Remembering Tredyffrin’s Segregation Battle of the 1930’s

I was invited to a special commemoration yesterday at the Mt. Zion AME Church in Devon, but due to a conflict I was unable to attend.  When I was working on the township’s Tredyffrin 300 historic documentary I was particularly moved by the township’s segregation struggles that existed in the 1930’s and which we choose to include in the documentary. 

On the eve of the T/E School Board Meeting tomorrow night, and the difficult budget decisions facing the School Board, I thought maybe you would also find this of interest.  The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article in the newspaper yesterday which highlighted this special part of Tredyffrin’s history.  An in-depth article by Roger Thorne can be found in the Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society Quarterly, Vol 42. Segregation on the Main Line, The “School Fight” of 1932-34.

 Remembering a Chesco school segregation fight

By Kristin E. Holmes

Twenty years before the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education forced the policy of separate but unequal onto the national agenda, the families of 212 black children in Tredyffrin and Easttown Townships boycotted their own segregated schools.

The two-year battle in Chester County was not covered by television cameras broadcasting the kind of imagery that later galvanized a national movement. These families, whose children were ordered into dilapidated school buildings for black students, fought what became known as the “school fight” on the small-town streets and farms outside Philadelphia – and won.

And that victory – achieved when parents kept their children out of schools between 1932 and 1934 – will be commemorated at 1 p.m. Saturday at Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Devon, which was the site of many organizational meetings. “Our parents stuck together,” said Estelle King Burton, 88, of Wayne, who was in the fifth grade when her parents pulled her out of school. “They had a big fight on their hands.”

The case stands as one of dozens of civil rights fights in Northern states that have been overlooked, said Thomas J. Sugrue, author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. Between the late 1800s and the 1950s, civil rights battles in the North usually occurred in small towns and the suburbs, said Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

The cases went unnoticed because no national media publicized them and white Northerners treated the cases as if they were typical of Southern life but not their own, Sugrue said. In 1932, officials of the two school boards involved ordered black children in the townships’ elementary schools to transfer from their integrated neighborhood schools to two schools – one in each township – for black students, said Roger Thorne, president of the Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society. Classes were to be taught by black teachers. The order prevented black children from attending a new elementary school set to open in the fall of 1932.

A local businessman, Primus Crosby, who was born in Alabama, called a community meeting hours after an announcement of the school boards’ order appeared in a local newspaper. “He kept saying, ‘It’s never going to happen. There’s never going to be a [segregated] school here,’ ” Crosby’s 95-year-old daughter, Bessie M. Whitney, said of her father’s resolve to have the order rescinded. Led by Crosby and the Bryn Mawr NAACP, the families persuaded the renowned Philadelphia lawyer Raymond Pace Alexander, an African American, to take their case. He worked pro bono.

While Alexander battled in the courts, parents were fined and jailed when they refused to send their children to class.Esther Long, 85, of Berwyn, was pulled out of school along with her brother and sister. Their father, Henry, a chauffeur, was jailed for five days. “We just lived through it,” said Esther Long, a retired nurse. “We were assured we would come out with a victory. We had the best lawyer in Philadelphia.”

Alexander worked with a team that included his wife, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, also an accomplished, Ivy League-educated attorney. He fought off national interference from the NAACP, and employed a strategy of lawsuits, protests and boycotts, all the while keeping the fight local, said David Canton, an associate professor at Connecticut College and author of The Origins of a New Negro Lawyer: Raymond Pace Alexander, 1898-1923. Alexander filed lawsuits in Chester County, but they were deemed invalid by a judge who ruled that only the county district attorney or the state attorney general had such legal standing. Alexander then moved the fight to Harrisburg in an effort to enlist Attorney General William A. Schnader to join the case. “This was the singular most important case that came about in [Alexander’s] young career and laid the foundation for the rest of his life,” said Rae Alexander-Minter, the Alexanders’ daughter and one of the speakers at the Saturday event.

As students remained out of school, some were sent to nearby districts to live with friends and family and continue their education.Elsie Holley Fuller of Bryn Mawr was a student at Tredyffrin/Easttown High School (now Conestoga), which was unaffected by the boycott. But her younger brothers, Jerry and Spencer Holley Jr., were pulled out of elementary school and sent to live with a friend in South Philadelphia.

“My job was to wash, iron, and then pack their clothes when they came home for the weekend,” said Fuller, 92, a retired housekeeper.

In March 1934, Schnader intervened. By then, he was seeking the black vote for a planned run for governor, and he wrote to school officials urging them to rescind the order. Forty-four days later, they did.

Bessie Cunningham, a sixth grader when she was pulled out of school, returned to class with other black students that spring. She stayed for only a year. “I couldn’t keep up,” said Cunningham, 88, of Thorndale. “I quit. “When I look back, it makes me mad. I didn’t finish school,” said Cunningham, who worked as a housekeeper and in computer disk manufacturing. “But overall, it was a good thing. They found out that we were not going to stand back and let foolish things take place.” At the Saturday event, she will be honored as one of those who refused to stand back.

“If the case had not been won, Tredyffrin and Easttown would have been segregated,” Long said. “We won the case, but we weren’t necessarily free. There was still a long way to go.”

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  1. I attended this program Saturday. I had heard about T/E’s attempt at segregation from my neighbor’s in Mt. Pleasant, many of whom had grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles. cousins who were in school at the time. A friend of mine is the great-grandson of Cyrus Tyre, the first parent to file suit in the case.

    Schools in Tredyffrin, such as the old Carr School in Mt. Pleasant,( founded in 1832), had always been integrated. So you can imagine the shock when all the sudden black and white kids who had been neighbors all their lives were told they had to attend separate schools. The white and Italian families in Mt. Pleasant were not pleased with this either. No longer could their kids walk up the street to school with their friends, they were to be bused to a separate school.

    The article above states that no national newspapers covered this story but it did make the front pages of the Afro American and Philadelphia Tribune regularly. It was a very big deal in the black community at the time and is still remembered and spoken about today.

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    Pattye Benson Reply:

    Thanks Christine. BTW, can you give a status report on that vacant lot? It has been several months, has the owner cleaned it up? And also where do we stand on the student housing ordinance, any movement to report? Thanks.

    [Reply]

  2. From what I’m told, the Township will have to take the owner of the lot to court in order to get them to clean it up. I haven’t heard anything regarding the ordinance.

    [Reply]

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