The Lombard Street riot, one of the Abolition riots, was a three-day race riot in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1842. The riot was the last in a 13-year period marked by frequent racial attacks in the city. It started on Lombard Street, between Fifth and Eighth streets.
This marker commemorates the 1842 eruption of the mounting tension between 19th-century South Philadelphia’s two largest minority groups: African Americans and Irish immigrants. On August 1, 1842, more than 1,000 blacks took part in a temperance parade to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the West Indies. They were attacked on Fourth Street by an Irish mob that beat many of the marchers and looted black homes in the area. The marchers retaliated in self-defense, further enraging the Irish mob. The rioting continued for three days.
African Americans and Irish immigrants lived in the same general vicinity and directly competed for the same unskilled jobs and housing. The Irish and free blacks clung to bottom rung of the economic ladder, and frequently clashed in their efforts to climb up. Both felt that their hard won, if meager, social and economic gains were constantly threatened and that their basic rights being eroded. The Irish were challenged by the Nativists’ religious and racial bigotry that influenced everything from politics to the temperance movement. Free blacks were never truly safe because of fugitive slave laws, and in 1838 Pennsylvania stripped free blacks of their right to vote. The strength and vitality of Philadelphia’s fast-growing free-black community generated fear, frustration and eventually violence on the part of the Irish immigrants.
During the riots of 1842, the mob burned down the Second African Presbyterian Church and Smith’s Hall on Lombard Street, which had been the site of abolition lectures since abolitionist hub Pennsylvania Hall was destroyed in the riots of 1838. The Irish rioters headed west toward the home of prominent and outspoken African American leader Robert Purvis at 9th and Lombard. Purvis sat on the steps of his home armed and ready. Ultimately, his home was spared from the inferno by the intervention of a Catholic priest. Purvis eventually relocated permanently to his rural Bucks County home.
Requests to the mayor and police for protection initially led to the arrest of several of the victims and none of the rioters. The mayor had credible evidence of a plan to burn several local churches, which he ignored. Eventually, as the rioting began to subside, the local militia was brought in to restore order. Afterward, the mayor refused to arrest most of those known to have led the riot. Of those arrested by the militia, most were found not guilty or otherwise released. The three or four who were convicted received only light sentences.
In March 2005, the Pennsylvania Historical and Cultural Commission approved a historical sign at Sixth and Lombard streets to mark the event. It reads:
Lombard Street Riot — Here on August 1, 1842 an angry mob of whites attacked a parade celebrating Jamaican Emancipation Day.
A riot ensued. African Americans were beaten and their homes looted.
The rioting lasted for 3 days. A local church and abolition meeting place were destroyed by fire.
The marker was the result of work by a class of Philadelphia students challenged by their rookie history teacher to research a race riot in the city and argue for its significance. After researching the riot, the students decided that the event was an aspect of a significant part of the city’s history that is often ignored. Petitioning for the marker was their way of highlighting the racial intolerance often left out of versions of city history presented to tourists.
The marker stands at Philadelphia’s first public recreation facility, Starr Garden, which is a popular playground.