Michael Eric Dyson’s Black History Month All Stars

All Star#17: Ethel Allen

Over the last several years in Philadelphia, we have witnessed the erection of the first monument to a Black man in our city, abolitionist Octavius Catto; the first mural to a legal and civic giant, A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr.; a community effort to rename a street from Taney — named for the Supreme Court justice who wrote the Dred Scott decision — for Caroline LeCount, Philly’s own Rosa Parks; and a school renamed from racist president Andrew Jackson to former slave-turned-educator Fanny Coppin Jackson.

Like these people, to me, the All Stars are the everyday folks who are doing the heavy lifting for their race and culture: Teachers, sanitation workers, people who work the traffic lights and run nurseries — both for kids and for your grass — the people who are clerks in local stores. They are the preachers who reach masses of people on a daily basis; the writers whose praises don’t get as well-sung as they should; the social activists who are out there trying to make a better life for us even when we don’t understand what’s at stake.

These are the people Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., referred to as the “ground crew without whose labor and sacrifices the jet flights to freedom could never have left the earth.”


Ethel Allen

Politician, Physician

Ethel Allen

Politician, Physician


Philadelphia native Ethel Allen was an osteopathic physician and politician within state government and Philadelphia City Council. Allen tried for seven years to get into medical school, before she was finally accepted at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine as the only African American and only woman in the Obstetrics-Gynecology Society. From there, she received her Doctor of Osteopathy in 1963.

Although Ethel Allen was born to parents active in the Democratic political scene, she volunteered for Republican efforts. She worked with politicians like Dwight D. Eisenhower and described herself as a “B.F.R. — a Black, female Republican, an entity as rare as a Black elephant and just as smart” and also as a “ghetto practitioner,” as she often dealt with dangerous circumstances in Philadelphia’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods. Once she was robbed on the job by four men who attempted to steal drugs from her medical bag. She escaped by wielding her gun, sending the robbers running.

This incident prompted Allen to become more involved in politics. In 1971, she ran for Philadelphia City Council and unseated the incumbent Democrat in the Fifth District. Allen supported the creation of the Philadelphia Youth Commission to address issues with urban gangs. She later ran for one of the At-Large seats on City Council and acquired one of the two spots reserved for non-Democrats. She was also Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. She was known to clash with Frank Rizzo and Council President George Schwartz.


  • Spoke for Gerald Ford at the Republican National Convention in 1976
  • Named by Esquire magazine as one 12 outstanding women politicians in 1975
  • First African American woman on City Council
  • The Dr. Ethel Allen Promise Academy, an elementary school in Strawberry Mansion, is named in Allen’s honor. 

Final Word: According to an Inquirer story after her death, “When Dr. Ethel D. Allen tackled a problem, which was often, she did so with enthusiasm and vigor that inspired others to join in the endeavor. When she sought to remedy an injustice, which was frequently, she held unwaveringly to the view that this world can be made a better place if people work hard enough and resolve firmly to make it so.”

Reporting by Aly Kerrigan and Ethan Young.

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