Being Black in Bridesburg
The death threat written in ketchup on her concrete steps confused four-year-old Jazmen Merritt.
“I just remember thinking, ‘That’s not what ketchup’s for,’” Merritt, now 24, recalled recently.
More death threats came in the form of letters alluding to previous firebomb attacks on others. They were signed, “The Posse.” Warnings came from neighbors, some politely and some not so politely.
A number of neighbors even raised the Confederate flag, about 20 miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, in 1996. The message was clear: The new neighbors were unwelcome here.
The still unknown people threatened Jazmen Merritt’s family, her mother Bridget Ward and her sister Jamilla because they were black and moving into Bridesburg, a neighborhood so white that the word “predominantly” doesn’t do it justice.
The situation gained so much attention that, in addition to local media arriving en masse, the national media got in on it too. Ted Koppel and the folks from ABC’s “Nightline” aired an investigative piece in May 1996 in which they spoke to residents of Bridesburg about it.
Merritt still recalls much of what happened in 1996, with some blanks being filled in from time to time by her family. Though it is all memory now as her mother and sister have since passed away. “My mother died in 2013,” Merritt said. Her sister Jamilla died of “congenital heart-failure.”
Merritt didn’t remember the “Nightline” program itself, but did recall other media attention. “The reporters standing outside of our house,” she said. “And my mom went on ‘The Montel Williams Show’. She was actually on ‘Montel Williams’ talking about [racism].”
“Montel”, a syndicated show airing during the day, was one thing, but Ted Koppel on the highly rated and highly regarded “Nightline” was monumental.
But why would the national news show want to come to a small neighborhood in the Riverwards?
Spirit News reached out to Ted Koppel, but he said that since he “did more than 6,000 ‘Nightlines’ over the course of 26 years” he felt as though his “memory of the particular program is just hazy enough that I don’t feel I can add anything useful.”
But others who worked at “Nightline” during that time did remember the story of Bridesburg and Ward. Members of the “Nightline” team spoke with Spirit News to provide insight into the story they produced as part of a series entitled “Black and White in America” just more than 20 years since it originally aired.
“The point of the series was to get people to recognize the racial divide within the country,” Thomas Raymond Bettag, the show’s executive producer, said. “Particularly for whites who said racism was a thing of the past, who may believe that most people don’t have racial bias. We wanted them to stop and think again. But we also wanted people on all sides to walk away after watching and say, ‘Gee, I never thought of issues of race in that way.’”
Bettag says that the series tried to avoid issues that were black and white in the sense of someone being totally right while someone else is completely wrong. The crew came to Bridesburg because the community was “like many places all around the country and was easy enough for anyone to identify with.”
“You could go down to the South or someplace where there is just outrageous, clear bigotry for no reason other than the person’s skin and you would not have proven anything,” Bettag explained. “In that sense, I think you could say Bridesburg was a fairly open-minded community and on the face of it you would not expect something like this [Bridget Ward situation] to be happening there, when it comes to open bigotry and conflict.”
Then-mayor Ed Rendell’s administration had already been involved with Ward. Kevin Vaughan, the executive director of Philadelphia’s Human Relations Commission under Rendell, met with her at her Bridesburg home and pledged unwavering support from the city. His mission was to get Ward to stay and hope that the neighborhood would start to accept integration. But he understood her fears.
“[The press and city officials] were all [there] at the same time,” Vaughan said. “She was afraid. She was terribly afraid. She didn’t know what to expect from the neighborhood, she got very little support from the [other] neighbors.”
Vaughan also tried to corral neighborhood organizations to intervene. “[Rendell] wanted to meet with the leadership of the neighborhood,” Vaughan said. But that was difficult as “there are not a lot of institutions… that you can call and get people together.”
What few organizations Bridesburg did have, like the recreation center and community center, had already been contacted by the long-time residents. These were the places where neighbors went and asked, ‘Why is this woman here?’ The head of the local Polish-speaking church even refused to meet the mayor, according to Vaughan.
Tony Radocaj, a Bridesburg civic leader at that time, explained why the community response might have seemed underwhelming.
“I think the whole thing with Bridget Ward was drummed up more than it should’ve been,” Radocaj explained. “I can’t say everyone, but most people tried to keep things [calm].”
In addition to that, a couple of the people involved with the civic association back then were against Ward moving in. “They stayed with the civic association for years. A couple of them fought at every meeting just about,” Radocaj said.
Vaughan pointed out one group that did step up.
“The nuns at the Catholic school were extraordinary,” he said. “They had an assembly where they called all the students down and they talked to the students about what had happened and why it was wrong and [instructed them] if they know anything they should talk to the police about it and [explained] that it’s not what their Catholic teaching [was about].”
But then the story blew up.
“In the midst of this, because it got so much press, it got crazy press, it got international press… ‘Nightline’ decides they’re gonna do a series on race in America,” Vaughan recalled.
Radocaj remembered too. “Then we got involved with Ted Koppel. And that was the beginning of the end of it,” he said. “Ted Koppel was a character. He didn’t need to do the show.”
Vaughan believes that timing played into how big the story got as well.
“Think of the timeframe of the entire incident,” he said. “You have a very heightened awareness of race in the country at that moment. You have O.J. Simpson on trial, which didn’t make anything better. You have a lot of people who are feeling pushed by the issues and not understanding what role they played or didn’t play.”
Those at “Nightline” felt as though the stories of race they were telling were exposing a more nuanced paradigm of America’s conversation on race relations — one that was more constructive and therefore necessary in the wake of all the “black and white” media coverage.
“Race is the Achilles’ heel of this country. It continues to reassert itself and hasn’t stopped in the 20 years that’s passed,” Bettag said. “You never get any piece of journalism exactly how you would like it, but we felt very good about what we put together because of the response we received.”
Merritt, Ward’s daughter, remembers the scene that was garnering all the attention outside of her house. She remembers being left feeling fearful, but with virtually no context at the age of four.
“Just arguing, screaming, shouting. And we couldn’t even stay in our house. I don’t even think we stayed there a month. It was just a lot of chaos and we had escorts taking us to and from school, me and my sister. [All] while my mom went to work, she was working at St. Joseph’s Hospital on Girard Ave., and we [were] going to school right on the other side of Torresdale [Ave.].”
On “Nightline”, Ward herself said, “When they was all hanging out in my door, saying, ‘N****r move,’ ‘N****r, move,’ they did not know me.”
Aside from threats of violence, Ward, who was 32-years-old at the time, also became fearful of her reputation being affected by the airing of the show. Vaughan remembers Ward calling him, upset about what would follow all the publicity and how she would have to defend herself.
So Vaughan called Koppel and asked for his assurance that nothing in this report would be derogatory about Ward and that she has nothing to worry about.
“He was very sympathetic to what was going on with her and was not there to portray her badly,” Vaughan said. According to Vaughan, Koppel stayed true to his word.
Radocaj pointed out limitations to the availability of residents for the broadcast.
“There weren’t enough black people or brown people or other people to come on [and speak on the Bridesburg episode],” Radocaj said. “The people that we had that night there were a couple who were without question bigots and other people who tried to make things good and the people didn’t like it.”
“Nightline” opened the segment with clips of interviews to set the tone. Here’s a snippet from that portion of the program:
BRIGID WARD: I just didn’t believe that that actually, really, really, goes on
in Philadelphia still.
TED KOPPEL: [voice-over] Some of the neighbors didn’t like the graffiti at all. In fact, they’d come down to welcome Ms. Ward.
2nd BRIDESBURG RESIDENT: My mother raised nine of us. She said, ‘No matter what color or what nationality, if they’re good, they’re good. Everybody deserves a chance.’
3rd BRIDESBURG RESIDENT: I don’t think that they should discriminate against them ’cause they’re black, ’cause we’re all the same inside.
TED KOPPEL: [voice-over] Now, those sentiments were televised in Philadelphia, but most of the attention went to what some other neighbors had to say.
4th BRIDESBURG RESIDENT: It’s against the law, but if they get ’em out, that’s fine.
5th BRIDESBURG RESIDENT: I don’t want them living around here.
6th BRIDESBURG RESIDENT: You’re not wanted here.
WARD FAMILY MEMBER: Yes, we are.
6th BRIDESBURG RESIDENT: You’re not.
WARD FAMILY MEMBER: Yes, we are wanted here.
6th BRIDESBURG RESIDENT: We don’t want our daughters and our sons — bluebirds don’t mix with robins, you know what I’m saying?
7th BRIDESBURG RESIDENT: She should have known what was happening. She came here, she should have expected trouble. Nobody wants mixed people… in their neighborhood.
TED KOPPEL: [voice-over] That’s what frightens a lot of people in Bridesburg, that what happened to other, once white working-class neighborhoods of Philadelphia could happen to theirs.
9th BRIDESBURG RESIDENT: And there’s a stigma attached to the fact of, you know, when a person of color, of any color, moves into a predominantly other color neighborhood. People generally get upset, they’re afraid of property values dropping and things like that, and, you know, it’s just — it’s not gonna work.
According to Bettag, the program’s producer, residents’ feelings that minorities could take over their neighborhood were partly at the heart of the Bridesburg story, along with most other stories in the “Black and White in America” series. Section 8 housing, which Ward’s family lived in at the time, was seen by a sizable number of people in Bridesburg as a means to bring about that supposed minority takeover.
“20 years ago that was a fairly widely held belief (as soon as you let one in they all come in),” Bettag said. “People were talking about this and how they saw it relating to real estate values, that was part of the grey of the story. These people were not necessarily saying, ‘I just hate black people.’ They were saying, ‘I really am honestly afraid of what is going to happen to my real estate values,’ which I think they were genuinely concerned with.”
“There were some people who didn’t like the blacks and some people who didn’t like the Section 8,” Radocaj said. “At that time there were only two houses that were Section 8 and that was one of them.”
Vaughan explained the issue with people’s perception of Section 8.
“The mentality was: It’s a villain … it was moving poor people into neighborhoods where people had worked to get what they had,” Vaughan said. “[Housing vouchers] are a responsibility for everybody, for the people moving in, for the landlord. Each landlord handles it differently. Some take it as a payday. Others take it as a responsibility. I think Bridget Ward wanted responsibility. To be demonized two seconds after you moved into your house …” Vaughan trailed off, just shaking his head.
Bridget Ward never bought the Section 8 story, though. She told Koppel that the neighbors “never gave me a chance. They never gave me a chance. They put them slurs right in front of me the day of. As the weeks went by, yeah, they done pulled out different things to say this is the reason why. This was not the reason why.”
So Ward took her daughters and moved.
“The mayor gave them the new home, so to speak, and they moved out,” Radocaj said. “And that was [the] wrong [thing to do]. They should have stayed in the neighborhood and it would’ve worked out.”
Vaughan believes moving out was the right call for Ward and her family, but a complicated one.
“When she decided that she wanted to leave it was… for her it was the right decision, I don’t know if it was right for the city,” he said. “It would have been hard for the city to sustain [the resources to keep her safe], but it really hardened people into points of view that … well, the Confederate flags.”
Merritt remembers her mom explaining the move.
“She was working and that’s where she wanted to be at because we needed a place for her kids to be at the time. But they wasn’t allowing that because everyone around there all knew each other for a long time and they was stuck in their old ways,” she recalled. “We moved toward Spring Garden.”
The family moved around Philly and then out of state until Ward passed. Merritt said she has never experienced racism to that level since then. “No, nothing like there,” she said.
That was 20 years ago. Seeing as how Anderson Cooper isn’t snooping around the area today, perhaps it’s safe to say that Bridesburg is better. But is it?
“For what it’s worth, is it as bad as it was? No, I don’t think so,” Radocaj said. “But is it as good as it can get? No, it’s still not good. I mean, there’s a lot of things that still go on in the neighborhood.”
We reached out to several current civic and business leaders in Bridesburg. Harry Enggasser, leader of Bridesburg Civic Association, declined to comment for this story, indicating that he didn’t want to discuss race relations due to the country’s current political climate.
Bridget Ward and her family weren’t the only African Americans in Bridesburg then and there are a few now. According to Census data compiled by BillyPenn.com, of the 6,465 people living in Bridesburg, only four are African American. Data was culled by matching census tracts with the most commonly associated borders of the neighborhood.
So Spirit News sought out African Americans currently living in the neighborhood to ask them what it’s like being black in Bridesburg. A few were understandably reluctant to speak. It’s lonely being less than one in a thousand.
One African-American resident, Steven McLaughlin, was happy to speak. He lives with his white fiancee, Kimberly Roberts. Jenna Bean, an African-American woman who doesn’t live in Bridesburg but frequents the neighborhood to visit friends, also shared some of her experiences.
McLaughlin is a martial arts instructor in Northeast Philly. He describes a mostly peaceful situation in his neighborhood, but acknowledges that many neighbors know that he is accomplished in martial arts.
“It’s more about dirty looks [overall],” McLaughlin said. But on his block, “[It] is mostly smiles. I feel welcome there.”
Smiling is what he does to confront the dirty looks. “I just smile at them,” taking advice from a martial arts mentor. “It’s better to beat them with kindness,” he said. “But more people are on my side.” McLaughlin put the number at about one out of three people who have issues with people of color.
A lot of what McLaughlin experiences are what he describes as “bad vibes.” “One time I forgot something in my car,” he said. During his trip down the block a white neighbor ran up to him. “He said, ‘Oh, I thought you were breaking into my car.’” The man just stood there and stared at McLaughlin. “Something told me to just let it go,” he said.
Other, more frequent incidents are more subtle. At a convenience store on Richmond Street a friendly cashier chats everybody up. But when McLaughlin checks out, the cashier clams up. McLaughlin asked observers, including his fiancee, to see if it was just his imagination. But they agreed with him.
McLaughlin and Roberts have both been on the various Bridesburg-associated Facebook groups. They say that they’ve both been deleted from many of those groups too and usually after a conversation regarding racism. Sometimes they’re not deleted, but then the group goes quiet and someone starts a new Facebook group.
“It’s a small group of individuals. Sometimes the leaders [are] racist,” Roberts said.
Roberts was more than candid regarding the treatment of her fiance and even her family for “bringing them around here.” She moved into Bridesburg from Kensington as a child. “I was a minority [in her part of Kensington],” she said. “From the first day [of moving to Bridesburg] we were just like, ‘What did we get ourselves into?’”
Even before the racism she said it was “weird.”
“We got a knock on the door and we thought it was a welcome-to-the-neighborhood thing, but no, it was a man who pointed to a line on the sidewalk [that he made] and he said, ‘You see that line right there? You don’t cross that line when you park your car.’”
But by the time she turned 11 she learned firsthand what hides in Bridesburg. She joined a church group in the neighborhood that drew in people from surrounding areas. While walking on the streets with some of the African-American members of the group she would be jeered with “‘n****r lover,’ ‘you like n*****s,’ just because I was walking down the street,” she said. Again, she was 11. “You wouldn’t understand until you lived [here].”
After a couple years she was walking in her neighborhood near the park with a white female friend and two black males. Two white guys approached them.
“‘Yo, we’re throwing a party,’” they said, according to Roberts. “And we’re like, ‘Where’s it at?’ … and they’re like, ‘You have to leave your n*****s at home, though. They use the word so freely like it’s just acceptable.”
Roberts decided hanging out elsewhere was the best policy.
Unlike Roberts, Jenna Bean — a black woman who grew up in New York City as an “army brat” of a military father and an Antiguan immigrant mother — came to Bridesburg by choice. One of the friends she had met at school lived there.
According to Bean, she de facto “lived in Bridesburg” in 2005 and 2006 while working as a student teacher and going to school at Temple University.
“I was there Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday consistently every week if not almost every week,” Bean said. “One of my best friends (a white woman) was born and raised there and it’s where she lives now.”
Bean would often stay over her friend’s house after nights out at different bars and restaurants in the area. She says it was “just natural” for her to be there, given that they both worked and went to school together and were becoming best friends. Bean would frequent the neighborhood even more in the summer when both her and her growing group of friends in the ‘Burg would enjoy time off together.
Throughout her extensive time in the area, Bean says that she has run into very few problems with regard to her race. “Everyone has pretty much been welcoming and nice and I kind of keep to myself,” Bean said. “So really as long as you are not causing any trouble you are fine.”
When she first started spending time in Bridesburg, Bean was unaware of the history regarding race-based issues in the community. “The first time I got into an encounter in the neighborhood, that was unpleasant. I had already been hanging out in the neighborhood for a few years,” Bean said.
She believes she was unaware of issues in the community involving race partly because of how young she was at the time. The fact that she was hanging out with white, mostly female Bridesburg residents also shielded her from potential run-ins.
“There is one place in Bridesburg, though, that I just don’t go [to] and it’s that bad,” Bean said. “One night, we were there for a benefit going on in the upstairs portion of the place, then we wanted to go downstairs after it was over. Once we got down there the people [working at the bar] would not even speak to me, they only spoke to my friend [who was white].”
Bean continued: “So my friend did not really even say much to me about it until we had already left and were at another place. She indicated to me that we could not stay there and that it was because of my race.”
Bean stresses that during her now countless times in Bridesburg, situations like the one she described “do not occur often.”
“When things like that happen it usually does catch me by surprise,” Bean said. “But I just look at it as some people are always going to be that way and that’s their loss. I think I’m a pretty awesome person and if you don’t want to meet me… then screw you.”
Bean at one point described another outlying experience in Bridesburg, her first overtly physical encounter with a racist in the community.
“A guy bodychecked me hockey-style in a bar, and he told me (straight up) it was because of my race,” Bean said. “But one of my friends was the bouncer there, so he got him. My friend was white just like everyone else here. It’s really just me so all my friends pretty much look out for me.”
Bean’s other black friends who have never been to Bridesburg — but know about its history — look at her with bewilderment when she explains to them how much she frequents the ‘Burg. “Some of my black friends don’t even really give a reason. Others say, ‘Well, they don’t like black people there.’ For me, though, growing up as an ‘army brat’ you learn to be around a lot of people that aren’t necessarily like you. Also having a mother that’s not from America helped… [those life experiences] instilled the same kind of values in me. So for me I don’t find it difficult to assimilate.”
That said, Bean can fully understand why other black people might find the situation in Bridesburg intimidating. “Any time you go someplace where you don’t know the people and don’t know the neighborhood, it’s intimidating,” Bean explained. “At least for me it is, and I’ll try anything once, but if it does not go well after the first time, then,” she trailed off in a lighthearted tone.
But what kind of community accepts physical altercations due to a person’s race? According to Radocaj, Bridesburg is “a lot more balanced, but a lot of… a lot more of… we’ll call them flags out there where people have set up their, I guess, southern flags if one would like to call them that.” He’s referring to the Confederate flags.
Radocaj elaborated: “I can only say that I know there’s a lot of flags that aren’t shown. But yet, there are people that put them up and keep them up. The younger people have made some [transformation] where they’re willing to accept [people of color], the middle-aged people are not willing to accept and the older people don’t give a shit. That’s really what it comes down to. That’s not all the middle-aged people, but it’s where the problem lies.”
Warren is one of the Confederate flag flyers. He’s in his late 40s.
[Editor’s note: We reached out to several folks who have Confederate flags flying on their property. Only one of them got back to us and was willing to explain himself. While he’ll engage any challenger to his flag, he refused to go on the record with his last name in the paper for fear of retribution against his family. He does have young children in his house. At first we decided not to print his words. But then we acquiesced because it’s rare to hear this perspective and, more importantly, because it actually substantiates what Mr. McLaughlin, Ms. Roberts and Ms. Bean claim.]
“The Confederate flag is not racist,” Warren said. “The ones that think it’s racist are the ones with an ‘edge-a-muh-cation,’ not an education.”
He continued: “The stars represent the 13 colonies down South. The X means … we didn’t want to be part of your union. It doesn’t mean anything about race.”
Warren was not around when Bridget Ward was run out of town. He claims he wouldn’t have run her out, saying, “I don’t get into that burning people out [stuff]. If a black family moved next to me I wouldn’t hold it against them. It’s not their fault.”
But he seems to understand why others do. “When you see neighborhoods transform you know why,” he said. “You don’t want blacks living next door to you because you know what happens. Now the working-class blacks, that’s a different story. Not all blacks are bad. About 60 percent of your blacks are bad, 40 percent are good. They don’t care what the neighborhood becomes because it’s more better for them to sell their drugs.”
While flying the Confederate flag is a non-personal way of saying, “You’re not welcome here,” Kim Roberts, McLaughlin’s fiancee, recounted some very up close and personal encounters she’s seen between Bridesburg residents and people of color.
Roberts’ sister was starting her family and decided to buy a house in Bridesburg. Unfortunately she asked Roberts’ boyfriend at the time, a black man, for help moving furniture in. This brought out the local unregulated militia.
“She got a note a few days later that said, ‘We don’t accept blacks here.’ A note! A note!” Roberts exclaimed. “She called the police and showed them.” According to Roberts, the note wasn’t traceable.
Her sister was in a relationship with a white man and since Roberts’ boyfriend didn’t come back around after the move-in, things stayed cool. But eventually, Roberts started to visit her sister with the same boyfriend who had attracted the negative attention.
The harassment started again. A couple of years later, when Robert’s sister came home with her first child, who is white, some residents threw stuff, including beer bottles, on her porch and told her, “We thought you were fuckin’ that n****r,” according to Roberts. “My sister kept calling the cops, but she eventually abandoned the home and moved back with her parents.”
In the meantime, to try to keep up with the mortgage, they rented the home to a family friend, who was Hispanic. As he moved his stuff in some neighbors surrounded him and yelled, “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“Within a month, the man called my brother-in-law and said, ‘I can’t get out of the house.’ They superglued every door shut,” Roberts explained.
The Hispanic tenant had to break out of his rented house through a window. He went about trying to gain access back through the front door and saw that the patio furniture was stolen. All of the wires and cables on the side of the house were severed. The neighbors then called the cops and reported him for attempted burglary.
The man moved out immediately. Roberts’ sister gave the house up to the bank, taking a huge hit to her financial credit in the process.
The racists who Roberts attributes those actions to moved off that street, but stayed in the neighborhood.
“They want Bridesburg as white as possible to stay in their comfort zone,” McLaughlin said. The racists win because “people don’t want drama, so they leave.”
McLaughlin sees some of the same age-differences that Radocaj noted too. “Younger kids don’t see color,” he said. “People closer to [their mid-to-late 20s] are cool. It’s people in their 40s, 50s that are the problem.” Roberts agreed.
Sometimes, though, those same people are parents of youngsters and they keep their kids away from people of color. “It sucks. You’re limiting your child,” McLaughlin said.
According to Vaughan, a major limiting factor that has continuously affected Bridesburg’s community integration has been how much of a “pretty insular place” it’s always been. “You have to go out of your way to get into or out of Bridesburg. It’s almost like a West Virginia hamlet where there’s a road in and the same road out.”
“You have a strong language-identified community. So there’s a church… a Catholic church where the Polish language was the only language spoken,” Vaughan explained. “And there was an English-language Catholic church for those people who weren’t Polish. So there was like, even among the people who were white there were ethnic splits. Very, very strong ethnic splits.” Since the beginning of its construction in 1967, Interstate I-95 has remained a physical and geographical barrier between Bridesburg and other communities along the Delaware riverfront.
Caroline Reid, a professor of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design, has spent most of her adult life as a researcher of public housing issues, recently working on the Dodd Frank Act implementation.
Some of Reid’s studies also focus on the areas of housing and community development. She recently had a chance to discuss with Spirit News the challenges large infrastructure projects present to communities in terms of integration, amongst other issues.
“Generally speaking, we have historically segregated and isolated neighborhoods through our urban policy. So things like freeway construction have definitely cut off vibrant areas in the past,” Reid said.
“The policies in the 1950s and 60s, which simultaneously built big freeways and highways out to suburban locales, allowed access to new neighborhoods for some families… but have also shaped the landscape so that we have these isolated pockets of various communities. Re-knitting those (communities) back into the urban fabric is one of the goals of community development.”
Local historian Kenneth Milano believes that Bridesburg is one of those “pockets” more secluded than the other communities in the Riverwards.
“It’s surrounded on four sides. You have the manufacturing plan on the north-end, which you can’t get around because it’s a dead end. On the east-side you have the river and nobody’s coming to shore there unless you are in a boat,” Milano explained. “On the southern-end you have the bridge which is sort of an obstacle and then I-95 on the other side pretty much blocks everything.”
Milano also notes that there is no real reason to go into Bridesburg, “unless you are doing business there or living there.” People don’t typically travel through the neighborhood to get to other places, precisely because it is so blocked off.
Milano added: “I still get a kind of village feeling when I go there.”
Eric Wray was one of the video editors for “Nightline” during the “Black and White in America” series of reports. He is also black. While working on “Black and White in America” his main focus was on editing another story in the series, but he remembers the Bridesburg story well. He believes that issues involving community seclusion played a role in people’s perceptions of race in Bridesburg 20 years ago, and still affect the dialogue on race-relations in communities today.
“News about race is a bummer for most people, especially for white people,” Wray said. “And really African Americans feel like that if race is not discussed as an issue, then we lose, because race (as in the case of Bridget Ward) is always part of issues we (blacks) have to deal with. But for white America there is almost no satisfaction or value in talking about race, because it just brings up guilt, and pointing fingers.”
Would a Bridget Ward be able to move in today?
Kim Roberts and Steven McLaughlin both sighed and looked at each other.
“I think it’s block-by-block,” Roberts said. “Some blocks, like ours, are fine but others… no, just no.”
McLaughlin nodded in agreement and restated that “his block is all smiles.”
Vaughan remains pessimistic.
“I don’t know about there,” he said, with wide eyes and a little sneer. “There are other neighborhoods where [Ward] would be very, very welcome. I’m not sure about Bridesburg.”
Radocaj is cautiously optimistic.
“I can’t say enough about how good the neighborhood is. But there’s still those people who were a part of it who were against black people,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that still have that feeling that isn’t right. But you can’t move ‘em. They’re still in Bridesburg and a problem and will be forever. [It] doesn’t seem to be the same group [responsible for the acts in 1996]. I mean, you can say a lot and you can’t. I don’t want to put people down but it’s the way it is.”
Ward’s daughter doesn’t consider the idea.
“I’ve never been back,” Merritt said, who was recently living in nearby Frankford. “I’ve heard there’s still a lot of racism. Once you get on the other side of Aramingo. If you talk to regular people they call it ‘the other side.’ Why would I walk over there? I wouldn’t consider it for a place to live.”
Maybe she’s right.
“I got 15 of them flags,” Warren said. “So when that flag starts to get oxidized, and can’t be red, I’ll put another one up.”
The future for the recently engaged Roberts and McLaughlin is clear.
“I won’t raise my kids there,” Roberts said. “How could I expose them to that?” •