Clarence Farmer Sr., 98; chaired Human Relations panel

Clarence Farmer Sr.
Clarence Farmer Sr.
Posted: February 02, 2014

Clarence Farmer Sr., 98, of Elkins Park, longtime chairman of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, died Thursday, Jan. 30, of pneumonia at Kearsley Retirement & Nursing Home in Wynnefield.

Mr. Farmer entered public service in 1965 as a member of the Philadelphia Police Advisory Board. During his tenure he led numerous investigations of alleged police brutality in the black community.

It soon became clear that he had a talent for acting as a mediator between the races when tension was brewing. As a result, in 1967, Mr. Farmer was named executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.

Established in 1951 under the Home Rule Charter, the commission enforces civil rights laws and deals with intergroup conflict.

In 1967 and 1968, African Americans sought greater input in the city's schools. The protesters were met by police force in November 1967. Mr. Farmer stepped in to negotiate with both sides and end the violence.

In 1968, Mr. Farmer brought African American radicals and liberal moderates together to meet with white civic leaders. The effort led to the creation of the Black Coalition.

In 1969, Mr. Farmer was sworn in by Common Pleas Court Judge Robert C. Nix Jr. as the salaried chairman of the Human Relations Commission. The executive director job was eliminated.

For the next 15 years, he expanded the focus and power of the commission during the civil rights movement. He opened his office to the community and dealt with pressing issues such as housing, jobs, community empowerment, and development.

His most public role came from 1977 to 1983 when MOVE, living in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia, came into conflict with its neighbors and police.

According to the book The MOVE Crisis in Philadelphia by Hizkias Assefa and Paul Wahrhaftig, Mr. Farmer said that MOVE members would come to his office nearly every week to air their ideas and feelings.

"MOVE people always felt they were totally misunderstood by everybody," the book quoted him as saying. "They knew they could always come to my office, and I would sit and talk to them, give them time and attention."

He assigned a black staff worker to communicate with MOVE. During a May 20, 1977, confrontation between MOVE and Philadelphia police, he, Officer George Fencl, and the Rev. Paul Washington helped persuade MOVE members to put away their weapons.

By the time the MOVE headquarters on Osage Avenue was bombed from a police helicopter and subsequently burned on May 13, 1985, killing 11 MOVE members, Mr. Farmer had been retired from public life for a year.

He considered his greatest achievement the cofounding of the African American Historical and Cultural Museum, in 1976. He served as chairman emeritus of the museum, now the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

Mr. Farmer was devoted to public service, and the community noticed. When he retired in 1984, the Human Relations Commission instituted the Clarence Farmer Service Award to recognize his work.

"Through his activities and commitments, Clarence touched the lives and mentored many of the leaders in the city and state," his family said in a tribute.

In 1984, he founded Clarence Farmer Associates Inc. a consulting business. In conjunction with the Private Industry Council, in 1986 he created the Center for Adult Training. Its mission was to train public assistance recipients to be geriatric caregivers.

He chaired the board of directors of the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. and the Black Tennis Foundation of Philadelphia Inc. He also served on the boards of Geneva College, the Philadelphia Tribune, and the Center for Urban Theological Studies.

Born in Rochester, N.Y., Mr. Farmer graduated from Rochester High School in 1932 and Geneva in 1936. After college he moved to Philadelphia with his mother. He served in World War II in the Army Air Corps at Fort Lee, N.J..

He met Marjorie Louise Nichols, who became a prominent educator and minister, at Temple University, and the two married in 1943. She died on June 2, 2012, at age 90.

He is survived by a son, Franklin; three grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; a brother; and nieces and nephews. A son, Clarence Jr., died in 1999.

Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 7809 Old York Rd., Elkins Park. A viewing starts at 9 a.m. Burial is private.

Donations may be made to the African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch St., Philadelphia 19106, or via


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