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January 29, 2023

Herman Wrice’s War on Drugs

The late Philadelphia activist showed how communities can fight back against a plague.

Autumn 2022

The Social Order

Whether it was the sweltering heat, the rarity of the visit, or good advertising from the White House, the West Philadelphia Community Center was exuberant on a July day in 1990, when it welcomed President George H. W. Bush to speak about the devastating effects of crack cocaine. The president described how some neighborhoods had become “a war zone of despair.” He spoke with special pride of the city’s fight against addiction. He singled out children in the crowd who, he said, had “the right idea—no crack in Philadelphia except for the one in the Liberty Bell.” And he told the story of 11-year-old James, who used to work as a lookout for drug dealers because he was afraid to ask his crack-addicted mother for money. Someone helped James break out of the drug trade—a “towering mountain of a man who started a whole movement by declaring war on a crack house with a sledgehammer,” whom James now called “Dad.” This man, Bush said, was “the John Wayne of Philadelphia”: a white-hat cowboy who had spent the last three years leading hundreds of community marches, protests, and crack-house evictions in a battle against drugs in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods.

That man was Herman Wrice. As a boy, he lived in a tiny village without running water or electricity, but he would emerge as a crucial figure in one of America’s great cities. In the 1960s, he led a community organization that helped provide employment assistance to blacks yearning to improve their lot. In the 1980s, as the crack crisis swept Philadelphia, Wrice became known nationwide for shutting down crack houses, leading community marches to reclaim neighborhood blocks, and pioneering guerilla tactics in a grassroots war on drugs. “You are getting your job done right here,” Bush said to Wrice and his compatriots, “in efforts like the all-night bonfire vigil one rainy night when 300 of you in white hard hats closed down drug action on Indiana Avenue. When you lit that first bonfire, you were lighting more than just one flame against the cold: setting up a beacon of hope against evil, a symbol to other communities in despair.”

Though his name is still remembered in some quarters, Wrice has faded from American memory since his death in 2000. Before then, he had traveled from city to city to teach communities what he had learned in fighting the drug crisis. He was a quintessential figure of the 1990s urban renaissance, when mayors, community organizers, and neighborhoods looked at two decades of disorder and decay and said, “Enough.” Such problems have now returned: drugs kill 100,000 Americans annually; violent crime and disorder have surged in cities across the country. Communities eager for solutions have something to learn from Herman Wrice’s story.

Born in 1939, Wrice spent his early years in Crites, West Virginia, a 90-person, 25-house mining village. He and his sister, Dolores, were left there in their grandparents’ care—their father was serving in World War II, while their mother took a factory job in Indianapolis. Crites was not easy to live in, particularly for a black boy. When Wrice’s integrated school bus was forcibly resegregated, he and the other black children rode to school in the back of a coal truck.

Herman Wrice’s War on Drugs

Posted by ACASA on January 29, 2023 at 08:30 PM | Permalink


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