Lower Merion School District to mark 1963 equality moment

Posted: September 13, 2013

In a year when the Alabama governor blocked schoolhouse doors in support of segregation and a March on Washington aimed to crush it, Lower Merion had its own 1963 moment.

The Main Line branch of the NAACP protested that students in the Lower Merion School District's predominantly black Ardmore Avenue Elementary School were receiving an inferior education. The NAACP wanted the school closed.

Wendell Holland, 61, understands why the disparity was wrong. But as a student there, the solution wasn't easy to accept.

"It shattered the innocence and familiarity of 11-year-olds who knew Ardmore Avenue as our school," said Holland.

The two-month period that followed would mark what is now known as the district's "Moment of Integration," a transition that will be commemorated Thursday in a 50th-year observance.

It was a time during a volatile stretch in the nation's civil rights history, when a wealthy suburban community was the site of fiery meetings, passionate disagreement, negotiations, and finally a vote.

"That was the first recognition that perhaps the best of our resources were not reaching our communities," said Mary Lou Forster Barry, 91, of Gladwyne, a member of the 1963 school board. "And we had to do something about it."

In the decades before, Ardmore Avenue was an institution in largely black and working-class South Ardmore. Other district schools were predominantly white.

By 1963, black children made up about 9 percent of the 9,576 students in Lower Merion, but 85 percent of the 223 at Ardmore Avenue. Many white students assigned there were there because they had learning disabilities.

Still, Ardmore Avenue students had little idea that they studied in a segregated school that many deemed inadequate.

Bernice Green said she sensed something when she traveled to Penn Wynne School for home economics, because Ardmore Avenue didn't offer the class.

"I remember walking through this beautiful building that had a home-ec suite with a living room and a kitchen," said Green, who later worked for the district as a social worker. "But what stood out the most was that their playground had grass. Our playground had blacktop."

By then, parents and NAACP officials, including local president John Smith, had begun decrying Ardmore Avenue's deficiencies, said Ted Goldsborough, a former president of the Lower Merion Historical Society.

Parents raised concerns about worn textbooks, the quality of instruction, a decrepit building that had opened in 1910, and the parking-lot playground.

Ardmore Avenue graduates often fell behind in junior high school. Some had to repeat a grade level, Green said.

Then, in 1963, Isabel Long Strickland became president of the Main Line NAACP, and the push began. That July, the NAACP met with the school board to make its demands.

Samuel Edgerton, an emeritus art history professor at Williams College who was a member of the Main Line NAACP, said Strickland delivered an impassioned speech to board members. Then, he said, "we let them stew in their own conscience about all the things they were allowing."

Some in the community complained about integration, at meetings, in newspapers, in letters to the district. But perhaps the events of the "pinnacle" year in the civil rights movement set the tone, Holland said.

On Aug. 26, 1963, two days before the March on Washington, the school board voted, 8-0, to close Ardmore Avenue and transfer students to four predominantly white elementary schools.

The first day of school was Sept. 5.

"We looked up at those steps [to Wynnewood Road School] and felt that they were as big as those that led to the U.S. Supreme Court," said Holland, of Bryn Mawr, former chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

The Ardmore Avenue school was torn down in 1965 and the location is now the site of Ardmore House, a senior-citizen residence.

Strickland died that year at 44. Roy Wilkins, then the national NAACP's executive director, later wrote that her name "will stand brightly among the rest for her service to the cause of freedom, equality, and opportunity."

Holland graduated in 1970 as president of his class at Lower Merion High School. Since then, he has organized class reunions and decided with classmates to commemorate this "seminal event" in township history. "This," he said, "has been a part of my soul for decades."

At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, a commemorative marker will be placed at the site. (The rain location is Bethel A.M.E. Church in Ardmore.)

The audience will then march to Lower Merion High to hear a speech by retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius Becton Jr., former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a Lower Merion High graduate.

Lower Merion officials are incorporating the story of Ardmore Avenue into the social studies curriculum. One student completed a documentary; others are in the works. Students also compiled a spoken-word elegy, now posted on the district's website.

It all will recount Lower Merion's place in a historic year, Holland said, because "we have our own unique story to tell."


BY THE NUMBERS

223 students at Ardmore Avenue Elementary School were reassigned to four predominantly white schools in the Lower Merion School District. The board transferred:

59

black students and

8

white students to Wynnewood Road Elementary School;

37

black students and

1

white student to Bryn Mawr Elementary School.

69

black students and

25

white students to Penn Wynne Elementary School.

23

black students and

1

white student to Penn Valley Elementary School.


Lower Merion School District Student Population

1963

Total Students: 9,576

African American: 874, 9.1 percent

Non-African American: 8,702, 90.9 percent

(This is before Lower Merion began delineating other ethnic groups in student data)

2003-04

Total Students: 6,662

Caucasian: 5,707, 85.7 percent

African American: 500, 7.5 percent

Asian/Pacific Islander: 348, 5.2 percent

Hispanic: 95, 1.4 percent

American Indian/Alaskan Native: 12, 0.2 percent

2013-14

Total Students: 7,875

Caucasian: 6,055, 76.8 percent

Asian/Pacific Islander: 730, 9.3 percent

African American: 609, 7.7 percent

Multiracial: 289, 3.7 percent

Hispanic: 187, 2.4 percent

American Indian/Alaskan Native: 5, 0.06 percent


Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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