Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.


Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Nov 7, 2011

The First Black Family in Liddonfield Project

 Leofil Coleman, Rhada Coleman Thomas,
Dolores Coleman Jennings, Tineta Coleman Bowes,
Claire Coleman, Mother Dolores Coleman

by Rosemary Reeves

The United States Housing Act of 1937 created the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in order to house the poor.  This government program mandated redlining, whereby housing projects for whites were to be built in white neighborhoods and those for blacks were to be built in black neighborhoods.  This caused the racial segregation of housing projects across the United States. 

Not long after, WWII raged in Europe.  By 1945, America and its allies had won the war.  Then a new decade was on the horizon.  A tract of land in northeast Philadelphia became the domain of the local housing authority.   Plans were made to construct a public housing development which would be known as Liddonfield.  Built in the early 1950s, this northeast Philadelphia housing project came into existence at a time when legal challenges to racial segregation would test America's claim of "equality for all."

In 1954 Eisenhower was President, gas was 21 cents a gallon and the highly publicized case of Brown vs. Board of Education marked the end of racial segregation in public schools.  The Upper Holmesburg section of Northeast Philadelphia was about to quietly distinguish itself in the advancement of civil rights.  A little-known fact not found in history books, it was the year the Philadelphia Housing Authority made an initial bold step toward integrating the white-dominated Liddonfield Housing Project.  Five black families were to move in.  The first among them was the Coleman family.  I interviewed Dolores Coleman Jennings about her family’s contribution to public housing history. 

You moved into Liddonfield in 1954.   Where did you come from originally?

“My family has lived in Holmesburg for over 200 yrs.  My father Leofil Coleman was born July 7, 1924 to Alice Woodson Coleman and Leon Coleman, although his mother and father moved to Germantown to raise their family.  My great-grandmother still lived in Holmesburg. When my father returned home from the navy, he moved in with his grandmother who resided at 8063 Erdrick Street. When my father met my mother and they married, he brought her to live at his grandmother’s home.”

What were the circumstances that led you to Liddonfield?

“When my father’s family started growing he applied for housing at the Liddonfield Homes. Service men who served in the war were offered first choice. When Mom and Dad moved into Liddonfield they had three children.  My sister Rhada was two, I was one and Leofil, whom we called little Pete, was only a month old.”  

What do you recall about the housing project as far as its design? 

“The design had the look of a community.  Most housing projects don’t have lawns so that was a nice touch…I thought that the only difference our house had that other houses didn’t have were the heating pipes that ran through each house.  We had a living room that was a nice size and the kitchen was also big enough.  There were three bedrooms and a bath. We also had a playground and lots of land to play.”

What was it like to be the first African American family to move into the white-dominated housing project?

“We never felt any danger or not accepted by our neighbors.  I think because everyone was at the same income level that color wasn’t a factor.  Yes, of course there were people who were prejudice but they were older and I didn’t know them. I don’t think my parents even noticed that they were the first of five black families to reside there.  It’s not like they only befriended the other black families.”

Dolores (Toy) said there wasn’t any difficulty adapting to any racial dynamics. “We were well-rooted there (in Holmesburg) and everyone knew who the Coleman’s were, since there were only about six black families who resided in Holmesburg.  We never thought of ourselves as ‘the black family’ and I would say that most of our neighbors didn’t either. The only place that we felt racial tension was outside of the project.  I don’t ever remember being called the ‘n’ word in the project as being called the ‘n’ word while walking down Frankford Avenue.  If we were with our friends outside of the project, our friends would always come to our defense.”

Tell us about where you live now and who you are today.

“I still live in the Holmesburg area.  I couldn’t think of leaving.  My brother and sisters also live in the Holmesburg area.  My mother moved out of Liddonfield  in 2000. She brought her home in 2002 [which is] five blocks from Liddonfield.”

Dolores (Toy) also bought a house in the white middle-class neighborhood near Liddonfield, but experienced racist backlash.  “When I moved into my neighborhood 30 years ago, I wasn’t welcome by some people,” she said.  “In 1979, a neighbor put out a petition for me to leave.  My next door neighbor informed me about the petition and told me who it was.  I thought I need to go and talk with this person.  I told them, “I am here to stay, so I suggest that you pack your bags and go.”  But there was an additional turn of events.  “It was also comforting to know that not one person would sign his petition,” she added.

The Upper Holmesburg section of Philadelphia still remains predominantly white.  Only a handful of minorities lived in Liddonfield until the 1980s.   The housing project was recently demolished.

Is there anything else you think our viewers should know about Liddonfield?

“I want your readers to know that Liddonfield was a community of good people.  When I was growing up in Liddonfield every parent only wanted the best for their children and taught them that hard work and education would be your ticket to a good life.  Just about all of us have our own homes and we have never forgotten where we came from.  I’m glad that I grew up in a community where people had your back and taught you to respect yourself at all times.”

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