Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Picketing at Girard College began in May 1965 and continued through December of that year. Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA

Picketing at Girard College began in May 1965 and continued through December of that year.
Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA

The American Civil Rights Movement focused public attention on segregation in the South and the laws and practices that kept Southern Blacks disenfranchised. By the late 1950s places such as Montgomery, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Greensboro, North Carolina, had become household names in the battle to dismantle the racial caste system of “Jim Crow.” But discrimination based on race, much of it structural, also existed in the North, including Pennsylvania.

A new long-term exhibition now on display at The State Museum of Pennsylvania explores three pivotal events from the Civil Rights Movement in Pennsylvania: the effort to desegregate Pittsburgh’s public swimming pools in the early 1950s, led by nascent civil rights leader Rev. LeRoy Patrick; the integration of the all-white community of Levittown in 1957, following the arrival of William and Daisy Myers, its first Black residents; and the decades-long battle to integrate Girard College, a struggle that intensified in 1965 under the direction of local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leader Cecil B. Moore and culminated in 1968 with the admission of the first African American students to the previously all-white Philadelphia boarding school for orphans.

A Place for All builds on a series of temporary displays originally developed in the early 2000s by Eric Ledell Smith (1949–2008), a historian for the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission who specialized in documenting the commonwealth’s African American experience. As was true of Smith’s original exhibits, the new exhibit at The State Museum draws heavily on first-person accounts of those who struggled to achieve racial integration and those who documented their collective bravery, strength and resilience in the face of bigotry.

 

A Story of Resilience: The Integration of Levittown

“We knew that the new suburb called Levittown, ‘the most perfectly planned community in America,’ was supposed to be lily-white and, as far as we could tell, the builder planned to keep it that way. But we also knew that, in theory — if not in fact — any American was free to purchase a home anywhere.”
— Daisy Myers

The Myers family — from left, Bill, William III, Lynda, Daisy and Stephen — pose in the living room of their new home for a feature story in Look magazine. Their move to the all-white community of Levittown overlapped with events at Little Rock, Arkansas, where nine Black students enrolled in an all-white public high school. Look Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The Myers family — from left, Bill, William III, Lynda, Daisy and Stephen — pose in the living room of their new home for a feature story in Look magazine. Their move to the all-white community of Levittown overlapped with events at Little Rock, Arkansas, where nine Black students enrolled in an all-white public high school.
Look Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In August 1957 William “Bill” Myers (1923–1987) and Daisy Myers (1925–2011) moved to Levittown, Bucks County, in the hopes of making a better life for themselves.

In many respects, the couple was indistinguishable from the thousands of other young families attracted to the sprawling suburb northeast of Philadelphia. Bill Myers, a York County native, was an Army veteran. After the war, he attended college in Hampton, Virginia, where he met his future wife, Daisy. As was common at the time, Daisy became a stay-at-home mother to her two young boys, while Bill went off to work as a refrigeration engineer.

What separated Bill and Daisy Myers from the rest of Levittown was the color of their skin, a fact that made their otherwise unremarkable move historic.

Levittown was by no means unique in being “lily-white,” as Daisy described it. Most of the suburbs built in the decade after World War II were, to a greater or lesser degree, white, Protestant and middle class. What made Levittown unique was its distinction as America’s best-known suburb, a status it achieved with the opening of its first mass housing development on Long Island just after the war in 1947. Levitt & Sons, the builders, were alternately praised and vilified for having revolutionized the manufacture and sale of suburban housing and for having put the American dream of home ownership within the reach of ordinary Americans.

William and Stephen Myers were only 5 and 3 when they moved to Levittown. “My children will never play with them” one resident told a reporter. Look Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

William and Stephen Myers were only 5 and 3 when they moved to Levittown. “My children will never play with them” one resident told a reporter.
Look Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Levitt tagged his second development, which he intended to build on some 5,000 acres in lower Bucks County, as “the most perfectly planned community in America.” But as on Long Island, the opportunity to purchase a home there was restricted to whites. Despite pressure from the NAACP and other civil rights groups, the builder adamantly refused to sell to African Americans. “We can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a race problem,” William Levitt said in response to his critics, “but we cannot combine the two.” Levitt justified his position in straightforward business terms: “As a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice. But I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 or 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. This is their attitude, not ours.”

For Bill and Daisy Myers, the decision to move to Levittown was equally pragmatic: With a third child on the way, they were in the market for a larger house, ideally in a safe neighborhood close to good schools. In the spring of 1957, an acquaintance introduced them to a neighbor who was willing to sell to an African American family. (Levitt controlled new house sales but not resales on the private market.) That May, the couple closed on a house at 43 Deepgreen Lane in the Dogwood Hollow section, one of 40 such “sections” that comprised the sprawling community of 17,000 homes and nearly 70,000 residents.

Lew Wechsler, the friend who helped arrange the meeting between the Myerses and the sellers, was eager to welcome them. He and his wife Bea were committed social progressives and believed in both the social and moral value of integration. The Wechslers’ neighbors, upon hearing the news that a Black family was poised to move to Dogwood Hollow, were reportedly nonplussed. “What can happen?” one neighbor told them after learning the identity of their new neighbor. “We live north of the Mason–Dixon line, don’t we?”

A rock shattered the picture window of the Myers house on the evening of August 13, after Bill and Daisy had finished moving in for the day. Violence continued for the next eight days. Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA

A rock shattered the picture window of the Myers house on the evening of August 13, after Bill and Daisy had finished moving in for the day. Violence continued for the next eight days.
Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA

As it would turn out, racial bigotry did not respect sectional boundaries. As word that the Myers family had taken possession of the house spread, a crowd of curious onlookers gathered outside the home. That evening, after the couple had finished moving in boxes for the day, someone hurled a rock through their picture window, a discovery that Daisy and Bill would make the next morning. “Here was a rock less than an ounce carrying tons of hatred throughout the world,” Daisy would later write.

Over the next few days, the throng assembled outside the Myers house grew larger and more unruly. The Bristol Township police did their best to keep them at bay, but the assemblage was becoming increasingly defiant and local officials feared violence. On Thursday, August 15, Bucks County sheriff Leroy Murray telegrammed Gov. George Leader to request assistance. Leader responded by dispatching State Police to stand guard in front of the Myers home.

The presence of state law enforcement brought a degree of calm. On Monday, August 19, after the utilities were turned on that weekend, Bill, Daisy and baby Lynda spent their first night in their new home, but the fact that they were now living there did nothing to dissuade the large nightly gatherings. Events culminated on the eighth day, when a mob, refusing to disperse, surrounded a cruiser and charged a police line. Minutes later, a Bristol Township police officer was felled by a rock thrown by someone in the crowd. The incident prompted authorities to impose an immediate ban on all public gatherings. Bill and Daisy Myers, stressed and exhausted but still determined to exercise their right to live where they wished, were finally able to complete their move-in.

The arrival of the Myers family exposed deep fault lines in the superficially tranquil setting of Midcentury Modern ranch houses, community swimming pools, newly constructed elementary schools, and neatly landscaped backyards. Jim Newell, a transplant from North Carolina, headed up the Levittown Betterment Association (LBA), a group formed in response to the Myers family’s arrival. The LBA organized and led the assembled mob that gathered nightly outside the Myers home — in photographs, Newell was often seen in the center of the crowd, exhorting his fellow segregationists by shouting into a paper megaphone.

Jim Newell, right with megaphone, works up a crowd in front of the Myers family home in August 1957. Eight individuals with ties to his group, the Levittown Betterment Association, were later charged with harassment and criminal conspiracy. Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA

Jim Newell, right with megaphone, works up a crowd in front of the Myers family home in August 1957. Eight individuals with ties to his group, the Levittown Betterment Association, were later charged with harassment and criminal conspiracy.
Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA

After the ban on public gatherings, Newell and his cohorts shifted operations to an empty house directly behind the Myers home. From their new encampment, the segregationists conducted a campaign of harassment intended to break the Myerses’ resolve and drive them out of town. (Among other tactics, the squatters flew a large Confederate flag and blared songs such as “Dixie,” “Old Black Joe” and “Old Man River” at top volume.) In her memoir, Daisy referred to it as “the Confederate clubhouse.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum were the Wechslers and an assortment of other race liberals, including a contingent of old-line Philadelphia Quakers who provided both moral and legal support to the Myers family. But the most prominent organization to emerge during the crisis was the Levittown Citizens Committee (LCC). Headed by Rev. Ray Harwick, pastor of the Levittown Evangelical and Reformed Church, the LCC believed that the mob actions, widely reported in the press, reflected poorly on the community of otherwise law-abiding citizens who called Levittown home.

Over the ensuing weeks and months, Harwick and other members of the LCC worked tirelessly to restore peace to Levittown. The group placed full-page ads in the Levittown Times, collected signatures, and held public meetings to encourage Levittowners’ “better natures.” Though the LCC remained steadfast in its support of the Myers family — as individuals — to live in Levittown, it stopped short of making statements in support of racial integration as a public policy.

The action of the LCC, along with Bill and Daisy’s own personal network of friends and supporters, allowed the Myers family to establish a degree of normalcy for themselves and their children as late summer slipped into autumn. A profile of the family in Look magazine, reported that fall, followed the Myerses as they engaged in their daily activities. Photographs showed the boys riding their tricycles on the sidewalks, playing in the backyard, and walking to and from school, while Bill and Daisy went about their normal routine, making repairs to their new house, and spending time with friends and family.

Daisy Myers holds her infant daughter Lynda during the turmoil that followed their move to Levittown in August 1957. Look Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Daisy Myers holds her infant daughter Lynda during the turmoil that followed their move to Levittown in August 1957.
Look Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

That fall, criminal mischief, harassment and conspiracy charges were pursued against members of the LBA, several of whom were arrested after having been found guilty of painting “KKK” on the side of the Wechslers’ house. There were also rumors of cross burnings attributed to the group. In December, a Bucks County judge issued a permanent injunction against several members of the association, and Newell’s bid for local public office was soundly rebuffed.

The following summer, the Myerses were joined in Levittown by a second African American family, Kenneth and Julia Mosby. Though they were not necessarily welcomed with open arms, the Mosbys would not see the same angry mobs that Daisy witnessed outside her picture window the summer before. Perhaps most importantly, in 1960, Levitt himself reversed course. His third Levittown, located across the Delaware River in New Jersey, began as an all-white community when it opened in 1958. But after a racial discrimination lawsuit filed against him was upheld in state court, Levitt agreed to sell to both African Americans and whites. The Myerses themselves ended up relocating to another part of the state after Bill took a new job. The family eventually settled in Bill’s hometown of York.

Some 40 years later, in 1999, Levittown extended an official apology to the Myers family, a formal acknowledgment of the mistreatment they had suffered that summer. Bill had passed away in 1987, but Daisy returned to Levittown for the ceremony. When she died in 2011, the York Daily Record hailed her as “The Rosa Parks of the North.”

 

A Story of Bravery: The Integration of Pittsburgh’s Public Pools

“The virtues of courtesy and deference to high placed persons [can no longer] delay the undenied and undeniable rights of any person to enjoy public-owned facilities. . . . Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Pittsburgh Courier

Pittsburgh officials declared Highland Park pool “open to all” during its first season in 1931, but Blacks who attempted to enter were attacked and forced out by white swimmers. This c. 1940 postcard shows the pool’s two large tanks — one for wading and one for swimming. Pennsylvania State Archives, MG-213

Pittsburgh officials declared Highland Park pool “open to all” during its first season in 1931, but Blacks who attempted to enter were attacked and forced out by white swimmers. This c. 1940 postcard shows the pool’s two large tanks — one for wading and one for swimming.
Pennsylvania State Archives, MG-213

There were no “whites only” signs in the North, but many public facilities located above the Mason–Dixon line after World War II were still segregated by race despite there being laws on the books prohibiting such practices. Pennsylvania’s Equal Rights Bill, adopted in 1935, imposed fines and imprisonment for operators — of restaurants, hotels, streetcars, movie theaters and any places of “entertainment or amusement” — who were found guilty of racial discrimination. But the law was unevenly enforced, and its intent was too easily evaded. It was not uncommon for business owners to permit Blacks access to a given accommodation, for instance, but then simply look the other way when they were harassed or driven out by white patrons and customers.

Such was the case at many public swimming pools in Pennsylvania’s larger cities, both before and after the war. When Highland Park pool opened in Pittsburgh in 1930, the city declared the new facility to be “open to all.” The resort-style facility, the first of its kind, featured two large tanks, one for wading and the other for swimming. When combined, the two pools ran the length of a football field and were nearly twice as wide. The grounds surrounding the pools included a sandy beach and a concrete deck for sunbathing. On hot summer afternoons, Highland Park drew more than 10,000 swimmers a day.

Alexander Allen’s ejection from Highland Park in June 1951 strengthened the resolve of the African American community to desegregate the all-white public pool, the city’s largest. Allen was executive secretary of the Urban League of Pittsburgh at the time. Courtesy of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Alexander Allen’s ejection from Highland Park in June 1951 strengthened the resolve of the African American community to desegregate the all-white public pool, the city’s largest. Allen was executive secretary of the Urban League of Pittsburgh at the time.
Courtesy of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Despite official statements to the contrary, African Americans who attempted to swim there were not welcome. During the first season, gangs of white youths patrolled the pool and attacked Black swimmers who entered the water; in some instances, Blacks were literally “beaten out of the pool.” Police assigned to the detail either looked the other way or arrested Blacks and charged them with “inciting to riot.” The situation incensed Pittsburgh’s African American leaders, who argued that they were being denied city services to which they were entitled as law-abiding taxpayers. City officials attempted to diffuse the situation by directing Black swimmers to a nearby facility that had been abandoned by whites after Highland Park opened. The small, dilapidated, out-of-the-way Katherine Kline pool embodied “separate and unequal.” The Pittsburgh Courier pronounced it a “Jim Crow pool.”

The situation at Highland Park remained largely unchanged until after World War II, at which point civil rights leaders renewed efforts to exercise their constitutional right to swim there. The experience of the war itself had exposed the glaring double standard of institutionalized racism, especially as Black veterans who fought against tyranny abroad returned to a country that denied an entire race their most basic liberties at home.

Such thoughts may have been on the mind of Alexander “Joe” Allen (1916–1984) when, in June 1951, he decided to test the accessibility of Highland Park. Three years earlier, groups supportive of integration, including the Urban League for which Allen had served as executive secretary, dispatched teams of African American and white swimmers to Highland Park in the hopes of desegregating the pool through collective action. The groups also picketed outside the City-County Building. But the effort collapsed after the police were called in to break up clashes between the protestors and white swimmers there. Public support also suffered when one of the organizers was tied to the Communist Party.

Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908-98), a photographer for the Black-owned Pittsburgh Courier, documented the desegregation effort at Highland Park Pool. He photographed this lifeguard teaching a boy how to swim at the pool in 1951. At the end of the 1952 season, city officials announced that African Americans had accessed Highland Park 5,000 times that summer. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh: Heinz Family Fund, 2001.35.3073 © Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive

Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908–98), a photographer for the Black-owned Pittsburgh Courier, documented the desegregation effort at Highland Park Pool. He photographed this lifeguard teaching a boy how to swim at the pool in 1951. At the end of the 1952 season, city officials announced that African Americans had accessed Highland Park 5,000 times that summer.
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh: Heinz Family Fund, 2001.35.3073 © Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive

Allen settled on a more low-key approach this time: He would simply enter the pool, unannounced. He and a colleague were able to do so, but once inside, the pair were surrounded by a gang of white youths and forcibly ejected.

The inhospitable treatment accorded to one of Pittsburgh’s most respected civil rights leaders aroused indignation throughout Pittsburgh’s Black community and prompted NAACP attorneys to file suit against the city. City officials conceded their legal obligation to provide access to African Americans, but they argued that they could not be held responsible for their safety once they entered. The litigants countered that by refusing to protect Blacks who attempted to swim at Highland Park, the city was abdicating its moral obligation and directly contributing to an unsafe situation. With fights between African Americans and whites occurring on a near-daily basis, Highland Park had become a public nuisance. The suit demanded that the pool be closed.

As the legal action proceeded, Rev. LeRoy Patrick (1915–2006), pastor of the Bethesda Presbyterian church in Homewood, moved forward with his own plan. After learning of the situation, Patrick organized an interracial youth group from his church and escorted them to Highland Park. Despite jeers and taunts, the group entered the pool and stood their ground long enough to make it known that they would not be intimidated. Patrick was new to Pittsburgh, a fact that he later credited with strengthening his resolve. “I didn’t know we weren’t allowed to swim in the pool. The more I thought about it the more incensed I became.”

Rev. LeRoy Patrick, second from left in this photo by Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908–98), escorted a church youth group to Highland Park pool in 1951. The following year, he and his young followers successfully integrated Paulson pool, another all-white pool in Pittsburgh’s East End. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh: Heinz Family Fund, 2001.35.44853 © Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive

Rev. LeRoy Patrick, second from left in this photo by Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908–98), escorted a church youth group to Highland Park pool in 1951. The following year, he and his young followers successfully integrated Paulson pool, another all-white pool in Pittsburgh’s East End.
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh: Heinz Family Fund, 2001.35.44853 © Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive

The combination of legal pressure and organized “swim-ins” eventually began to have their intended effects. The following year, in 1954, Patrick targeted a second “white” pool, Paulson Pool in the city’s East End. As at Highland Park, Patrick and his group were met with taunts, jeers, stone throwing and physical violence. One young African American boy who attempted to swim there was attacked by a gang of white youths and landed in the hospital. But progress was being made: At the close of the season on Labor Day, the city reported that African Americans had accessed Highland Park 5,000 times that summer. In response, the NAACP dropped its lawsuit against the city.

For LeRoy Patrick, the most convincing evidence of the shift was a chance encounter he had with a young boy he saw outside his home in East Liberty. According to Patrick, the boy was nonchalantly strolling down the street with a towel and swimsuit tucked under his arm. “I asked him where he was going. ‘To Highland Park Pool!’ he responded indignantly. I knew then that the battle was won.”

 

A Story of Strength: The Integration of Girard College

“These boys been waking up a long time, and their mothers, and their fathers woke up a long time looking at something that was in America that they couldn’t have, and we think we’re just about getting close enough so we can have it. . . . This is only the beginning of the wall tumbling down.”
— Cecil B. Moore

The neighborhood surrounding Girard College was overwhelmingly African American by the 1960s. For many local residents, the school’s imposing 10-foot stone wall had become a potent symbol of racial exclusion. Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA

The neighborhood surrounding Girard College was overwhelmingly African American by the 1960s. For many local residents, the school’s imposing 10-foot stone wall had become a potent symbol of racial exclusion.
Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ended the “separate but equal” doctrine that had been used to maintain segregation in American schools. But as far reaching as the ruling was for education and other areas of American life, its provisions extended only to publicly funded schools. Many private schools in the North as well as the South continued to use race as the basis of admission.

Philadelphia’s Girard College was among those schools that managed to resist calls to integrate. At the time of the Brown ruling, Girard was one of the oldest philanthropic boarding schools in the country. Its founder, Stephen Girard, was one of the richest men in the country at the time of his death in 1831. But he also believed in providing for the less fortunate and in his will specified that the vast majority of his wealth be used to establish and maintain a school for “poor, male, white orphans.”

Cecil B. Moore was determined to integrate Girard after he became head of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP in 1963. Here he is seen between two young protestors after securing their release from prison; they had been arrested during a demonstration at the school in May 1965. Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA

Cecil B. Moore was determined to integrate Girard after he became head of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP in 1963. Here he is seen between two young protestors after securing their release from prison; they had been arrested during a demonstration at the school in May 1965.
Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA

At the time, the race stipulation drew little public attention. Slavery was a well-entrenched institution in the South and the population of free Blacks in the North was small. But with the end of slavery and the growth of Philadelphia’s African American community, the racially restrictive clause became increasingly misaligned with social reality. (The school drew most but not all of its student body from the Philadelphia area.) The disconnect only deepened during the 20th century as the metropolis became home to one of the largest African American populations in the country. By the early 1950s, the section of North Philadelphia that surrounded Girard’s 43-acre campus, encircled by a 10-foot-high stone wall, was predominantly Black.

The first salvo against Girard in the modern civil rights era occurred in 1953. That year, Raymond Pace Alexander, a Philadelphia city councilman and prominent civil rights attorney, passed a resolution demanding that the school admit African American students. Because the school received tax exempt status and elected public officials served on its board, Alexander argued that Girard should be bound by the same antidiscrimination laws that governed other public bodies. The following year, as the implications of the Brown ruling became clear, the matter was also pursued in the courts. Rather than bend to the new spirit of integration, Girard administrators chose in 1958 to dissolve the school’s current board and replace it with an entirely private board. The action allowed the school to evade compliance with Brown and continue to abide by the racially restrictive criteria outlined in Stephen Girard’s will.

The situation remained at a standstill until 1965. That year, the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, under the leadership of president Cecil B. Moore (1915– 1979), announced that it would be renewing the battle to integrate Girard. Moore, a brash and flamboyant former Philadelphia city councilman, was well suited to the task. He had served in the Marines during World War II and afterward moved to Philadelphia, where he attended law school at night. As a lawyer, Moore developed a reputation for fighting on behalf of his mostly poor, African American clients in North Philadelphia. During his short time in his new post, he had already distinguished himself from his predecessors through his willingness to take on entrenched powers in city hall and elsewhere. In 1963–64, for instance, he organized public protests against workplace discrimination in the Philadelphia construction industry.

Martin Luther King Jr. addressed protestors at Girard College on August 3, 1965, near the height of the demonstrations. Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA

Martin Luther King Jr. addressed protestors at Girard College on August 3, 1965, near the height of the demonstrations.
Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA

In May, Moore held a press conference to announce the start of pickets, seizing on the school’s iconic 10-foot wall as a potent symbol of racial exclusion. The city responded by sending several hundred police officers to stand guard in front of the school’s massive stone perimeter. The calm that prevailed over the largely peaceful demonstrations was broken when a handful of protestors were arrested while attempting to scale the wall. Moore personally saw to their release.

Despite the threat of arrest and the strong police presence, public support was on the side of the protestors. Over the next nine months, scores of supporters held vigils outside the school’s main gates in hopes of keeping the issue in front of city and state officials and shaming school administrators into rescinding the discriminatory admissions policy. In August, at the height of the public demonstration that year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Philadelphia, and specifically to Girard, to lend his powerful voice to the cause. King compared Girard, with its imposing wall, to a kind of “Berlin Wall” within a city known as the birthplace of American freedom. He urged the assembled throngs to continue the fight, which they did, daily for the next four months.

That December, the fight moved from the streets to the courts after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven Black students who had been denied admission because of their race. Soon afterward, the NAACP, the City of Philadelphia, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania joined the suit. With the case moving forward with broad support, the NAACP called off the pickets. The demonstration had taken place every day, come rain or shine, for the previous nine months and 17 days.

Although picketing resumed briefly in 1966, public attention focused on the court case, which eventually wound its way up to the federal level. The suit was finally settled in May 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from Girard, thus upholding a lower court’s decision requiring the school to integrate. Days after the ruling, the school’s board of trustees voted to admit its first Black students. In June, Moore held a victory rally to thank the hundreds of supporters who had participated in the struggle. Among those in attendance were Theodore “Ted” Hicks (b.1958) and Charles Hicks (1956–2021), whose mother, Marie Hicks (1923–2007), had been one of the original litigants.

Ted Hicks entered the first class at Girard in September 1968. He was soon joined there by his older brother Charles, who in 1974 became the first African American to graduate from the school. Ted, a few years younger, would become the school’s first Black valedictorian upon his graduation in 1977.

 

Cecil B. Moore, left, points to Charles and Ted Hicks, lower right, during a rally held to celebrate the NAACP’s victory in June 1968. Ted, along with three other African American students, broke the color line at Girard that September. Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA

Cecil B. Moore, left, points to Charles and Ted Hicks, lower right, during a rally held to celebrate the NAACP’s victory in June 1968. Ted, along with three other African American students, broke the color line at Girard that September.
Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA

During their time at Girard, both Ted and Charles participated fully in everything that the well-endowed school had to offer its students. They were both Boy Scouts, and mother Marie was the scoutmaster. Ted became a championship wrestler; Charles played tennis, ran track, and played saxophone in the school band. Both were accepted to the colleges of their choice and enjoyed successful careers made possible in large measure by the education they had received at Girard.

But for all the enrichment and academic excellence they absorbed, the Hicks brothers’ tenure at Girard was personally difficult for them. They encountered racism, both flagrant and subtle, on an almost daily basis. During his lowest moments, Ted recalled drawing strength from King’s personal counsel: “You are doing this on behalf of your people.” He also recalled the pathbreaking travails of Linda Brown. As a fourth grader in Topeka, Kansas — not much older than when Ted started — Brown was denied admission to a white public school, setting the stage for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.

Ted and Charles Hicks individually persevered and made history. So too did the school: Once entirely white, Girard is today 94 percent students of color and still sends the vast majority of its graduates on to four-year colleges. But as proud as the Hicks brothers were about how far their alma mater had come, the emotional wounds inflicted never fully healed. Interviewed years later, Charles Hicks, who died in 2021, described the isolation that came with being a trailblazer: “If you start change you’re sort of by yourself. I don’t think I want to be by myself too many times more.”

***

Although the fight for civil rights in Pennsylvania rarely drew the same attention as efforts in the American South, events here demonstrated that discrimination and racial bigotry were as entrenched above the Mason–Dixon line as below it. And yet in important ways, Pennsylvania diverged from the national narrative. When Black students attempted to enroll in an all-white public high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, on September 2, 1957, Gov. Orval Faubas called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent them from doing so. Two weeks earlier, when Bill and Daisy Myers were being intimidated by angry mobs outside their home in Levittown, Pennsylvania’s governor George Leader sent State Police to ensure their safety and protect their civil liberties, and an interfaith community group formed to support the Myerses’ right to live where they wished.

Writing years later, Daisy recalled the profound contrast, and the bittersweet reminder of the struggle, on a personal level: “Looking back, I have to say I lived a double life — segregation in the South when I was young and then integration in the North — almost like I’ve lived two distinct lives. Levittown was like a wound that healed and left a scar, with some goodness and some sadness. That’s true even until today.”

 

Further Reading

Countryman, Matthew. Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. / Myers, Daisy D. Sticks ‘n Stones: The Myers Family in Levittown. 2005; 2nd ed., York, PA: York County History Center, 2021. / Sugrue, Thomas J. Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. New York: Random House, 2008. / Trotter, Joe William, Jr., and Eric Ledell Smith, eds. African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission; University Park: Penn State Press, 1997. / Wiltse, Jeff. Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

 

This article highlights A Place for All: Three Stories of Integration in Pennsylvania, a long-term exhibition now running at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, featuring three landmark episodes of the Civil Rights Movement in Pennsylvania.

 

Curtis Miner, Ph.D., senior history curator at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, writes widely on Pennsylvania social and cultural history. His most recent articles for Pennsylvania Heritage are “After Suffrage: Pennsylvania’s Inaugural Class of Women Legislators” (Summer 2020) and “Ringing Out for Women’s Suffrage: The 1915 Campaign to Win the Vote for Women in Pennsylvania” (Fall 2019).