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Celebrating Black History Month (2/5/2021)
February 05, 2021
Celebrating Black History Month


Each year, Black History Month has a theme and 2021’s theme is the “Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity” (5). That is why our first week’s highlight centers around pets as part of the family, the history of African Americans in animal sheltering, and several noteworthy African Americans who dedicated their time to animals in need in the 1950s-1970s, specifically in Philadelphia. The images we discuss in the article are copyrighted so we cannot post them within our article. Instead, we have provided links with descriptions so you can view them directly in the Temple University Library’s Digital archives! 



All of these photos come from the Temple University Library’s Digital Collections. 

  1. “Injured Pheasant at spca”: Shows Charles Spencer 
  2. “SPCA catches lion”: Shows Charles Spencer 
  3. “Pennsylvania spca bird sanctuary”: Shows Charles Spencer
  4. “SPCA catches lion”: Shows Charles Spencer 
  5. “Cocks from police raid at 11th & Wallace sts”: Shows Ernest Cooke and Rufus Caldwell
  6. “Dog and cat rescue”: Shows group of six African American men working to remove malnourished pets from a home 

Pets as part of the family: 

The article written by Katheryn Lawson HERE (1) does a fantastic job analyzing the history of pets as part of the family in the U.S. and the “roles that animals played in the lives of African Americans in the northeast—primarily New York, Philadelphia, northern Delaware, and Baltimore—as treasured family members, tools of white supremacy, and markers of respectability.” (1) She discusses not just the history of pets as part of the family but how the experience of pet ownership for African American families is remarkably different than that of white families. From the inaccurate public perception of African American pet owners as unfit, to physical barriers to adoption that target Black families, to the violent history of the use of dogs as “enforcers of white supremacy and racial terror dating back to slavery” (1). Lawson notes that for much of history, animal companionship was effectively reserved for the white elite, making it difficult and even impossible for Black families to experience the mental and physical benefits of pet ownership and companionship and even forcing Black families to go to great lengths to keep their pets hidden (1). As an animal refuge that has been around since before slavery was abolished, it is important that we consistently critique our adoption approval practices to ensure that we are not also creating additional barriers for African American families to adopt a new member into their family.  We encourage you to read Katheryn’s in depth analysis for even more HERE

An essential step in uniting pets with their forever families is animal sheltering, so we did some digging into African Americans within the history of animal sheltering as well. Throughout history, there have been several note-worthy, historic animal rescues, some dating back to the 1800s such as the ASPCA (1866) (2) and even our shelter, The Morris Animal Refuge (1858). It is essential that we note that slavery was not abolished until 1864, and that the effects and legacy of slavery on African American’s lives lasted well beyond the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and is still seen today (3). African Americans have spent centuries fighting for basic human freedoms for themselves and their families. This lack of basic freedoms, history of pet ownership as a privilege for the white elite, and context of slavery and post slavery segregation and violence cannot be ignored when looking at the timeline of animal sheltering. This context can explain the lack of African American voice in the documented beginnings of animal welfare and animal sheltering. However, in the “1960s–1970s, Philadelphia animal rescues and hospitals employed and served multiracial populations.” (1) This is seen in the photos of African American men working for a handful of animal shelters, including the SPCA during this time period. Our next section will introduce you to some of those men.

Be sure to open the photographs linked at the top if you didn’t already. While we don’t have the permissions to post all of the photographs we found, the links allow you to view them in the library’s archives. These photos show several African American men working at animal shelters in Philadelphia (notably the PSPCA) in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. 

From the photos linked above as well as THIS article, we know that many African American men worked at Philadelphia area animal shelters and Veterinary hospitals to help abandoned, injured, and neglected animals in the 1950s- 1970s (1). One of those men is Charles Spencer. Charles Spencer worked as a supervisor at the Pennsylvania SPCA kennel in the 1960s and 70s and can be seen capturing a lion and handling a pheasant in the above linked photos (1). Two additional men are named Ernest Cooke and Rufus Caldwell, seen handling a bird outside of a van labeled “Ambulance for small animals” in one photo. Another photo shows a group of six African American men handling malnourished dogs outside of a “SPCA Animal Control van.” According to the article, “the attached description reported that the SPCA employees removed around 40 dogs and cats who were sick and malnourished: 'it took three trucks and six men from SPCA to complete the job'” (1). 

Photos and information about the extent of the work of African Americans in the beginnings of animal sheltering and animal adoptions is limited and complex within the context of U.S. history. We are honored to acknowledge the contributions of Charles Spencer, Ernest Cooke, Rufus Caldwell, and the many, many unnamed, unphotographed African American men and women who worked to advance animal sheltering everyday, often with little to no public credit given. Be sure to check out our sources below and we will see you next week for another article! 

Credits to all sourcing of information provided are linked below. Photographs are credited at the top. We highly recommend reading the full articles for an in-depth look at the history and experience of pet ownership by Black families that extends into the present. We also highly recommend poking around in the Temple Library, Free Public Library, or other University Library archives for even more photos. We will see you next week with another article! 

Author: Sarah Meding