Black Activism

Troubled Relations

The first Earth Day was not without its critics, and not all criticisms came from polluters. Black activists widely accused the environmental movement of diverting attention from ongoing and pervasive problems of racism and racial injustice.  While Earth Day proponents argued that saving the environment would benefit everyone, the majority of African Americans viewed the new movement with either ambivalence or hostility. However, a minority of black activists welcomed the first day, arguing that black people should seize the opportunity to promote environmental cleanup, as black communities were the most affected by pollution.

Likewise, the University of Pennsylvania and black activists have had a troubled relationship. Stemming from the University’s involvement with the redevelopment of Unit 3 during the 1960s, which displaced thousands of poor black residents in West Philadelphia, this tension between Penn and black activists would only be exacerbated by the shift in the civil rights movement and the worsening on-campus racism against black students. Before the first Earth Day, the civil rights movement had largely transitioned from the Martin Luther King Jr. era of demanding equal rights through peaceful protest to a new era focused on promoting black power and self-determination. Penn and black activists would clash over this ideology in the 70s and 80s, with tensions only petering out by the 1990s.

Setting the Stage: The Removal of Black Residents near the University

In 1960, the Redevelopment Authority (RDA) released an annual report announcing the creation of Unit 3 in West Philadelphia, located from Powelton and Lancaster Avenues, south to Chestnut Street, and between 34th and 39th streets. Unit 3 properties were redeveloped with the West Philadelphia Corporation (WPC), an institutional coalition that included Penn. The founding of the WPC was set into motion by the murder of a South Korean Penn graduate student by 11 black youths. The WPC founders were motivated by a desire to push back against “the potential of an ever increasing and encroaching area of residential slums surrounding our colleges and hospitals.” Ample evidence, including Penn’s appointees to the WPC board and the university’s annual financial contributions, proved that the WPC was a Penn-dominated group. The subsequent RDA demolitions, the construction of the University City Science Center, and the permanent removal of the unit’s predominantly black population severely undermined Penn’s community relations in West Philadelphia for decades afterwards.

At the time, Unit 3 was predominantly black. Relegated to the bottom of Philadelphia’s economic structure, African Americans encountered wretched housing conditions and faced constant race-motivated harassment and violence. Largely dependent on Philadelphia’s manufacturing jobs during the two World Wars, the black community was the hardest hit during the postwar decades, when those jobs relocated to the suburbs. Discriminatory hiring practices at new suburban plants, suburban housing segregation, and exclusion from Philadelphia’s dwindling industrial base served to ghettoize blacks. Thus, a growing increment of the black population was poor, marginally employed, and living in segregated neighborhoods. These neighborhoods only worsened, as lenders redlined blacks seeking bank loans and racially motivated school boards made decisions that relegated black children to the city’s oldest and worst public schools.

Unsurprisingly, the WPC planning for Unit 3 as an urban renewal and project development site provoked mass outrage from African American residents, who accused Penn and the RDA of conspiring to destroy their community. This anger lead to the formation of the University City Citizen’s Development Corporation (UCCDC), which was created to negotiate housing conservation with the RDA. Eventually, the UCCDC filed a civil rights lawsuit against the RDA, the City Planning Commission, and the WPC, accusing the defendants of having race-based motivations. Much to the ire of civil rights organizations, the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia dismissed the lawsuit.

In 1967, the WPC announced that all city and federal approvals had finally been granted to allow the completion of the urban renewal projects in Unit 3. Shortly thereafter, the RDA’s use of eminent domain was completed by the fall of 1968. Once the redevelopment was completed, a total of at least 2,653 people were known to have been displaced, with 2,070 residents being black.

The Divide in 1970

Tensions between Black Activists and Penn

Though the administration made strong and concerted efforts to strengthen what it termed the “black presence” and the overall diversity of campus, these efforts were insufficient to satisfy the University’s African American constituents. At the time, Penn black activists were inspired and unified by the civil rights movement’s turn to Black Power. Thus, an uneasy campus tension existed between the activists’ uncontroversial demand for recognition and inclusion in University life and their controversial demand for recognition of a separate black identity and for black self-determination.

University of Pennsylvania Almanac, Volume 16, Number 1, September 1969, pg. 2
University of Pennsylvania Almanac, Volume 17, Issue 1, October 22, 1970, pg. 3

The primary black activist organization at Penn was the Society of African and Afro-American Students (SAAS). The SAAS’s preference for black power fueled accusations of separatism. However, proponents of the SAAS argued that its real goal was group self-determination, not segregation. Penn African-American students sought to organize themselves as a self-conscious ethnic interest group to claim an equal slice of the American pie while competing with other ethnic groups. In turn, they created a dual system comprised of parallel black organizations alongside white (nominally desegregated) campus organizations.








Following its creation, the SAAS demanded an all-black social center, the House of the Family, as well as an advising program that embraced black nationalism. While the social center was approved, ensuing conflict over the ideological Black Power program may have escalated into the most serious and destructive clash between black students and the Penn administration in the 1970s.

On April 13th, Doughtry Long, the black Associate Dean of Students, resigned in protest over the Provost’s and Dean of Admissions’ refusal to fund the proposed black advising program, which they regarded as ideological and separatist. 

PA Gazette, May 1970, pg. 15

On April 16th, as many as 100 black students marched into College Hall and issued a militant press release charging the University with institutional racism. During the night of April 22nd (the same day as the first Earth Day), unknown people set four fires across campus and and vandalized the UPenn bookstore. The House of the Family was placed under suspicion by the Philadelphia police after the bookstore vandalism suspects were chased into the organization’s building. Throughout the week, anonymous bomb threats were called in as well. However, the violence reached its highest point during the night of April 25th, when a molotov cocktail exploded in College Hall.

Two freshman saw three people run from the building and drive away in a Volkswagen. The witnesses quickly jotted down the license plate number, and twenty minutes later, the police stopped the Volkswagen with the same license plate. The owner of the car who was immediately arrested and charged with arson, malicious mischief, and conspiracy was the former Dean himself. A warrant was issued the same day authorizing the police to search the House of the Family. According to Pennsylvania Gazette writer Ellen James, the police found evidence of “‘volatile liquids’, plus a burned dishtowel and a box of rags.” Shortly thereafter, the Black Family of the University of Pennsylvania issued a statement, condemning Long’s arrest as the initial step by the American University Establishment to eliminate all black students in its system. They demanded Long be released, his program fully funded, and a public apology issued by board of trustees.

PA Gazette, May 1970, pg. 13

As James noted, “testimony given at the [preliminary] hearing merely established Long’s vehicle as the one at the scene of the arson, and his presence in the car more than 20 minutes later.” However, other evidence procured by the police proved to be insubstantial. The piece of paper found in Long’s possession at the time of his arrest, claimed to be a sketch of the interior of College Hall, turned out to simply be an unlabeled scribble of boxes on the back of an announcement for a black poetry reading. Likewise, the so-called “volatile liquids” found at the House of the Family building were nothing more than liquid soap, floor wax, and paint thinner.

Nevertheless, the municipal court judge recommended the case for trial and set the bail at $3,500. The trial was held in October the same year. The former Associate Dean claimed that he was at a party during the time of the arson and that he was driving to another one 20 minutes later. Witnesses at the party corroborated Long’s attestation, and Penn students and administrators provided character testimony on his behalf. However, Philadelphia Inquirer writer Ken Shuttleworth noted that Long “failed to provide an explanation for the presence of his car at the scene of the arson,” pointing to the former Dean’s testimony under cross examination. Long stated, “If it [the car] were there I have no idea how it got there.” After 90 minutes of deliberation, a Common Pleas jury acquitted Long of all charges. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 13, 1970
The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 16, 1970

This episode of 1970 was perhaps indicative of the tensions not only between Penn and black activists, but also between society and black activists. Although no group nor individuals claimed responsibility, and no one was found guilty of any of the crimes, Penn and the rest of society may have implicitly blamed the violence on Penn black activists. For one, the black activist demonstration in College Hall on April 16 that accused the University of institutional racism may have been the catalyst that caused people to infer a motive. More evidence of potential bias can be seen in the initial police conclusions regarding the “volatile liquids” and the “sketch of College Hall’s interior”, the rapid authorization of the search warrant for the House of the Family, and the preliminary hearing conclusion despite the lack of substantial proof. Indeed, the prosecution’s case during the official trial rested entirely upon Long’s car at the crime scene and his presence in the same vehicle 20 minutes later and upon the supposed unreliability of the witness testimony on behalf of Long. Assistant District Attorney Melvin Dildine of the prosecution went as far as to call the three witnesses who testified on Long’s behalf “liars”, interested more in helping the defendant than telling the truth.

The excitement caused by the week of April 22 quickly wore off, and campus violence dissipated over the summer. Negotiations over the summer resulted in a pre-and post-freshman summer advising program divested of national ideology and representing multiple perspectives. In addition, an African-American Studies Program was finally approved for the fall of 1970, which Penn black activists grudgingly accepted.

In 1972, heated controversy reemerged around the proposal to create a residential college house program exclusively for African Americans, as critics, including the NAACP, argued that such a house promoted reverse discrimination and separatism. Thus, the original proposal was rejected. All parties eventually agreed to an uneasy compromise whereby the new college house would open in the fall of 1972 on a non-exclusionary basis to freshman and sophomores interested in black culture and educational opportunities. This house was renamed to W.E.B. DuBois House in 1982, and it still stands to this day.

In same era, Penn sought to diversify its undergraduate admissions and restrict the proportion of students admitted solely on the basis of academic performance. The University Development Commission’s annual report in 1973, titled Pennsylvania: “One University’,” echoed that commitment, noting that substantial progress had been made in black student recruitment. However, black activists were quick to criticize the University for the continued scarcity of Penn black professors. Progress towards increasing black faculty and student recruitment was slow. A 1992 report showed that only 2.6% of faculty were black. The same report showed tremendous growth in undergraduate minority freshman matriculations; however, this growth was largely explained by the more than quadrupling of Asian representation.

Tensions Between Black Activists and the First Earth Day

In this period of strife between the Penn administration and black activists, the relationship between Penn black activists and environmentalists was amicable, if muted. Although Earth Day organizers reached out to on-campus black activists, the latter believed that the environmental movement diminished the their own, and as such politely refused to participate.

The Baltimore Sun, April 14, 1970

This refusal was echoed among off-campus black activist organizations and black leaders as well. In the lead-up to the first Earth Day, Richard Hatcher, the then black mayor of Gary, Maryland, denounced an audience of mostly white liberals for their turn towards environmental activism, accusing them of ignoring the still painful problems of black ghettoes. Ernest B. Furgurson, writer for The Baltimore Sun, pointed to the roster of organizations planning to participate in Earth Day, which he argued demonstrated the widespread agreement among many black activists with Hatcher’s sentiment.

However, a minority of black activists saw Earth Day as an opportunity to promote their own movement. For example, black community worker and chair of the Metropolitan Black Survival Committee Mrs. Freddie Mae Brown of St. Louis sought to explain what the environment meant to African Americans. She argued that the definition of environmental pollution must include areas that white people largely ignored. Issues such as lack of adequate housing, lead poisoning, worsening health, unemployment, among others, all contributed to the “slum habitat” endured by many black communities. Thus, if the white and black communities were to work together on solving environmental degradation, then whites would also commit to solving slum problems.

Brown did not disagree with Hatcher’s argument, but she pointed out that African Americans were more affected by environmental pollution than whites. If the black community were to stand by and let whites solve their own pollution, then pollution affecting black communities would be left unchecked. Thus, issues such as the higher concentration of air pollution in inner cities, the close proximity of industrial polluters to black communities, and the higher concentration of DDT and lead in black bodies would continue to plague African Americans.

The Philadelphia Tribune, April 25, 1970

Still, the black activist and the environmental movements remained largely separated. The absence of African Americans at the nationwide Earth Day celebrations did not go unnoticed. 

At the Philadelphia celebration in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia Tribune reporters spotted less than 100 black participants, most of whom were young students and teachers, among the crowd of 25-30,000.

Multiple explanations were provided. Some surmised that African Americans were more concerned with gaining their civil and economic rights and had no time to engage in “side causes.” Others reasoned that black people viewed the sudden outcry over pollution as another example of white hypocrisy. While the poor had lived with pollution all their lives, affluent whites had never worried about environmental degradation until recently. Some feared that blacks would inevitably end up paying for the massive cleanup, since historically “conservation” and “cleaning up the environment” had meant relocating the poor to create recreational facilities for the rich.

Other black observers reiterated Mayor Hatcher’s argument. They viewed the environmental movement as another attempt by educated, affluent whites to escape the more pressing fight against racism by embracing a cause “everyone can support.” Indeed, state leader of the Black Economic Development Conference Muhammad Kenyatta described Earth Day as a distraction for the public’s attention from the issues of racism and the war in Vietnam.


On-campus tensions between Penn and black activists continued through the 70s, 80s, up until the 1990s. The 80s were especially tumultuous, as multiple issues regarding race relations, gender equality, free speech, and academic freedom pervaded campus life. Penn black students would endure bomb threats at the DuBois House, racist graffiti in the dormitories, harassment from the high-rise rooftops, and the taunts of white fraternity members along Locust Walk.

Off-campus issues continued to haunt Penn as well, due in no small part to the school’s participation in Unit 3’s redevelopment. Escalating crime and violence in the surrounding neighborhoods, concentration of poverty in the African American blocks of West Philadelphia, and simmering rage against whites and “the system”, among others, were constant challenges.




Ferguson, Ernest B. “The Black Version of Earth Day.” The Sun (1837-1994); April 14, 1970; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Baltimore Sun pg. A10

Puckett, John L., and Mark Frazier Lloyd. Becoming Penn : The Pragmatic American University, 1950-2000, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Shuttleworth, Ken. “Ex-Dean is Acquitted of Penn Fire-Bombing.” The Philadelphia Inquirer; October 16, 1970; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Philadelphia Inquirer pg. 10

Shuttleworth, Ken. “Ex-Penn Aide Denies Role in Firebombing.” The Philadelphia Inquirer; October 13, 1970; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Philadelphia Inquirer pg. 35

Wilson, Charles. “Less Than 100 Blacks Take Part in Gigantic Earth Day Rites Here.” Philadelphia Tribune (1912-2001); April 25, 1970; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Philadelphia Tribune pg. 1