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The History of African American Business in Philadelphia, 1850 – 1920

Author: Vicki Baker


Overbrook High School

Year: 2007

Seminar: American Capitalism

Keywords: African American business, Philadelphia business

School Subject(s): Economics, History, Math, Social Studies

The main purpose of this project is to use primary sources from the early twentieth century to connect students with the continuum of successful African-American businesses in the City of Philadelphia. This connection will be made as students map, analyze and manipulate primary historical documents detailing African American businesses from the early twentieth century. I am high school math teacher, not a history teacher or even teacher with an avid interest in history. I am using this unit as an opportunity to connect a historical reality with a current reality so that students have a sense of history and the experience using real world data. This experience will also increase their ability to successfully complete the research portion of their senior multidisciplinary project, a School District of Philadelphia requirement for graduation.

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Full Unit Text

The major activity of the unit is to use the Philadelphia Colored Business Directory, 1913 available on microfilm at the University of Pennsylvania Van Pelt Library and other historical documents to explore the nature of early twentieth century African-Americans businesses. The three areas of interest within the unit will be mapping business locations, discussing the significance of location to segregation practices of the time and proprietor influence and the effect of mechanization and modernization on Philadelphia business industry trends.

I am a teacher of mathematics at Overbrook High School, a public school in the Overbrook Section of West Philadelphia. Overbrook High School is a comprehensive or neighborhood high school comprised exclusively of African-American students. Our students are required to complete a multidisciplinary project at the end of their senior year that often requires research and writing a business plan. My tenth and eleventh grade students often need experience conducting research in preparation for this project. This project will prepare students for the research and analysis required in their senior project.


This unit is designed for all students to use primary sources in research. I have chosen Philadelphia business because many of my students believe they want to own businesses of their own when they complete their education. The name of my unit is “The History of African American Business in Philadelphia, 1850 – 1920”. The seminar I am taking, American Capitalism, includes rich, historical information on the American economy in the mid-1800’s through the early 1900’s, how American business and industry developed during this time and the effect on the American people of European decent. Much like the high school courses taught to my African American high school students, the business information provided is dominated by European American data in general terms. This study of African American businesses in Philadelphia adds cultural relevance for students of color with a historical perspective provided by the economic and cultural climate in the black community of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. They will gain an appreciation for the stamina and perseverance required by persons of the African Diaspora to be successful.

The target students will be eleventh grade, Algebra two students at Overbrook High School. Next year, in their senior year, students complete a multidisciplinary project. The project requires them to research a future career area of interest and to develop a business plan. Many students begin this journey having never considered the larger framework on which business and the economy are based. An understanding of the capitalist system, particularly its roots and workings in Philadelphia would be a real benefit for them. This type of learning will include statistics, trends, and date relevant to each math area that we study. This data could then be used for their projects as well as a way to make math real.

Students will gather data on the history of African American business and industry in Philadelphia. They will investigate the economic and social climate, types of businesses, nature of businesses, trends and implications for the future. Their investigation will include trade articles, books, magazine articles, and newspapers. This research will form the basis for the whole class instruction and small group data analysis used in the lesson plans.

My curriculum unit will consist of my research, student research projects, Philadelphia School District Core Curriculum lesson topics, class projects, and student presentations. I believe that this curriculum unit will offer an exciting journey for both my students and for me. In both creating and teaching this interdisciplinary unit, my students will study math, reading and language arts and social studies. A rich experience can be created to enhance students learning and provide learning they can use for a lifetime.

This curriculum unit will study the economic and social climate of the turn of the century in Philadelphia, and the emergence and continuity of African American businesses. The American History courses offered in high school are traditional in the sense that the topics studied are as history of the American majority with some inclusion of major events for other American racial groups. This unit looks specifically at the African American community.

Overbrook High School students are bright, energetic, curious African American students whose present experience includes few clues to the real world they will be expected to join or prepare to join in just a few years. Their student life offers few experiences that prepare them fully for the career choices and challenges ahead. By creating this curriculum unit, students’ historical perspectives on the issues facing us today as well as general employment knowledge will be increased and teacher resources will be strengthened as other teachers will be able to take advantage of the lessons and approach taken.

During the late nineteenth century, between 1870 and early 1900, Americans experienced and grew to expect prosperity. The Civil War was over, the new markets brought by the railroads and urban-industrial growth in jobs and transportation such as the streetcars as well as a new culture of work and civility made Americans believing and experiencing a better life. For African-American’s in Philadelphia, the expectations for prosperity were very similar. They had participated in the eradication of slavery as soldiers and supporters. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Constitutional Amendments had been passed freeing the slaves, promising full citizenship, and guaranteeing the right to vote. The citizenry of Philadelphia was poised to enjoy a new life.

The African American population was not to enjoy the prosperity of European Americans. The victories of the 1860’s while significant did not result in changes in their personal, business or social lives. Their lives, rather than following a predictable road to prosperity, were filled with uncertainty, traps and disappointment. In fact, by the early 1900’s more economic losses had been seen than advances. While a few entrepreneurs where able to avoid the problems and establish moderately successful business and increased prosperity, most African Americans found themselves shut out of the economic surge experienced by the European population. As late as 1900 only one percent of the city’s black labor force had been able to win jobs as clerks or salespeople and the overwhelming majority of them worked for the government or for African American employers. The economic rules and roles established for Europeans were vastly different from that imposed on African Americans. What were these obstacles? How did they manifest themselves? How did the people respond? Was there African American business? What was the nature of that business? How did it promote itself? How did black businessmen cope? These are some of the questions answered by an analysis of the period. It must be noted that the data collected often reflected racism, ignorance and fears of the time therefore affecting the data collector as well as the citizens’ answers.

The end of the Civil War brought stability to cities like Philadelphia. Among both African American and white citizens in the city, the Republican Party had been a rallying point for both groups. After the war, whites while still divided on how African Americans fit into the world around them. As they settled into post war life, a stable twoparty system developed favoring the Republican Party. Politics of the period have been described by Lincoln Steffens as both “corrupt and contented”. This depiction comes from the politics, corrupt, violent and patriarchal nature of Philadelphia. The corruption was based on dishonesty and chicanery at the highest levels in government and citizenry. The police of the 1870’s had no more authority than the large ethnic street gangs so organized they “patrolled” the streets each keeping those felt to be undesirable under control. The Rangers kept African Americans east of Broad Street after dark; the volunteer fire companies, depending on their ethnic makeup, handled other ethnic groups, while the police kept the tramps, beggars or drunks from residential concern. As order came to neighborhoods in the mid 1880s and changes occurred in the nature of work and expectations for civil behavior, ethnic violence ceased except for the African American community. There, gangs still harassed and beat those thought to be an affront to whites.

While the white community experienced a new economic order and pacified social behavior, the African American community saw very little change and, in some areas, significant decline. Instead of prosperity, significant white hostility and discrimination had the effect of bringing decline, uncertainty, and dead-ends.

The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments brought hope and challenge for African Americans in Philadelphia. Legal victories concerning segregation in street cars, public schools and restaurants were significant in gaining rights the amendments guaranteed. In practice however, “uniformed” positions of all types were reserved for whites as were all white collared positions. Headwaiters refused service, and gangs enforced whites’ desire for segregated schools. The level of intensity of white racism was unexplainable. Blacks were subject to attacks triggered by color alone or the way they walked or were dressed or for expecting to be treated well. Even for the African American elite, genuine interaction did not occur across the races. A white “friend in private” would not speak to his friend in public; DuBois described the major function of blacks to whites as one of “purveyors to the rich.” As long as they were seen to be in their place, their safety was assured.

African Americans lived in clearly defined clusters and areas of Philadelphia by geography and by work location. Whites violence kept blacks out of some areas unless they were there as live-in help. The need to be near certain casual work locations such as wharfs, hotels and warehouses caused clustering in concentrated areas, many times including shanty residences on unmapped streets and alleys.

Racist rules of the time also created clear opportunities for African American businesses. Economic discrimination shaped opportunities for African Americans in their own businesses. As opportunities for whites grew, the African American working class was denied entry into the new jobs, both blue and white collar, created by industrialization. Undertakers only prepared bodies of their own race. A white person never cut an African American person’s hair. An African American might cut white persons’ hair as long as he had only white customers and a razor or scissors were used exclusively for one race. Black lawyers did not work for white firms. Unlike the south, there were no signs declaring, “Whites Only,” so the situations became known through experience, and a white person’s reaction was unknown until they acted.

During the late 1800s two groups of African American professionals made the most gains, doctors and lawyers. In the mid 1880s there were 8 doctors, up from 5 in 1880 and by the last 1890s, 14, plus 3 dentists. Lawyers, by the end of the decade, had grown from just one to eight or nine. Journalists also became more prevalent. Many worked for African American papers or followed a path as a black religious writer for a white paper, then as a writer for an out-of-town paper, and then as a frequent contributor to a major paper.

Teaching was a prevalent professional occupation but was limited to African Americans teaching African Americans. White institutions were open to educating bright students of color but would not hire them to teach in preparatory schools or schools of higher education. No African American teachers were allowed to teach mixed or all white classes.

African American professionals also included clergy. Clergy represented the largest percentage of all African American professionals, numbering as 80 – 100 pastors serving 60,000 congregants. Unlike other professional groups, level of education varied widely among clergy.

Entrepreneurial ventures benefited from the growth of the African American population as well as the laws of segregation. Analysis of the “Philadelphia Colored Business Directory” of the turn of the century shows that three business categories dominated African American business of the period: Drugstores, restaurants and barbers. Ten business categories made up more than fifty percent of business (see below)

Business Type Number
Cum No. Percent
Cum. % Drugstores 157 157 10.46 10.46 Restaurants 140 297 9.33 19.79 Barbers 116 413 7.73 27.51
Hair Culturists & Manicure 82 495 5.46 32.98 Caterers 71 566 4.73 37.71 Grocers 68 634 4.53 42.24 Physicians 59 693 3.93 46.17 Express & Hauling 50 743 3.33 49.50 Tailors 42 785 2.80 52.30 Bootblacks & Shoeshining 41 826 2.73 55.03 Parlors

The most common neighborhood retail businesses were restaurants, cigar and grocery stores. They were small enterprises that came and went as their customers and competition dictated. African American businesses that serviced the general public had more success. These were businesses of caterers, barbers, tailors and upholsterers. They prospered until external forces caused them to decline. The most important of the entrepreneurial African Americans ventures in this period were catering businesses.

In the general Philadelphia market place catering was a strong force and in the African American community it was a key contributor. The black catering business, promoted by Thomas Dorsey, gained both white and African American clientele. Social structures of the time made private caterings a good business. Both upper and middle class clients demanded services for home entertainment. Catering businesses flourished until the late 1900s when hotels began to manage their own catering needs and menus moved from American to International cuisine.


Building on the information from the course and learning new information specific to the African American community in Philadelphia will allow me to create interesting, cross-curricular units. These units will provide opportunities for high school mathematics, particularly Algebra 2, to come alive for students, allow students to explore their futures using local data and establish a firm, data-based foundation for understanding the social, business and historical underpinnings of American Capitalism in Philadelphia’s African American community.

  •  To engage students in industry research which will broaden their understanding of the Philadelphia job market and opportunities within specific industries of interest;
  • To reach the goals of the Philadelphia School District mathematics core curriculum in new and exciting ways;
  • To develop personal research skills and guide students in attaining these skills such that new horizons open-up for my eleventh grade students.


Students will meet the above objectives by:

  • Utilizing mapping software to determine the geographical significance and clustering of African-American businesses from the 1913 business directory
  • Students will utilize U.S. Department of Labor statistics to determine business trends
  • Students will consider the nature of manual labor in early twentieth century industry and compare the effect of mechanization to that industry (for example, in millinery work – productivity increased from hand sewing to sewing machines)

Classroom Activities/Lesson Plans

Philadelphia School District Core Curriculum Lesson Units/Class Projects

The Core Curriculum and PA Standards include many topics that can be made richer using real, trend, income, and demographic data. I will teach the basic algebraic concepts such as linear, quadratic, exponential, and absolute value functions, statistical analysis, graphing and general analysis and then introduce units relevant to the topic using the Philadelphia data. Units would be integrated into the Algebra 2 curriculum over an extended period. For instance, the Holt text begins each section with a real world link specifically designed to integrate real life data into student learning. While an improvement over math in a vacuum, often my students do not have the experiences to fully grasp the real life connection. I will use the data that we discuss in class to frame real life connections for my students that are Philadelphia based. In the end, these areas will become more robust using real data model and real, local business topics. My students will benefit from this approach because they will be more engaged and they will retain more of the math concepts for later use and remember them because of the contextual link. Students could not only consider the data on paper but manipulate it in computer programs and using TI-83 Plus calculators.

Lesson Plan I – Mapping of Black Business Data

  • Utilizing mapping software to determine the geographical significance and clustering of African-American businesses from the 1913 business directory
  1. Mapland – Spreadsheet Mapping Software add-in for Microsoft® Excel
    Mapland Basic and US City Centroids Workbook $169.90
  2. The Philadelphia Colored Business Directory
  3. Computer with Microsoft Excel (1 per group of 2 students)
  • Teachers will lead discussion providing introduction concerning the history of black business in Philadelphia
  • Students will receive copies of pages from the “Colored Business Directory”
  • Students will map the addresses of the businesses in their packet
  • Students will map the areas of black residences/neighborhood
  • Students will overlay areas of current black neighborhoods (City of Philadelphia/census data)
  • Students will discuss differences in maps, significance of areas current populations compared to population in early 1900’s
  • Students will engage understand industry research which will broaden their understanding of the Philadelphia areas
  • Students will develop a personal perspective of the development of black business in Philadelphia.
  • Students will gain a preliminary understanding of black migration within Philadelphia

Lesson Plan II – Business Trends


Students will utilize US Department of Labor statistics to determine business trends among major Philadelphia industries

  • Sales statistics of the catering industry (1900-1950 and recently)
  • Sales statistics for industry of choice (1900-1950 and recently)
  • African American Business in Philadelphia summary (see appendix)
  • TI -84 Plus Graphing Calculator (or TI-83 Plus)
  • Teacher will lead discussion on the catering industry (one of the largest industries by sales in the early 1900’s in Philadelphia and the US)
  • Data for industry will be distributed to class • Students will inter data into Ti-84 plus calculators and determine the least square line (linear) of best fit
  • Students will graph line • Students will determine function for each year of data and compare changes year to year
  • Students will develop hypotheses explaining changes in trend lines
  • Students will select an industry from summary list
  • Students will research characteristics of industry over century 1900 – 2000’s
  • Students will research industry and determine sales data
  • Students will determine line of best fit for their industry data
  • Students will describe and provide hypothesis for differences in trend lines
  • Students will understand that labor industries can be described by the trend lines determined by their sales data
  • Students will understand the concept of growth industries and declining industries

Lesson Plan III – Mechanizing Industry in Philadelphia

  • Students will consider the nature of manual labor completed in an early twentieth century industry and compare the effect of mechanization to that industry. (for example, in millinery work – productivity increases from hand sewing to sewing machines)
  • Industry statistics millinery, clothing, catering industry
  • US Department of Labor productivity data
  • TI-84 Graphing Calculator
  • Teacher will provide historical overview of labor and the nature of labor in early 19000’s (for numerous accounts, see resources, especially Getting Work and The Philadelphia Negro)
  • Students will research how the work is accomplished in one of three industries now compared to early 1900’s particularly manual processes versus mechanized.
  • Students will graph productively data as confirmation of the effect of mechanization on industry
  • Students will consider the impact and future impact expected from the robots in manufacturing.

Students will understand how new inventions affect the manufacture of goods


Student Research and Presentations

Student research will be conducted in their specific area of business. The class projects will lay the groundwork for their understanding how developed and what it is today. Their work will provide a personal journey into and area of their own interest. Students will determine a career topic of interest, identify the industry or category in which it falls and they will research the trends for the industry and the areas of growth and decline.

Students will present their research to their classmates by category. They will collaborate in teams by industry and provide a joint presentation on the history, nature and future trends for the industry. Then, each student will identify their niche within the industry and present to the class their career plan for the selected industry.


The Philadelphia Colored Business Directory 1913 Compiled by the Philadelphia Negro Business League, Philadelphia, PA A handbook of information concerning professional and business activities of the Negroes of Philadelphia.

W. E. B. DuBois. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia 1999.

Roger Lane. Roots of Violence in Black Philadelphia, 1860-1900, Harvard University Press 1986.

Walter Licht. Getting Work: Philadelphia, 1840-1950, Harvard University Press, 1992.

The Negro in Pennsylvania: A Study in Economic History, Arno Press, 1967.

Robert Wright, et al. Black Biographical Dictionaries 1790 – 1950

Material Resources

Mapland – Spreadsheet Mapping Software add-in for Microsoft® Excel Mapland Basic and US City Centroids Workbook $169.90 Mapland is spreadsheet mapping software that works inside Microsoft Excel®. Quickly and easily chart your data on a map. If you know how to use Excel, using Mapland will be second nature to you. Save your maps in your own Excel file which can be viewed by anyone who has Excel. Creating presentation quality maps has never been easier!

Maps of the United States, Europe, Asia, the World and many others are included with Mapland Basic. With Mapland, you can display your data in many ways. Create Pin Maps (push pin), Column Maps, Pie Maps, or Shaded Maps. You can also combine map types to display different columns of your data. Since all our maps are objects it’s easy to add boundaries, combine boundaries, or delete unwanted boundaries from your maps using Mapland and Excel’s editing capabilities.

Great for sales data, sales numbers and distribution, marketing purposes, scientific and business data that ties in with locations and many other uses. You can represent your numbers by zip code, county, state, region, country and other delineations. Many choices are available for how the data are presented. And, Mapland is compatible with Microsoft Office products, so the resulting maps can be easily be inserted into Word®, PowerPoint®, FrontPage®, or Illustrator® for dynamic presentations, publications and web pages.

Additional Geographic Workbooks can be purchased that provide you with other detailed maps for Mapland: USA County Boundaries, USA County FIPS codes, USA 3 Digit Zip Code Boundaries, USA 5 Digit Zip Code Boundaries, USA City Centroids (pin point locations), USA 5 Digit Zip Code Centroids (pin point locations), Mexico Postal Code Centroids (pin point locations), Mexico City Centroids (pin point locations), Canada City and Postal Code Centroids (pin point locations),MSA Maps, and Area Code Boundaries. See below for more information and pricing on these workbooks.


PA Math Standards

2.2.11 Computation and Estimation

A. Develop and use computation concepts, operations and procedures with real numbers in problem-solving situations.
B. Use estimation to solve problems for which an exact answer is not needed. C. Construct and apply mathematical models, including lines and curves of best fit, to estimate values of related quantities. E. Recognize that the degree of precision needed in calculating a number depends on how the results will be used and the instruments used to generate the measure. F. Demonstrate skills for using computer spreadsheets and scientific and graphing calculators.

2.4.11 Mathematical Reasoning and Connections

B. Construct valid arguments from stated facts. C. Determine the validity of an argument. D. Use truth tables to reveal the logic of mathematical statements. E. Demonstrate mathematical solutions to problems (e.g., in the physical sciences).

2.5.11 Mathematical Problem Solving and Communication

A. Select and use appropriate mathematical concepts and techniques from different areas of mathematics and apply them to solving non-routine and multi-step problems. B. Use symbols, mathematical terminology, standard notation, mathematical rules, graphing and other types of mathematical representations to communicate observations, predictions, concepts, procedures, generalizations, ideas and results. C. Present mathematical procedures and results clearly, systematically, succinctly and correctly. D. Conclude a solution process with a summary of results and evaluate the degree to which the results obtained represent an acceptable response to the initial problem and why the reasoning is valid.

2.6.11 Statistics and Data Analysis

A. Design and conduct an experiment using random sampling. Describe the data as an example of a distribution using statistical measures of center and spread. Organize and represent the results with graphs. (Use standard deviation, variance and t-tests.) B. Use appropriate technology to organize and analyze data taken from the local community. C. Determine the regression equation of best fit (e.g., linear, quadratic, exponential). D. Make predictions using interpolation, extrapolation, regression and estimation using technology to verify them.

2.7.11 Probability and Predictions

C. Draw and justify a conclusion regarding the validity of a probability or statistical argument. D. Use experimental and theoretical probability distributions to make judgments about the likelihood of various outcomes in uncertain situations.

2.8.11 Algebra and Functions

A. Analyze a given set of data for the existence of a pattern and represent the pattern algebraically and graphically. B. Give examples of patterns that occur in data from other disciplines. C. Use patterns, sequences and series to solve routine and non-routine problems. D. Formulate expressions, equations, inequalities, systems of equations, systems of inequalities and matrices to model routine and non-routine problem situations. E. Use equations to represent curves (e.g., lines, circles, ellipses, parabolas, hyperbolas). F. Identify whether systems of equations and inequalities are consistent or inconsistent. K. Select, justify and apply an appropriate technique to graph a linear function in two variables, including slope-intercept, x- and y-intercepts, graphing by transformations and the use of a graphing calculator. L. Write the equation of a line when given the graph of the line, two points on the line, or the slope of the line and a point on the line. M. Given a set of data points, write an equation for a line of best fit. N. Solve linear, quadratic and exponential equations both symbolically and graphically. O. Determine the domain and range of a relation, given a graph or set of ordered pairs. P. Analyze a relation to determine whether a direct or inverse variation exists and represent it algebraically and graphically. Q. Represent functional relationships in tables, charts and graphs. R. Create and interpret functional models. S. Analyze properties and relationships of functions (e.g., linear, polynomial, rational, trigonometric, exponential, logarithmic). T. Analyze and categorize functions by their characteristics. 2.11.11 Concepts of Calculus

B. Interpret maximum and minimum values in problem situations. C. Graph and interpret rates of growth/decay.