Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society

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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The Year is 1951 . . . What Do Peacocks, Snow and the Berwyn Fire Company Have in Common?

The Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society has digitized copies of their Historical Quarterly available online for the public.  I read a cute article by Bob Goshorn (Anyone remember him?  Bob was a local history expert and president of  TEHS for many years).  Bob’s article was about peacocks and the Berwyn Fire Company — I thought with the Berwyn Fire Company in the news of late, that you might enjoy this story from 1951, as written in 1982 by Bob Goshorn.

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Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
History Quarterly Digital Archives

Source: January 1982 Volume 20 Number 1, Pages 27–28

 When the Berwyn Fire Company Rescued Six Peacocks

Bob Goshorn

Page 27

Fire companies traditionally have been called upon to rescue cats or other animals from tree tops – but peacocks?

It happened some three decades ago, in early 1951. It was a cold, winter night, with more than a foot of snow on the ground. Six peacocks, owned by Clarence Johnson who lived on Pugh Road, near Valley Forge Road in Tredyffrin Township, had escaped from their pen and flown into a nearby tree. After alternately attempting to cajole and frighten them down from their perches, with equal lack of success, their anxious owner, realizing that the birds would freeze to death if left out overnight, called the fire company for help.

The volunteers soon arrived on the scene, in their ladder truck, a 1934 American LaFrance fire engine with 50-foot ladders. Placing a ladder against the branches of the tree, the firemen climbed up to rescue and recapture the birds. But just as they were about to reach them, the peacocks noisily flew off to another tree.

Another ladder was put up aside the second tree. It was the hope of the firemen that they would either reach the birds in their new roostor chase them back again to the first tree. Instead, as the firemen were once again just about to reach their quarry, the birds flew off, to a third tree!

Page 28

“It looked like the only way we could recapture them,” Frank Kelley, the assistant Fire Chief in charge of the operation, later recalled, “would be to cut down all the trees!” But then he had another idea. Checking to be sure that his plan would not harm the birds – and that blankets were available – he decided to try to “flush” them out.

At his suggestion, a booster line was hooked up to the fire truck and taken into a nearby tree. From there, using a fine spray, the firemen doused the peacocks with water. In the cold weather, after about a half hour or so the water froze on the peacocks feathers. The birds were thus virtually immobilized.

When the firemen again climbed their ladders to reach them, the frozen peacocks, unable to fly, succeeded only in toppling over and falling down into the soft snow below. There they were easily picked up, wrapped in blankets, put into baskets, and returned to their grateful owner.

Johnson then placed them next to the furnace in the basement. The ice on the peacocks melted and the birds were carefully thawed out and none the worse for wear, despite their experience – when the Berwyn Fire Company rescued six peacocks from their perches in a tree.

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Historic Winter of 1777 — Experience a Soldier's Story

For those that know me, you know that I am passionate about remembering Tredyffrin’s history and  the preservation of our historic properties.  Tredyffrin residents are fortunate to live in such a historic place and I encourage you and your families to take advantage of a very special experience this upcoming weekend.  Members of the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment re-enactment group, local authors, park rangers and others will commemorate the Continental Army’s historic winter of 1777 march-in to its Valley Forge encampment site on Saturday, December 19, 6-8 PM at the Valley Forge National Historic Park. The park rangers and volunteers will be dressed in period-costume and will ceremoniously march attendees from the Visitor Center one-quarter mile to the Muhlenberg Brigade area. There, around reconstructed huts on the ground where the original 6th Pennsylvania Regiment stayed 232 years ago, regimental re-enactors will share stories of soldier life during the encampment. At the Visitor Center, artist Michael Ticcino of Audubon and Schuylkill River Heritage Area co-authors Kurt Zwikl and Laura Catalano will sign books. Ticcino’s coffee-table book, “Valley Forge: Traditional Land, Contemporary Vision,” is a collection of beautiful photographic imagery of the park. Zwikl and Catalano penned “Along the Schuylkill River” to document the river’s history, moniker as the “River of Revolutions” and boundary along the Valley Forge encampment site.

At the Visitor Center a George Washington interpreter will interact with guests and the Colonial Revelers will perform period holiday songs. Refreshments will be served and the Encampment Store will be open for holiday shopping. The event is free and open to the public.   Hope that you will plan to attend and share some local history!

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