Saturday, September 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

A sad commentary on the ghosts of Philly past

Chris Matthews didn't know black people growing up in Philly

A sad commentary on the ghosts of Philly past

I had "Morning Joe" on MSNBC (I know, I know) on in the background during your typical insipid pundit patter about Barack Obama, race, blah blah blah when Joe Scarborough said something that grabbed my attention. He said that Obama provoked some strong reactions among older white males, and that:

Chris Matthews told me he’d never been around a black man until he was in college.

If you didn't know better, the viewer might think that Matthews is from South Dakota or something.

But Chris Matthews is from (originally) Nicetown, right next to the heart of North Philly:

Chris Matthews loved politics from a young age — starting at around 5, his brothers say. He spent a lot of time with his grandfather Charles Patrick Shields, a Democratic committeeman from the working class North Philadelphia neighborhood of Nicetown. Shields’s “office” was a neighborhood newsstand. “He was a good man of the parish,” Chris’s younger brother Jim told me. Chris revered him. “I think Tip O’Neill reminded Chris a little of Grandpa,” Jim added, meaning they both fit the urban-ethnic prototype of the backslapping operator from the neighborhood.

Matthews’s father, Herb, was a court reporter and worked all the time. Chris spent his early childhood in a row house, before the family moved to Somerton, a leafy neighborhood at Philadelphia’s northeast tip. The boys went to Catholic schools and took family trips to a summer house on the Jersey shore. The family generally voted Republican. Chris loved John F. Kennedy in 1960, but wound up falling harder for Nixon by the end and cried when he lost. “We weren’t a huggy family — we had our fracases — but we basically got along,” Jim Matthews, now the Republican chairman of the board of commissioners in Montgomery County, Pa., told me.

What's kind of sad is that I doubt that Matthews, a 1963 graduate of La Salle College High School, was lying to Joe Scarborough, nor can you really find fault with him. I wasn't there, but from what I know it was highly possibly and perhaps probable for someone like Matthews to grow up in a Balkanized city with a huge African-American population (more than 40 percent today, although it was less then) and yet not really know a black person.

That's a reminder of both how far we've come as a city in 50 years -- but also the deep roots of some of the problems that still exist today.

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