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In August, 1965, Dr. King spoke at a rally outside the walls of Girard College. The audio in the footage drops out a couple times but you get the gist. The sound first picks up with King lamenting how Negros in Philadelphia live in segregated housing just like in the south. Thank goodness we’ve solved that problem. The good doctor was there to support the NAACP protesters who were in the middle of what turned out to be 231 straight days pacing in front of the wall around the college, which, at the time was still following Stephen Girard’s 134-year-old will and only admitting “poor white orphan boys.”
Stephen Girard’s legacy is, like any billionaire, slave-holding philanthropist, complex. The guy gave away the vast majority of his fortune, and rather than starting an ivy covered university to educate elite boys, started a school for orphans. Oh, but his ships are probably responsible for the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793. He also invented Delaware Avenue so Mr. Grenejeans owes him a thank you, but then there’s the slave thing. I found this really cool 20 minute film while I was down the Google hole. It was exec. produced by Sam Katz so keep that in mind while you watch. But anyway, back to Dr. King’s visit.
Turns out, it was not a slam dunk that the NAACP would welcome King with open arms. You see, Cecil Moore was head of the NAACP in Philadelphia and before King’s visit, he said “It appears as if the white power structure is using [King] to divide Philadelphia Negroes.” And even though you can see Moore behind King while he’s speechifying, Moore chose not to attend a breakfast in King’s honor that morning. It was a good old fashioned SLCC v. NAACP smackdown. Just like the one King Famously had with Adam Clayton Powell (before he got divorced and joined U2).
But King did speak, and there is this video, and you can see King squat down to give an interviewer to a KYW reporter at the foot of the stage. Girard College did finally desegregate in 1968, a mere 137 years after the death of its founder, and a scant 100 years after the ratification of the 14th amendment, and a virtual 14 year blink since the first lawsuit brought against the colleges in the wake of the Supreme’s hit record, Brown v. Board of Education (1954, Capitol).
Again in Temple’s archives, I found this timeline. Among my favorite legal maneuvers to deny equality in the face of due process is a gem from 1957. At that point, the PA Supreme Court had said, yep, the dead guy (Girard) wants whites only, so whites only he shall have. But that April, without even hearing oral arguments, because ‘c’mon man, the Supreme Court of the US reversed that ruling unanimously because it violates the 14th amendment. Unanimously, as in “Did we stutter?” But not to be outflanked, in September, the Board of City Trusts which administered Stephen Girard’s estate, was removed as trustees by the PA Orphan’s Court. Then in October, the court appointed 13 new trustees, and “Ipso facto, coitus interruptus,” Girard College was now a private institution and could let in whomever they want and they wanted white folks.
So that was what I learned when I asked the question, “Hmm, there’s a lot of stuff named after him here, I wonder if he ever came up.” Perhaps next year we’ll see what his time at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester was like.
— Adam Brodsky
Adam Brodsky, is, in no particular order, a World Record Holding Folksinger, Writer, Baseball fan, and Beer League First Baseman who hits for average. His Novel will be out when he fucking finishes it, so get off his back! You can follow him @adambrodsky.