The Father: Isadore Martin Sr.

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In 1922 The Crisis included photographs of the NAACP's twelve branch presidents, including Isadore Martin, in the lower right.

Experience the curated audio indexes of I. Maxilmilian Martin, Jr.'s oral history interviews.

Born in Forestor, South Carolina, and educated at the Avery Institute Normal School in Charleston, Isadore Martin (1873-1954) taught school for more than twenty years in Georgia and then North Carolina. As treasurer in the early 1900s of the Joseph K. Bricks Industrial School in Enfield, North Carolina, Martin had a good income and the respect of his community. Growing weary of the discrimination that he and his family faced, however, in 1913 he decided to move with his family to Philadelphia. Before they departed, he took his successor at Bricks to meet the local bank president, as his son, I. Maximilian Martin Jr. recalled:

“When he left—it gives you an idea as to how things were—he took his successor in, the man who was to be the new treasurer, to the bank. And the bank president shook hands with the new man, and took him in the back and said, ‘I want to come back here in my private office.  And he said, ‘You know, I want you to know how much we appreciate the business you have given us, how we’ve enjoyed doing business with you.’ And said, ‘You know, many a time my wife and I have said that we would like to have you and Mrs. Martin in our home,’ but he said, You know how it is down here.’  I. Maximilian Martin Jr., August 30, 1984

After arriving in Philadelphia, Martin decided to become a realtor because of the low costs of starting in that business. He soon established Isadore Martin Real Estate Inc. in West Philadelphia, at 6 North 42nd Street. To his surprise, however, Black Philadelphians preferred renting to homeownership, so most of his early clients were white.

It’s a funny thing, but in the South, owning your own home was considered a very important thing; in Philadelphia, it wasn’t. When I was a young man, going around, visit people, I used to visit some homes of very nice people who lived in South Philadelphia. Families had been there for years, and you thought they owned the house, but they’d been renting for twenty, thirty or forty years! They would hand the lease down from father to son literally!”  I. Maximilian Martin Jr., August 30, 1984


Before moving his family to Philadelphia in 1913, Isadore Martin taught at the Joseph K. Brick Industrial and Normal School in Enfield, North Carolina, a school established for Blacks in 1895.

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Isadore Martin Sr. in front of his office, circa 1918. One of the Philadelphia's early Black realtors, Isadore Martin Sr. built his business selling homes to southern newcomers in Philadelphia's rowhouse neighborhoods.

As the Great Migration took off during World War I, Martin's real estate business thrived, for the southern newcomers brought with them a desire for homeownership not found among Black Philadelphians.

Starting in 1916, 1917, Negroes started coming from the South…. In the South, they were used to supporting each other; they knew they had to.  That’s the only way they could get ahead.  And he geared their development into decent housing in West Philadelphia, areas around Forty-Second Street, Palatine Avenue, Bering Street, roughly the area from say, about Thirty-Eighth Street, up to about Fiftieth Street, and then a little later on, the areas in the Fifties, from west of Fifty-Second, up to eventually about Sixtieth Street.  And that was the way in which his business did develop.  In other words, he made investments in properties, as well as operating as a broker.... And the advent of the war, World War One, values went up. There was a demand for property, and my father developed a good business.”  I. Maximilian Martin Jr. August 30, 1984

Soon after his arrival in Philadelphia, Martin also joined the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP.

Yes, the NAACP was founded about 1912. My father came to the city in 1913, and he became secretary. And it was the one group that fought for civil rights in the city. You had no governmental body which was at all interested. There were White and colored people who worked together. You had a number of people who were selfless, for example, my father was secretary, and then president. He furnished the office space, and the clerical space. He never received a salary, and he donated the clerical services which went along with it. And they really did a job. That was the one voice against segregation. They would fight against practices in schools, employment, all sources.... they would complain about segregation, but, in theaters, but not too many of those cases came through, to light. As far as... an equal rights bill, one almost passed... it was about 1922. They fought consistently to end segregation in public schools. They were the only organization which fought discrimination.  I. Maximilian Martin Jr. August 30, 1984

In the 1910s and 1920s Isadore Martin played an important role in the campaigns against racial discrimination in Philadelphia. His fight against segregation in the city's public schools began when his second son, I. Max Martin Jr. entered first grade.

And my father took me down to the school where my brother was. Well then, why don’t you enroll him in the O. V. Catto School? The Catto School was an all-Negro school at 42nd and Ludlow; we lived at 42nd, between Market and Powelton. It went from first to fourth grade, it was all-Negro. My father said, That is why I left North Carolina.  He is not going to a segregated school. Do I have to go down to the School Board?  [I] was enrolled.”  I. Maximilian Martin Jr., August 30, 1984

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As president of the Philadelphia Branch of the NAACP during the peak years of the First Great Migration, Isadore Martin Sr. helped lead the struggle for the economic and civil rights of Black Philadelphians in the 1910s snd 1920s.

In 1917, Martin and J. Max Barber established St. Mark’s Building and Loan Association to alleviate the discriminatory bank practices many African Americans faced. About this time, Martin replaced Barber, who had come to the city from Atlanta in 1909, as president of the Philadelphia NAACP.

“Some of them [White banks] frankly said, ‘We will not lend on colored properties.’ There are some who would put in the mortgage a clause: that this property should not be occupied or sold to a member other than those of the Caucasian race. Very often in those days, your financing was for three or five years, you’d pay interest only, and then you would have to renew it. And I remember on many occasions my father said, ‘Now look, mail your monthly payment in. Don’t take it down to the bank or the insurance company. If they see you, they will call the mortgage.’ As some who didn’t have enough sense to follow his instructions found out. I. Maximilian Martin Jr., August 30, 1984

During the Great Depression, Isadore Martin struggled financially. After the stock market crash in 1929 he lost all his stock in the Banker’s Trust Company. The next year he stepped down as president of the Philadelphia NAACP. Despite the economic hard times, however, African Americans continued to purchase homes.

“My father said this lady came into to see him about buying a house. The house cost four thousand dollars. Today that house would cost about twenty-five to thirty thousand. It was a house that had been foreclosed on. The woman was a domestic worker; she had never made more than twenty dollars a week in her life. But she plunked down the cash for it. – I. Maximilian Martin Jr.

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Members of the Philadelphia NAACP, (Isadore Martin, Sr. is seated on the left), circa 1943.

In his later years Isadore Martin remained active, serving on the national board and as a national vice president of the NAACP, and as a member of the Fellowship Commission and the Philadelphia Hosuing Association. He passed away, at the age of eighty-one, in 1954.  

“Yup, he made his decision. He was satisfied here. As I say, he built the business, and he was active in civic affairs, and racial affairs.  And during the Depression at one time, when things were very flat, he was asked to take a job as treasurer of... the newly organized Dillard University down in New Orleans. But he, my mother didn’t want to go south again.”  I. Maximilian Martin Jr. August 30, 1984

The Father: Isadore Martin Sr.