Looking Back at the Integration of Girard College

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NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams looks back at the racial integration of Girard College, a prestigious private school in Philadelphia.

ED GORDON, host:

Now the story of another education lawsuit. NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams traces the results of efforts almost 40 years ago to integrate a Philadelphia institution, Girard College.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Charles Hicks, class of 1974, returned to his school earlier this year to address the student body, a group now overwhelmingly black and female.

Mr. CHARLES HICKS (Girard College Graduate): You want to remember the plaintiffs of the court case, because without them there would not be any integration of Girard College; the bomb threats, the hate mail, the racial slander and the various things that children had to go through in order to just attend school.

WILLIAMS: Hicks was one of those plaintiffs and one of four black students who entered the gates of Girard College in September of 1968. That day marked the end of a four-year social and legal battle that brought down the walls of segregation around Girard. Girard was founded over 175 years ago by Stephen Girard, one of the richest men in the world at the time. The charter stated that the school would be for fatherless, poor white boys. And for more than a century, the beautiful 43-acre campus in downtown Philadelphia fulfilled its mission. Girard president Dominic Cermele.

Mr. DOMINIC CERMELE (Girard President): He left the very bulk of his fortune to establish a school for poor children, a residential school, where children could grow, learn and lead lives as productive citizens. That is a great legacy, flawed though it might be.

WILLIAMS: That flawed legacy began to change 10 years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Two men made the difference. William Coleman worked the courts, and Cecil Moore worked the streets. Moore was the head of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP and rallied residents near Girard. Meldorn Shamlin lived in the neighborhood and picketed Girard.

Mr. MELDORN SHAMLIN: We had to go into the streets. We were forced to picket, if you will, to exercise our rights under the Constitution. And from that, we ended up at seven months and 17 days, non-stop, 24-7.

WILLIAMS: The protesters called themselves Freedom Fighters and attracted attention from national figures, including Martin Luther King Jr. Meldorn Shamlin.

Mr. SHAMLIN: When Dr. King came up to Girard College, he helped endorse the movement and put it to another level, because when you talk, he talked like we act. We was non-violent; we were direct action.

WILLIAMS: As street protests gathered force, William Coleman began to win in court. In all, his legal odyssey took four years. The case was appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Finally, in 1968, Girard College let four young African-American boys through its gates. Twelve-year-old Charles Hicks, his brother, Theodore, and two others were the first to break the color barrier.

Mr. HICKS: It was very racially charged for all of the six years that I was here at Girard. And I had very few friends while I was here at all.

WILLIAMS: The school staff tried to help him fit in, but some other students weren't so open-minded.

Mr. HICKS: One of my classmates used to walk by my bed every night before lights out and told me that he was going to kill me in my sleep. Every night, that was his ritual.

WILLIAMS: The school admitted more and more blacks each year, and the atmosphere changed. Leonard Hook attended Girard a few years after Charles Hicks. His experience was quite different.

Mr. LEONARD HOOK (Girard College Graduate): Initially, it was hard, because you were two blacks in a class, and there was a lot of racism and things going on, but we--in the lower classes, we eventually learned how to work together, and learned how to love each other. Some of my best friends are white.

WILLIAMS: Hook would become the first African-American school body president.

Mr. HOOK: When I graduated, it was one-third black enrollment, and I was elected by two-thirds of a white majority. I mean, I ran against a white candidate who was a, you know, popular white student, and it wasn't a white-black vote. It was the person that they thought was the best candidate.

WILLIAMS: Hook won the school's prestigious Keyman Award(ph) for the most well-rounded student in 1977. His classmate, Theodore Hicks, Charles' brother, became the first black valedictorian. Seven years after that, Girard admitted its first female student. Leonard Hook believes the school has finally overcome its racial past.

Mr. HOOK: Right now I think the school is in the best seat that I've ever seen. They've accepted the community. The older alumni has accepted the younger alumni, i.e., the black alumni. The administration is working hand in hand; the parents are on board. And, I mean, I can just only see great things for Girard College in the future.

WILLIAMS: The school president publicly apologized for the first time for Girard's past discrimination.

Mr. CERMELE: Mrs. Hicks, as president of Girard College, I want to offer you an apology for having made you wait so long to have your sons admitted to Girard College.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. CERMELE: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Eight out of every 10 students in last year's class was African-American. More than half were female. Just 14 out of almost 700 were white. Joe Potter(ph) is one of only a few whites in the last graduating class. He studied for 12 years at Girard and thinks the school is now less diverse.

Mr. JOE POTTER (Girard College Graduate): When I first came here, it was really diverse, and as time went on, it mostly became more African-American populated, and it's not so much a bad thing. We'll say I don't get the chance to taste everything when it comes to a lot of the multiculturals of everyone.

WILLIAMS: President Dominic Cermele agrees. He says the next step is to define what diversity means to the school and what its benefits are and then...

Mr. CERMELE: Start recruiting a wider and broader makeup of our student body, not only recruit them, but then make sure that they're all comfortable.

WILLIAMS: Something Charles Hicks welcomes.

Mr. HICKS: There's a potential for African-Americans to apply bigotry to other individuals that don't look like them.

WILLIAMS: Juan Williams, NPR News.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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