Updated: May 5, 2021
By Kathleen Carey
DELCO TIMES - February 16, 2021
CHESTER — Everyone is invited to join Delaware County Historical Society at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 23, in a community conversation about Chester’s role in the civil rights movement as experienced in the efforts to end de-facto school segregation in the 1960s.
“Civil Rights & School Segregation in 1960s Chester” will be presented for free, but registration is necessary at padelcohistory.org.
“It’s important to understand the history of education in Chester,” event moderator and DCHS board member Stefan Roots of the Chester Matters blog said. “When Chester was a mixed-raced city, people lived in segregated neighborh
oods and went to segregated schools even if those schools were not in their neighborhoods. This DCHS program is a rare opportunity to hear from people who actually experienced the challenges of attending under-resourced schools and who lived through the troubling period of attempting to integrate those same schools. This is one of those living history events everyone should consider tuning into.” "The role of Delaware County Historical Society is to collect, preserve and share the diverse history and culture of Delaware County,” Erica Burman, DCHS marketing and membership manager, added. “DCHS thinks it’s important to host a conversation around this significant period of Delaware County and Chester City’s history. Knowing the history of racial segregation and discrimination in Chester is key towards understanding the issues the city faces today.” The event will include a panel of speakers providing first-hand accounts of this period and academic historical context.
Confirmed panelists include: Twyla Simpkins, founder/director of the YES Center, former educator and Chester resident; Lenton Warren, former Chester resident; Jordan Smith, Ph.D., professor of history at Widener University, who taught a class on the civil rights movement in Chester; and Chris Mele, Ph.D., professor at the University of Buffalo, urban sociologist and author of “Race and the Deception of Politics."
Even though the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka 10 years earlier, schools in Chester with a majority of Black students were poorly funded and had inadequate resources. One example was Franklin School that had a 95 percent Black student body. Classes were taught in the basement coal bin as there was not enough space for the 1,000 students there in 1963. The school had been built in 1910 to hold 500 students.
On Nov. 3, 1963, parents and local organizers staged a picket outside the school after no action had been taken by the school board to remedy the situation. That was the beginning of a series of protests calling for the end of de-facto segregation in the city’s 18 public schools. By April 1964, the city was seeing demonstrations almost nightly and some were turning violent.
Police brutality was evident as officers swung clubs at protesters, who threw rocks and bricks in retaliation. State police were called into the city and more than 600 were arrested. Civil rights activist James Farmer called Chester “The Birmingham of the North.” Malcolm X and Dick Gregory came to the city in support of the demonstrations. At the time, Delaware County Court of Common Pleas Judge William Toal said the city was close to administering martial law.
The demonstrations ended after then-Gov. William Scranton established the Pennsylvania Human Relations Committee, which held hearings and whose findings led to the order that mandated the district desegregate its schools.
The program will also be integrated into the Chester Made’s Chester Digital Storytelling Project, designed in partnership with the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.
Delaware County Historical Society is temporarily closed to the public due to COVID-19. However, visits or research are available by appointment only. To make an appointment, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 610-359-0832. To inquire about “Civil Rights & School Segregation – 1960s Chester,” email email@example.com. More information about DCHS scheduling and guidelines can be viewed at padelcohistory.org, where a Virtual Museum Gallery also showcases current displays.