Clarence Farmer Sr., 98, head of the Commission on Human Relations

Posted: February 04, 2014

CLARENCE FARMER SR. had a knack for survival.

How many political appointees could keep their job through four very different mayors? He did it by being a likable guy who had no enemies, and being exceptionally good at what his position as chairman of the Commission on Human Relations called for: the ability to bring peace to warring segments of city society.

He even met with leaders of the back-to-nature cult MOVE at a time when any self-respecting political leader would tiptoe around the controversial band of countercultural rebels.

Not Clarence Farmer. He took the leaders into his city office and let them air their grievances. He even assigned a black staff member to help defuse conflicts between MOVE and police.

Never mind that it was shortly after these get-togethers that Officer James Ramp was shot to death on Aug. 8, 1978, in a confrontation with police outside MOVE's then-headquarters in Powelton Village.

And by the time the city dropped a bomb on MOVE's headquarters on Osage Avenue on May 13, 1985, killing 11 MOVE members and destroying a neighborhood, Clarence Farmer was retired.

Farmer died of pneumonia Thursday at age 98. He had been a resident of the Kearsley Retirement & Nursing Home in Wynnefield, and formerly lived in Elkins Park.

Among his proudest accomplishments was co-founding the African American Historical and Cultural Museum, now the African American Museum, of which he was chairman.

Mayor Nutter described Farmer as "a true civil-rights champion for the city and nation. His name is synonymous with human dignity and freedom.

"Mr. Farmer set a standard of excellence in public service that has rarely ever been matched. All of us in Philadelphia have benefitted from his championing the importance of access to housing, jobs and education."

In the sultry summers of the late 1960s and early '70s, when minority groups were noisy with demands for equal justice and stirred into riotous rage by rumors of brutality, Clarence Farmer could often be found walking the hot sidewalks, seeking to bring people together.

He was at a banquet with then-Mayor Frank Rizzo at the Bellevue on June 12, 1969, when a racially fueled fight broke out among about 400 people in Grays Ferry.

Rizzo was famously photographed in formal attire with a nightstick in his cummerbund. By his mere presence, Rizzo defused the situation, but it was Farmer, coming in later, who brought the combatants together to parley.

"Despite intense feelings on both sides, there is a strong desire among a sizable group of citizens to work together towards amelioration of these problems," Farmer said at the time.

He had a knack for seeing both sides of almost any issue, and getting others to see what he saw.

The one time that Farmer antagonized people was when he was named executive secretary of the controversial Police Advisory Board, formed by Mayor James H.J. Tate to hear complaints of police brutality.

Cops hated it, of course; liberals thought it was ineffectual, and the Fraternal Order of Police called it an insult. It was soon disbanded by Tate. Farmer raised no complaint over its demise.

Farmer, who was born in Rochester, N.Y., and went to high school there, graduated from Geneva College, in Beaver Falls, Pa., in 1936. He then moved to Philadelphia. He served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, stationed stateside.

He started his political career as a Republican and ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives when he lived in Overbrook. He later moved to Mount Airy and changed his registration to Democrat.

He founded a printing company, Farmer Printing, with a brother, and helped create and run the Greater Philadelphia Enterprise Development Corp., a cooperative that made loans to small black-owned businesses.

Tate appointed him executive director of the Human Relations Commission in 1967. He later became chairman and had an office on the 16th floor of the Municipal Services Building.

After he retired in 1984, the commission instituted the Clarence Farmer Service Award to be presented to people who follow his example of civic service.

That year, he founded Clarence Farmer Associates Inc., a consulting business. In 1986, he created the Center for Adult Training to train public assistance recipients to be geriatric caregivers.

He married Marjorie Louise Nichols, an educator and Episcopal priest, in 1943. She died on June 12, 2012, at age 90.

He is survived by a son, Franklin; a brother, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by another son, Clarence Jr.

Services: 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 7809 Old York Road, Elkins Park. Friends may call at 9 a.m. Burial will be private.

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

comments powered by Disqus