This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
Activist and community organizer Walter Palmer remembers coming up in West Philadelphia’s Black Bottom in the 1950s and 60s during a period of pronounced political activity amongst the city’s Black residents and leaders. Palmer, 86, has spent the past 70 years teaching and training grassroots networks of Black community organizers across Philadelphia, and electoral politics have been a mainstay of his work.
“I started out as a teenager, 18, 19, and was actively engaged in politics,” recalls Palmer.
In the late 50s, he organized and won a number of critical local and statewide campaigns that addressed issues of housing, segregation, workplace discrimination, and education, and even trained a slew of local elected officials like Councilmember Curtis Jones and former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fatah.
But Palmer says he’s never been wedded to a single political party. He founded one of the earliest Black independent political organizations in the city during the late 50s and remembers running Black candidates like acclaimed civil rights activist Cecil B. Moore and Pennsylvania State Sen. Hardy Williamson on both Republican and Democratic tickets as a way to leverage the specific needs of Philadelphia’s Black community.
“Black people were locked into the Republican Party for 100 years because of Abraham Lincoln,” said Palmer. “Then we got wedded to the Democratic Party for over 50 years because of Franklin D. Roosevelt. We get married to these images and these people, but they don’t live where we live and they don’t come from where we come from.”
For Palmer and many Black Philadelphian voters this year, the sentiment has remained the same: electoral politics are not the end-all-be-all, and real change is driven from the bottom, at the grassroots.
Still, Black voters have long been a major base of the Democratic Party machine, and this year, they turned out.
According to national exit polls, 92% of Black voters in Pennsylvania voted for Joe Biden. That’s compared to 42% of white voters and 69% of Latino voters in the state who voted for the President-elect.
In Philadelphia, Black residents make up almost 44% of the city’s total population. As the world looked to the battleground state of Pennsylvania to determine the result of the 2020 Presidential Election, Philadelphia’s Black voters, the majority of whom are Democrats, had the potential to set in stone a Biden-Harris win.
Pennsylvanians exceeded voter turnout rates this year, with more than 6.9 million voting by mail ballot or in-person at the polls. This was the highest statewide voter turnout since 1960. And in Philadelphia, it was the highest turnout in 25 years.
So it was no surprise when the results of 3,000 mail-in ballots in Philadelphia gave Joe Biden the decisive edge to win Pennsylvania. Philadelphia’s Black vote was crucial to Biden’s win in the Keystone State, and because of the timing when the state was announced, sealed his presidential victory.
Ultimately, President-elect Biden’s margin of victory was a little over 82,000 votes statewide, and 471,305 in Philadelphia. An analysis of Pennsylvania Department of State data by WURD and Votebeat shows that’s slightly less than Hillary Clinton’s 475,227-vote margin over Trump in 2016. But the increase in turnout helped Biden win over 20,000 more votes than Clinton did in 2016. These numbers reflect the unofficial final total vote count from Philadelphia’s City Commissioners Office.
However, according to a data analysis of partial voter data by The Philadelphia Inquirer, Biden’s margin of victory in predominantly Black neighborhoods lagged behind Hillary Clinton’s in 2016.
And according to data obtained by WURD and Votebeat from Pennsylvania Voice, a partnership of 30+ organizations working to expand power for communities of color statewide, as of November 12, Black voters in Pennsylvania returned 239,850 mail-in ballots, which made up 9.19% of all ballots returned in the state.
‘We’ve had to fight for our vote’
West Philadelphia native Courtney Gambrell, 28, says everyone in her immediate family has always voted and she’s never missed an election. She remembers going to the polls with her mother as a young child.
“[My mom] used to teach us strategy for how to vote so she never encouraged us to vote for people that we didn’t know their political stance,” Gambrell said. “I will say that with things changing in the political climate recently, my parents have both encouraged me to vote Democrat all the way.”
Gambrell voted for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris but says she was less than excited about their ticket, noting both Harris and Biden’s criminal justice record as a major concern.
“I don’t think any of the presidential candidates really spoke to me because I’m still a Bernie Sanders supporter through and through,” Gambrell said. “However I still believe they’re still the safer candidates when compared to the Trump administration. I know a lot of people don’t want to vote that way but I just don’t think seeing kids in cages and separating children at the border is any better.”
Sixty-year-old Germantown resident, Karen Smith, says not voting this year just wasn’t an option
“Oh my goodness it’s always important for a Black person to vote since we’ve had to fight for our vote and die for our vote to get our voices heard,” Smith said. “I thought it was important to go into the booth [in-person] because I wanted to represent my ancestors who led the way for me to do what I’m doing.”
Like West Philadelphia resident Lamont B. Steptoe, many Black voters in Philadelphia this year expressed an urgency about removing President Donald Trump from office as their main priority.
“I grew up in the 1950s and 60s and of course one of the major events of those times had to do with the suppression of the Black vote,” said Steptoe, who will be 72 in February. “So over the years I just became more and more appreciative of what it meant to go out and vote. The most important point for me [this year] was to get rid of Donald Trump. That fueled everything. I wasn’t looking down [the] ballot.”
‘It seemed like Pennsylvania was going to become important’
Mt. Airy native Carmela Dow, 24, remembers voting for the first time in 2016 for Hillary Clinton and recalls feeling like Clinton had no chance of winning.
“[That was] mostly because of my experience at the University of Delaware and I saw how the [Trump supporters on campus] were acting up starting in 2015 and I saw that energy and I saw that power,” said Dow.
Deeply disappointed by Clinton’s loss in 2016 and Sanders’s loss in the Democratic primary earlier this year, Dow says she almost disengaged from the election altogether, believing that Biden would not successfully draw the masses of voters needed to beat Trump. But then she saw the Philadelphia ballot and her outlook changed.
“I wanted to vote for the police reform [ballot question] and then it seemed like Pennsylvania was going to become important and I was like I don’t want Trump to win again,” said Dow.
Christopher K.P. Brown, 36, is originally from Arkansas but settled in Philadelphia in 2008. He says he’s never paid much attention to politics but the last four years of the Trump presidency has ignited his interest. Social media and public radio played a huge role in his political education this year. The Affordable Care Act, abortion rights, and migrant families being separated at the border were some of the main concerns that stood out for him in the 2020 election.
“I was a full-time poet for some years so I didn’t have any type of healthcare so I have just always appreciated that we have [the Affordable Care Act] option,” said Brown.
Dow also says the recent racial unrest in Philadelphia and the rest of the country, which was triggered by numerous police killings of Black people like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Walter Wallace Jr. — a Philadelphia resident himself — incited a powerful energy in the Black community around voting this year.
“My first memory of police brutality was learning about Trayvon Martin,” Dow recalled. “I think I was 13. It’s always been a part of my life. But I do think that week leading [up to] the election I was feeling so emotional because of the Walter Wallace stuff. I felt like I was doing something a little bit important and it made me feel a little more serious about [voting].”
Smith of Germantown is a local artist and drummer whose musical talents were the backdrop of many of the city protests that took place this summer in response to local and national acts of police brutality.
“I think all the movements made such a difference in this election,” Smith said. “I saw the eagerness. I was in some of those rallies and I saw what people were looking for, I saw in all shapes and colors, I saw that there was a need for a change.”
2020 was an unprecedented election year, with more people voting by mail than ever before. Black voters in Philadelphia made use of both mail-in and in-person voting, and their intention behind their voting methods varied.
Brown requested a mail-in ballot in late September and decided to drop it off himself at one of the many early voting centers in the city.
“I had a fear of voting in person because of racism honestly and violence that may have occurred,” said Brown. “I’m from Arkansas so I actually grew up with the KKK having marches back home so to me it was very reasonable to actually expect some level of violence, more than we actually saw on Election Day.”
Others had more trust in the traditional voting booth, and made the trek across some distance to vote in-person. Though Dow is a Mount Airy native, she lives in Wilmington, Delaware and had to take an early train into Philadelphia on Election Day to vote.
“I voted at a school right by my parent’s house,” said Dow. “Everybody talks about these lines in Philly. I was like okay I’m going to bring my iPad, I’m going to bring a snack, I’m gonna bring extra warm clothes. [But] none of it was needed. I was in and out in five minutes.”
Smith, the drummer, also voted in Mount Airy earlier that morning and then visited various polling locations throughout the city to bring music and cheer to those waiting in line.
“It was just so great to watch people be excited [to vote],” said Smith.
‘My goodness it was such a good feeling’: Black Philadelphians reflect on Democrat victory
Gambrell says when she got news that Biden had successfully flipped Pennsylvania blue, she immediately headed to the Convention Center to celebrate.
“I made sure that I left work and went down there,” said Gambrell. “Yes I understand it’s Covid but Covid has been Covid. I put a mask on my face and it was just exhilarating to be out there with people who are proud. My goodness it was such a good feeling.”
Steptoe of West Philadelphia says he was worried about the pandemic and decided to do a private celebration at his home over a bottle of champagne. He’d been following the tedious election results for close to five hours each day on television, wracked by anxiety for what was to come.
“But I thought the Democrats would prevail and they did and I’m proud of being a resident of the state that pushed Biden into the presidency because as we know much of central Pennsylvania has the highest membership in the Klan anywhere in the country,” said Steptoe. “So I was just praying that Pittsburgh, Harrisburgh, and Philly could bring about a win and they did.”
For other Black voters, there was relief but little joy.
“I was proud of us for that, I was proud of Black people,” said Dow. “I was proud of Philadelphia, but I wasn’t impressed with Biden winning. I was relieved but I wasn’t celebrating.”
‘It’s a long distance run’
While countless news outlets have announced that Biden won the election, for many Black voters in the city there’s a lot of work that remains and a lot of fear. Local activist and civil rights organizer, Palmer, fears a Biden presidency may signal a return to the status quo.
“I’m very afraid that now that there’s no struggle that we’re going to go back to square one,” said Palmer. “When somebody gets shot, we picket, we scream, we put bunnies on trees and then once we get a court settlement or monetary settlement we go back and there’s no more fight.”
But many young Black voters expressed a renewed interest in local politics and grassroots organizing, which they say they didn’t pay as much attention to prior to Trump’s ascent.
“I don’t think these candidates represent me nor do they represent Black people,” said Brown. “At its best the role of being a president is just a symbol. I think my local politicians may represent me [and] I’m beginning to learn more about [some] that I feel like I actually relate to.”
While some Black voters said they were not putting all their faith into the President-elect, they did believe his presidency could help to heal some of the harm done by the Trump administration.
“I think everybody watching Trump react to Covid-19 was frightening,” said Dow. “The last eight months have been a different level of disregard for human life [and] I do believe that as soon as Joe Biden gets into office that we will have a stimulus package and lockdowns will be put in place.”
Ultimately, amid the fear there is also abounding hope.
Steptoe, who’s a literary fixture in Philadelphia and an elder in the community said “the ancestors require that we stay the course.”
“I was glad to hear President-elect Biden say that he thanked Black people for having his back and that he would have our back but governments are governments,” said Steptoe. “So there’s only so much expectation.”
“And for those of us who are proponents of reparations and other progressive agendas for people of color, you just have to realize that it’s a long distance run that requires stamina and endurance.”