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Project Type
UTRC Faculty Development Mini-grants
Project Dates
01/01/2008 - 12/31/2008
Principal Investigators
Project Status
Project Description

Discussing Philadelphia’s streetcar system with the city council in 1859, Mayor Alexander Henry proclaimed that, “Perhaps no public improvement has ever promised more general benefit to the community.” But Mayor Henry did not consider Philadelphia’s black residents when he made this statement. Since the city’s railway companies barred black people from traveling in the streetcars, the “general benefit” created by streetcars was for the city’s white residents.

For many of the people watching Philadelphia industrialize in the mid-nineteenth century, the streetcar system represented more than simply a public improvement, it was a symbol of the city’s progress. These horse drawn cars that smoothly traveled along iron rails laid down the middle of Philadelphia’s streets helped fashion Philadelphia’s new identity as a modern industrial city. Being industrial meant creating a built environment that appeared to be part of a modern, technical, and forward-looking culture. Philadelphia’s emergence as a progressive industrial city coincided with a reorganization of race relations in the city. A large population of free African Americans, and an increasing number of Irish immigrants attempted to use industrial changes in Philadelphia, such as the development of the streetcar system, as a way to improve their social status.

The streetcar system became a focal point in this reorganization of race relations when whites tried to define the new transportation system as a symbol of racial superiority and excluded black people from riding in the cars. Irish immigrants, who often worked as conductors, vigilantly enforced the exclusion of Black riders as a way of aligning themselves with native born whites. African Americans recognized that to be participants in modern industrial society they needed equal access to industrial technologies like the streetcar. Black residents of Philadelphia protested this racializing of the streetcar and the discriminatory practices of streetcar companies by illegally riding in the cars, creating a public dialogue about the legitimacy of racial discrimination, and using the courts to confront policies that legalized racial inequality on the streetcars. Between 1859 and 1867 these struggles against the railway companies gradually made headway. Finally, in response to these protests, the state of Pennsylvania passed a law that forced the street railway companies to accept all passengers.

This paper will make two scholarly contributions. First, this paper will connect race and technology. Historians of technology have only rarely thought about technology in terms of race. Almost none of the histories of race and technology consider the racial meanings of technology. This paper will explicitly link race and technology by showing how black, white, and Irish groups struggled over the racial significance of the streetcar as a way of creating new hierarchies in the mid-nineteenth century. Second, this paper will explain that when cities undergo technological transformations, as Philadelphia did in the nineteenth century when it industrialized, groups of people have opportunities to reinvent their identities via new technologies and reposition themselves socially. This point is germane not only to nineteenth-century Philadelphia, but also to many US cities today that are shedding identities as industrial cities and reinventing themselves as service oriented cities. Planners and engineers currently reshaping urban geographies across the US need to consider that the technologies they employ will have social implications beyond the obvious practical uses of the technology.