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City of Philadelphia

History of the Commission

Established in 1951 under the City’s Home Rule Charter, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations is the local agency that enforces the civil rights laws and deals with matters of intergroup conflict within the City of Philadelphia.

PCHR's 60 Year History


Philadelphia becomes the first city in the United States to include a provision for a human relations agency in its Home Rule Charter. That year, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations was born and assumed the powers and duties of the former, more limited Fair Employment Practices Commission. The FEPC, formed in 1948, combated prejudice and discrimination in employment based upon race, color, religion or national origin.

The PCHR’s founding commissioners are Robert J. Callaghan, Esq., chairperson; Sadie T. M. Alexander, Esq.; Francis J. Coyle; Nathan L. Edelstein, Esq.; Elizabeth H. Fetter; James H. Jones; Albert J. Nesbitt; Lawrence M. C. Smith; and Leon C. Sunstein, Sr. George Schermer shortly thereafter became the executive director.
The Commission quickly begins its assault on discrimination by issuing a publication, Philadelphia Negro Population Facts on Housing and working with the Philadelphia Housing Authority to integrate public housing by admitting African-Americans to exclusively White housing projects.
In response to violent incidents against Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia’s Spring Garden neighborhood, the Commission issues a report, Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia, to highlight the challenges faced by the Spanish-speaking community.


The PCHR continues its efforts to reduced restrictive housing practices by issuing What to Do: A Program for Leaders in Changing Neighborhoods: A Guide for Community Leaders in Racially Changing Neighborhoods.

The PCHR develops a comprehensive training program for the Philadelphia Police Department.

Sadie T.M. Alexander becomes the chairperson of the Commission. Her tenure continued until 1968.
PCHR holds public hearings and investigates labor unions for excluding African-American workers. The Commission found widespread membership discrimination and negotiated settlements.
City Council passes the Fair Practices Ordinance, replacing the more restrictive Fair Employment Practices Ordinance.
Civil disturbances erupt in North Philadelphia. The PCHR calls together community leaders in an emergency meeting at Emmanuel Baptist Church. They march to end the rioting. The efforts of the PCHR shorten the disturbance and quicken the pace of reconciliation. The PCHR North Philadelphia Field Office is established.
Young African-Americans, led by Cecil B. Moore leader of the local branch of the NAACP and Georgie Woods of radio station WDAS picket Girard College (a boarding school for White fatherless boys). Mayor Tate asks PCHR Chair Sadie Alexander to intervene between the picketers and the school’s trustees. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Girard College must admit African-American boys.
Clarence Farmer becomes the executive director of the PCHR.
The PCHR launches a Helpmobile, a City Hall on Wheels. The Helpmobile made tours during the summer months of inner city neighborhoods and distributed information on the services of the PCHR.
Protests by African-Americans, seeking greater input in their schools, were met by police force in November 1967. Clarence Farmer stepped in to negotiate with both sides to end the violence.
On the day following the assassination of Martin Luther King, April 6, 1968, Clarence Farmer organizes a memorial march and rally at Independence Mall.
Farmer brings African-American radicals to the table with liberal moderates like Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., William Coleman, Esq., and Robert N.C. Nix, Jr., and White civic leaders like Philadelphia Savings Fund Society’s R. Stewart Rauch, Jr. and Wannamaker’s Richard C. Bond. The effort led to the creation of the Black Coalition.


The PCHR addresses the problem of blockbusting, the practice by which real estate agents and speculators induce panic selling by White homeowners fearful that an influx of minority purchasers will decrease property values.

PCHR strengthened its service to the City’s Spanish-speaking neighborhoods by providing interpretation services and preparing Spanish-language literature for residents and media.
Prohibitions on discrimination based on sex are added to the Fair Practices Ordinance.
Housing and public accommodation provisions and provisions that protect the rights of disabled persons are added to an expanded Fair Practices Ordinance.
PCHR creates a Dispute Resolution Program to help neighbors resolve disputes.
Violence in Kensington erupts between Whites and Latinos and in Southwest Philadelphia between Whites and African-Americans. Commission staff worked with neighborhood church groups, public agencies and community organizations to calm tensions.


Marital status, source of income, age, and the presence of children are added to the housing provisions of the Fair Practices Ordinance.
Sexual orientation, disability, and discrimination in employment based on age over 40 are added to the Fair Practices Ordinance.
Clarence Farmer negotiates, at various times, between the police and MOVE members.
The PCHR holds four public hearings concerning the problems of Asian immigrants in Philadelphia. Following the hearings, the PCHR issued a report, Asians and their Neighbors, and a subsequent report, Race Relations in Philadelphia.

PCHR begins accepting complaints of discrimination in the delivery of City services.

The City Solicitor defines AIDS as a disability under the Fair Practices Ordinance and Mayor’s Executive Order 4-86 is issued prohibiting discrimination based on AIDS in the delivery of City services.
The Commission issues a report, The State of Intergroup Harmony Race Relations in Philadelphia: A 1989 Perspective-A 1990 Opportunity.


After mounting tension and concerns in the Latino community, the PCHR holds public hearings and issues a report to the Mayor titled Report on Public Hearings Regarding Concerns of the Philadelphia Latino Community and a report The State of Intergroup Harmony.

Philadelphia and the Commission hosts the 43rd Annual Conference of the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies (IAOHRA).
The PCHR organized conferences on fair lending laws in collaboration with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The conferences began a continuing dialogue between community groups and lenders about mortgage and community development issues.
PCHR issues studies on mortgage lending patterns and practices in Philadelphia and low-income community credit needs.
The PCHR began providing staff for the City’s Fair Housing Commission (FHC), which deals with complaints of landlords engaging in unfair rental practices.
The PCHR joins with the Women’s Law Project to end the exclusion of pregnant women from drug treatment programs.
The PCHR blocks the Rev. Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam from holding a males-only rally at the Civic Center. The meeting proceeds, open to all.
PCHR initiates the Interagency Civil Rights Task Force made up of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
In collaboration with the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies and the Fielding Institute of California, the PCHR institutes a neighborhood-based project called Focus Philadelphia, using video technology to create a better understanding of diverse communities.
Acts of ethnic intimidation directed at African-American renters in White neighborhoods in Bridesburg and Grays Ferry generate calls for peace and efforts by the PCHR to support the victims.
The statute of limitations under the Fair Practices Ordinance is increased from 90 days to 300 days.
Historic Life Partnership provisions are added to the Fair Practices Ordinance for registration of same-sex domestic partners and eligibility for benefits for Life Partners of City employees.
The PCHR convenes a public investigatory hearing and issued a report on Race and the Criminal Justice System.


In the aftermath of the tragic attack on September 11, the PCHR moves forward to establish a dialogue with law enforcement, criminal justice and social services agencies to promote understanding of the culture, customs and concerns of the Arab/Sikh/Muslim community.

Gender identity is added to Fair Practices Ordinance as a protected class.

PCHR and the Center City Proprietors Association present Forging Alliances, an initiative that encouraged dialogue among the City’s small/minority businesses and associations.

The PCHR holds a public investigatory hearing for providers of services to immigrants and refugees.

The PCHR raises awareness of the linguistic burdens of immigrants in its claim against cheesesteak impresario, Joey Vento, whose establishment bore a “SPEAK ENGLISH” sign. A split panel of the PCHR concluded that this sign did not convey the message that service would be denied to non-English speakers.

A Prayer Vigil for a Restored Civility is held following the fatal shooting of Philadelphia Police Officer Charles “Chuck” Cassidy.

City Council passed Entitlement to Leave Due to Domestic or Sexual Violence, an amendment to the Fair Practices Ordinance that requires employers to provide unpaid leave to victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking, or the family or household member of a victim.

Following the attack on 26 Asian immigrant students at South Philadelphia High School, PCHR arranges face-to-face meetings between the students and the administration of the School District of Philadelphia as part of an effort to end the boycott and resolve the students’ grievances.


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) honors the PCHR as a Champion of Equal Opportunity.

PCHR conducts a yearlong series of eleven public hearings to hear from the community on issues relating to intergroup tension and violence in the City’s public schools.

Based on the testimony of 130 witnesses and 40 written submissions received during its public hearings in 2010, the PCHR issues Widening the Circle of Our Concern: Public Perceptions of the School District of Philadelphia’s Response to Intergroup Conflicts, a report from the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.

The Fair Practices Ordinance is overhauled with landmark legislation intended to increase remedies and penalties, to streamline procedures, and to add genetic information, domestic or sexual violence victim status, or familial status as protected categories.

The PCHR is named the enforcing authority for the City’s new Fair Criminal Record Screening Standards, commonly referred to as “Ban the Box.”