WC History: Walking the "Uptown"
May 8, 2015 | Malcolm Johnstone
Image: portrait of an unknown West Chester family
From almost the very beginning, African-Americans had significant participation on every level of the social and economic culture of West Chester. A new three-book series examines the people, places and events as West Chester marched towards its own quest for civil rights.
An excerpt is presented from the opening paragraphs of Walking the "Uptown" by Catherine C. Quillman and Sarah Wesley. The final installment of the series, it examines the local African-American influence on the downtown:
"In the late 1800s, business was booming for a restaurateur named James Spence. Spence's restaurant was housed in an elaborate structure he built on East Gay Street, where the trolley line rattled by its Palladian windows and a large staff served up steaming portions of house specialties such as oyster stew, fired clams and snapper soup.
"You could say that Spence's success was just another sign of the entrepreneurial spirit of the times except for one factor: James Spence was a black man.
"In the years following the Civil War, black-owned businesses were an accepted part of the West Chester business community, and they often claimed the best locations -- in the center of town. In addition to Spences's, there was Burns' Great Oyster House on West Gay Street and Fortune Fullerton's oyster bar in the exclusive Mansion House Hotel on Market Street. And a man named George Ganges went about town selling ice cream from a horse-drawn cart.
"By 1910, when 2,500 blacks lived in West Chester, the black business community in the borough had grown, earning its own chapter in a statewide directory of 'Negro Businesses.' The 1910 directory lists 10 barbershops, six restaurants, two hotels, six grocery stores, three blacksmiths and two doctor's offices among its West Chester operations.
"Presumably, the black business owners felt emboldened by the town's Quaker heritage and it's reputation for racial tolance. The historian Doug Harper has observed that the borough, a major settlement above the Mason Dixon Line, had a 'keen' awareness of the 'slavery' debates before and during the Civil War. Living so close to slave territory in Maryland and Delaware, black residents were understandably cautious about making waves and typically expressed gratitude in the rare instances they were interviewed by the local newspapers.
"Indeed, there seemed to have been a general discourse in West Chester that lasted through the 19th century that the borough was an accepting place for the free black man. Late in Spence's career as a restaurateur, for instance, a local white resident resident named Daniel Webster Nields wrote to Spence the following: 'I am glad to have been born and raised in a community where prejudice found no foothold, where a man's worth in the community was not established by the color of his clothes or the shade of his skin, but by his deportment.'"
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Walking the "Uptown"
by Catherine C. Quillman and Sarah Wesley
Hedgerow Press, 2014
This is the final installment of the series, as it examines the local African-American influence on the downtown. Other books is the series include Walking the East-End and Walking the Industrial Sections of West Chester.
Books available at Chester County Historical Society. Your purchase and CCHS membership supports the preservation of Chester County history.