Interior of the New York Store
One of most interesting collections we have here at the Historical Society of Montgomery County is the Leonard Friedman Papers, much of which concerns his work on Norristown’s Human Relations Commission.
Leonard Friedman was born in Philadelphia in 1918 and attended the University of Pennsylvania. He served in the army during World War II, then spent fifty years running his family’s business, the New York Store. In the 1970’s he served on Norristown’s Human Relations Commission which was created in 1966 to help the borough cope with racial issues.
His papers have many items relating to race relations in Norristown in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, providing a snapshot of life in Norristown during a turbulent time. One newsletter of the Interfaith Committee for Social Action describes a protest of 150 young black people at Norristown Borough Hall. At that protest Arthur Hall, a young man from Norristown, gave a speech demanding more respectful treatment from local police, questioning the curfew, and for an increase in the number of black police officers.
Arthur Hall from the 1968 Norristown High School Spice yearbook
Another issue Friedman’s papers focus on is fair housing in Norristown. In 1969, borough council passed Ordinance 2065 prohibiting racial discrimination in housing. There’s many newspaper clippings about white sellers refusing offers from black buyers and information for realtors to prevent discrimination in housing.
Pamphlet from the Fair Housing Committee
The Human Relations Commission was also concerned with the Norristown Area School District. Throughout the country at this time, cities tried to desegregate schools through bussing. A newsletter called "News ‘N’ Views" distributed by the school district explains six proposed ideas for achieving racial balance in NASD schools. In addition to that, Mr. Friedman himself wrote a letter to a Harold T. Huber, looking for help in redesigning NASD’s curriculum to include African-American history.
From the records, it looks like Friedman was on the Commission until 1973. There is a Human Relations Commission in Norristown today, but it was started in 2018, according to its website, so I don’t know the fate of the original commission.
While preparing for our June 2018 exhibit, Made in Montgomery, I found a portrait that struck my curiosity. According to our records, the portrait is believed to be of Dr. Daniel A. Wilson. Since portraits were generally made for prominent people, I wanted to learn more about Dr. Wilson.
According to multiple sources, Dr. Wilson was the first African-American physician in Montgomery County. Dr. Wilson received his degree from Hahnemann Hospital for homeopathic medicines in 1890. His accomplishment was so groundbreaking, that it was even published in the Norristown Herald on May 12, 1890.
Dr. Wilson’s ability to graduate from Hahnemann was, in part, the result of a movement led by his own father, Rev. Amos Wilson. In 1839, the Norristown School Board established a public school on Powell Street exclusively for African Americans.  However, in the 1880s, Rev. Amos Wilson led a movement to desegregate Norristown schools. This successful movement coincided with a larger, statewide, desegregation movement. Although an 1881 law made it illegal to segregate schools based on race, many Pennsylvania public schools either ignored or found a way to circumvent the law. It was not until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that all public schools in Pennsylvania ended segregation.
Despite the challenges of segregation, Dr. Wilson led a successful career as a physician. He lived on Elm Street in Norristown until his death in 1934. Recognizing his success, the Times Herald published his obituary on the front page of the December 22, 1934 paper.
According to the second and third obituaries posted in the Times Herald on December 24th and 26th, his funeral service occurred at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church (Norristown) and he was buried at Tremont Cemetery.
 Dan Kelley, “Blacks Came for Work, Gave So Much More,” Times Herald, http://www.timesherald.com/article/JR/20050724/NEWS01/307249998.
 “Desegregation of Pennsylvania Schools,” Pennsylvania Heritage, http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/pa-heritage/desegregation-pennsylvania-schools.html.