Tuomi’s Time Machine: Standing Up to the System

Philadelphia Transportation Company vs. NAACP helps set the stage for the civil rights struggle

Soldiers camped on the grounds of Lovett Memorial Library during the Philadelphia Transportation Company strike. Originally published in the August 17, 1944 edition of the Courier. Photo courtesy of Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown.

Seventy-five years ago, a momentous event occurred throughout Philadelphia, including Germantown; it was an event critical to advancing civil rights and the integration of African-American workers into the mainstream economy of the region. Due to labor shortages resulting from World War II, and as a result of persistent advocacy by the NAACP, the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC) promoted African-American PTC workers to operate its trollies and subways throughout the city, including the trolley lines in Germantown.

In response, white PTC transit workers held a “sickout” to protest the African-Americans operators. According to the August 3, 1944, edition of the Germantown Courier, “Men finishing their 4 A.M. trolley runs simply got off the cars, walked away, or stood around for their relief, whispering in small groups. As it became apparent that no cars were going to move out of the barns, a trolley car operator was asked: ‘What’s the trouble?’ ‘There’s no trouble,’ he answered, ‘there just seems to be an epidemic of some illness. We’re all too sick to take the trolleys out.’” And so the PTC transit strike was born.

The Army takes control of trollies (Aug 1944)

The area was crippled for several days. Fifteen hundred workers at the Budd Company Plant on Hunting Park Avenue did not report for work and about 10 percent of employees at the Saftee Glass Company at 4717 Stenton Avenue were absent. The Continental Mills at Armat and Lena streets was also affected. The Roosevelt administration, reacting to the strike’s damaging effect on war production, impressed soldiers from the Army to keep public transit operating.

A U.S. soldier patrolling a trolley ride in Philadelphia, c. August 6, 1944.

Meanwhile, the NAACP kept the pressure on the PTC – accusing it of intentionally dragging its feet – while also simultaneously working to keep African Americans calm. Their efforts included passing out handbills during the strike, encouraging members of Philadelphia’s African-American community to “Keep Your Heads and Your Tempers!”

The strike was finally settled on August 6 with many African American workers continuing to work in their new positions at the PTC. The sickout both exposed long-festering racial divides in Philadelphia and demonstrated the growing influence of the NAACP, presaging later civil rights battles in the 1950s and 1960s. It also helped begin to foster the integration of African Americans into the city’s economy in greater numbers.

About the Time Machine
This regular series goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director of Historic Germantown, as he picks some of his favorite images from the Germantown Historical Society’s extensive collection. Alex Bartlett, Librarian and Archivist of the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing photos from the distant past to life. For additional information or to learn more about the history of our area, please contact Alex at (215)844-1683, or at library@germantownhistory.org.

About Historic Germantown
Historic Germantown (HG) is a partnership of 18 historic houses, destinations, and museums that have joined together to protect, preserve, and share some of the area’s prized cultural assets.

HG manages the Germantown Historical Society archives and a collection of over 50,000 items; for more information, visit Germantownhistory.org or Freedomsbackyard.com. Located at 5501 Germantown Ave.

East Falls and Germantown share a proud colonial history.

About Alex Bartlett 33 Articles
Librarian and archivist Alex Bartlett combines his hobbies with his career. Working for the Germantown historical society, Bartlett manages the libraries’ collection and archives, while also helping to provide visitors with requested research documents. Alex is a self-described “history nerd,” with interests in archeology and old bottles and glassware. He said that growing up in Germantown is what initially stimulated his enthusiasm toward historical documents and objects, and his job manages to integrate all of his interests into one field.

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