Politics From The Background

Experience the curated audio indexes of John B. Summer's oral history interviews.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1888, John B. Summers grew up in a well-to-do family. Both his grandfather and father were AME ministers, and R.H. Jeffery, Columbus's mayor, employed his Uncle Harry as his secretary. As a child, Summers lived for a while in the home of future president William McKinley, where his Aunt Sue worked as the family cook. Through these connections, Summers, a graduate of Wilberforce University, found work for the Republican Party during the presidential election of 1916.

“I had contacts at home, as I said, through my uncle. I went to Chicago and worked for the nomination of Senator Theodore E. Burton for president in 1916. And, course, they nominated Charles Evans Hughes, you know, instead of Burton.” – John B. Summers, February 15, 1984

In 1918 Summers used his political connections to obtain a government job as an inspector at Hog Island, the world’s largest shipyard, then under construction on the banks of the Delaware River just below the city of Philadelphia. In 1920, he worked for the Harding presidential campaign, traveling with Wilberforce University president William S. Scarborough.

 “We were to contact the Black delegates from the South. And they were mostly Frank Orren Lowden, who was Pullman's son-in-law, Pullman Railroad’s son-in-law, plenty of money. And, Colonel Leonard Wood. They'd gobbled up most of these delegates. Our job was to contact them and say, ‘Now, if your man don't win on such-and-so the ballot, come over to Harding. Now what, what'd it be interested in, a postmastership or 500 dollars?’ That was our spiel. And those babies hung out until the tenth ballot before Harding won.” – John B. Summers, April 10, 1984

After the 1920 election, Summers returned to Philadelphia, married into an Old Philadelphia family, and saw how the Republican political machine, which controlled the Black vote while giving African Americans very little in return. In the early 1920s, John Asbury—one of Philadelphia’s most prominent African-American businessmen and political leaders—was one of only two Black state legislators. Summers, however, was unimpressed.

 “Old John Asbury was just a puppet for the Vares. He was made ward leader of the 30th Ward… All of them were characters at that time, but, they did Old Man Vare's dealings. I know they'd have a Friday night before the election, why, they'd have this big rally at... Varick Temple there at 19th and Bainbridge.... And Old Man Asbury did up and tell Mr. Vare, ‘Mr. Vare, on Tuesday we’re gonna give you a 5,000 majority.’ When the votes was counted and the returns came in on Monday, it was 4,999. Some Negro died and they didn’t vote him.” – John B. Summers, April 10, 1984

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“Plenty of Jobs We Never Get,” Philadelphia Tribune, October 23, 1926.  Set during the “Season of False Faces and False Promises,” this editorial cartoon presented Republican party leader William Vare as clown holding Black puppets in one hand, while reaching with his other into a barrel of jobs.

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Street cleaners parade, Philadelphia, PA, 1920.  After the City of Philadelphia took over trash and garbage collection in 1919, the City Republican Organization doled out hundreds of those jobs to Black political workers who brought out the vote on election day.

For decades Philadelphia’s Republican leaders had doled out thousands of city jobs in return for the political support of immigrant and African-American voters in the city’s impoverished river wards. During the Great Migration tens of thousands of African Americans poured into Philadelphia. Despite their growing numbers and political importance, however, the Republican City Party gave Black Philadelphians little.

“It was nothing. [African Americans] just had menial jobs. The only jobs a Negro had in City Hall were porters’ jobs. Nothing. There were no Negroes sitting behind the desk… only thing they got was on the streets or something like that, and in the Fire Department. They had colored cops, and they had a colored, firehouse down on, South Street, but that was it, the extent of it.” – John B. Summers, April 10, 1984

Outraged by how little African Americans received for their political support, Summers became politically active, but chose to remain behind the scenes. With a wife and young family to support, he took a job as a bartender in a speakeasy and casino owned by Philadelphia's biggest bootlegger, Max “Boo Boo” Hoff.

“And we had roulette wheels, two roulette wheels, Chemin de fer, and two crap tables, anything you wanted. Well, I had a little bar, just about this size. And it was Prohibition, but I had everything to drink. The beer and the whiskey and all coming in gunnysacks, where they’d dish it out of the Lake Erie, where itd been dealt in from Canada… Every Saturday afternoon I paid off the cops, keep them from ticketing the automobiles, you know, of our people that came there… If it was going to raid us, why, we knew a half an hour or so beforehand, and all our stuff went up in the wall. We had a fake wall.”

Then, in 1928, Summers made a life altering decision. Outraged at the continued failure of the Republican Party to reward African-American voters for generations of loyalty to the Party of Lincoln, he jumped parties and joined the campaign for the election of Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith.

“[Raskob] hit upon the idea of enlisting Negroes in the Democratic Party, which was something not heard of at that time. Of course, the Republican Party controlled the Negroes, hook, line, and sinker, because, I remember at the convention in 1920 the delegates from the South were Black… There were no white Republicans. The Whites were all Democrats. Perry Howard, Roscoe Simmons, all those big Negroes were all Republicans… Yeah, we did pretty good in the Smith campaign. Because one thing, we had money, which was unusual.” – John B. Summers, February 15, 1984

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J. Austin Norris, c. 1945. As a leader of the Roosevelt Democrats in Philadelphia, Norris became one of Pennsylvania's most powerful Black politicians in the 1930s.

In the 1920s Summers also had become the mentor to a young newcomer to the city, lawyer J. Austin Norris.

“Aus [Norris] had the ability, and he was one forcible speaker. Aus was a good speaker. And he was congenial. He could make friends just like that. You meet him this minute, well, you’re a friend the next. Just had that personality. That was the secret of his success: his personality. And he knew the law. Aus was a good lawyer. And he was a good leader, too, in the Democratic Party.” – John B. Summers, April 10, 1984

In 1928 Robert Nelson, a political operative in the Smith campaign, approached Norris to organize Black voters in Philadelphia.

“He went to Aus Norris, and Aus couldn’t take it because Aus’s practice was in front of all these Republican judges, and he wasn't going to jeopardize his livelihood. So he said, ‘See Merce’ and Mercer Lewis was his partner. Well, Mercer took it over and Mercer got me to be the secretary and picked a big Masonic leader from up in Erie, and somebody out in Pittsburgh. I forget who it was now. Anyhow, we tried to cover the state, and we did. And as it was the first introduction of Negroes into the Democratic Party.” – John B. Summers, February 15, 1984

Herbert Hoover crushed Al Smith in the presidential election. During the Great Depression, however, which began less than a year after Hoover took office, voters started to turn against the Republican Party. Hoover again won Pennsylvania during the 1932 presidential election. In 1934, however, George Earle, supported by Black voters in Philadelphia, became Pennsylvania’s first Democrat elected governor since 1891. As Summers remembered, once in office Earle “broke the ice.”

“Earle put more Negroes in state offices than any governor... had before… He was always liberal that way.... Yes, so he opened up the floodgates for Negroes, put them in all the state offices, and all the branch state offices here in Philly.”
– John B. Summers, April 10, 1984

In 1934, Summers also made his only run for public office, winning the Democratic primary for the state legislature but losing in the general election.

“I was behind the scenes more than anything else. Only thing, when the Democrats came in I ran for legislature in the 30th Ward. That was the only time.” – John B. Summers, April 10, 1984

The next year, Summers became a labor organizer with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). And in 1936, after reform Republican S. Davis Wilson became mayor, he was appointed to a committee that resolved housing disputes in Philadelphia.

“S. Davis was more of a Democrat than he was a Republican… And of course, he set up a committee at that time. We were having trouble just like we have now, between landlords and tenants. And S. Davis Wilson set up a landlord and tenant committee, which I was on. And some of the big real estate people of the town were on. And Dr. Barnes, who was a Black physician, he was on there with me. And we settled these disputes in the neighborhoods about the living conditions and things like that. But up 'til that time, under Republican rule there was nothing but a broom for you.” – John B. Summers, April 10, 1984

In 1937 Summers helped organize the steel workers in Pennsylvania and Ohio during the Little Steel strike. He then served as the chairman of the Negro Affairs Committee of Labor Nonpartisan League, and assistant to the president of the Industrial Union Council. J. B. Summers would enjoy a long and successful career with the CIO, earning the nickname, “Mr. CIO,” before his retirement in the 1960s.

Politics From The Background