Timeline: Columbia Avenue Riots


October 29: Looting and violence erupt along Susquehanna Avenue’s retail district after police shoot and kill twenty-four year-old Willie Philyaw.  While police contend Philyaw attacked an officer with a knife, witnesses say he was hobbling away from police on an injured leg.  For North Philadelphia residents, the incident speaks to the unnecessary police force used against them in the black ghetto. 

November: After filling out the remainder of Richardson Dilworth’s term, James H.J. Tate is elected to a full term as Mayor of Philadelphia.  The support that Tate receives from black voters is key to his victory and leads Philadelphia NAACP President Cecil B. Moore to suggest African Americans should be awarded several posts in the new administration.

November 22: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas.  The assassination shocks the nation and undermines the civil rights movement’s faith in democratic progress and opportunity.


June: Mayor Tate issues an order requiring that all citizen complaints against police be forwarded to the Police Advisory Board, the citizen review board established in 1958.  That same month, Police Commissioner Howard Leary approves Cecil B. Moore's proposal to place black NAACP lawyers in neighborhood police precincts in hopes of improving the treatment of suspects and relations between residents and police.  

July 2: President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.  The Act bans discrimination based on “race, color, religion, or national origin” in employment practices and public accommodations.

July 18: Riots erupt in Harlem after an African-American teenager is shot and killed by an off-duty police officer.

August 24: The Democratic National Convention opens in Atlantic City, NJ and renominates President Lyndon Johnson by acclamation.  Controversy erupts when the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party petitions to be seated in lieu of the delegates from the Mississippi Democratic Party after black voters were allegedly disenfranchised during the delegate selection process.  A compromise advanced by Vice President Hubert Humphrey and civil rights leaders Roy Wilkins and Bayard Rustin is struck down, leaving many civil rights activists disillusioned by the convention’s outcome.

9:35 P.M. (Friday, August 28): Patrolmen Robert Wells and John Hoff respond to a domestic dispute at the corner of 22nd Street and Columbia Avenue.  The commotion attracts a crowd, which subsequently attacks the police with bricks and other debris.  Twenty-five additional officers arrive to help disperse the crowd, which has broken the windows of a police car and several other vehicles. 

11:00 P.M. (Friday, August 28): At the corner of 23rd Street and Columbia Avenue, Raymond Hall, a resident known for his militant racial views, spreads the false rumor that a white policeman has beaten and killed a black pregnant woman.  A crowd gathers and throws bricks and bottles at police before moving down Columbia Avenue towards 21st Street looting stores.

12:00 A.M. (Saturday, August 29): Six hundred police officers arrive on the scene, but largely allow looting to continue.  Under Police Commissioner Howard Leary’s riot control plan, police focus on containment and avoiding casualties, even at the expense of property damage.

2:30 A.M. (Saturday, August 29): Looting spreads to 15th Street and Columbia Avenue, as well as Ridge Avenue between Norris and Jefferson Streets.  Prominent civil rights leaders, including Raymond Pace Alexander, Georgie Woods, and Stanley Branche, appeal to rioters to disperse, but are rebuffed.

3:45 A.M. (Saturday, August 29): Philadelphia NAACP President Cecil B. Moore arrives from the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.  His appeals to the rioters also go unheeded, as looting continues until daybreak.

11:00 A.M. (Saturday, August 29): The Commission on Human Relations convenes a meeting of community leaders and civil rights activists at Emanuel Baptist Church on 22nd Street.  PCHR chairwoman Sadie T.M. Alexander calls on Mayor Tate to enforce law and order and volunteers 5,000 black leaders to be deputized to support police. 

12:00 P.M. (Saturday, August 29): Mayor James H.J. Tate invokes an 1850 state law to place a curfew on the roughly 410-square-block area bounded by Poplar Street to the south, Lehigh Avenue to the north, 10th Street to the east, and 33rd Street to the west.  All bars and state liquor stores are closed and anyone violating the curfew faces immediate arrest.

9:00 P.M. (Saturday, August 29): After nightfall, looting begins again down Columbia and Ridge Avenues; a police force of approximately 1,800 officers struggle to respond to reports of violence and looting.

Sunday, August 30: Looting and rioting flare up sporadically, particularly after nightfall, but never again reach the level of disorder of the past two days.  All told, the riots on Columbia Avenue leave two dead, 339 wounded, and 308 under arrest for burglary, breach of the peace, and other charges. 

August 31: Citing the spate of recent riots in Northern cities like New York and Jersey City, NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins asks the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether the riots in North Philadelphia were planned. 

September 14: The Jewish Community Relations Council co-sponsors a unity rally for North Philadelphia residents and businesspeople at the Emanuel Temple Baptist Church.  The stated purpose is “to demonstrate that North Philadelphia is a community in which Negro and white residents have been friendly neighbors for years and that the unfortunate disorders of the weekend of August 28 will not be permitted to spoil the good name and record of North Philadelphia for good interracial and inter-religious relations.”

November 10: Shayk Muhammad Hassan, one of three individuals charged with inciting the riots in North Philadelphia, is found guilty of riot, inciting to riot, and conspiracy.  Hassan, who argued that he was attempting to help calm the crowd, is later sentenced to eighteen months in prison.


February 6: Cecil B. Moore is re-elected President of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP.  Moore sees his re-election as a mandate to make the desegregation of Girard College a top policy priority.

May 1: Led by the local NAACP, picketing begins outside Girard College.  Protests against the school’s segregationist admissions policy continue for the next seven months.

May 13: The last defendant charged with participating in the Columbia Avenue riots is tried and sentenced.

August 11: Following a minor police incident, race riots erupt in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.  Looting, vandalism, and clashes between residents and police stretch over six days; the riots are largely seen as a reaction to the record of police brutality and racial injustices suffered by African Americans in the city.

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