The 25-year-old Scars Of A Riot Violence Of 1964 Devastated A Vital Neighborhood

Posted: August 27, 1989

This is the way it began.

Odessa Bradford is bickering with her husband, Rush, in their barge of a Buick marooned in the middle of the busy intersection of 22d Street and Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia. Traffic backs up and hands hit horns. It is about 8:30 on a hot, humid Friday night 25 years ago. There is not even a trace of an August breeze - or the riot to come.

By the time the cop arrives, Bradford has her hands around her husband's neck. She is trying to bang his head against the steering wheel. Move the car, Officer Robert Wells orders the couple.

"She looks at me and says: 'Ain't nobody going to move this damn car,' "

Wells recalls. "She was one of those nasty-mouthed broads."

"Me and my big mouth," Bradford says today. "I'll be honest, I was blasted."

Rush Bradford gets out of the car. Wells and Odessa Bradford - black cop, black woman - play cat and mouse. He pushes her. She slaps him. He slaps back. He walks over to the driver's door, she slides to the passenger side. He runs around to the passenger door, she slides to the driver's side.

"After a while, I slide in and get her out," Wells says. "Nice and neat."

A police wagon arrives. Officer John J. Hoff holds the door open. Wells puts the woman, still cursing and shouting, in the back.

It is only then that Wells notices the crowd, already large - and growing. A man, built like a boxer, dashes from the middle of it and punches Hoff once in the head. The officer goes down. The man then turns on Wells. Someone throws a brick. Someone throws a bottle. The crowd closes in. It is not nice and neat anymore.

It is a riot.

It was a riot that would have a devastating and lasting impact on what was a vital and lively neighborhood.

The bricks that rained shattered more than windows. Columbia Avenue was about to suffer a killing blow - as a bustling business district, as the heart of black Philadelphia, as a strip with the energy and sizzle and jazz that earned it the nickname Jump Street.

Today the strip is mostly abandoned storefronts and empty lots, where the black and Korean merchants who do remain struggle six days a week to sell their wares to a dwindling number of customers. They hold on, clinging to the hope that folks are coming back to North Philadelphia, that the avenue can revive. That it can be what it was in 1964.

Can it really be 25 years ago?

The memories of that night, of the days of looting that followed, are so vivid. Many who were there cannot believe a quarter century has passed. Yet, the record shows the riot began on Aug. 28, 1964.

"Has it been that long?" asks Amelia Hill. She is 70 now and sitting on a lawn chair just off the avenue - renamed Cecil B. Moore Avenue two years ago - and recalling this scene from the riot:

A young boy running by, his arms filled with fur stoles, his eyes wide with excitement. "Where are you going?" people ask him. His breathless reply: ''Home to Momma!"

Ambrose H. Gaddie remembers the 16 hours he spent standing in the doorway of his real estate office in the 1700 block of Columbia. He was determined to protect it. Did anyone try to come in?

"No," says Gaddie. "Nobody wanted to come in." Once they saw the revolver he held in his right hand.

Broken glass was spread an inch thick on the street. Mannequins, stripped bare of clothes, lay half in, half out of store windows. Rumors flew as fast as bricks: that the police had beaten a pregnant woman, that they had shot and killed a boy. The crowds multiplied, tempted by the merchandise at their fingertips. Free. One account has it that by the time the riot ended - 72 hours after the arrest of Odessa Bradford - 3,000 people had participated. The police were outnumbered, particularly the first night.

"It was like being in a war," recalled Officer Joseph McCade, who was on the block that Friday night. "We couldn't do anything. There were so many rioters. Most of them were women, teenagers or younger. The situation was completely out of hand. We'd chase one and another group would come at us from another direction - throwing bricks, trash cans, anything."

The rioting was concentrated in the immediate vicinity of Columbia Avenue as it ran from Broad Street west to Fairmount Park. But there was sporadic looting and vandalism all over lower North Philadelphia.

More than 600 businesses suffered losses, most of them mom-and-pop stores, many of them owned by Jewish merchants. Damage was put at $3 million. Six hundred rioters were taken into custody; 308 of them were charged with crimes, mostly burglary. Nearly 340 people were injured, including 100 police officers.

Yet compared with the violent urban riots to come - Watts in 1965, Detroit in '67, Newark in '68 - with their scores of deaths, with their burnings of whole city blocks, Philadelphia's disturbance was almost peaceable.

One person was killed: Robert Green, 21, of Oxford Street near 20th, shot that Sunday night after he attacked an officer with a knife, police said. Green died five days after the riot ended.

There were few acts of arson. Most of the fires were in empty lots or abandoned cars. There were 1,800 police called to the scene - sent up on buses commandeered from the old PTC, the Philadelphia Transportation Co. But neither the National Guard nor the Army had to be called. They bivouacked at Temple University, sometimes standing six deep to await assignments, drinking orange juice and munching on stale doughnuts.

'WITHOUT PURPOSE'

As the FBI succinctly put it in a report one month later, the riot was "a senseless attack on all constituted authority, without purpose or object."

Still, the riot was enough to sour the end of the Democratic National Convention, meeting in Atlantic City that week to nominate Lyndon B. Johnson for president. It was enough to knock the Phillies, so close to a pennant but headed for their infamous collapse, off the front pages.

Johnson still won in a landslide. There were other seasons for the Phillies and they recovered. Columbia Avenue never did.

Cecil B. Moore Avenue today is the skeleton of the Columbia Avenue of 1964.

Ask the Shaykh. He remembers. He was there. Shaykh Muhammad Hassan, now 59, was a young firebrand when the riots started. He was sentenced to prison for inciting the riot. He served three years at Holmesburg.

"It was like Broad Street," the Shaykh says of the strip, which is still his home. "It was the hub. You couldn't get a room to rent, the area was so crowded. Businesses up and down the whole block."

With tin signs swinging over the sidewalk, spelling out names in gold and red neon: Gershenfeld Drugs, the Liberty Theater, the Lennox Grille and Mickey's Playhouse, Rosenberg's Meats and the Rave Bar, Les Jeff's Shalimar Shoppe, the Golden Pheasant Chinese Restaurant, the Little Harlem Cafe.

In 1964, there were 213 stores on the nine blocks from Broad Street to 23d Street, which is where Columbia met Ridge Avenue. Almost as many as in the Gallery shopping mall today.

There were three pool halls and 19 bars, jazz clubs and furniture stores, butchers and hat makers, hardware shops and grocery stores. "Jump Street," Odessa Bradford called it: fraying around the edges, but still bustling, lively. The place to be.

When the Shaykh got out of prison in 1967 and returned to the avenue, he was shocked at the sight of the old street.

"It was dismal," he says. "I couldn't believe it was like that, could look so bad. Three years later, 25 years later, it is still like that."

With his tasseled fez and dark tinted glasses, his fiery rhetoric and odd beliefs - "I was so out of sync, I was more militant than Malcolm X," he says today - the Shaykh was a ready-made suspect for the police. And for black leaders, who were convinced it was "outside agitators" who caused the riot.

The search for those agitators began almost as soon as the riot began.

At 30th and Diamond Streets, police stopped a car with Michigan license plates and took into custody the four black men inside.

They were released after the embarrassed officials learned they had just arrested the Pips, the singing group that works with Gladys Knight. They were returning to their hotel after a performance at the Uptown Theater, at Broad and Dauphin Streets.

The Shaykh was closer to the action.

It was about 9 p.m. and he was reading in his office in the 2300 block of Columbia. Someone told him there was a commotion down the street. He ran to 22d Street and remembers seeing this: an angry crowd, milling in a block filled with red police cars, their bright dome lights turning.

GIVEN A BULLHORN

A merchant there suggested the Shaykh be allowed to address the crowd, to calm them. The police handed him a bullhorn.

"I was what? 33 years old," the Shaykh says today. "I thought I was a prophet. I had become active at 30. Jesus had become active at 30. I thought I was running in sequence. You couldn't tell me anything."

What he told the crowd, according to those who were there, was not to riot - even though their grievances were just. "We want freedom," he yelled. "We want justice." It did not have a calming effect.

"The next thing I know, the cops are hitting me with a stick," the Shaykh recalls. "I was so, so excited being there, I didn't even feel it. I look at this cop and he's got this surprised face. Because he's hitting me with his stick and I'm not going down. So, I reach up and feel my head and take my fingers down and there's blood. Blood all over my collar. Soaked in blood."

He was arrested on the spot and jailed. The man who served three years in prison for starting the riot was gone before it ever really began.

Closer to Broad Street, Georgie Woods, the WDAS-AM disc jockey who was then a vice president of the NAACP, was working a bullhorn, too.

He had just finished emceeing the show at the Uptown when he got a call

from Police Commissioner Howard Leary, who asked him to try his hand at calming the crowds. A number of others tried. Most of them were ignored that first night.

Even Cecil B. Moore, the flamboyant leader of the NAACP. He was at the Democratic convention when the riot began. He arrived close to 4 a.m. and immediately headed for the street that would later bear his name.

Moore had been their advocate, had complained in the past of the "rancid meat and cardboard shoes" sold by some merchants, had criticized the police for using excessive force against blacks. He was eloquent. He was street smart. He was hooted down.

"Everybody there tore Columbia Avenue up," Woods recalls. "There was nothing left. There was no food. They took everything - clothing, televisions. They just looted the stores. The next day there wasn't even any milk."

Leary's strategy was to avoid confrontation with the rioters. As a result, merchants later grumbled, police sometimes stood by while looters ransacked a store.

He also wanted to scotch rumors that people had been killed by police. So, on Saturday, Moore and comedian Dick Gregory went to visit Odessa Bradford at her mother's house to ask a favor. Would she travel around the city with them to prove that she was unharmed? She refused at first.

"My mother told me you've got to do something," Bradford recalls. ''They're tearing up the city."

Bradford and her husband climbed into a white Cadillac convertible, which crawled through the streets, Moore at the bullhorn shouting: "Here she is! She's alive. She's not dead. She's not pregnant. She's not even hurt!"

Bradford sat high in the back seat, waving to the crowds. Like a homecoming queen. "It was like a circus to me," she says today. "But it wasn't a funny circus."

Mayor James H.J. Tate, rushing up from a weekend at the shore, invoked an 1850 law that forbade crowds to gather. He also imposed a curfew over all of North Philadelphia and ordered the bars and State Stores closed.

There was more looting Saturday night, but the riot had lost its steam. It sputtered to a stop on Sunday evening. It was, as Bob Wells put it, "a spontaneous insurrection." And it was over.

Odessa Bradford, now 59, still lives in the neighborhood, in her mother's house in the 1700 block of North 26th Street. The Bradfords separated a year after the riot. She ended up spending 30 days in jail for disturbing the peace. She still gets called the "riot starter" by some. "I cuss 'em out," she says. "It hurts me."

The Shaykh is there, too. In fact, his National Muslim Improvement Association owns a number of properties along the strip. All of them painted a distinctive pale green, with their front entries encased in wrought iron.

The Shaykh was shot in 1971, in what he hints was a factional fight among Muslims. Bullets severed his spinal cord, leaving him crippled and in a wheelchair. Sometimes his legs hurt so much "it feels like they are in hot grease." His white Lincoln has a bumper sticker that reads: "Allah Is Your Protector."

Odd these two would stay when so many left.

Within two months after the riot, a minister complained the area was "an island of hopelessness" because so many middle-class blacks - including the clergy - were leaving. The riot accelerated that flight.

"The stigma of the riots had a lot to do with it," said Realtor Gaddie, who has remained on the block. "People wanted to move to a different location, a different area. They went to West Oak Lane and Logan, Germantown and Wynnefield, Overbrook, Southwest Philadelphia."

The six-block-deep corridor with Columbia in the middle, running from Broad Street to Fairmount Park, lost nearly half its 71,400 population from 1960 to 1980. The 1990 census is expected to reveal another drop, perhaps 15 percent or greater. The area has become the city's old ghetto: emptying, crumbling, its population aging.

Most of the businesses never came back. Insurance was hard to get and expensive. Bank loans nearly impossible to secure. The area was redlined, virtually shut off from access to private capital.

Daniel Odom, owner of Big O Furniture in the 2100 block, opened his store after the riots and remembers the troubles he had getting a loan.

"I had good credit when I tried to start," he says. "When I went to the bank, I could get a personal loan to take a trip to the Bahamas. But I could not get a loan to start a business on Columbia Avenue."

The loss of customers, the drain of capital had its effect.

OUT OF BUSINESS

In 1964, on the six-block stretch of Columbia between Broad and 20th Streets, 158 stores were in business. Today, there are 57. The tin signs have rusted away, the windows are boarded up, the canvas awnings are long gone.

There is hope that the area has hit bottom and is about to come back. The strip was renamed Cecil B. Moore Avenue in 1987 as a symbol of that hope. Today, signs with a picture of Moore - in a three-piece silk suit, a 10-inch cigar in one hand - decorate light poles all along the block. "The Heart of North Philadelphia," the signs proclaim.

Temple University - long a force in the area, but not always trusted by residents - is planning to build a 10,000-seat arena northwest of Broad and Cecil B. Moore, with shops at street level. This, on the site of the Wilkie Buick auto dealership, which was demolished last week.

National Temple Nonprofit Corp., founded in 1968 by a small group of volunteers from the Temple Baptist Church, has been designated by the city as the main developer in the area. Its strategy right now is simple: build up the population, then shore up the commercial strip.

In November, it will begin rehabbing 144 units on North Gratz Street and North 16th Street, two streets that feed into the avenue. It will cost close to $16 million to make rental units of the city-owned, three-story rowhouses along the blocks.

National Temple has also hired two economic advisers to work with the merchants. Plans call for a storefront Entrepreneur's Center to be set up to offer guidance to new and established merchants. The federal government has granted $50,000 in seed money to start a community credit union.

Some businessmen, who have seen only the decline of the street, find it difficult to build up hope inside.

Ulysses Smith, who owns a record shop in the 1900 block that specializes in Christian music, said he always thought it odd the street was renamed. The dope-dealing, the deterioration of the street, would anger Moore: "He would curse them. Call them names.

"Get some other street for Cecil B. Moore" is Smith's advice. "Give this one back to Columbia."

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