Remembering Commission Chair Clarence Farmer Sr.

As an early executive director and then chair of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, Clarence Farmer Sr. stood as a giant on the landscape of this city, with a reputation that spanned the nation. He passed away on Thursday, Jan. 30, at age 98, after a life well lived.

Farmer and Abernathy

Clarence Farmer Sr. (l.) and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy prepare for the 1968 Poor People’s March.

“In many ways, for many people, he was the very emblem of the justice, fairness, and dignity every resident in this city would come to expect,” said Rue Landau, the commission’s executive director. “He understood clearly that the people of Philadelphia deserved nothing less.

“There’s a reason that Clarence Farmer – much like the historic names of Sadie T. M. AlexanderRobert C. Nix Jr., Cecil B. MooreEthel Allen and Hardy Williams – evokes such a shared sense of pride and admiration. He not only helmed this agency, but he also helped to shape its vision and a path toward ensuring inclusive policies and protections for all of this city’s residents,” Landau said.

Farmer was long a fixture at the intersection of civil rights and social justice – from helping to root out police brutality to amplifying the voices of disenfranchised parents and students of the School District of Philadelphia to pushing for equality in housing, employment and development across the city.

Farmer and Rizzo

Clarence Farmer Sr. (r.) stands next to then-Police Commissioner Frank L. Rizzo Sr. listening to a disgruntled South Philadelphia crowd lambaste integration at Bok High School.

While his tenure began during the tumultuous ‘60s, he remained an actively involved and engaged civic leader well through the mid-80s.

So committed was he in his beliefs, that Farmer once led a coalition of civil rights and human relations advocates in blocking a local appointment to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission during the Reagan Administration, charging the candidate was absent from, if not, insensitive to such concerns. He was a force with which to reckon.

“For decades, he has been one of the most respected public leaders in the history of the city,” said Marshall E. Freeman, a current commissioner and a Farmer mentee. “In life sometimes, you are honored and privileged to meet some people who are ‘called.’

“These people are strong in their convictions and they come to us without any built-in pretense about self-importance. They see their life’s mission as a charge to just do good. Clarence Farmer understood this,” Freeman said.

That drive to “do good” extended beyond work on the commission, as his efforts also focused on cultural uplift as a means of achieving equality and his activism expanded beyond the immediate work of the commission. Farmer was fully devoted to economic empowerment and educational opportunity as well.

Clarence Farmer Sr. at work

Clarence Farmer Sr. was as devoted to equality as he was to education and self-determination through economic means and cultural expression.

An early entrepreneur, he used his expertise to assist other would-be ventures to launch, focusing on underrepresented classes of businesses owners. He also helped to co-found both the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum of Philadelphia (now the African American Museum in Philadelphia) and the Black Tennis Foundation of Philadelphia Inc., an organization devoted to developing and supporting aspiring players. His board duties spanned the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. to the Center for Urban Theological Studies to The Philadelphia Tribune, among others.

“While he has earned his rest and we mourn the loss of this great man, we also intend to celebrate his life by continuing the work he pursued with such passion on behalf of neighbors of all colors, creeds, abilities, national origins and orientations,” Landau added.

In lieu of flowers, the Farmer Family asks that donations be made to the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

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