Segregation and Racism in Berks County - Woven With Words
Several people contributed to this article
Segregation and racism have existed in Berks County throughout the centuries. This article presents only a brief overview of this troubling aspect of our local history.
Prior to the founding of the First African Presbyterian Church (later the Washington Street Presbyterian Church) African Americans were permitted to worship at the First Presbyterian Church at Second and Penn Streets but were assigned to the back of the church and the balcony.
The movie theater on Penn Street was also segregated in the early 1900s. African Americans had to sit in the upstairs balcony. According to Frank Gilyard, Dr. William Swinson, a dentist, and a group of other men led a demonstration against the theater’s policy of segregation in approximately 1920, and the rule changed. For decades afterward, however, although African Americans were permitted to sit anywhere in the theater, they usually sat in the balcony because they felt unwelcome downstairs.
Many restaurants in Reading were also segregated, and some simply didn’t allow African Americans inside (take-out food was sometimes permitted through a restaurant’s back entrance). When the first AME conference in Reading was held in 1896, many attendees could not find hotel rooms or eat in restaurants.
An article in the New Pittsburgh Courier on October 8, 1960, reports that the Douglass Township school board, with the approval of the superintendent of schools, William B. Herbein, banned five African American foster children from attending public school because as foster children, they were not “bona fide residents of the district.” The article reports that the Pottstown chapter of the NAACP “started a full scale investigation of the matter.”
Bethel A.M.E. Church has been a target of racism, according to Frank Gilyard. Known racists have loitered on the church’s steps, the pastor has been threatened, and garbage has been dumped in the church vestibule several times. The predominantly African American First Baptist Church in Temple experienced a great deal of racially-motivated vandalism in 1996, and neighbors have called churchgoers racist names. However, according to Pattee Miller, even during the turbulent 1960s, no African American churches were attacked in any significant way (Reinbrecht 1996).
In 1994, the Human Relations Commission recommended that two landlords in Reading be fined $20,000 for racial discrimination. A 30-year-old Allentown man had accused the couple of failing to rent him an apartment in Sinking Spring because of his race. The couple denied the charges (Herman 1996).
Roy E. Frankhouser, Jr., of Reading, a longtime KKK member and former member of the American Nazi Party, was convicted in a Boston courtroom in 1995 of obstructing an FBI probe into a neo-Nazi skinhead group. Frankhouser was also acquitted of assault charges in the 1992 stabbing of Donald E. Mosley in a hotel where a large KKK meeting was being held. Frankhouser headed a Reading-based legal defense fund for white supremacists and in 1991 launched a weekly Klan-oriented public access television show entitled “White Forum” on Berks Community Television (public access gives Frankhouser the right to air these views). Frankhouser acknowledged that he is chaplain for the Pale Riders, a group that is one of three klaverns, or subunits, of the Klan operating in Reading (D. Drago 1992), but denies being the leader of the group. He is a former grand dragon of the Pennsylvania Klan (Reinbrecht 2000), and has asked Berks County for tax-exempt status for his home and the Mountain Church of Jesus Christ, which is decorated with Klan paraphernalia and which, according to local NAACP officials, is a front for the Klan (Joiner 1999).
Nine African American high school students from the Reading and Governor Mifflin school districts spoke in February 2005 to Jason Brudereck, a reporter for The Reading Eagle, about their experiences with racism and prejudice. Generally, the students said they routinely face racism and prejudice.
Recent racially-motivated hate incidents have occurred at Schuylkill Valley schools. Schuylkill Valley school board members on September 26, 2005, banned students from displaying Confederate flags on school grounds after several high school students flew flags from their trucks and wore T-shirts with the Confederate flag on them. White and African American students got into verbal confrontations outside the meeting. Acknowledging recent instances of racist graffiti in school lavatories, Dr. Solomon Lausch, superintendent, said the district would initiate discussions among students (Youker 2005).
Finally, according to the Stop the Hate Coalition in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a Berks County group known as the “Posse Comitatus” hosts far-right groups on its farm for target practice (Duhart 1993).