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February 23, 1957
On February 23, 1957, the Philadelphia Tribune ran a photograph of actor and singer Tab Hunter signing autographs for Philadelphia high school newspaper editors. Hunter was touring in support of his Warner Brothers’ films “Lafayette Escadrille” and his new song “Young Love,” which went to number one on the Billboard charts. While it is surprising to see Hunter show up in the Tribune, I am less interested in his crossover popularity with black teenagers than I am in a small part of the photo’s caption which notes: “Standing to the left of the actor is James Brown, art and photo editor of Thomas Edison (formerly Northeast High School.)” I searched for “Thomas Edison” and “Northeast” high schools in ProQuest’s Philadelphia Tribune database because I became fascinated by the intertwined histories of these two schools while researching my first book, The Nicest Kids in Town. Just days before this photo ran in the Tribune, the Philadelphia school board moved Northeast High School from a racially integrated neighborhood to a white area in the suburban part of the city. Read more below on what it meant to move a high school and how this impacted students like James Brown who were left at Thomas Edison (formerly Northeast High School). The histories of Northeast and Thomas Edison high schools are the most glaring example I have found of the relationship among school construction, school segregation, and school curriculum. Here is the story.
How Philadelphia Moved a High School to Maintain Segregation
The students at the all-boys Northeast High School attended one of the best public schools in the city.The school opened in 1905, but the school’s history dated to the 1890s when it operated as the Northeast Manual Training School. With a focus on engineering rather than a strictly academic curriculum, the school became the second most prestigious public school for young men in Philadelphia, trailing only Central High School.67 By the early-1950s the school had a well-developed alumni network that raised money to provide college loans to students and awards for championship sports teams.68 In the fifty years since the school opened at Eighth Street and Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia, the racial demographics of the neighborhood changed from majority-white to a mix of white ethnic groups and black residents. As a result, unlike many other schools in the city, Northeast’s student body in the mid-1950s was evenly divided between black and white students.
All of this changed in February 1957. Halfway through the school year, two-thirds of the teachers and a number of students left the school at Eighth and Lehigh for a new Northeast High in the fast-growing suburban neighborhoods at the edge of the city. The school board and Northeast’s alumni started discussing the new high school in the early-1950s, but for most of the teachers and students left behind at the old school (renamed Thomas Edison High School) the move happened abruptly. Almost overnight, the school’s name, most experienced teachers, and alumni network disappeared.The black and working-class white students who attended Northeast High School as sophomores and juniors in 1955 and 1956, now were left to graduate from Thomas Edison High School when the new Northeast High opened in February of their senior years.The students left behind at Edison selected “Hiatus” as their senior yearbook theme.This yearbook also showed that the new Northeast High secretively moved the school’s athletic trophies. While the previous graduating class’s yearbook described the trophy case as “the symbol of the greatness of our school,” the “Hiatus” seniors used before and after pictures of the full and empty trophy case to depict the loss of the most visible daily evidence of the school’s history.69
The Northeast section of Philadelphia expanded rapidly in the 1940s and 1950s, with new tract homes, shopping centers, and industrial parks replacing farm land. Almost all of the area’s population increase came from white families, many of whom moved from racially changing neighborhoods in other parts of the city. The Northeast’s small number of black residents lived in sections that dated back over a hundred years, but other black and Chinese-American families that sought to move into the Northeast were meet with protests by white-homeowners.70 Real estate agents turned away several other black families that sought to move to Northeast neighborhoods in the late-1950s, claiming that they “were not accepting any colored applicants” or that they have been “instructed not to sell to anyone…that might disturb the neighborhood.”71 In addition, Historian Guian McKee has shown how the Northeast benefited from Philadelphia’s industrial renewal program, which decentralized the city’s industry by building and renovating industrial areas. New industrial parks in the Northeast were not accessible by subway, trolley, or commuter rail, and McKee argues, “this orientation towards automobile transportation reinforced preexisting patterns of employment discrimination.”72 The racial segregation of Northeast High, therefore, followed housing and employment discrimination and was not the result of innocent private decisions.
The case of Edison and Northeast reflected the growing divide between public schools in affluent neighborhoods and those in working-class and poor communities. Although both schools were technically in the same school system, Northeast represented a process of suburbanization within city lines. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling against cross-district metropolitan desegregation plans in Milliken v. Bradley (1974), and the continued defense of de facto segregation by courts, politicians, and parents, meant that this school inequality became commonplace nationally. Educational scholar Jeannie Oakes describes this process of providing already advantaged students with more advantages as a process of “multiplying inequalities” that facilitates and rationalizes “the intergenerational transfer of social, educational, and political status and [constrains] social and economic mobility.”73 Northeast High’s enrollment criteria made this transfer of privilege explicit. The school board limited enrollment in the new high school to students from this suburban Northeast area and two-thirds of the first 1,500 students at the school transferred from Olney High School, Lincoln High School, and Frankford High School, schools which were also between 97 percent and 99 percent white.74 Among students from the old Northeast High (Edison High School), only those whose grandfathers were alumni of the school could transfer. This policy left both the working-class black and white students at Edison High School to be taught by inexperienced and substitute teachers. While the new Northeast High School was built in a sprawling campus style that resembled suburban schools being built in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Edison students were left with the aging building formerly occupied by Northeast High.75
Neither Northeast’s alumni nor the school board ever explicitly mentioned school segregation as the motivation for building the new Northeast High School. William Loesch, an alumnus of the school and banker who sat on the school board, had lobbied school administrators to consider building a new Northeast High since Central High School received a new building in 1939.76 The alumni association advanced this campaign in 1954 when they met with Add Anderson, the school board’s business manager who controlled the budget for new school construction. In approving the plans for a new Northeast High, Anderson cited the need for a high school to serve the growing population in the “Greater Northeast” section of the city.77 Commenting on school construction in 1962, school superintendent Allen Wetter also argued that “population” and “cost” were the main considerations, and that “the segregation issue was no factor at all in the making of…recommendations for new schools.”78 In letters and phone calls with Floyd Logan, moreover, both Anderson and Wetter continued to insist that the school’s building policy was color-blind and that school segregation was a housing-related development beyond the school’s control.79 The case of Northeast High belies these claims. By choosing to build a new high school in the suburban section of the city, the school board created a school that enrolled 99 percent white students through the mid-1960s. The drastically dissimilar racial demographics at Northeast High and Edison High were indicative of the growing segregation in Philadelphia’s public high schools in these years. By 1961, while the total high school population was 34 percent black, four schools were over 90 percent black, and seven schools were over 90 percent white.80 Despite their race-neutral rhetoric, the school board’s construction decisions built and maintained segregated schools like Northeast High.
In building the new Northeast High, the school board not only exacerbated school segregation, it also left students at Edison High (the old Northeast High) with a limited range of course offerings. Whereas the school once offered a full range of academic, commercial, and trade courses, the students at Edison were channeled into lower-level vocational courses like paper hanging, painting, simple woodwork, and upholstery.81 These limited curricular options were commonplace at majority-black high schools in the city, where school officials used IQ tests to determine the appropriate tracks for students.
While the students at Northeast High took college preparatory courses and commercial courses that would prepare them for employment, most students at Edison were offered watered down vocational options. Wetter argued that it was the policy of the schools to gear course instruction to the capacity of the students, as determined by IQ tests.82 Using this policy the school board rated Edison High as a “minus” school, because the average student IQ score was twenty points below the city average. These “plus” and “minus” ratings were unpublished, but in his research Logan learned that the school board listed most all-black and majority-black schools in the “minus” category.83 These IQ-based ratings dictated that the curriculum available to students at Edison High would be different from Northeast High. Across the school system, this curriculum differentiation most often meant that administrators tracked black students into courses that limited their prospects for future employment or higher education.84
Despite this racialized tracking and the increased number of segregated schools, the school board continued to be proactive in its insistence that it did not discriminate against black students or support segregated schools. A 1960 report prepared by Wetter, “For Every Child: The Story of Integration in the Philadelphia Public Schools,” made this point emphatically. While Logan and other civil rights advocates began discussing potential legal action to force the board to address school segregation, Wetter praised the board’s early adoption of intercultural education materials as evidence of progress on integration. Wetter also contended that “what has been called by certain groups ‘de facto segregation’ in some schools has not been the result of policy of The Board of Public Education,” but that “the record of progress of the Philadelphia Public Schools in the integration movement is among the best, if not the best, of those of the great cities of the Nation.” The Philadelphia school board refused to back down from the argument that school segregation was the result of private housing decisions for which the board had no power or responsibility.