African American Occupations in the 1900s

African American Occupations in the 1900s


As the last century began in 1900, Reading was ranked the 50th most populated city in the United States.  The city’s 78,961 residents included a small minority of 534 African Americans.  About 302 of them were employed in the fields of domestic and personal services. Others worked in trade, transportation, manufacturing, and professional vocations. Still others were barbers, postal carriers, waiters, cooks, molders, laborers, express men, hostlers, and foremen (Hemig 1979, 109).

According to the 1900 United States Census, the majority of the African Americans in Berks County had occupations such as day laborers, hod carriers, servants, hotel waiters, barbers, furnace workers, domestics, stablemen, hotel cooks/chefs, bootblacks, farmers/farm workers, porters, hairdressers, laundresses, hostlers, dressmakers, butlers, bricklayers, plasterers, railroad depot janitors, messengers, coachmen, stone masons, firemen, and cigar makers. Several held what would be considered professional occupations today, including a preacher (W. B. Brandon), dentist (Loma Blevens), music teacher (Mildred Templeton), massage physician (Dr. T. B. Robinson), and teacher (F. Lincoln Nelson). When viewing occupations in the early twentieth century, it is important to see them as they were understood at the time. In 1900, butlers, barbers, hairdressers, coachmen, hotel chefs, waiters, servants (in “better” homes), and dressmakers were considered “professionals.”

The 1900 census also listed an author, George Hannibal Temple. Temple was a poet, chair caner, and music teacher (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1900). His collection of poems, The Epic of Columbus’ Bell and Other Poems, was published in 1900 by the Reading Eagle Press.

The 1910 Pennsylvania Negro Business Directory’s listings for Reading indicate that African Americans did not occupy uniformly menial jobs. The Directory lists one policeman, two letter carriers, and one fireman, as well as other forms of general employment, including domestic services, hotel workers, laborers, iron and steel workers, hod carriers and chauffeurs. The American Iron and Steel Company hired sixty African American men in the capacity of heaters and roughers, jobs considered skilled labor. Young boys were hired to top and thread nuts. The Willson Spectacle Company, lace factories, sugar factories, and hosiery mills hired African American girls. African American businesses listed in the Directory include one chiropodist, ten barber shops, one hair tonic manufacturer, one manicurist, two bootblack parlors, two restaurants, and four dray and express men (PA Negro Business Directory 1910).

Burton Cuyler had shoe shine parlors at 532 and 616 Penn Street, each containing five bootblack stands. Arthur Rothwell was a confectioner employed by Riggs Confection and Ice Cream; it was reported that he made all of the ice cream and confections. Abel E. West, MD, passed the medical boards in Virginia and Pennsylvania in 1908 and opened offices at 323 Washington Street in 1909.

John Stokes, a Reading native, operated a five-chair barbershop in the Mansion House. All of the men in the Terry family were barbers: Charles and L. Randolph Terry operated a shop on Penn Square; Lee B. Terry and his son, William Terry, had a shop at 857 Penn Street; and Moses J. Terry, Jr., operated a shop at Reed and Court Street. Moses Terry’s son, L.R. Terry, took over his business and, along with his brother Charles H. Terry, opened a six-chair barbershop. Charles H. Terry also operated the Terry Hotel. Lee B. Terry was a barber who later became a member of the city police force. He also had a business cleaning straw and Panama hats at 323 Washington Street called James H.W. Harris & Sons.

The 1900 Census shows 27 African American barbers in Berks County. However, according to Reading historian Frank Gilyard, few barbers in the city would accept African American patrons because white customers would not patronize barbers who accommodated African Americans (Gilyard 2005). The number of barbers in Berks County continues to remain high today: the 2000 U.S. Census records 54 personal appearance workers, a category that includes barbers, hairdressers, and manicurists.

Lester Breininger, Robesonia historian and member of the Friends of the Robesonia Furnace, revealed that there were many African American workers at the Robesonia Iron Furnace who were well assimilated into the local community. There are no written records available because when Bethlehem Steel acquired the furnace in what Breininger calls a “hostile takeover,” the records were destroyed (Breininger 2005). Floyd Umbles, a former worker at the Robesonia Furnace, started working in 1917, at the age of twelve.

According to historian Frank Gilyard, during the Depression, African Americans were hired as W.P.A. workers to do construction work (Gilyard 2005). 1 African American workers helped build the Pagoda and Lindbergh Viaduct. The steel mills employed African American workers and the Reading Hospital had an African American doorkeeper/greeter as well as several housekeepers.

Self-employed African Americans had at least some work during the lean Depression years. Several had their own businesses as haulers of trash, wood, and coal. Many women took in laundry. Both women and men worked as servants, butlers, and chauffeurs in private homes. Gilyard remembers that there were mechanics and a blacksmith in Reading during this time. He also remembers Horace and Eloise Lloyd, who had a restaurant on Tulpehocken Street and also did catering (Gilyard 2005).

Lee Terry was a physician whose name first appears in Boyd’s Reading City Directory in 1929, located at 26 North Second Street. James F. Goodwin, also a physician, first appears in the Directory in 1938 with an office located at 508 Schuykill Avenue. Peter Smith, a dentist, is listed in 1950 with an office at 359 Penn Street (Boyd’s Reading City Directory 1929; 1938; 1950).

The U.S. Bureau of the Census 1920-1930 recorded African American music teachers and musicians. Gilyard recalls that in addition to Mildred Templeton, Pearl James and Frances Thomas were also music teachers in the first half of the century. James also directed dramas and musicals for the public (Gilyard 2005).

Due to the demand for steel, Reading became Pennsylvania’s third-largest manufacturing city in the early 1900s (“Berks County”). Gilyard states that the largest migration of African Americans was during and after World War I, due to the country’s high demand for steel. In Berks County, African Americans were recruited by the Carpenter Steel Company in Reading to help the war effort. The demand for African American workers in Berks County continued to grow during World War II (Gilyard 2005).

According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census 1920-1930, in the 1920s and 1930s, the majority of the African American population was still employed in domestic and personal services; the iron, steel, textile, railroad and metal industries; and as general laborers. The Census also notes an insurance agent and realtor, as well as stenographers and typists. W. Justin Carter, Jr., practiced law in Reading, circa 1925. He was also active in the NAACP (Jackson, Jr. 2005).

In 1930, H. Alfred Farrell graduated from Reading High School and then from Lincoln University in Chester County. He subsequently joined the faculty at Lincoln University. Farrell had a distinguished career in education, teaching at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, FL; Ohio State University; Lincoln University in Jefferson City, MO; and Lincoln University in PA (Downey 2005).

World War II provided work in the many factories supporting the war effort. Porters and redcaps were hired at the Reading and Pennsylvania Railroads during this era, but generally, those who were not self-employed were limited to low-level jobs well into the 1940s (Gilyard 2005).

The 1940s and 1950s show more African Americans employed as practical nurses, elevator operators, industry foremen, gas station and parking lot attendants, salespersons, social workers, cab drivers, and truck drivers. Barbering was still a prominent occupation as well. In 1952 Frank Gilyard was hired as the first African American medical technician at St. Joseph’s Hospital (Gilyard 2005).

After the 1950s, the Census begins to show African Americans employed in manufacturing, and as clerks, bookkeepers, cab and bus drivers, mechanics, policemen, managers, foremen, salesmen, accountants, auditors, and nurses. There were still African Americans employed in service occupations, but the numbers were decreasing as more and more African Americans were able to find work in places that had previously been denied to them. While employed by the American Chain and Cable in the 1950s, Joseph “Bud” Haines was the first African American elected as a committeeman (a union position); in the 1970s, Haines worked for Brush Wellman and was made foreman over white employees (Haines 2005).

African American women also gradually moved into different fields during the 1950s. In the field of healthcare, African American women were accepted for nurse’s training, but served as nurse’s aids with much lower salaries; Reading Hospital hired some African American dieticians; and all of the local hospitals had begun to hire African Americans in the offices (McClellan 1957-58). The first African American teacher, Velma King Bannerman, was hired by the Reading school district in 1957.

Jeanette Johnson, in an article for the Historical Review of Berks County, notes that through the 1950s, most non-menial jobs were not available to African American women in Reading in spite of their education, finances, or qualifications: “Qualified Negro girls could find no hospital to take them for nurse’s training. Despite the sizable Negro population of Reading and the availability of highly qualified Negro college graduates, no Negro taught in the Reading School System” (J. Johnson 1957, 87).

However, as Johnson’s statistics (1957: 87, 91, 99, 100) suggest, little by little, the African American community began to make headway in various occupations:

1948 — Berks County courthouse hires an African American filing clerk and later a secretary.

1948 — The Heather Shop employs three African American females.

1948 —Reading City Hall employs an almost equal number of African Americans and whites.  African Americans are hired in all classifications, including detective, maintenance/labor, machinist, and truck driver.

1949 — Community General Hospital hires its first African American intern.

1956 — Berkshire Knitting Mills opens its doors to anyone who is qualified. Forty-two African Americans are hired, mainly in production.

1956 — Pomeroys department store adds six African American holiday clerks for Christmas and retains one permanently in home furnishings.

1956 — Reading Hospital employs its first African American intern and many nurse’s aides.

1957 — St. Joseph Hospital has one African American registered nurse.

1957 — Community General Hospital has four African American interns, two staff doctors, one dietician, one practical nurse, two bookkeepers, and ten to twelve helpers.

1957 — Wernersville Hospital has two African American doctors, a dietician, and six female attendants. Berks Heim has no African American doctors or registered nurses, but has African American practical nurses, nurse’s aides, orderlies, and housekeepers.
Ella Bannister Ford, from Robesonia (western Berks County), was an administrator for the Federal Bureau of Strategic Service in Washington, DC. Other Robesonians include Mabel Gordon Valentine, a high school principal in West Chester, PA, and Brian Gibson, a noted baritone, who has toured the U.S. and internationally, and who currently teaches at the Wyomissing Institute (R. Johnson 1995).

The first two African American administrators in the Reading School District were Grace A. Jones, who became principal of Lauer’s Park Elementary School in 1968, and Mabel J. Davis, who became vice-principal of Reading High School in 1973 (Reading School District Directory 1968-69; 1973-74). Today the Reading School District employs fifty-four African Americans at all levels of instruction and administration, including high school principal Wynton Butler, a Reading native (Law 2005) and Dean of Students Anthony Calloway.

The 2000 U.S. Census shows             that African Americans are represented in many occupations in Berks County: financial managers, accountants, counselors and social workers, business specialists, management occupations, health technicians, nursing, food and beverage preparation, personal appearance workers, retail sales, customer service, secretaries, administrative assistants, and metal and plastic workers.

Despite these major gains, African Americans remain underrepresented in some occupations, for reasons beyond the scope of this article. There have never been more than a handful of African American attorneys practicing at the same time whose main place of employment is Berks County; in 2005, there were only four African American attorneys who considered Berks their primary place of employment (Butler 2005).

In 1993, only four out of two hundred police officers were African American; in 2005, five. Lieutenant Lionel B. Carter reports that only nineteen African Americans have been employed as police officers with the Reading Police Department. Carl E. Britt, a Police Defensive Tactics and Martial Arts Instructor and a fourth degree black belt, has been a police officer in Cumru Township since 1981. Officer Britt is one of only a handful, if not the only, African American police officer in Berks County outside the city of Reading (Carter 2005).

According to Reading Fire Chief William Rehr, several African Americans have served as volunteer firefighters in the city of Reading, including Elton Butler, Sr., and Elton Butler, Jr., with the Marion Fire Co.; Randall Key, with the Reading Hose Co.; Nathan Donaldson, with the Junior Co.; Kerry Starks and Nelson Stubbs, with Schuylkill Co.; Barry Lusane, with Keystone Co.; and Courtney Horne, with Liberty Co. Lester “Butch” Spencer was a volunteer with the Washington Fire Company for several years (and also well known as a member of “The Sticky Buns,” a local dance band). Ralph Mickey was the only paid African American firefighter in Reading. Rev. Frank McCracken was the first African American Department Head of the Fire Department (until 1996, councilpersons were the heads of various city departments) (Rehr 2005).

A 2003 article in The DRUM notes the “glass ceiling” in the crafts, such as carpentry, plumbing, and brick masonry. Among the Berks African Americans identified in the article were one plumber, LeRoy Cunningham, and four electricians, Hampton Allen, Mark Burford, John Green, and Eric Towles (Amprey, Jr. 2003).

At the same time, several African American businesspeople who spoke to Reading Eagle reporter Tony Lucia in 2000 suggest that Berks County only let African Americans advance so far. They want to see more African Americans in the upper ranks of Berks County companies and on boards of directors. They believe that African Americans in Berks are not represented in businesses to the extent that they are nationwide (Lucia 2000). Although there are many African Americans in Berks County who own successful businesses, some of these entrepreneurs believe that “there is much room for improvement.” Many point to lingering stereotypes as a major obstacle, but also agree that these stereotypes can be overcome. Lillie Foster, co-owner with her husband, John. E. Foster, of Foster and Foster, a consulting firm in Douglassville, states, “you have to prove them [the stereotypes] wrong.” Hilda Letman, former owner of The Goddard School in Wyomissing, states, only part-joking, “In my field [childcare], at least they know that blacks do know how to take care of children” (Lucia 2000, 35).

Charlie G. Haynes has owned a barbershop, which he also uses as a school for barbers, in the 6th Ward for over fifty years. Haynes, a leading proponent of African American entrepreneurship, states in an article written by John F. Forester, Jr., “When people graduate from my school, they are thinking more about being employers than being employees” (Forester, Jr. 1996). Charles L. “Chick” Lee, Jr., business owner and president of the Berks Minority Development Council (MINDCO), stresses the need for organizations such as MINDCO. Philip White, owner of White Housecleaning Service, agreed, saying that MINDCO helped him get started and still provides assistance (Forester, Jr. 1996). In 2003 the African American Chamber of Commerce of Berks County was developed to assist African American businesses.

Other African American entrepreneurs include Nelson R. Stubbs who, after serving as a Marine, opened his own residential and commercial janitorial business in 1973. William E. “Gus” Giddens owns Gus’s Place, a restaurant in Reading. Grace Davies, owner of Grace’s Golden Comb beauty salon and co-founder of the Goddard School, left her husband and came to Reading at the age of twenty-one with three young children and only six dollars to her name (Lucia 1999). Trussie Baker, current president of the Reading chapter of the NAACP, is director/owner of T.R. Baker Funeral Home. Tonya A. Butler, Attorney-at-Law, has her own practice in Reading. Butler left a law firm in the suburbs to better serve the African American community in Reading (Butler). Zefflin Morrison, a Reading High graduate, owns Gentlemen’s Quarters Barber Shop, an upscale salon, and John King is owner/proprietor of Sharp Dressed Man men’s fashion.

This article provides only a general overview of trends in employment for African Americans in Berks County during the twentieth century. Although much progress has been made, there is still significant room for African American representation in various fields to increase throughout the twenty-first century.

About the author: Mary Ann Watts is a native of Harrisburg, Pa., who has lived in Berks County since 1969.  She is a retired elementary school teacher who has taught in Harrisburg, Baltimore, MD and Reading, PA.  She recently enrolled in the Professional Writing Course at Penn State University and was involved in the Writing History Program, which researched information about the African American presence in Berks County.  Watts has always had an interest in writing and received a second place award for an essay she wrote in high school for the American Tuberculosis Society.  More recently she has received awards for short stories written for contests sponsored by the Federation of Women’s Clubs.

A hod was wooden box with a pole attached beneath, used to carry bricks and mortar.  A hod carrier was the person who carried the hod to the masons at a worksite.

  A bootblack was a person who cleaned and polished shoes and boots for a living.

  A hostler was someone employed in a stable to care for the horse.

  A heater heated rivets in a charcoal furnace until they were white-hot; he then tossed them in the air for cooling.  The catcher would catch them in a metal cone with a handle, then remove them with tongs, place them in predrilled holes in iron or steel plate and the riveter would rivet them in.

A rougher observed the color of heated iron or steel, determined the rolling temperature and operated the rougher roll mill to reduce the metal to specified dimensions.

A dray is a heavy cart without sides, used for hauling.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County