This Friday Was Black With Traffic

Posted: November 25, 1994

The term "Black Friday" came out of the old Philadelphia Police Department's traffic squad. The cops used it to describe the worst traffic jams which annually occurred in Center City on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

It was the day that Santa Claus took his chair in the department stores and every kid in the city wanted to see him. It was the first day of the Christmas shopping season.

Schools were closed. Late in the day, out-of-town visitors began arriving for the Army-Navy football game.

Every "Black Friday," no traffic policeman was permitted to take the day off. The division was placed on 12 tours of duty, and even the police band was ordered to Center City. It was not unusual to see a trombone player directing traffic.

Two officers were assigned to intersections along Market Street to control the throngs of pedestrians.

The department also placed police officers outside parking garages because the "lot filled" signs failed to deter motorists from lining up on the curb lane outside the garage. This reduced street size from two lanes to one. This caused traffic to back up and block traffic at the next intersection. This caused massive gridlock.

In 1959, the old Evening Bulletin assigned me to police administration, working out of City Hall. Nathan Kleger was the police reporter who covered Center City for the Bulletin.

In the early 1960s, Kleger and I put together a front-page story for Thanksgiving and we appropriated the police term "Black Friday" to describe the terrible traffic conditions.

Center City merchants complained loudly to Police Commissioner Albert N. Brown that drawing attention to traffic deterred customers from coming downtown. I was worried that maybe Kleger and I had made a mistake in using such a term, so I went to Chief Inspector Albert Trimmer to get him to verify it.

Trimmer, tongue in cheek, would say only that Black Friday was used to describe the Valentine's Day massacre of mobsters in Chicago.

The following year, Brown put out a press release describing the day as ''Big Friday." But Kleger and I held our ground, and once more said it was ''Black Friday." And of course we used it year after year. Then television picked it up.

Today the term seems lost in antiquity, but it was a traffic cop who started it, the guy who directed traffic with a semaphore while standing on a small wooden platform, in the days before traffic lights. But that was a long time ago.

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