There is always much talk about integration, segregation, and desegregation. There is less talk of the power Black families hold and a blueprint Black parents can use to make demands that create seismic shifts for what they believe their children need.
Outside of Philadelphia, two decades before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the Brown vs Board of Education’s case, the integrated school districts of Tredyffrin and Easttown townships, enrolled all students – regardless of race. Black and white students attended the same schools. People in the townships were excited about the two new schools being built. Things weren’t perfect, but there was a sense of hope for Black parents with children enrolled in these integrated schools.
But, racism knows no bounds, even when there are elementary children involved. Unbeknownst to the Black community, the winds were changing. No one knew about the school districts’ plan to use the two new school buildings as an opportunity to design a race-based school enrollment plan until the local newspaper’s headline screamed, “Townships Will Provide Exclusive Colored School.”
The plan was that all “colored” students from both Tredyffrin and Easttown townships would be relocated to two old school buildings. Everyone in these two schools would be Black as well; students, custodial staff, and teachers.
In the meantime, as is often the case, truth is mixed with oppression and falsehood, giving a hint of truth, but possessing a stench odor. The principal, who was to supervise both Black schools, described the reason to force transfer all the Black students out of the integrated schools as follows:
The colored children progress far more rapidly under colored teachers, who are better able to understand the natures of their children and very often mix with the parents socially and know intimately the home conditions.
By the way, the White elementary school students would be bussed to the brand new building, leaving the raggedy old buildings for the Black children.
However, the Black community rallied and resisted. In a meeting attended by hundreds of Black residents (and some White), it was declared that the school boards’ decision,
…tends not toward the betterment and benefit of the conditions surrounding the negro school children, but rather toward the degradation and segregation … the colored people cannot see why they should be forced to use an old school building no longer wanted by the school board when they, like the white residents of the same section, have paid taxes to support the building of the new $250,000 grade school in Berwyn.
Of course, the school boards’ decision, while not explicitly referencing, had the same stench as the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy vs Ferguson, separate but “equal” was fully constitutional.
Black parents refused to send their kids to the dilapidated buildings and, essentially boycotted the “new” and segregated schools. While local school authorities did not initially attempt to force the issue, the state threatened to withhold funding if the school districts did not. And, eventually, warrants were issued for the boycotting families.
Meanwhile, a local Black attorney, Raymond Pace Alexander, the first Wharton School of Law graduate, agreed to represent the Black families, however, no Black person had ever been admitted to the bar in the counties that the case could be heard. Eventually, a White ally supported Raymond Alexander’s quest for admittance to the bar.
The stage was set for a battle. The Tredyffrin-Easttown Quarterly Archives captures what happened next:
On October 19, 1933, the first four black fathers, all from Berwyn, were arrested and transported in handcuffs to the Chester County Prison to begin their 5-day sentences for refusing to pay their $2.50 fine. It was recalled that these four volunteered to lead the scores still to be jailed, and said of the jailing: “Someone has to go first – let it be us.”
In the end, a [Black] mother with an infant in arms finally broke the cycle of jailings. Recollection names this woman as a Mrs. Williams, who refused on principle to have her fine paid by the NAACP. Knowing that her husband would certainly be fired from his job if he did not show up for work, she agreed to go to jail with her baby in his place so that her husband could keep working to support their family. The crushing logic of her stand caused the court to cease arresting parents.
The stalemate continued until Attorney General Schnader, who initially refused to get involved in the “school fight”, decided that he desperately wanted to be the next Pennsylvania governor and determined he needed the Black vote. He announced his support for the Black families on March of 1933.
A month later, the school districts ended their forced segregation policy. Students returned to school, but many had fallen behind academically, needed to repeat grades and were often taunted by white classmates about being “dumb.”
This little known story can be used as a blueprint for Black communities as well as legacy organizations like the NAACP to fight for equity and justice while using the context of the community being served and organized.
As we see (once again) in the Democratic presidential debates, the elite are severely disconnected from Black parents’ realities when it comes to their children’s experiences and outcomes in our public schools. Black parents, as Dr Charles Cole reminded us on the 8 Black Hands podcast, we are on our own. However, as parents, we have the power. At some point, we may have to, once again, opt out and boycott the madness altogether.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.