Every day, thousands of students at Philadelphia’s Temple University walk on or past Cecil B. Moore Avenue. It is one of the most important roads in North Philadelphia. However, the story of Cecil B Moore as a person, and how Columbia Avenue between Front and 33rd Streets became named after him is an incredible story.
In the 1960’s, every major city in the United States, Philadelphia included, was experiencing extreme racial tension. The majority of Philadelphia’s black residents (400,000 of 600,000 total) lived in North Philadelphia at the time and rumors of police brutality at the hands of white cops towards blacks in North Philly had tensions at an all-time high. The situation got so bad that Philadelphia Police began to take special measures to try and prevent race riots from happening (as they had previously in New York City, Jersey City, and Elizabeth, NJ). Philadelphia Police began patrolling the streets of North Philadelphia in duos with one black cop and one white cop. They also started a civilian review board for cases of police brutality.
On the night of August 28, 1964 a black woman named Odessa Bradford was driving on 23rd and Columbia Avenue when her car was stopped for a driving infraction. The situation between hostile when Bradford began to scream at the two police officers, one of which was black, the other, white. As the two cops began to place Bradford under arrest, a crowd formed and one man got hostile towards the police. He too was arrested. With Bradford and the man in custody, rumors spread among the streets of North Philadelphia that Philadelphia Police had beaten a pregnant black woman to death and people began to riot.
From August 28th to August 30th of 1964, North Philadelphia along Columbia Avenue between Front and 33rd Streets burned, and businesses were looted. To put this in perspective, violent youth mobs usually only last an hour or so. This lasted three days. The situation became so bad that Philadelphia Police withdrew from the area completely. Over 225 mostly white-owned businesses were destroyed along Columbia Avenue (many of which never returned to the area), 774 people were later arrested, and 350 were injured. Amazingly, nobody was killed in the riots.
As North Philadelphia was burning, controversial civil rights leader Cecil Bassett Moore stepped to the forefront. Moore was the leader of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP at the time, and had made a name for himself for leading a charge to desegregate Girard College. Moore played a huge role in helping stop the riots and is given a lot of credit for helping restore order in North Philadelphia. In the eyes of Philadelphia city politicians at the time, it was ironic that Moore would play a pivotal role in calming the riots when many local politicians viewed him as confrontational and overly aggressive.
In 1987, the city of Philadelphia decided to honor Moore by renaming Columbia Street between Front and 33rd Streets “Cecil B. Moore Avenue.” Once east of Frankford Avenue and West of 33rd Street in Parkside, the street is known by its original name of Columbia Avenue. Cecil B Moore is a fascinating man whose face dons several murals throughout North Philadelphia. Whenever I pass his street on my way to work, I can’t help but think of the sacrifice he made to help his city, and think about what it was like to live in Philadelphia during such a tenuous time.