LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. For the past two Sundays, we've devoted this segment of our program to the question, who is an American? We've focused on the city of Philadelphia for answers. You heard about the early Quaker settlers in 1708 and the visionary artist Charles Willson Peale in 1808.
By 1908, Philadelphia was a big industrial city. The Pennsylvania Railroad was established, and the wealthy were moving into mansions on the mainline. Today, you're going to hear the story of Philadelphia in the early 20th century from folks who were there. They lived through the depression, prohibition, and the civil rights movement, and they are still there to witness the changes to the city now.
We spoke to three generations of black women in the same family. The matriarch is 108 years old. We also spoke with two white Jewish men in their 80s now. Their Austrian-Polish grandparents arrived in Philadelphia in the 1860s.
Mr. EUGENE SCHARF (Philadelphia Resident): My name is Eugene Scharf, and my brother...
Mr. ERV SCHARF (Philadelphia Resident): Erv Scharf. I'm the younger brother. He's my big brother.
Mr. EUGENE SCHARF: We grew up in West Philadelphia. It was a rowhouse, three bedroom, had a porch and a yard. And it was a typical Philadelphia rowhouse.
Mr. ERV SCHARF: We walked every place. There was no problem. You could leave your door unlocked at night, and no one bothered you. Of course, we had nothing to steal. The neighborhood was all white.
Mr. EUGENE SCHARF: Diverse.
Mr. ERV SCHARF: But it was Italian, Irish, Jewish, everything. It was every nationality on that block.
Mr. EUGENE SCHARF: It was 100 percent white. It's now 100 percent black.
HANSEN: Philadelphia became a destination for the Great Migration north. One-hundred-eight-year-old Anna Henderson was born in Georgia. In 1922 her parents moved to Philadelphia. With some help from her granddaughter, Anna described what her neighborhood looked like then.
Ms. ANNA HENDERSON (Philadelphia Resident): Yeah, it was big. Oh, when I first moved there, I was right between two white families. Very few colored was in there Preston Street, very few. But you know, I don't believe it was a nice neighborhood.
HANSEN: During that time, Irish, German, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants were arriving in droves and settling throughout the city. Although there were divisions between the black and white populations, prejudice and discrimination were not limited to the color of one's skin. Again, the Scharf brothers. First, Eugene.
Mr. EUGENE SCHARF: On our street, the next block was not a - there wasn't a Jewish family in our block, it was mostly Irish Catholic. And they would go to Catholic school, and they would come home and pass by our houses to get to their street. And at that time, occasionally, one or two of them would start a fight with us.
Mr. ERV SCHARF: I remember one time walking home from the neighborhood theater, which was maybe four blocks from our house, with the lady I married. She was a young kid then, and there was a gang of kids chasing us. This is right before the war, and there was a lot of prejudice then. And I told her to run up on a porch, and I outdistanced some and got away. But that incident, of getting beat-up with a girlfriend of mine, it was - I think we were 17 years old, and that remained with me for a long time.
HANSEN: After the Second World War, the civil rights movement was given a boost when President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the military. Integration of civilian life took longer. But Anna Henderson's 70-year-old daughter, Fanny Fisher, remembers that as a teenager the lines between the races were not hard and fast.
Ms. FANNY FISHER (Philadelphia Resident): In 1956, when I was in West Philly High School, it changed. We would go to parties together, we did the proms together, all of that. West Philly High School had more white children than black, and we were all friends.
HANSEN: But by 1964, the inequalities between the races erupted in riots. The demographics of Philadelphia began to change again. White split to the suburbs, and the city's minority population reached an all-time high. The economy worsened, drugs proliferated, and gangs controlled some of the city's neighborhoods.
In the 1970s, Police Commissioner - later Mayor - Frank Rizzo, got tough on crime. But he equated crime with race, and his aggressive tactics focused on the black population of the city. Philadelphia's first black mayor, Wilson Good, was elected in 1983, but it was on his watch that city officials bombed the house belonging to the radical armed group MOVE. This is from a 1985 NPR report.
(Soundbite of 1985 NPR report)
Unidentified Reporter: It's very difficult to get very close to it at all as - you can see flames. There's a tremendous amount of smoke, and I've just got a report from one of our reporters out there that ashes are now falling on the other homes.
HANSEN: The fire wiped out several blocks of homes. It was also a wakeup call for the city, which began to reexamine the state of race relations and economic inequalities. Today, new immigrants from Asia and Latin America are moving into Philadelphia's neighborhoods. Toby Fisher, Anna Henderson's 44-year-old granddaughter, says she misses the benefits of a street where everyone knows your name.
Ms. TOBY FISHER (Philadelphia Resident): Everyone looked out for each other. If your mother wasn't home, you could always go to the neighbor's home because she'd have lunch, she'd have snacks, she'd have juice, and she'd take care of you until your parents got in. And now you're very afraid. We don't even know many of the neighbors on the block.
My father right now, he's the block captain. And we try every six months to have a meet and greet because it's new people moving in all the time. So, you know, you're unsure about the families. You guys weren't here for 20 years like we were, and you don't trust them as much as you used to.
HANSEN: Freedom from fear and persecution, economic opportunity, the chance for a new start. These concepts are what drew many of Philadelphia's first residents, and continue to draw new people to America. So, who is an American? We'll give you the answers the Henderson-Fisher family gave us. First, Fanny Fisher.
Ms. FANNY FISHER: I used to say one that was born here, but I also feel now that when they migrate and they - the cultures mix, we're all American. I began to say, oh, we're all American, you know. You don't just have to be born here. It's what you bring to it and what you put into it, and you feel like you're an American. I know the Chinese feel like they're Americans. I know the - especially the Africans, they're very proud people. You know they feel like they're Americans now because they live here, they work here, and raise their families.
HANSEN: Fanny's daughter, Toby.
Ms. TOBY FISHER: An American to me, they're the epitome of what the Commandments say, love thy neighbor as thyself, and you embrace your neighbor. Like lately, there have been a few shootings, and these folks don't value life. An American values life, to me.
HANSEN: And finally, Toby's grandmother, Anna.
Ms. HENDERSON: I think they like to look out for each other. Don't care what color or kind. Children like to grow up together. Neighborly here, kind of friendly. They're sweet people like people in the streets here. I think that's it.
HANSEN: One-hundred-eight-year-old Anna Henderson who still lives in her West Philadelphia home. Our thanks also to Erv and Eugene Scharf who now live in the northwest section of the city. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Three generations of women from an African-American family in the historic city of Philadelphia reflect on how their city and its people have changed during the past century.
Anna Henderson (center) is the matriarch in a family that spans three generations of Philadelphians.
Henderson, 108, came to Philadelphia with her parents in 1922 at a time when blacks were leaving segregated southern cities and heading north.
Weekend Edition Sunday is traversing Philadelphia during a month-long series to shine a light on what it means to be an American. During a recent trip, NPR's Liane Hansen spoke with an African-American family whose personal history spans three generations of Philadelphia's history.
The end of the 19th century saw the growth of industry and infrastructure in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Railroad was established in the early 1900s, and by 1908, the first subway trains were rumbling below the city's streets.
It also saw major demographic changes. For decades, African-Americans had been leaving segregated cities in the South for better economic and social opportunities north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Philadelphia — which had the largest free black population in the United States at the time of the Civil War and was the epicenter of the abolitionist movement — became a magnet for African-Americans. Today, they comprise nearly half of the city's population.
Anna Henderson, 108, was part of this "Great Migration." She came to Philadelphia from Georgia with her parents in 1922. When she moved into her neighborhood, "the whole thing was white," she says. There were a "fair few colored in Preston Street, very few ... maybe two or three."
This would change as neighborhoods once racially homogenous became a bustling mix of minorities and Europeans immigrants during a wave of immigration in the 1920s.
Many who came to Philadelphia during that period settled in the western part of the city. This included Jewish immigrants who, like blacks, faced discrimination and abuse. These tensions were amplified by growing economic difficulties as the nation settled into the Great Depression.
But the country began moving toward a more integrated society. In 1948, President Harry Truman put an end to segregation in the military. Six years later, the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation. And 10 years after that, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act to make segregation illegal nationwide.
Henderson's daughter, Fanny Fisher, says she witnessed a cultural shift during her school years. "In 1956, when I was in West Philly High School, it changed," she says, describing how people from different backgrounds began to attend parties and proms together.
"Before that, it was a little bit prejudiced," Fisher says. "When I was young, an African family came to our town and we just laughed at them ... not realizing the culture they brought to us."
She says she rarely saw Chinese people early on. Then, she says, "all of a sudden, they start migrating and we had to get used to the culture. It didn't take us long because we had dynamic teachers and they talked about the different groups — what they brought, who they were, how proud they were. And that made a difference."
Despite the increased diversity, Philadelphia still faced racial tensions. There was a growing division between police and the black community, which sometimes escalated to rioting.
"It was disappointing, you know, to have the riot," Fisher says. "But after a while, we just overlooked it."
The city's demographics shifted in the 1970s, spurred partly by what became known as "white flight," as white families fled cities in droves and moved to rapidly growing suburbs.
Drug-related gang violence became more common, and racial tensions still festered.
But Anna Henderson's family says that even in those difficult times, people could still find community spirit in the city's neighborhoods.
"Everyone looked out for each other," Fisher says. "Now, you're very afraid. We don't even know most of the neighbors on the block. ... It's new people moving in all the time."
There are many reasons why people have flocked to the city in the past century. Many came to escape slavery, lynchings and persecution. And although the city still grapples with violence and gun crime, it also has a legacy of people who epitomize what it means to be an American.
Reflecting on what it means to be an American today, Fisher says she used to believe that it required being born in this country. Now, she says, "you don't just have to be born here. It's what you bring to it and what you put into it, and you feel like you're an American."
Fisher's daughter, Toby, says an American "is the epitome of what the Commandments say: Love thy neighbor as thyself."
"You embrace your neighbor, and what you have is for your neighbor as well," she adds. "You're not trying to step on each other, not trying to take other's things away. Lately, there have been a few shootings and these people don't value life. An American values life, to me."
Her 108-year-old grandmother puts it more simply. Americans, Henderson says, are people "who look out for each other, no matter what color or kind."
This story was produced by Gemma Watters and edited by Jenni Bergal.