The African American Community in Reading - Woven With Words
Several people contributed to this article
A great deal of the material in this article, including most of the timeline, is compiled from “A City in Peril,” by John D. Forester, Jr., which appeared in the Reading Eagle on December 8, 1996.
The city of Reading is a different place than it was when many of the elderly African Americans in the community today grew up. Some things, such as segregation and overt racism, have changed for the better, but like many other cities, Reading is plagued with numerous problems. For the African American community in particular, those problems include fewer job opportunities and increased violence and drugs. Many middle-class African Americans have left the city for the suburbs; the majority of the residents who remain are elderly, less educated, and poor (Forester, Jr. “City,” 4).
Although the African American community lacks a specific neighborhood hub and the population is spread throughout the city, its sense of identity is “supported by a network of active churches and civic and fraternal organizations” (Forester, Jr. “Churches” 5). These organizations vow to reinvent the community.
Timeline: A Brief History of African Americans in Reading
1740s: First African Americans come to Berks County as slaves.
1775: Sarah Sanders is born; she is the earliest recorded free African American in Reading. Sanders married twice and had 20 children.
1775: The U.S. Census, which recorded slaves separately, lists only one slave in Reading: Dinah Clark, age 28, owned by Joseph Hiester.
1823: First African Presbyterian Church, later called the Washington Street Presbyterian Church, is founded by the Rev. John Grier at Washington and Mulberry Streets. The church becomes the center of the African American community. At this time, most African Americans in the city live in the 100 and 200 blocks of North 10th Street and between 10th and 11th Streets on Washington Street.
1834: The Bethel A.M.E. Church is founded on North 10th Street between Washington and Walnut Streets.
1840: Union Methodist Church is founded in a log cabin on 9th and Franklin Streets.
1850: The U.S. Census lists the African American population at 285, all of them free. Most are employed as domestics and in service industries; some are boatmen who own barges that transport coal between Schuylkill County and Philadelphia.
1854: The first “colored school” is founded in the basement of the Washington Street Church. In 1857, it moves to a building called “The Ark,” a church founded by former members of the Bethel AME church. The Ark was disbanded and razed in 1885.
1870: The U.S. census lists 311 African Americans in Reading, 1% of the city’s population. Most African Americans continue to live in a neighborhood just northwest of City Park.
1880: The U.S. Census lists 390 African Americans out of a total population of 58,661. Most African Americans still live just northwest of City Park, but a smaller neighborhood is established in the South of Penn area along 7th Street.
1890: The African American population remains at 390. Moses Terry lives at 425 Buttonwood Street in a new neighborhood that is affordable only to the fairly well-off.
1900: The U.S. Census lists 534 African Americans out of a total population of 78,961.
1910: The U.S. Census lists 787 African Americans out of a total population of 96,071. A detailed census map shows African Americans living in all 16 wards of the city, with the highest concentration remaining in the neighborhood just northwest of City Park.
1920: The U.S. Census lists 924 African Americans out of a total population of 107,784. 68.3% of school-age children are enrolled in public schools.
1930: The U.S. Census lists 1,964 African Americans out of a total population of 111,171. The large increase in the African American population is due largely to southerners seeking better-paying jobs in the north.
1940: The U.S. Census lists 1,905 African Americans out of a total population of 110,568; the slight decrease is due to the Depression.
1950: The U.S. Census lists 2,883 African Americans out of a total population of 109,320. The large increase in is due to the arrival of soldiers from Fort Indiantown Gap after World War II.
1960: The U.S. Census lists 4,171 African Americans out of a total population of 93,949. There are fewer recorded incidents of racial friction in the city than elsewhere in the country.
1964: The House of Soul, a coffeehouse for young African Americans, opens at 714 Penn Street.
1965: A group of young African Americans form their own chapter of the Black Panther party.
1969: Racial tensions escalate. In March, a group of young African Americans vandalize storefront windows on Penn Street between 3rd and 10th Streets. Minor racial incidents occur during the summer.
1970: The U.S. Census lists 5,744 African Americans, 6.6% out of a total population of 81,653.
1972: Tropical Storm Agnes displaces many African American residents from their homes; they move elsewhere in the city with help from federal grants.
1974: Harold L. Jackson is the first African American elected to the Reading School Board.
1980: The U.S. Census lists 6,270 African Americans, 8.0% out of a total population of 78,686.
1990: The U.S. Census lists 7,607 African Americans, 9.7% out of a total population of 78,380.
1992: Rev. Frank McCracken becomes the first African American city council member in Reading.
2000: The U.S. Census list the African American population at 3.7% for Berks County, 12.2% for Reading, 10% for Pennsylvania, and 12.3% for the United States.