30 Years Ago Today: R. Wakefield Roberts and His Community Civic League Respond to History
The explosion of Black protest in the 1950s and 1960s-in both the North and the South-surprised many Americans who were unaware of the deep unrest in their midst. But one Pennsylvania community had a different solution to the abusive conditions with which its African American community was forced to live. In 1964, many of the descendants of the African Americans who had staked their claim to life in the City of Steel and cradle of Christianity-Bethlehem were aching from the pains of discrimination and unemployment. Fortunately for this city of sixty-five thousand, the Rev. Robert Wakefield Roberts (1927-1992) was there to convince its finest citizens Black and white-that theirs was a city with a remarkable moral conscience” that could be awakened to positive community action. And so, the Reverend Roberts and others organized an interracial movement that found followers by enlisting relatives, friends, and neighbors who recognized that it was their duty to help right the wrongs that had been thrust upon the small community of eight hundred and seventy Black citizens since before the beginning of this century.
African Americans had lived, worked, and worshipped with the Moravians in the little community as early as 1742. The story of Andreas der Mohr, or “Andrew the Negro,” has been recorded, ” but little is known of the Afro-Moravian women. Andrew’s wife, Magdalena, was an African born in Guinea in 1731, cargoed as a slave to St. Thomas in 17 42, sold from place to place, and eventually brought to Bethlehem in 1747. She lived to be eighty-nine years old and is buried in God’s Acre, the Moravians’ burial ground, with her husband. Countless other “Africans” or “Negroes”-as the epitaphs proclaim on their tombstones-are interred there as well. A young servant, Rebecca, born in 1809 in North Carolina, came to Pennsylvania about 1816 to find better prospects for Blacks, since the Commonwealth had enacted the nation’s first gradual abolition of slavery law in 1780. She is buried with her sisters and brothers of the Moravian faith in God’s Acre. Moravians believed that even slaves were the equal of peoples of European descent before the throne of God. Bethlehem’s African Americans helped the Moravians maintain their more than one hundred year stronghold over the city’s commercial, political, and social life.
Pennsylvania, well known for its tradition of freedom and toleration, became a magnet for thousands of freed Blacks and runaway slaves from the South. While most Blacks settled in Philadelphia and surrounding counties or the Pittsburgh area, only a few came to Bethlehem. Runaway slaves to Bethlehem in the 1850s were hidden in a false cellar of a small house on Bushkill Street. Earlier runaways were helped either surreptitiously by Moravians, who did not want their assistance known by the operators of the underground railroad, or overtly by Quakers and Pennsylvania Germans who sympathized with the cause.
A century later, in 1956, the Rev. Robert Wakefield Roberts, accompanied by his wife Constance and son Michael Kwesi, arrived Bethlehem when he was appointed pastor of St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, on the city’s South Side. The South Side had been the borough of South Bethlehem until merged in 1917 with Bethlehem, located north of the Lehigh River. St. John’s was the oldest of three Black churches, having followed a common route of church establishment: a small group of individuals would begin by worshipping in private homes and eventually erect a church when the congregation’s coffers were financially sound. St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church received its charter from the New Jersey Conference in 1893. The following year, the congregation purchased land on Pawnee Street with the assistance of Elijah Watson, a faithful church trustee, and built a church in 1902. A congregational split resulted in the establishment of the Second Baptist congregation in 1919 and a later split resulted in the founding of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in 1925. The second schism, however, was due largely to geography, since many Blacks lived in the Northampton Heights section of the South Side without the benefit of a church. St. Paul’s was located at Second and Carbon streets in Northampton Heights to give this small community of Blacks and families of European descent a church within walking distance of their homes.
R. Wakefield Roberts had been born in Asheville, North Carolina, the seventh child of the Rev. Frank Thomas and Frances Opelia Roberts. His early life was marked with devotion and service to God. From the start, Roberts embarked on an ardent quest for knowledge, which led him eventually to Lincoln University in Chester County (see “Some Question’s for Examining Pennsylvania’s Black History” by Julian Bond in the winter 1994 edition) and Gettysburg College. He served with distinction during the Korean Conflict as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. After military discharge in 1954, Roberts was ordained by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. He had married Constance Garnett Lovell two years earlier, and the couple was blessed with four children, Michael Kwesi, Gary Ekou, Pamela, and Lynn. (Michael Kwesi Roberts died in 1991, one year before his father.)
What the Robertses found in 1956 in Bethlehem’s African American community, in addition to its three churches, was the Colored Voters Association (CVA). It was housed on Brodhead Avenue in the rented first-floor space of a three story apartment building, owned since the 1920s by William Calloway, a devoted trustee of St. John’s Church. Calloway also rented rooms to both Black and white men, although most were African Americans who had difficulty finding places to live because of prevailing discrimination in housing practices. The CVA’s purpose was to encourage Blacks to vote and to provide a forum the people to speak with elected city officials who would occasionally visit the headquarters. Although the Colored Voters Association is no longer in existence, having fallen on hard financial times after Calloway’s death in 1986, at age ninetyeight, it had served Black and white members alike.
The Reverend Roberts disliked the idea of a “colored” organization. He believed that Blacks were segregating themselves in the CVA, and that “it was not enough just to be parallel.” However, Bethlehem had a rich ethnic mix and a time-honored tradition of ethnic groups establishing their own clubs. Associations and organizations were founded by, among others, Hungarians, Slovaks, and Portuguese. Most were located on the South Side and had unwritten exclusionary membership rules. When Blacks organized to form the CVA in the 1940s, it was not so much a matter of segregating themselves, but rather a response to what were essentially closed doors in the social domain of Bethlehem.
Black church-goers did not think the CVA was respectable because by night its headquarters served as a tavern and dance hall where performers such as Fats Domino, Cab Calloway, and Bonnie and Clime (the parents of Broadway star Melba Moore) would take to its stage in the forties and fifties. These artists (and many other African American visitors) had to find lodging in the Black community because it was virtually impossible to secure accommodations in Bethlehem’s white neighborhoods. By day, the purpose of the group was something else. The CVA had been preceded by several Black organizations, as well as by efforts to improve conditions among African Americans in Bethlehem. The August 9, 1917, edition of the South Bethlehem Times noted the formation of an organization to be known as the Colored Law and Order Society. The society’s mission was clearly defined; it aimed “to establish justice for the law abiding colored citizens of the Bethlehem’s and vicinity and to aid in bringing to justice violators of the law.” Officers of the Colored Law and Order Society included Edward Johnson, president (who would later become pastor of both the Second Baptist and St. Paul Baptist churches); Samuel H. Kelly, vice president (later a deacon at Second Baptist); and William J. Baker, secretary (who had twelve years experience in the Philadelphia Police Department and was elected investigator). In an
article appearing in the August 28, 1959, edition of the Globe Times, Dr. Ernest Smith, a 1948 graduate of Liberty High School who was reared in Bethlehem, wrote that local Blacks had organized politically during the 1920s. In 1929, when Mayor Pfeifle brought in a “platform of cleaning up the red light district of the city, he found a united Negro vote which was thrown toward his platform. Traditionally, Negroes who were Republicans, not because Abraham Lincoln freed them, but because they were the opposing party of the southern Democrat who in these times were associated with the Ku Klux Klan, switched to the Democratic party which Pfeifle represented.”
In this election the Black vote proved to be crucial and the “era of Prostitution” was short-lived in what was basically a tranquil, peaceful community. Of the prostitutes, a few were African American, but most were white. After this victory of sorts, the purpose of such an organization as the Colored Voters Association was considered valid by some politically astute Blacks. But it was not until the 1940s that an organization, with an edifice, materialized. Living conditions for Bethlehem’s Blacks were, simply, poor. Although they resided throughout the
community, most lived on the South Side and in Northampton Heights. Discriminatory rental practices kept them confined to certain neighborhoods, and limited employment opportunities ensured that they would not have enough money to seek housing in better sections, even if they were welcome. The city’s largest employer, ‘the Bethlehem Steel Company, had long established discriminatory hiring practices. For many years, generations of Blacks worked as domestics, beginning not long after Pres. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, when several southern Blacks arrived to work in the homes of prosperous industrialists, many of whom lived in Fountain Hill, a borough near South Bethlehem. Limited to working in households or in factories (where a few college educated Blacks worked), some minorities-particularly African Americans-did not get many jobs in the sprawling steel plants until the 1940s. It was not until the 1960s that a few were employed in Bethlehem Steel’s offices. No Blacks were hired by the city’s school district to teach until1963, when Constance Roberts became Bethlehem’s first Black school teacher. (This occurred in spite of the fact that there had been qualified Black applicants who subsequently landed teaching
positions in other communities.) The city’s largest employer professed to be socially conscious because before the 1920s the majority of its employees were German and Irish and, later, Slovak, Hungarian, Polish, Slovenian, Italian, Greek, Russian, and Jewish. Ernest Enix recalls that there were only about seven or eight Black employees at the Bethlehem Steel plant during the 1920s. The company blatantly denied apprenticeships to Blacks, documented by an article entitled “Negroes Want A Chance” in the South Bethlehem Globe of May 18, 1907. Subtitled “Editor Asks If They Can Go as Bethlehem Steel Apprentices,” the piece first appeared in the West Chester Local News. James Samuel Stemons; the negro editor of The Pilot of Philadelphia, wrote to Archibald Johnston, President of the Bethlehem Steel Company asking whether the offer made by the Steel Company some time ago to pay living wages to apprentices while learning a trade at the works applied to negroes. He has received the following reply from Thomas J. Dinan, overseer of apprentices: ”There being practically no negroes in our community, I am afraid that the surroundings would not be any too congenial to the boys of your race.” Mr. Stemons does not accept this as conclusive. In a letter he says: “If negroes are given an opportunity they will find enough congeniality to make them among the most happy and contented boys in Bethlehem; that
they will hold their own among the white apprentices and that if the situation is met with firmness by those in authority there will be but little friction to begin with, and practically none a little later on. In this I am speaking not from what I believe, but from · what I have seen demonstrated more than once.”
Bethlehem Steel finally hired African Americans-but as laborers, not apprentices. In fact, one of the stories never related in the rise of steelmaking in the United States is the role played by the Black workers who had been recruited from the South and lived in “negro colonies” in the North in order to work in various industries and earn decent wages for themselves and their families. In 1917, the Bethlehem Steel Company established one of these “negro colonies” in South Bethlehem, at the Northampton Coke Plant, where as many as six hundred lived in an “up-todate frame-shack camp, with complete police supervision” and worked for “regular laborers’ wages,” reported the South Bethlehem Globe on August 13, 1917. In Bethlehem, there had been a few financially successful African Americans, but they were the exceptions. Hiram Bradley, who had arrived in 1860, was known to have acquired several lots of land on Ontario Street by 1870 and, today, Bradley Street is named in his honor. Another early arrival was Abram Lane, who by 1890 was an entrepreneur in the restaurant business and owner of several houses, some of which he rented to Black families in South Bethlehem. Employment opportunities for college-educated Blacks were nonexistent, and many would leave to find suitable employment in communities across the country without giving Bethlehem an opportunity to say no to them. The Globe-Times on August 25, 1959, described a “War Being Waged With Invisible Foe” in an article which was part of a series encouraged by a number of young Blacks who had graduated from Liberty High School, moved away to attend college, graduated, and were gainfully employed in other cities and states. These were the same young African Americans who had been denied employment in Bethlehem where their families lived.
Qualified Blacks had applied for teaching positions in Bethlehem, but their applications were simply ignored. Beulah Grimes, Audrey Blue,
Elizabeth Nicholson, and sisters Mayo and Olivia Lanier attested to this fact in the 1959 Globe-Times series. And so, when Constance
Roberts was hired in 1963, it was only after a long struggle that climaxed in a closed school board meeting in June. She was a popular teacher and received rave reviews from administrators, colleagues, students and parents alike. She taught in Bethlehem until 1977 when she moved to Washington, D.C. The second Black hired by the school district was a young teacher, Richard Jay, who is presently the principal of one of the city’s two public high schools. Ironically, Jay-a 1953 igh school graduate and Yale University Law School alumni did not intend to remain in Bethlehem because of its notorious discrimination. To make certain positive developments could occur in Bethlehem in the future, a group of visionary citizens launched a plan that would eventually result in the formation of the Community Civic League (CCL). Through quiet progress, the status of the rights and opportunities of the city’s citizens of color, mainly African Americans, began to turn around. Bethlehem’s most thoughtful citizens were affected by national events, such as the Montgomery, Alabama, movement lead by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks; the great march on Washington, D. C., during which King delivered is famous speech, “I Have a Dream;” the bombing murders of four Birmingham Sunday School students; and the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy. Consequently, when Robert Wakefield Roberts presented his idea of the CCL, community residents responded positively.
A skillful leader, Robert Wakefield Roberts manipulated many of Bethlehem’s leaders and laborers, enticed them to his side, and led them
to believe that they-and not he-had initiated the group. That there existed a marked exclusion of Blacks because of racial prejudice was not a point of contention. When a series of “prayer services” was announced, the community responded favorably. Residents were made aware of the situation by an interracial panel of clergy, and a “Know Your Neighbor Panel,” consisting of African Americans who had suffered
racial discrimination through housing or employment practices in the city, was invited to speak before civic, religious, and educational
organizations. It was thirty years ago, on Monday, March 9, 1964, that the Rev. Robert Wakefield Roberts formally unveiled the organization of more than fifty concerned citizens who had, since mid- 1963, operated somewhat covertly. The-plan to combat racial discrimination was officially organized as the interracial Community Civic League. The Reverend Roberts revealed that · the organization had the blessings of Bethlehem’s mayor, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce; Lehigh University administrators and professors, politically aware Black and white community members, and the majority of the clergy representing various religious communities. In a community as diverse as Bethlehem, his was no small accomplishment. The large group of supporters was organized into working committees for education, employment, housing, human dignity, voter registration, and information education. Each in its own way made quiet but significant progress. The education committee, chaired by Audrey Blue, and Lehigh adminstrator Charles Seidel, was in charge of tutoring nearly a dozen Black high school students who needed assistance.
The committee held conferences with guidance counselors concerning the academic needs of young blacks, while at the same time “shunning any special treatment” by not demanding that counselors “bend over backwards” in dealing with the students. A few of the students improved their grades and several went on to college after participating in this program. The employment committee, chaired by Richard Jay, conducted a professional survey which was painstakingly analyzed to determine the causes of discriminatory hiring practices. Jay’s committee discovered that breaking down employment biases against minorities was a slow-but not impossible-process. Although some of the barriers proved real, others existed only in the perception of the job applicants. As a result, Blacks began to be hired in department stores and offices where they had never considered opportunities before. The housing committee, chaired by the Rev. Jerry J. L. B. Hargrove, II, pastor of Second Baptist, went to work Worming the community of the experiences of minorities who sought housing in the community. The committee for human dignity, chaired by Lehigh professor Theodore Millon, assumed more encompassing and long range goals, which included helping textbook publishers and newspaper editors recognize the roles and contributions of minorities in United States history.
In this way the Community Civic League forged ahead, striking simultaneously and making 2 marked difference in each endeavor. A Bethlehem Steel Company executive who refused to yield to his superior’s intense loathing of racial confrontation, as well as for his participation in CCL programs, was fired. The New York Times exposed the incident and residents reacted with disbelief and a determination to prove that their beloved Bethlehem, known nationally as ‘”The Christmas City,” was, indeed, a wonderful place for all races, creeds, and colors to live and work. The Community Civic League worked as an organization of at least fifty community members-both Black and white-until December 1965 when it was incorporated as the Community Action Council of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV). The Rev. R. Wakefield Roberts was named its first executive director.Today, the CACLV administers at least twelve community service programs which serve people of all races, creeds and colors. Council members determined that the organization’s programs will meet three key tests: each must facilitate self-sufficiency, contribute to the revitalization of a neighborhood, and empower the participants.
Changes in community attitudes and practices without the use of confrontation or scare tactic so we no little credit to the leadership, dedication, and foresight of the Rev. R. Wakefield Roberts, an individual of passion and vision. Today’s Bethlehem, because of the Reverend Roberts and his adherents, is an even better place in which all peoples-no matter their race, creed, or color–can live, work, and worship. That, in itself, is no small testimony to the Rev. R. Wakefield Roberts. ####
Wandalyn Jeanette Enix, Bethlehem, is a member of the faculty of the department of curriculum and teaching of Montclair State College,
Montclair, New Jersey. She received her bachelor of arts degree from Howard University in 1969, her master of arts degree from Lehigh University in 1972, and her doctorate from Temple University in 1983. She is currently working on a book entitled Is There Any Room in
the Inn? A Peoples’ History of the African American Experience in Bethlehem, 1742-1982.
FOR FURTHER READING
Allinson, Samuel, Billy G. Smith, and Richard Wojtowicz. “The Precarious Freedom of Blacks in the Mid-Atlantic Region:
Excerpts from the Pennsylvania Gazette, 1728-1776.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 113 (April 1989), 237-264.
Blackson, Charles L. Pennsylvania’s Black History. Philadelphia: Portfolio Associates, 1975. ___ . The Underground Railroad.
Jacksonville, N.C.:Flame International, 1981.
Goodwin, Grethe. From Lovefeast to Fiestas. Bethlehem: Sun Inn Preservation Association, 1982.
Strohmeyer:’ John; Crisis in Bethlehem: Big Steel’s Struggle to Survive. Bethesda, Md.: Adler and Adler, 1986.
Thorp, Daniel B. “Chattel With A Soul: The Autobiography of a Moravilm Slave.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 112 (July 1988), 433-451.
Wexler, Sanford. The Civil Rights Movement: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File, 1993.
Yates, W. Ross. Bethlehem of Pennsylvania: The Golden Years, 1841-1920. Bethlehem: Bethlehem Book Committee, 1976.