Pennsylvania Antisemitism and Antidiscrimination

Pennsylvania Antisemitism
People pay their respects at a memorial to the victims of a mass shooting in front of the Tree of Life - Or L'Simcha Congregation in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 4, 2018.


Jews and African-Americans came to Pennsylvania in the 1600s, Jews as immigrants and African-Americans as slaves. Pennsylvania antisemitism soon rose.

There is a long history of discrimination against African-Americans, Jews, Catholics and other groups in the state. Laws were enacted by the General Assembly to make various forms of discrimination illegal. Government and non-government organizations work together to reduce civil tension and discrimination in Pennsylvania.

Tree of Life – Or L'Simcha synagogue facade
Pennsylvania antisemitism – People pay their respects at a memorial to the victims of a mass shooting in front of the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 4, 2018.

daveynin from United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Students will learn that:

1. Pennsylvania has laws, regulations, and programs to minimize unfair discrimination.

2. There are government and non-government institutions in Pennsylvania which citizens can turn to when they feel they have been the victims of discrimination.

3. That enforcement of antidiscrimination laws results from education of both law enforcement officials and the public, and that laws on the books are only the first step in promoting antidiscrimination concerns.


Pennsylvania Antisemitism

Jewish Origins in Pennsylvania

Although there is no formal record of when Jews first settled in Pennsylvania, it is generally believed that the first Jews settled in what became Pennsylvania before the landing of William Penn. These Jews were the descendants of those Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492.

The earliest documented evidence of a Jew living in Philadelphia is a 1703 ledger entry by William Trent, one of the leading merchants of the city, of an account with Jonas Aaron or Jonas Aarons, a Jew. The source of this historical note is Edwin Wolf II’s and Maxwell Whiteman’s History of the Jews in Philadelphia.

An Act of the General Assembly was passed in 1726 permitting Jews to be landholders and engage in business. The first Jewish congregation, Mikveh Israel, was established in 1740, and the first synagogue was built in 1782. Prominent Jewish businessmen from Philadelphia were among the signers protesting the Stamp Act, and a Polish Jew, Haym Solomon, helped finance the Revolutionary War.

There were Jewish residents in Easton, Allentown, Reading, York and Lancaster before 1776.

African-American Origins in Pennsylvania

Slavery in the United States was begun in 1619 when Virginia settlers purchased 20 African-Americans from a Dutch trader. Most of the colonies in the New World sanctioned slavery. By 1639, there were slaves in Pennsylvania, chiefly in Philadelphia.

The first public protest in the New World against slavery occurred in Germantown (now a neighborhood of Philadelphia) at a Quaker meeting in 1688. In 1701, the first slaves were freed in Pennsylvania. In 1721, the Assembly of Pennsylvania levied a 20-pound head tax on imported slaves.

The tax was negated by the British Crown, which encouraged slavery. John Harris, for whom the state Capital is named, was a slave owner.

In 1780, The Pennsylvania Assembly approved the first law in America to abolish slavery. The law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, spurring Benjamin Rush to write “The slaves of the Southern States feel a pleasure when the name of Pennsylvania sounds in their ears.”

In the 1830s, violent attacks against African-Americans broke out in many large cities. On August 12, 1834, an African-American meeting house was torn down, and many African-Americans were beaten and their houses ransacked.

On July 12, 1835, a young African boy employed as a domestic to a former U.S. Consul to Trinidad murdered his employer. Crowds of angry townsfolk rioted and vented their hostilities by sacking and burning eight houses in “Red Row,” an African-American area of Philadelphia. Hundreds of African-American families moved out. Additional riots against African-Americans occurred in Philadelphia in 1842.

Beginning in 1831, annual conventions were held by Pennsylvania’s African-Americans to discuss political developments in their struggle for social justice.

Meeting in Philadelphia at Bethel Church, these conventions were the precursor of similar conventions following the Civil War. At the convention of 1848, African-American leaders suggested that the term “oppressed Americans” be used in place of “colored” to describe African-Americans.

The U. S. Congress enacted a bill to hire “persons of African descent” to assist the Union Army in its effort to win the Civil War. Eleven thousand African-American soldiers were hired and trained at Camp William Penn, a camp adjacent to Philadelphia reserved exclusively for military training of African-American soldiers.

Christiana Riot

In September 1851, a group of Maryland slaveholders accompanied by U.S. marshals travelled to Christiana, Pennsylvania, for the purpose of finding two fugitive slaves. A federal law passed the previous year permitted slaveowners to arrest runaway slaves. African-Americans in Christiana, including one of the fugitive slaves, grouped together and armed themselves.

In a confrontation between the African-Americans and the slaveowners, the slaveowner was shot to death. The fugitive slave was spirited off to Canada via the “underground railroad.” Thirty-eight African-Americans and whites of the town were arrested and charged with treason, but were acquitted. The U.S. Marines had to be called in to restore order.

A petition signed by more than 300 influential white Philadelphians was read at Liberty Hall in that city. Titled “Struggle for the Rights of the Colored People of Philadelphia in the City Railroad Cars,” the petition protested discrimination against African-Americans. The Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted an anti-discrimination law in 1867.

Voting Rights for African-Americans

Free African-Americans had been permitted to vote in Pennsylvania until 1836. However, there was significant opposition to allowing African-Americans the right to vote. In 1837, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court decided a case (Fogg v. Electors of Luzerne County) in which the request of a free African-American (Fogg) to vote was denied.

The Court ruled against Fogg. The following year, the disenfranchisement of African-Americans was written into the Third Pennsylvania Constitution (which superseded those of 1776 and 1790). Section 1 of Article III of this newly adopted State Constitution limited the right to vote to “every white freeman of the age of twenty-one years…”

Black leader Robert Purvis published “Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disenfranchisement to the People of Pennsylvania” in response.

It was not until 1870 that African-Americans in the United States gained the right to vote with the implementation of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads in part,

“The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Walker Lynching

On August 14, 1911, an African-American was the victim of mob violence in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. The victim, Zachariah Walker, had been accused of murdering a white manufacturing plant security guard. He tried to commit suicide when discovered, but was not mortally wounded.

Angry whites stormed the hospital where he was taken for treatment. Wearing masks, the crowd tied Walker up and set his body on fire. His charred bones were taken by the crowd for souvenirs. According to the account of this incident in Charles Blockson’s, “Pennsylvania’s Black History,” map-makers deleted the town of Coatesville from maps for many years because of the shame of this incident.

Anti-Catholic Riots

Philadelphia was shaken by anti-Catholic riots in May 1844. “Nativist” Protestants burned Catholic churches to the ground, and fomented violence which resulted in loss of life and many injuries. These Protestants felt threatened by the high birth rate of the new immigrants, and the potential loss of jobs to them.

While the first wave of immigrants to Philadelphia was predominantly from Ireland, later arrivals were from Eastern Europe who did not speak English.

The prejudice against these Catholics in mid-19th century Philadelphia paralleled the prejudice against other groups, such as Jews and African-Americans, who were perceived to be different.

Pennsylvania Constitution

The first Pennsylvania Constitution, which was completed on September 28, 1776, was exemplary in establishing religious freedom in the Commonwealth. Article Two read:

“That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding: And that no man ought or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry, contrary to, or against, his own free will and consent: Nor can any man, who acknowledges the being of God be justly deprived or abridged of any civil rights as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship: And that no authority can or ought to be vested in, or assumed by any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner control, the right of conscience in the free exercise of religious worship.”

Article Ten did require a restrictive oath by members of the unicameral legislative body, the house of representatives, which representatives had to declare before they took their seat:

“I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.”

There was no restrictive oath required for officers of the judicial, executive, or the military.

This restrictive oath was eliminated by the 1790 Constitution. Section 4 of Article Nine stated:


“That no person, who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments, shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this commonwealth. ”

The only oath required of the general assembly and commonwealth officers was that they


“support the constitution of the commonwealth, and to perform the duties of their respective offices with fidelity.” (Article Eight).

The provision was retained in the Constitution of 1838, 1874, and the current Constitution of 1968.

In colonial and early post-colonial Pennsylvania, Jews were well-treated. There was an occasional example of cemetery vandalism. Yet, Murray Friedman, in his book, Jewish Life in Philadelphia: 1830-1940, summarized the Jewish experience during this period as

“Here, although there were occasional overtures of intended hatreds, the Jew was basically a fellow American of a different religion.”

Pennsylvania Anti-Semitism

As a result of pogroms and economic chaos in Eastern Europe, the number of Jews in Pennsylvania skyrocketed. In Pennsylvania, a Jewish population of 12-15,000 mushroomed to 75,000 by the turn of the century and 200,000 by the end of World War I. Most of these immigrants were destitute.

The fact that those Jews who had been living in Philadelphia before the wave of immigration had been assimilated into society contributed to the fact that anti-Semitism against these new arrivals was diminished.

There was violence against immigrant Irish Catholics and African-Americans (see above), and these two groups clashed with each other. Each saw the other as a threat in the competition for scarce jobs.

It was not until 1900 that anti-Semitism became prevalent in Philadelphia. Jews who had been a part of the social and economic establishment for generations suddenly found themselves to be not welcome at summer resorts, hotels, social clubs, and certain neighborhoods. Jews were subject to quotas at medical and dental schools.

The response of the Jewish community leadership was to establish their own institutions, such as Jewish newspapers, schools, medical facilities, clubs, and so-called “defense” organizations.

The University of Pennsylvania fraternity system was segregated; there were 28 “A” non-Jewish fraternity houses and 12 “B” Jewish houses. Only one Jew was employed in a high executive capacity of a non-Jewish institution (Howard Loeb was President of the Tradesman’s National Bank).

Jews were excluded from many businesses and professions. A large percentage of applications for admission to the bar were from Russian-Jewish immigrants. Steps were taken to lower the percentage of those admitted.

Just prior to World War II, the blatant anti-Semitic national radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin were listened to in Pennsylvania. Coughlin charged that Communism was a Jewish plot, and that Jews were conspiring to control the capital markets for the purpose of taking over the world. This created tensions between the Catholic and Jewish community, which resulted in incidents of violence.

The threat of Nazi-inspired anti-Semitism motivated the founding of the Philadelphia Anti-Defamation Council (later to become the Jewish Community Relations Council) in January 1939. This organization joined forces with church and African-American groups to fight bigotry and prejudice, establishing the Fellowship Commission.

Modern History of Pennsylvania Anti-Discrimination Laws

Philadelphia Transit workers strike _ Workers of the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC) struck in August 1944, in response to a management directive upgrading the jobs of African-American workers. Five thousand troops were sent to Philadelphia to enforce order.

The quest for a Fair Employment Practices law became the top issue on the agenda of African-American and Jewish organizations in the mid-1940’s. Their efforts were joined in May 1948, by other religious advocacy organizations with the formation of a State Council for a Pennsylvania Fair Employment Practices Commission.

In May 1952, Governor John S. Fine created the Governor’s Industrial Race Relations Commission. The Commission launched a series of surveys to document discrimination in Pennsylvania employment.

The value of the Commission was weakened by charges that it had membership which supported “liberal” causes, and thus its credibility was challenged during a time in the United States when the public was hypersensitive about the “Red Menace” and those who had “leftist” sympathies. A press release by the Council in May 1953, specifically barred “Communist sympathizers” from attending its meetings in order to allay that concern.

Interest groups organized to oppose fair employment laws, which included the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, Chamber of Commerce, State Grange, and the Hotels Association. Governor George Leader signed into law the Pennsylvania Fair Employment Practices Act, ten years after a Fair Employment Practices bill was first introduced. The law prohibited employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, or age (applying to those age 40-62).

Shortly before the signing ceremony, a survey had found that 90% of Pennsylvania businesses engaged in some form of employment discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin. The Fair Employment Practices Commission began operation in March 1956.

In 1961, the law was amended to expand protection against discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and schools, including institutions of higher learning. The new law also changed the name of the Commission to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and the name of the Act to the “Human Relations Act.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the Commission had authority to order schools to draft and implement school desegregation plans in 1967.

In 1969, the Act was further amended to prohibit sex discrimination.

The law was amended in July 1968, to prohibit the firing of any public employee because that person is observing a religious holiday. The law was further amended the following year to cover housing and employment discrimination based on sex.

The Civil Tension Task Force was created in 1971 as a result of an executive order by Governor Shapp. The purpose of this group was to provide a coordinated state response to civil tension problems. Its name was changed to the Inter-Agency Task Force on Civil Tension. Today, membership includes:

  • PA Human Relations Commission
  • PA State Police
  • PA Office of the Attorney General
  • PA Department of Community Affairs
  • Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs
  • PA Department of Public Welfare
  • PA Department of Education
  • PA Chiefs of Police Association
  • Community Relations Service, U.S. Department of Justice
  • Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith
  • PA Heritage Affairs Commission
  • State System of Higher Education
  • Philadelphia Police Department
  • Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations

The Task Force monitors tension situations, and provides counselling and consulting services to Pennsylvania communities with racial and ethnic tension situations.

In 1972, the Human Relations Commission launched a program to determine the extent of discrimination against African-Americans in housing. African-American and white Commission staff posed as potential buyers and renters of housing. Discrimination was documented in 60% of these visits.

In a nationally significant case involving an African-American who later became the first African-American Speaker of the House of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that state law was violated when Harrisburg Moose Lodge 107, a private club, refused to serve an African-American guest of a member.

The United States Supreme Court upheld an order of the State Supreme Court which required the Chester Housing Authority to desegregate. This order acknowledged authority over de facto as well as de jure segregation.

In 1977, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission reached an out-of-court settlement which ended discrimination against the hiring of Jewish executives in the insurance industry.

In 1981, members of the Harrisburg Police Department were accused of wearing Ku Klux Klan emblems while on the job.

A 1982 amendment to the Human Relations Commission Act expanded protection against age discrimination to the age of 70.

Governor Richard Thornburgh signed into law legislation providing more serious punishment for crimes motivated by hatred against the race, color, religion, or national origin of a victim. This law, enacted in June 1982, is called the Ethnic Intimidation and Institutional Vandalism Act.

The punishment of crimes such as arson, criminal mischief, vandalism, harassment, and assault is increased one degree (e.g., a crime otherwise a third degree felony, if committed as a bias crime, would be elevated to a second degree felony).

The law also created the crime of institutional vandalism, which includes vandalism to a place of worship, school, community center, cemetery, or similar institution. Such a crime is a third degree felony if the damage exceeds $5,000, and otherwise is a first degree misdemeanor.

This law was further strengthened in 1988 by eliminating the $5,000 threshold for most incidents of institutional vandalism.

A 1986 law amending the Human Relations Act made “block-busting” illegal (see Chapter 2). The law also gave the Commission jurisdiction over discrimination involving the rental of commercial property.

Legislation was enacted by the General Assembly in 1986 to require that the Pennsylvania State Police receive training on ethnic intimidation laws and how to respond to ethnic and racial tension situations. The same year, the Governor signed into law a bill requiring the State Police to compile reports from local law enforcement authorities giving details about violations of the Ethnic Intimidation Act.

Pennsylvania Fair Educational Opportunities Act

The General Assembly enacted the “Pennsylvania Fair Educational Opportunities Act” in July 1961. The purpose of this Act is to eliminate discriminatory practices in educational institutions based upon race, religion, color, ancestry, national origin, and sex. It recognizes the right of members of various religions to establish and maintain educational institutions exclusively or primarily for students of their faith, but forbids discrimination in these institutions based upon race, color, ancestry, or national origin.

If the institution is neither state-owned, state-related, or state-aided, sex discrimination may be permitted for enrollment purposes. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission is empowered to enforce orders to eliminate discriminatory practices of these institutions.

Paramilitary Training Act

In the 1960s and 1970s, several racist and anti-Semitic hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan established secret military training camps in many states. The purpose of these camps was to instruct their members in the use of weapons, explosives, and guerilla warfare, as well as to serve as indoctrination centers. The alleged targets of this training were Jews, African-Americans, and other minorities.

The Anti-Defamation League drafted model legislation to impose criminal penalties on those who participated in these camp activities. The model law was drafted to exclude legitimate, legal activities from regulation, and to be constitutionally defensible.

The Pennsylvania bill was introduced on April 28, 1981 by Rep. Ivan Itkin, and was signed into law on June 11, 1982 by Governor Thornburgh.

Pennsylvania Heritage Affairs Commission

The Governor’s Heritage Affairs Advisory Commission was established in 1980 by executive order of Governor Thornburgh to open a channel of communications between the executive branch and state ethnic group leadership. The Governor, with the recommendation of this leadership, appointed commissioners to serve as representatives on the Commission.

The Commission’s duties include sponsoring events and projects of historical, cultural, and educational interest to Pennsylvania’s diverse ethnic communities, and to increase public awareness and knowledge about the contributions made by these communities. The Commission, by 1988, had been expanded to include twenty-seven ethnic leaders.

The Commission was restructured and expanded by Governor Robert P. Casey by executive order in 1988. Chaired by the Lt. Governor, the Commission, renamed the Pennsylvania Heritage Affairs Commission, now includes nine at-large commissioners, four commissioners appointed by each of the House Majority, House Minority, Senate Majority, and Senate Minority of the General Assembly, and “(N)ot less than 27 members, appointed by the Governor upon demonstrated support from ethnic community organizations.”


Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith _ a national organization founded in 1913 to fight discrimination and bigotry, particularly anti-Semitism.

civil tension _ potentially violent situation involving conflicts based on race.

creed _ a system of beliefs, religious or otherwise.

de facto discrimination _ discrimination which develops in a manner which wasn’t necessarily planned.

de jure discrimination _ intentional discrimination

discrimination _ to make a distinction in favor or against a member of one group or another, usually on the basis of prejudice.

enforcement _ the compelling of obedience to laws and regulations, usually through use of the criminal and civil justice system.

ethnic intimidation _ the committing of a crime against a person or group of persons motivated by hatred toward the race, religion, color, or national origin of that person or group.

felony _ particularly serious criminal violations, such as murder, arson, and armed robbery; graver than misdemeanors.

injunction _ a court order requiring that something be done or not done.

misdemeanors _ less serious criminal violations, compared to felonies such as simple assault, petty theft, and criminal mischief.

nativist _ favoring native inhabitants over immigrants.

paramilitary training _ non-government, military-related training, such as tactical maneuvers, weapons and explosives training, guerilla warfare exercises, for the purpose of creating civil tension or disorder, or for other illegal purposes.

public accommodations _ any place which is open to, accepts or solicits the patronage of the general public, such as hotels, restaurants, hospitals, and stores.

quota system _ a ceiling or floor on the number of persons of a particular group which will be included in a program.

segregation _ separation of one group (usually race or religion) from the rest of society.

subpoena _ a document issued by a court or legislative body requiring a witness to appear.

Underground Railroad _ A secret network devised by those opposed to slavery in the mid-19th century United States to assist fugitive slaves to reach freedom in the Northern U.S. and Canada.


  • Research local antidiscrimination laws and ordinances which apply to housing, employment, education, public accommodation, as well as any proposals to amend or repeal these laws/ ordinances.
  • Hold a mock debate of the Pennsylvania General Assembly (House or Senate) on legislation to expand the antidiscrimination protection of the Human Relations Commission Act or the Ethnic Intimidation Act to cover “physical handicaps.”
  • Invite a representative of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Civil Tension to explain the work of the Task Force.
  • Obtain the latest report from the Pennsylvania State Police on violations of the Ethnic Intimidation Act in Pennsylvania.
  • Research whether there were slaves in your community, and what efforts were made to free them or those of other communities.


  • Why did some business groups in Pennsylvania initially oppose fair employment laws?
  • What should be the role of government in requiring private clubs to accept African-Americans and other minorities as members? What about requiring private clubs which are exclusively male to accept women? If you own a house which you wish to sell, why shouldn’t you be able to decide who you want to sell it to without government interference?
  • How does “block-busting” work in practice? Why is this practice made illegal in Pennsylvania? Did it ever occur in your community? Why did “block-busting” work?
  • If assault is a crime, why should it be any different if the assault was motivated because of hatred against a person’s race or religion than if it was motivated because the person was a supporter of the “wrong” sports team, or just “obnoxious?”


1. Define the following:

    1. Nativist
    2. quota system
    3. segregation
    4. de facto discrimination
    5. subpoena
    6. injunction
    7. ethnic intimidation law
    8. public accommodations

2. How did African-Americans come to Pennsylvania in colonial times? What landmark law was passed in 1780 by the Pennsylvania General Assembly which affected the status of African-Americans?

3. What was the cause of the anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia during 1844?

4. Name five member organizations of the Civil Tension Task Force, and describe its purpose.

5. Describe three types of discrimination which are illegal in Pennsylvania as a result of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission Act.

6. Compare and contrast de facto segregation with de jure segregation.

7. What is the Pennsylvania Heritage Affairs Commission, and describe its purpose.

8. What was the “restrictive oath” in the first Pennsylvania Constitution, and what groups found it offensive?

9. Give two examples of anti-Semitism and two examples of racism in Pennsylvania history.

10. Give details concerning the Walker lynching and the Christiana riot.