Richardson Dilworth

Lessing J. Rosenwald
Marcus Albert Foster

When one looks at a picture of Richardson Dilworth, with his handsome, patrician, slightly aloof demeanor, it is hard to believe that this was also a man who married (the first time) against his family’s wishes and purse-strings, was an Andrea Doria survivor who helped rescue fellow passengers, and was once described by a political opponent as having “the most instinctive thrust for the jugular of any man I’ve ever known.” But like his friend and predecessor in the Philadelphia’s mayor’s office, Joseph Sill Clark (1955 Awardee), Dilworth changed Philadelphia for the better, and is to this day one of the most popular mayors in recent history.

D ilworth and Clark were known as the reform mayors, and set about to end decades of corruption at the hands of the city’s Republican Party machine. He swept into office in 1956 with a 132,000-vote margin and easily won reelection. After resigning to run unsuccessfully for governor, he was appointed to the Board of Education—a nearly universally regarded thankless task. As he did with city government, Dilworth applied the concept of reform to the city schools, updating facilities and increasing teacher pay. He and his superintendent, Mark Shield, helped guide the schools though integration. The “reform” era came to a screeching halt in 1972 when Frank Rizzo became mayor. In anticipation of that day, Dilworth resigned from the school board and resumed the practice of law.

But it was his time as mayor which left a more lasting impact. During the “Reform Decade” of Clark and Dilworth, Philadelphia tore down the “Chinese wall” of elevated tracks, which bisected much of Center City. The city expanded the airport, and created a planning department, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Philadelphia became the first major city to fluoridate its water in, as one reporter wrote, “an era when fluoridation was thought to be a Communist plot.”

One of the most shocking things Dilworth did was move his family from the fashionable Rittenhouse Square neighborhood to the (then) unfashionable Society Hill district. He hoped that middle-class whites would follow, and they did. (So much so, that today a good number of Philadelphians think the “society” in Society Hill refers to social class, instead of William Penn’s land grant to London’s Free Society of Traders in 1683.) Dilworth was once described as “Jay Gatsby in reverse: a man who started out as a legitimate upper-class WASP, then spent his life trying to live that circumstance down…he could never take seriously the idea that wealth was a virtue and not an accident of birth.”

He was, as they say, a character. Dilworth’s time was an era where one could describe an adversary as “that mountain of lard,” as he indeed once did, and not really be any worse off, politically, for having done so. When another opponent refused to debate him, Dilworth had his own daughter put on a sandwich board, walk back and forth in front of the proposed debate site, and proclaim: “Why won’t you debate the issues with my father on TV?” On the doomed Andrea Doria, as he and his wife were preparing to head for the lifeboats, he wanted to get his socks on first. His wife replied: “For God’s sake, forget your socks so we can get off this sinking ship.”

An editorial cartoon ran shortly after Richardson Dilworth’s death. It was of an angel announcing that at the gate was “A Mister Richardson Dilworth…with a list of reforms.”

The Dilworth Family Papers are at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Lee Arnold

Sources: Jason Fagone, “Searching for Richardson Dilworth,” Philadelphia Magazine, 2008; Gerald McKelvey, “Richardson Dilworth Dead at 75,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 24, 1974; Steve Neal, “Before Dilworth, Corruption Reigned,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 25, 1974; “A Mister Richardson Dilworth,” cartoon, Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 25, 1974; Creed C. Black, “Dilworth Was the ‘Last of the Bare-knuckled Aristocrats,’” Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 27, 1974; “Richardson Dilworth,” Who Was Who in America, v. 6 1974-1976 (Chicago, 1976); John F. Morrison, “’Proud’ Dilworth Given $10,000 Philadelphia Award,” Philadelphia Bulletin, April 16, 1989; “Administration of Richardson Dilworth,” City of Philadelphia, The following are collected in Philadelphia Award Records, Series 2 (Recipients & Nominees), Box 7, folders 4-5: correspondence, ephemera. Photo: Dilworth Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Comment: In 1950 and 1962 Dilworth ran unsuccessfully for governor. It probably did not help matters when Dilworth told a potential constituent in the 1950 race that Red China should be admitted to the United States—he lost that race to William Scranton. This was, after all, the Cold War era where practically everything was (or could be) considered a communist plot.