In 1954, the Delaware River Port Authority renamed the 30 year old Delaware River Bridge the “Benjamin Franklin Bridge.” To complement the honor given to Philadelphia’s most beloved citizen, they further recommended that the new bridge that was being built just to the south be named after a corresponding New Jersey notable – poet and essayist Walt Whitman.
Plans proceeded smoothly until 1955, when the Port Authority received a letter from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden, asking for a reconsideration of naming the bridge after Whitman, since “his life and works are personally objectionable to us.” Within a short time a controversy was raging. Hundreds of mimeographed form letters were sent to the Port Authority by outraged Catholic adults and school children, indicating an organized effort to demand a name change for the South Philadelphia bridge. In a veiled reference to Whitman’s homoeroticism, the text of the letters stated, among other objections “He boasted of his immoralities and published immorality as a personal experience. “ The Camden diocese paper was more explicit, saying "Whitman's major works exhibit a revolting homosexual imagery that is not confined to a few isolated passages but permeates the fetid whole."
A complete account of the situation was sent to the state’s Attorney General’s office, but by 1956, the tempest had died down. The Port Authority ignored the objections and the structure remains the Walt Whitman Bridge today.
It’s interesting to speculate what Whitman, that visionary of American participatory democracy, would have thought of the whole affair.
- Bob Skiba, Curator, the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives of Philadelphia