The Columbia Avenue Race Riots
22nd Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19121
At the intersection of 22nd Street and Columbia Avenue, Odessa Bradford blocked the streets in a stalled car. She was a 34-year-old African-American woman. The police found her and her husband, Rush Bradford, having a domestic dispute. “Nobody is going to move this car” Odessa yelled at the two officers. One officer, Robert Wells, was African American and the other, John Hoff, was a white officer. They started to remove her against her will. She bit and scratched one of the officers. An onlooker, James E. Nettles, attacked the officers in her defense. “You wouldn’t manhandle a white woman like you did this lady” witnesses shouted at police. Other onlookers involved themselves by destroying stores and attacking police. This incident resulted in three days of rioting, lasting from August 28 to August 30, 1964.
The police arrested Odessa for assault, battery, resisting arrest, and breach against the peace charges. They sentenced her to thirty days in jail and one year on probation. They arrested her husband and Nettles as well.
Raymond Hall, a North Philadelphia local, spread rumors describing Odessa as a pregnant woman. He claimed the officers beat her to death. This rumor caused greater aggression amongst rioters. They threw bricks and glass bottles at officers from rooftops. As a result, the police sent a helicopter to uncover these rioters. Rioters also looted and destroyed white-owned shops. Asian-owned shops placed signs in their windows saying “We Colored, Too” for protection. By the second day of rioting, Cecil B. Moore, president of the NAACP, tried to calm rioters. He drove Odessa through North Philadelphia on a sound truck. He wanted to prove she was alive. However, the riots continued on.
During the riots, Mayor James Tate placed a curfew and a ban on alcohol. If anyone disobeyed these orders, they risked up to two years in prison. Howard Leary, police commissioner, ordered officers not to get in the way of the rioters. However, Frank Rizzo, soon-to-be police commissioner, disagreed with these decisions. He ordered fellow officers to perform random arrests and raids. Officers beat young, innocent, African-American men. They even planted evidence in order to frame innocent people.
After only the second day of riots, police arrested around 1,300 people. Cecil B. Moore explained that at least“700 of the 1,300 arrested” did not deserve arrest. In total, 1,500 officers arrived at the riots. Four officers remained at each intersection along Columbia Avenue. The riots caused more than 300 injuries overall.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, a white-owned newspaper, criticized police for not getting involved. North Philadelphians watched rioters destroy their businesses. The police refused to come to their aid. The Philadelphia Inquirer questioned why the police did not use the Birmingham Sheriff “Bull” Connor method. This meant threatening rioters with guns, hoses, tear gas, dogs, etc. However, The Philadelphia Tribune-Herald, the African-American newspaper, praised police for being uninvolved.
Many civil rights activists distanced themselves from the riots. They questioned whether this was a civil rights issue. They often referred to rioters as “Black militants.” However, Cecil B. Moore called the riots a reaction to centuries of exploitation. By the end of the riots, there were “258 legitimate complaints of police brutality.” A majority of this mistreatment came from out-of-uniform officers.
In 1984, Columbia Avenue became Cecil B. Moore Avenue. This street was located in the section of North Philadelphia known as “the Jungle.” White outsiders – particularly police officers – and, at times, locals used this term. Nearly half the population of Philadelphia’s African Americans lived in North Philadelphia. Poverty deeply affected the area. People living in this area earned about $3,352 per year. This was 30% lower than the city average. They also suffered from a 13-20% unemployment rate.
The race riots left North Philadelphia in a state of even greater despair. Many stores never reopened. Years after these riots, Odessa commented on the issue. She explained that she did not intend for these riots to happen. However, she reported “if that policeman had only treated me like a human being, none of this would have happened.”