Long overdue praise for a Germantown civil rights activist
Heroes change over time, depending on who’s telling the story. Too often, some significant contributions made to society – and the people behind those contributions – remain largely unknown or under-recognized. Such is the case with Florence Moltrop Kelley, a Germantowner who made significant contributions to the improvement of workplace conditions, especially for women and children, civil rights, and women’s suffrage, contributions which affect our lives to this day.
Kelley was born in 1859, to William D. Kelley and Caroline Bartram Bonsall of Philadelphia, the latter of whom was a descendant of local botanist John Bartram and in the first years of her life, she lived at 41st and Parrish streets, in West Philadelphia.
However, as she grew up, Florence spent much of her time at the home of her grandparents, Isaac and Elizabeth Kay Pugh, of Germantown, a time which she later described as “the happiest days of her childhood.”
The Pugh home was located on what was then called Willow Street (later renamed Morton), in East Germantown, not far from Church Lane and Belfield Avenue. As Kelley once described it in Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work: The Rise of Women’s Political Culture, 1830-1900, the home on Willow Street was “an ivy-clad, pebble-dashed, gable-roofed old house, on a slightly terraced hillside, with a goldfish pond located at the base of the hill.”
Florence was raised in part by Elizabeth, Isaac and his sister, Sarah, who also lived at the house. Both were educated at the Westtown Boarding School, where they were exposed to progressive, Quaker values, which certainly made an impression on young Florence.
For a short time in the mid-1860s, Florence attended what she called a “delightful little school in Germantown,” and would attend Sunday school at Quaker meeting. As Florence was quite sickly, she did not always attend school; she was largely self-taught, learning from her Father’s library and her aunt Sarah’s reading materials and from discussions with her family about abolitionism. She would have discussions with her aunt about slavery, including those about her aunt’s refusal to purchase products associated with slavery, and Florence would meet abolitionist Lucretia Mott through Sarah, when Mott would visit their Germantown home.
Florence would go on to attend Cornell University in 1876, where she wrote her thesis about disadvantaged children, with a focus on child labor laws, much of it being drawn from resources available at the Library of Congress. While Florence thought that her thesis was “slight,” her work was praised highly at Cornell, and beyond.
Her work on her thesis proved to be seminal for Florence, as the rights of disadvantaged children would become of critical importance for her and would remain so for the rest of her life. Upon her graduation, she frequently travelled with her father, William, who was a Republican member of the United States House of Representatives, from Pennsylvania. As William was an abolitionist, Florence’s time with him further solidified her abolitionist beliefs. She would later join the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, an advocacy group for women’s suffrage and racial equality.
After her graduation from Cornell, Florence spent the next years in several locations, including Chicago, where she lived at the Hull House settlement house and met labor reformer Jane Addams. While there, she became involved with the Chicago Women’s Club and with Addams’ help, she established a bureau of women’s labor. In 1899, she moved to the Henry Street settlement house in New York City. All of these activities would prove critical in Florence’s life, for in 1909, she was involved in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), along with W. E. B. DuBois, who had become a friend of hers.
She would continue her activism by advocating for the inequities Black children experienced while in school, in which white schoolchildren would receive three times the funding per capita of their Black counterparts.
In her later years, she would join the National Consumers League, where she served as General Secretary. Through her work there, she helped to limit women’s work hours to eight hours a day, and improved sanitary conditions in factories. Equally as important, she argued that poor working conditions also caused mental stress and a loss of good mental health.
In her waning years, Florence continued her advocacy for racial equality and worker’s rights, and she eventually returning to Germantown, passing away from colon cancer 89 years ago this month, on February 17, 1932, at Germantown Hospital at age 72. She is interred at Ivy Hill Cemetery.
NOTE: Old property atlases of Philadelphia’s 22nd Ward – now comprising the neighborhoods of Germantown, Mount Airy, and Chestnut Hill – were instrumental in determining the exact location of Florence Kelley’s home in Germantown. Supporting evidence was gleaned from the pages of period Philadelphia city directories, and Kathryn Kish Sklar’s book Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work: The Rise of Women’s Political Culture, 1830-1900, was invaluable in providing the details which is hoped will help raise Kelley to a position of historical prominence in our area, one which she so richly deserves.