The History of Chester

by Morgan Kelly, SPEEC

Today, Chester is a city of about 42,000 people. It occupies only 4.8 square miles, and is located just 15 miles south of Philadelphia. In the past, Chester’s location along the Delaware river made it ideal for small-scale manufacturing. It was the sight of William Penn’s first landing in Pennsylvania, in 1682, and by the early 1700 it was a successful mill town by. In fact, Chester’s economy continued to grow all the way up until 1940. The 1880 census shows that Chester made ships, steel, iron, brass, cloth, carriages, barrels, shoes, and pottery. It also had an oil refinery and a chemical manufacturing plant. Throughout the first part of this century, Chester was widely known as a center for economic growth. Industries like Sun Ship, Scott Paper and Ford Motor Company employed so many people that they were small cities onto themselves. Many people moved to Chester to find work, including a large number of blacks from the south and many immigrants from Poland and the Ukraine. Chester was well know for its jazz scene and it’s good educational system. Brent Staples wrote his autobiography Parallel Time about growing up in Chester. He describes what Chester was like during this time period :

My parents departed Roanoke by train on their wedding day, headed for Chester, Pennsylvania, a thriving factory town on the Delaware River, twenty miles south of Philadelphia. My father, his father, and three of my uncles had already settled there, drawn by the promise of work in an economy stoked by World War II. My father had found work in a factory that made parachute silk. WHAT CHESTER MAKES MAKES CHESTER. The sign lights greeted the train as it rolled into town. Chester made paper, steel, aluminum, cars and locomotives.

Beyond all these, Chester made ships. The Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company was a city of its own, sprawling along the river. The yard was bristling with cranes, alive with fiery geysers that sprang from furnaces and arc welder’s tools. What Chester made made Chester. The sign would seem a mockery when the yard was dead and the city was crumbling around it. But that was yet to come when my parents arrived. Chester was a bulging muscle on the Delaware, a place of promise and money and steel.

Like many cities in the Northeast, Chester was hit hard in the postwar era by a restructuring of the U.S. economy. Manufacturing was hit hard by increasing competition from abroad. New technologies gave industries more mobility, and they began to consolidate and move out of the cities. Chester was hit especially hard because it had been so dependent on manufacturing.

From 1950 to 1980, 32 percent of the jobs in Chester disappeared. The economy collapsed. Much of the more upwardly mobile population moved away. Those that were left were predominantly minorities, transforming the racial makeup of the city. From 1950 to 1990 the population declined from 66,000 to 42,000. During the same time period the proportion of the population that was African-American increased from 20% to 65%.

Chester’s political history is closely linked to its economic history. Since the turn of the century, with one exception, Chester has been ruled by a corrupt and extremely powerful political machine. The machine began in 1910 with a Swarthmore dropout named John McClure. McClure consolidated power over Chester through a campaign founded in racketeering and bootlegging. He expanded his control to Delaware county, where he established a board of supervisors, commonly called the War Board. The board made all decisions and political appointments in the back rooms, and it was understood that everyone answered to McClure. In 1933, McClure and 95 of his colleagues were indicted for conspiracy to violate prohibition. None served any time, however, and McClure continued his reign until he died in 1965.

McClure and the Republican party kept tight control over the city’s votes by controlling public funds in such a way that every government function was delivered as a personal favor. They “granted” you public assistance, and road maintenance. It was “just the friendly help of a neighbor,” when they brought food to the sick. They were largely responsible for controlling who got jobs. In fact, to get any kind of job with the city, you had to be a registered Republican. A paper in 1967 noted that, when asked why they voted for machine candidates, most African-Americans responded that it was so they would be able to get a job. Whether or not this was true, the rumor, the fear of losing a job, was all that was necessary. The machine held the people in the palm of its hand. By delivering favors on an individual basis it kept the poor from organizing and bargaining collectively. Effectively, it removed any power people had in the political process.

After McClure died in 1965, Jack Nacrelli, a local mobster, took control of the party. He served as mayor until 1979 when he was convicted on tax evasion, bribery and racketeering. His control was still felt from jail however, and in 1985, his secretary Willie Mae Leake became the first black mayor of Chester.

In 1992, in one of the most impressive political campaigns of the city’s history, the Democratic party finally overthrew the machine. A number of community groups came together to register over 3,400 new voters. Barbara Bohannan-Sheppard, the director of a local daycare center, was elected mayor. The new administration was marked by infighting however, and in 1996 the Republicans regained control. Last month, Nacrelli’s portrait was redisplayed in city hall.

People in Chester have faced extreme barriers to political participation for almost a century. We have seen that they faced an extremely corrupt government with the possibility of severe consequences for speaking out against the system, but it is also important to remember that many of the people are dealing every day with the hardships of poverty. When people are worrying about how to feed their children, it is too much to ask them to worry about environmental racism too. All of these factors made the city ripe for exploitation by the waste processing plants that have moved in over the last 30 years. . .

A more recent history of events can be found in this article.