"We Drive Tanks, Why Not Trolleys?": Technology, Civil Rights, and Spatial Systems in Philadelphia's 1944 Transit Strike
Haverford College. Department of History
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Using a 1944 transit strike as a lens, this thesis attempts to explore racial tensions in Philadelphia during the long civil rights movement as it relates to the city's trolley public transit system. The streetcar system in Philadelphia, designed during the city's Victorian era as a bourgeois space, democratized transit in an unequal fashion in the early 20th century, and made city space more egalitarian for the white working-class. For blacks in the city, this utilization was not fully achieved, and black men were denied all but the most meningeal positions within the streetcar system, which allowed whites to abuse their positions to marginalize black usage of the trolley. During World War II, as black migration to Philadelphia and participation in the city's war industries skyrocketed, black advocacy and activism put pressure on the Philadelphia Transportation Company to upgrade African Americans to positions of motormen. Groups such as the NAACP saw this effort as critical to bringing about a Double Victory, over fascism abroad and racism at home, due to the prominence of the trolley in Philadelphia life. Increased importance of the trolley, due to wartime material shortages that made other forms of transit unfeasible, also contributed to the contestation of the space of the trolley. After a change in union representation for the PTC, the former union's leadership used wartime racial tensions, and the upgrading of eight black men to the position of trolley motormen, to incite a strike to undermine the Transport Workers Union's representation for the motormen of Philadelphia. The effort backfired, Franklin D. Roosevelt sent in 5,000 soldiers to break the strike and the leaders of the strike were arrested for shutting down Philadelphia's public transportation system and thus impeding the city's war production, just months after D-Day. Eight men became the first African Americans to drive Philadelphia's trolleys in a relatively peaceful claim to authority over a public space, setting a precedent for post-war civil rights action.