Philly's Forgotten Massacre: When Black Activists Were Bombed by the Police

Philly's Forgotten Massacre: When Black Activists Were Bombed by the Police

Smoke billows over rowhouses in the West Philadelphia after the police bombed the home of the radical African American organization MOVE during a standoff. Police on horseback and emergency vehicles block off a street as residents walk towards the scene.


Why you should care

Because “The City That Bombed Itself” lives in quiet infamy.

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The majority of houses on this West Philly block are boarded up — doors and windows replaced by thick plywood. Packed together like sardines, it’s easy to imagine how the neighborhood lit up like kindling three decades ago, when first responders watched idly as cops started a fire that would ravage 65 homes and claim the lives of 11 Black activists.

Today, there’s no monument to explain how the City of Brotherly Love bombed its own residents. Beneath the yellow roses and lilac petals strewn by locals to memorialize 6221 Osage Avenue is a relatively forgotten story of tense relations between police and the community it was tasked to serve long before such stories galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.

They were outrageous with all their noise, all the cussing, because they wanted us on their side.

Hazel Taylor, resident

It’s a lesson in how tragedy can change a community overnight. Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, children would race their bikes down the wide one-way streets, remembers Howard, who still lives on 62nd Street facing Osage. Asking us not to use his last name, the 58-year-old mail-room clerk recalls the grand barbecues families would host on weekends, filling roads with DJs and bouncy castles to celebrate. It was around that time, 1981, when new neighbors took roost in the row house at 6221: “We thought they were just another family that had moved in,” Howard says.

But that wasn’t the case. It was home to around a dozen members of the MOVE Black liberation group founded by Vincent Leaphart, who renamed himself John Africa, encouraging his followers to change their surnames too. They donned dreadlocks and protested police brutality and racism, oftentimes wielding a bullhorn to broadcast their views. “They were outrageous with all their noise, all the cussing, because they wanted us on their side,” says Hazel Taylor, a 71-year-old Black woman who lived — and still lives — across the street. “But the hardest thing was to see those kids: The kids wouldn’t come outside.”

Those complaints would later be used to justify what would come. Authorities were well aware of MOVE: Three years earlier, there was a standoff between cops and the activists. An officer was killed by a shot to the back of his head while trying to vacate them from their previous home. Representatives of MOVE argued that the slain cop had been facing the house — and that he died from friendly fire. “Cops feel like they have a green light,” says Ramona Africa, one of the movement’s few survivors. “They are assured that they will not be held accountable. It will always be justifiable homicide, or they can just say ‘I felt threatened.’” Nine MOVE members were ultimately convicted, with a century-long sentence each for third-degree murder. Two have since died, and another seven remain behind bars.

bombed houses

A view of Osage Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, following a shootout and bombing between police and the terrorist group MOVE.

Source Getty

The tensions never quite dissipated. And on the night of Mother’s Day in 1985, the Philadelphia police arrived at MOVE’s Osage Avenue address. They had arrest warrants for four members, with charges from parole violations to owning illegal guns. The city’s first Black mayor, W. Wilson Goode, had dubbed them terrorists, as did his police chief, Gregore J. Sambor. Their attempt to execute the warrants led to a firefight, police said. While Ramona says she can’t definitively remember if “her family” fired shots, she said the show of force was still one-sided: “How could it even be a firefight with the weaponry they came out there with?” As machine gun ammunition rattled, Sambor ordered the use of two “entry devices,” one-pound bombs dropped by helicopter — a lethal combination of explosive water gels.

Neighbors had to watch from behind a police barricade as their homes went up in smoke. Returning from his early-morning shift at the bank, Howard describes watching it firsthand. “The way the wind was blowing, we thought all the houses on the opposite side”—his side—“were going to burn.” The casualty count: five children and six adults, including John Africa. One child, Birdie, escaped, as did Ramona, the lone adult survivor, who carried Birdie through a basement door. “We were faced with the situation of either being burned or smoked to death, or possibly shot to death,” Ramona says, and so she ran out amid gunfire — and was swept up by police. Firefighters were told to stand down; officials later said it was for fear that the activists would shoot them.

Mourners of MOVE members

Mourners of MOVE members killed in the bombing by the Philadelphia Police stand in front of their former headquarters as the funeral procession for leader John Africa passes.

Source Getty

Nobody in government was criminally charged but Sambor resigned months later, and an investigative commission report excoriated city officials. “Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable,” the report read, while a federal jury in 1996 found that the police had used excessive force and violated constitutional rights. In the end, Howard’s home was spared, but more than 250 people were left homeless, including Taylor. “We all went different places,” she says. While she returned a year later, many others wouldn’t, especially after a city contractor did such a poor job rebuilding what the city spent millions in sunken repair costs on over the next few decades.

A conversation over restoration has resurfaced again, with the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority announcing a request for proposals from developers willing to fix 36 of the shuttered homes. Still, what was lost isn’t easily replaced. “I don’t blame anyone. After a while, you move on with your life,” Howard says. And yet, “time changed everything.”

The boarded-up homes are what remain. “They say they’re not livable,” Taylor says, “but I’m still here.”

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