Michael Matza, Kia Gregory, and John Duchneskie, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 2011
African descendants have called Philadelphia home for centuries, with the first U.S. Census, in 1790, listing 2,099 “free” blacks and 373 slaves.
Today, the city’s black population is 644,287, according to the latest census, and for the first time it clearly outnumbers all other racial or ethnic groups.
This evolution happened even though the number of African Americans in the city, excluding Hispanics, declined about 1,800 over the last decade and their share of the population remained about the same.
Key to the new black plurality: the continued steep decline in the city’s white population. In 2000, each group accounted for about 42 percent of city residents, but the white share is now 37 percent, after a loss of 82,000 people.
Meanwhile, an influx of Hispanics, Asians, and other groups–now 21 percent of the city’s 1.5 million people–boosted Philadelphia’s total for the first time in 50 years.
The black plurality coincides with another trend: More and more middle- and working-class African Americans are leaving the city for suburbia. Since 2000, the black population of the city’s Pennsylvania suburbs jumped 26 percent–by 47,000.
Migrating to the suburbs
Across Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties, the proportion of black residents grew in 176 of 238 municipalities, mirroring a national trend, though still fewer than 10 percent of Philadelphia-area suburbanites are black.
In the 1950s, said Norristown municipal administrator David Forrest, mortgages “were more available to whites than blacks,” leading to “primarily white suburbanization.”
Black upward mobility and more available credit, particularly in the last decade, he said, spurred movement to inner-ring suburbs, especially in southeastern Delaware County, where better schools, lower housing density, and public transportation lured people from Southwest Philadelphia, including large numbers of African immigrants.