrej.org/understanding-antisemitism
Yiddish Translator and Instructor
May 2005 – March 2009
Freelance translation, including sources for William Hitchcock’s The Bitter Road to Freedom, “Bintel Brief” letters for early stages of an National Museum of American Jewish History exhibit and family letters for private clients. Classes and workshops for all ages at local organizations (Youngish and Yiddish, Folkshul and synagogues).
National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia
October 2006 – June 2008
Provided personal mentorship & built community for unaffiliated Jews in their 20s. Developed & coordinated weekly public events on US & global Jewish culture and history.
Independent Researcher, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere
May 2005 – April 2007
Produced a teaching tool for activists on antisemitism and social justice movements, now regarded as foundational to progressive discussion on antisemitism in the last decade.
Curator, “Beneath the Underground Railroad”
Johnson House Historic Site, Philadelphia
Designed and executed this National Historic Landmark’s first urban archaeology exhibit.
Writer’s Seminar on the Jewish People
Led by Samuel G. Freedman
(New York Times, Columbia Journalism School)
Uriel Weinreich Program in Yiddish Literature, Language and Culture
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Immersion Course in Modern Standard Arabic
Arabic Language Institute in Fez (ALIF)
Languages: Professional working proficiency in Yiddish and Spanish.
Dr. Molly Ladd-Taylor, Professor of History
York University, Toronto, ON
(416) 736-2100 x 30419, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Edward Jones-Imhotep, Associate Professor of History
University of Toronto
(416) 978-5397, email@example.com
* A Note on Black/Jewish Works (cont'd):
For reference, here are other key works on Black/Jewish themes since 2006:
Haynes, Bruce D. The Soul of Judaism: Jews of African Descent in America (NYU Press, 2018). Surveys a broad scope of Black Jewish and Judaic identities in the U.S. and internationally and discusses current debates among Black Jews and scholars of the subject.
Dollinger, Marc. Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s (Waltham, MA: Brandeis Univ. Press, 2018). Contrasting somewhat with its title, an analysis not primarily of alliance but of how Black Power’s theoretical advances inspired post-1960s Jewish identity movements.
Weisenfeld, Judith. New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (New York: NYU Press, 2016). A broad analysis of Black religious movements during the Great Migration, with serious attention given to Black Judaic movements of the period.
Gurock, Jeffrey S. The Jews of Harlem: The Rise, Decline, and Revival of a Jewish Community (New York: NYU Press, 2016). On Harlem’s once-vibrant European-descended Jewish communities and their interactions with Black gentile neighbors; does not examine Harlem’s highly influential Black Jewish-identified communities, such as the Commandment Keepers.
Berman, Lila Corwin. Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015). Powerful analysis of white Jewish liberalism, structural racism and white flight in postwar Detroit, with some attention to Black communal agency.
Rothberg, Michael. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford Univ. Press, 2009). Examines how anticolonial movements and Holocaust survivors employed Holocaust memory in waging liberation struggles, especially against French colonialism in North Africa.
Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn. Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2006). The most recent major historical survey of 20th century Black/Jewish relations, advancing a well-developed analysis of the challenges that liberalism brought to Black/Jewish political cooperation.
Goldstein, Eric L. The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2006). History of white racial formation for European-descended Jews in the 19th and 20th century US; illustrates how white status for immigrants was conditioned on Black American subjugation.