Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

May 2, 1957

Guest post by Blake Miller, undergraduate student at Iowa State University.

The newspaper article that I selected is “School Must Open Doors to Negro Orphans” out of the California Eagle, which was printed on Thursday, May 2, 1957. A man named Stephen Girard founded the Girard College for Orphans in 1831 predominantly for the education of “poor, white, male orphan children” and had consistently refused the admittance of African Americans for 125 years. The college, which was located in Pennsylvania, denied admission to two black orphans and was taken to court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the boys had no constitutional right to admission. This frustrated many civil rights activists, and the case eventually made it to the Supreme Court where they ruled that the “board which operates Girard College is an agency of the state of Pennsylvania” and that not admitting the two boys was “discrimination by the State.” The desegregation decision was made in May of 1954, but it was not for almost fifteen more years until civil rights activists succeeded at integrating African Americans into Girard College in June of 1968.

When I first read this I was stunned at the fact that it took so long to desegregate the school and wondered how this was possible. Upon more research about the history of desegregation of Girard College, I found that the board of directors of City Trusts in Pennsylvania maintained that Girard College was nominally a private school and that they were “merely upholding the terms of Gerard’s will by restricting admission to white students.” Girard College evaded the court’s decision because the board of directors of City Trusts was acting as a trustee of Girard’s wishes, rather than as an agency of the state. This fueled civil rights activists who took to the streets in protest, which eventually prompted city and state officials to file a suit in the U.S. District Court. The activists’ fight finally came to an end when the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the lower court ruling meaning that desegregation could resume.

Throughout history African-American segregation has been prevalent in all ways of life, including housing segregation. This caused much of the African-American community to reside in the inner city in poor neighborhoods by limiting their ability to move to nicer areas. The National Association of Real Estate Boards adopted a code of ethics stating “A realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood, members of any race or nationality, whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.” The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) also took part in redlining, or refusing a loan or insurance to someone from a poor neighborhood due to financial risk. These are two examples of how housing segregation allowed for wealthier white families to live in nicer neighborhoods outside of the city and in the suburbs.

As cities grow, the suburbs slowly move farther and farther away from the inner city as families move outward for a better quality of life. This fact relates to “School Must Open Doors to Negro Orphans” because when the school was originally built it was located in North Philadelphia outside of the poor African-American communities in the inner city. As the city expanded for over a century, more and more African Americans lived closer to the school, and its racist actions became increasingly prevalent.

Housing discrimination allowed segregation in schools to continue by restricting specific ethnic groups to certain districts. Urban renewal and changes to the FHA helped and are continuing to improve African-American communities in our cities. Over time civil rights activists have worked to improve segregation in schools and the housing market to get to where we are today.

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