Though I lived in Fairmount over a decade ago, I didn’t return to scare up the skeletons in my old North Croskey Street closet. They’re just fine where they are. I went hunting for ghosts of Fairmount’s past, ones that haunt new residents every October in the form of whispered rumors about “two Halloweens” in the neighborhood—one for white kids and one for black kids.
I went looking for evidence of “Whiteween.”
Fairmount was once an extremely racially charged neighborhood.
Dr. Sherri Grasmuck is a sociology professor at Temple University who has conducted significant field research on the history of racial relations in the Fairmount neighborhood as background for her 2005 book, Protecting Home: Class, Race and Masculinity in Boys’ Baseball. In the book, Grasmuck uses the evolution of local boys’ baseball leagues as a lens to examine gentrification and racial integration in Fairmount.
Grasmuck wrote that in the 1950s, Fairmount was subdivided into pockets populated by mostly by English, Irish, Ukrainian, Polish and Italian families. It was bordered by neighborhoods populated by mostly blacks to the north and an increasing number of Puerto Ricans in neighboring Spring Garden, due in part to its proximity to La Milagrosa, the first Spanish-speaking Catholic church in Philly.
“In the late 1960s, White residents of a Philadelphia neighborhood called Fairmount, north of Center City, regularly ran off Blacks who walked through the neighborhood, often with the support of police,” wrote Grasmuck. She reports that “a red-faced, Irish-Ukrainian Fairmounter” said the neighborhood was called “white island” while he was growing up.
“We fought every day,” said the resident. “We fought our way to school. We fought our way home from school.”
To demonstrate how much attitudes in the neighborhood evolved, Grasmuck fast-forwards 30 years to a summer night in 2001, when the same resident rallied to defend a group of black kids from the police, shouting, “You know what they did wrong? I’ll tell you what. They were guilty of ‘walking while Black.’”
Grasmuck interviewed baseball coaches to find out how recruiting practices evolved over the years. In an interview, one coach brought up Halloween, explaining that the holiday was segregated by the same method of word-of-mouth exclusion.
“Listen. We have our own Halloween. We call it Whiteween. Parents are notified in their mailboxes about where our Halloween is, so they don’t have to be attacked on regular Halloween, or be run over by wolf packs [black trick-or-treaters from neighboring areas]. … Twenty years ago that’s how it would be [with baseball]. We would notify who we wanted to about registration.”
“Yes, Whiteween exists, or existed historically,” Grasmuck says recently on the phone. “People talk about it, but it’s a complicated kind of thing. I don’t know whether it’s still going on right now. I don’t know if people use that phrase.”
Not one person I spoke with this Halloween had heard the term Whiteween—though many relative newcomers said they recently heard rumors that there used to be “two Halloweens” in Fairmount.
“I’ve never heard that phrase; I believe it though,” says Bob, 34, who grew up visiting his Polish grandparents on Judson Street and, six years ago, purchased the family house for himself. “The neighborhood was really different back then.”
When I mention Whiteween, Bob’s friend perks up. “Oh! That’s the phrase [my neighbor] used last night,” Vanessa says. “I heard some of the neighbors talking about it, about another block,” she nods.
Other residents, like “Joe,” who was giving out candy a few blocks over, are sick and tired of hearing about “two Halloweens” and resent the implication. Joe has lived in the area since 1994.
“There’s a block party on Meredith Street that’s not on Halloween, that’s it,” he says, exasperated. “[Stories like this] are told to paint Fairmount as racist.”
Joe pulls his cell phone out of his pocket and points to a message on the screen. It read: “I heard your hood is moving Halloween to Saturday.”
“It’s just a block party,” says Joe. “Maybe there are some people who don’t want to have Halloween on Halloween, or maybe that used to be true, but there are not two Halloweens in Fairmount.”
Down the street, “Ella” sits on a bench in front of her house, where she has lived for 60 years. She smiles as she drops candy bars into plastic pumpkins and pillow cases.