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50 Years Ago, False Rumor Ignites Chaos, Destruction In North Philly

By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the Columbia Avenue riots.

Sparked by rumors that a white cop had beaten a black pregnant woman to death, chaos and destruction gripped North Central Philadelphia along race lines for several days.

"Sometimes when people want to fight, they will find the least little thing to set them off," says Evelyn Gray, who has lived in North Philadelphia for 60 years.

Evelyn Gray
Evelyn Gray (Credit: cherri Gregg)

She was 25-years-old when the riots took place and remembers the frustration leading up to the chaos. Columbia Ave -- now known as Cecil B. Moore Ave -- was the heart and soul of the city's Black culture at the time, but was rife with poverty as tension between police and the Black community mounted.

"People were just fed up with the way that we were being treated," she says. "Officers were nasty and no matter how respectful you were to them, they had to show you their authority."

So a false rumor helped light the fire of rage in the Black community, and it burned for three days.

"This guy told us this white cop has hit this pregnant girl and they just started going off," she says. "They were throwing rocks, trying to burn the place was horrible."

"I was just amazed at the type of damage that occurred," says Michael Chitwood, Upper Darby Police superintendent. He was a rookie cop at the time when he worked the riots along with hundreds of officers.

"There were Molotov cocktails, there were rocks, there were bricks," he says. "The order was to stop the rioting, stop the looting, arrest anybody who did any type of criminal activity, and to stay safe."

Hundreds of businesses, owned by Blacks and Whites alike, were damaged. And in the years that followed, those who could afford to leave packed up and left. Columbia Ave -- once known as "Jump Street" -- didn't jump anymore. The heart of the Black community ripped out.

Fifty years later, the void is still visible.

"I can't believe there are still signs of that night -- vacant buildings, the devastation," says Chitwood. "It's a shame the place was never built up to where it was -- I mean, there's Temple University, but they are not part of the Cecil B. Moore area."

But Ken Scott, president of Beech Companies, says they've help leverage a billion dollars in investment dollars in the area devastated by the riots, building more than 1,000 units of affordable housing and thousands of square feet in commercial space.

"This was all burnt out and vacant," says Scott, as he pointed to property all along Cecil B. Moore Avenue and for blocks North of the area.

columbia 1
New development at 20th and Oxford. (Credit: Cherri Gregg)

"The land here in North couldn't even give it away," he says, noting the perception is changing. "We've rebuilt the library....we've rebuilt even the fire department. There are homes with garages, and it's a clean walkable area."

But there are also problems. Temple University has a major footprint in North Philadelphia, but off-campus crime and poverty are still major issues. Scott is not swayed from his vision -- their organization has been working for 25 years and says they are turning a corner.

"It didn't fall apart overnight and it doesn't get rebuilt overnight," he says. "But North Philadelphia is getting better...and it's getting better for the people that live here...we want them to stay in the neighborhood."

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