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The native Black historical past hidden in Philadelphia’s faculty names


In Philadelphia and elsewhere, there’s recurring stress to rename colleges whose namesakes have racist, sexist, or in any other case notorious pasts.

  • By Avi Wolfman-Arent/Keystone Crossroads

February 1, 2021 | 7:35 AM

(Philadelphia) — Philadelphia’s faculty buildings are a tribute to its previous.

That’s true of the buildings themselves, a few of which date again over a century.

But it surely’s additionally a nod to the individuals commemorated within the names of these faculty buildings. These names — in methods large and small — assist inform town’s historical past.

The overwhelming majority of public colleges within the metropolis are named after white men. (The varsity-namers of yore have been a fan of Union Civil Warfare troopers and former faculty board officers.)

Nonetheless, in a metropolis that didn’t have a statue of a Black individual on public land until 2017, faculty buildings are among the many uncommon public areas with any echo of Philadelphia’s Black historical past.

On this handful of names with metropolis roots, there are tales lengthy forgotten and glimpses of an ignored previous. And to mark the beginning of Black Historical past Month, WHYY needed to inform a few of these tales.

Richard R. Wright Elementary

Take, as an illustration, Richard R. Wright Elementary in Strawberry Mansion.

No, the varsity will not be named after the famed novelist Richard N. Wright, writer of “Native Son” and “Black Boy.”

Richard R. Wright

Richard R. Wright, after whom the Strawberry Mansion elementary faculty is called. (Richard R. Wright Elementary College)

It’s named after a neighborhood trailblazer whose affect spanned states, sectors, and centuries.

Richard R. Wright Sr. was born into slavery round 1855 and lived most of his life in Georgia. He was the highest-ranking Black officer in the course of the Spanish-American Warfare and based the school that may go on to develop into Savannah State.

So why is he honored in Philadelphia?

Based on the oral historical past venture Goin’ North, which catalogs the Nice Migration to Philadelphia, Wright left Georgia round 1920 after a teller at a financial institution referred to as Residents and Southern “insulted and then assaulted” his daughter. Wright joined his son in Philadelphia, the place the pair shortly co-founded a financial institution, calling it, sure, Residents and Southern.

Residents and Southern grew to become a significant establishment within the native Black group, lending money to aspiring Black homeowners and entrepreneurs at a time when different banks charged exorbitant rates of interest to Black debtors. Whereas different banks flopped, Residents and Southern weathered the Nice Melancholy.

And thanks partly to the financial institution’s early efforts, Philadelphia gained a fame nationally as one of many uncommon locations the place Southern migrants might obtain homeownership, in accordance with Janneken Smucker, historian at West Chester College.

“[In Philadelphia] homeownership was a giant a part of Black identification throughout that period,” Smucker stated. “A financial institution like Residents and Southern is so distinct in that it provides that capital and permits households to realize this middle-class stability.”

Wright additionally had a pair of fascinating connections to the world of Philadelphia training. His granddaughter, Ruth Wright Hayre, was the primary full-time, Black highschool trainer in Philadelphia’s public colleges, the primary Black highschool principal, and the first Black superintendent.

Wright’s banking profession in Philadelphia additionally got here with a lift from Black educators. To get his new financial institution off the bottom, Wright received cash from the Negro Lecturers Affiliation, in accordance with the guide “Philadelphia: A 300-12 months Historical past.”

In essence, Black educators helped give this pioneering Black financial institution its begin.

Hill-Freedman World Academy

Different colleges in Philadelphia honor Black lecturers instantly.

Joseph E. Hill — partial namesake of Hill-Freedman World Academy in Northwest Philadelphia — spent years as a beloved teacher at Cheyney State Lecturers School (later Cheyney College). Hill’s identify was first hooked up to a faculty constructing within the Germantown neighborhood, in-built 1844 for about $20,000, in accordance with The Philadelphia Tribune.

The unique Hill faculty was an all-Black faculty. Its graduates included Lulu Ballard, an early Black women’s tennis champion, and William T. Coleman, Jr., the second Black person to ever serve in the United States cabinet.

Hill’s identify survived after the unique constructing shuttered in 1961. However that just about wasn’t so.

The exterior of Hill-Freedman World Academy in Northwest Philadelphia.

The outside of Hill-Freedman World Academy in Northwest Philadelphia. (HFWA)

In 1913, Philadelphia tried to rename the varsity after astronomist David Rittenhouse.

In an editorial, The Philadelphia Tribune referred to as the try a transparent signal of prejudice, noting that the varsity board had already erased Octavius Catto’s identify from one other faculty constructing.

“The Board of Training has been planning and shaping each means towards segregation and to have one other strictly coloured faculty robbed of its identify simply as was performed with the O.V. Catto College means ‘warfare to the knife, and knife to the hilt,’” The Tribune wrote.

Penn Alexander

On the time of the naming controversy, Sadie Tanner Mossell was a 15-year-old highschool pupil in Washington, D.C. — on the cusp of groundbreaking achievements.

In 1921, she earned a Ph.D. in economics from the College of Pennsylvania, changing into simply the second Black lady within the U.S. to earn a doctoral degree (the primary graduated a day prior) and the first African American to get a Ph.D. in economics. Six years later, she grew to become the primary Black lady to graduate from Penn’s regulation faculty and the primary to move the Pennsylvania Bar.

Within the interim, Mossell married a fellow lawyer, Raymond Tempo Alexander. Working collectively, the couple cast pioneering authorized careers. Raymond Alexander labored on an early faculty desegregation case in Chester County, gained a seat on Philadelphia Metropolis Council, and have become the primary Black decide in Pennsylvania’s Court docket of Frequent Pleas.

Sadie Alexander grew to become an assistant metropolis solicitor, the primary Black lady to realize the place. She additionally served on town’s Fee on Human Relations.

In 1998, the varsity district honored her legacy with the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School, a West Philadelphia elementary faculty generally generally known as Penn Alexander.

Ethel D. Allen College

North Philadelphia’s Ethel D. Allen College owes its identify to a lady that “appeared indestructible,” because the “Baltimore Afro-American” as soon as wrote.

Born in North Philadelphia, Dr. Ethel Allen grew to become an osteopathic doctor, group chief, and Republican politician. She grew to become the primary Black lady on Philadelphia’s Metropolis Council in 1972 and later served as secretary of the commonwealth below Gov. Dick Thornburgh.

Standing a shade below 5 ft, Allen was recognized for her rambunctious spirit and was the native civil rights voice that “energy brokers might settle for,” The Philadelphia Tribune wrote. It was a voice, the paper stated, that stood out from the gang:

“Endlessly Metropolis Corridor should acknowledge that one little Black woman from North Philadelphia made it to the hallowed halls to make herself heard.”

A mural outside Ethel D. Allen School in North Philadelphia.

A mural exterior Ethel D. Allen College in North Philadelphia. (College District of Philadelphia)

Laura Wheeler Waring College

Laura Wheeler Waring had an extended profession as a portrait artist and artwork trainer at Cheyney State. Her husband, Walter Waring, was a trainer within the College District of Philadelphia.

As a outstanding Harlem Renaissance artist, her portraits hung within the Corcoran Gallery, the Pennsylvania Academy of Positive Arts, and the Brooklyn Museum, and attracted the eye of Eleanor Roosevelt. She grew to become “one of the extensively recognized Negro artists in the USA” in accordance with a 1946 article in The Philadelphia Tribune, and her works included a portrait of one other Philly faculty namesake, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander.

After her dying, the Laura Wheeler Waring College simply north of Heart Metropolis was named in her honor.

Others with nationwide profiles, connections to abolition

The listing of outstanding Black individuals honored on faculty buildings consists of some with nationwide profiles and native connections.

Paul Robeson, namesake of Paul Robeson Excessive College for Human Companies in West Philadelphia, was a world-famous athlete, actor, singer, and activist earlier than he quietly retired and moved to Philadelphia. Famed saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. lived most of his grownup life within the metropolis, and was honored shortly after his dying with the naming of Grover Washington Jr. Center College in Olney.

Astronaut Guion Bluford holds the excellence of being the one dwelling Black individual to have a college named in his honor. And it’s the West Philadelphia elementary faculty he attended, which was as soon as named after former decide William B. Hanna and subsequently grew to become Guion S. Bluford Elementary in 1994. The Bluford faculty is now run by the Common constitution community.

The exterior of Edwin Forrest School in Mayfair.

The outside of Edwin Forrest College in Mayfair. (Edwin Forrest College)

There are additionally traces of town’s Black historical past within the names of white individuals honored on Philadelphia faculty buildings.

Jay Cooke, financier and namesake of Jay Cooke Elementary in North Philadelphia, helped set up Camp William Penn, the only training ground exclusively for Black troops during the Civil War. The camp’s commander, Common Louis Wagner, received his personal faculty, Wagner Center College in West Oak Lane.

Given Pennsylvania’s outstanding position within the anti-slavery motion — and the glut of Civil Warfare-era figures honored with faculty names in Philadelphia — there are different namesakes with abolitionist connections. William D. Kelley, John Hartranft, Henry Lea, Alexander McClure, and Roberts Vaux all had various connections to the abolitionist motion.

So, too, did poet and college namesake James Lowell, who moved to Philadelphia to edit an anti-slavery newspaper. However Lowell’s stance in opposition to slavery didn’t preclude him from being prejudiced. He supported Black suffrage, according to a biographer, however partly, as a result of he felt the “mental and conventional superiority” of white individuals would guarantee their political dominance.

And famed nineteenth-century Philadelphia actor Edwin Forrest, for whom Edwin Forrest College in Mayfair is called, broke into the occupation by performing in blackface. In a heartening historic twist, Forrest’s North Broad mansion finally grew to become the Freedom Theater, a cornerstone of town’s Black theater scene.

In Philadelphia and elsewhere, there’s recurring stress to rename colleges whose namesakes have racist, sexist, or in any other case notorious pasts. San Francisco made information by lately changing the name of 44 schools. And there was an effort last year in Philadelphia to remove names similar to Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and Common Philip Sheridan from colleges. The group attempting to rename Andrew Jackson College needs to as an alternative honor Fanny Jackson Coppin, a pioneering Black educator who lived in South Philadelphia and is the namesake of Baltimore’s Coppin State College.

WHYY is the main public media station serving the Philadelphia area, together with Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story initially appeared on


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