The president of the Cheltenham school board has stepped down from his position after facing criticism for a speech he gave at the high school’s graduation ceremony that described abolitionist Frederick Douglass as having a relatively good life despite being enslaved.
In a message to the community Monday, Joel Fishbein said leaving his role as president — he remains a member of the board — would be “an important first step to help our community heal from the hurt I caused at the June 3 high school commencement ceremony,” when he addressed graduates by telling a story about Douglass’ decision to escape from slavery.
The story was from a newsletter by historian Heather Cox Richardson, which described Douglass as “enjoying a measure of freedom” during his enslavement, forming friendships, and falling in love with his future wife.
“It was enslavement, but within that existence, it was a pretty good position,” Fishbein said during the ceremony, quoting Richardson. Continuing to quote from the piece, he said Douglass “might have accepted his conditions and disappeared into the past,” but instead decided to step on a train to escape in a “ridiculously easy” scheme.
“He most definitely changed the world,” Fishbein said, finishing his speech. “And those of you who have learned resilience the hard way and have the courage to follow your passions and take risks may very well change the world. We all look forward to watching you do it.”
Shortly after the speech, Fishbein said, he began hearing from fellow board members and administrators that his comments were not well received. “There was a perception in the audience that I had minimized slavery, the institution of slavery, and Frederick Douglass,” he said. More than half of the Montgomery County district’s students are Black.
Fishbein apologized in a statement the next day for having “greatly diminished” Douglass’ enslavement. The school district removed his comments from a video of the ceremony, but linked to an unedited version.
“Please be advised, a section of this video contains material which reflects a whitewashed account of the systemic, violent subjugation of generations of African Americans, and denigrates and trivializes the horrors, trials and tribulations of the enslaved as well as those who were able to escape enslavement,” text at the beginning of the unedited video reads.
Among those who voiced concerns about the speech was the nonprofit Cheltenham African American Alliance, which said in a statement the remarks “contained improperly characterized references to historical events involving slavery that were insensitive at best, and wholly out of line for the celebratory nature of the event.”
The alliance said it met with district administrators and participated in a community event Thursday about Fishbein’s continued service leading the nine-member board, which picks its president.
A lawyer and Elkins Park resident since 1993, Fishbein was elected to the board in 2015 and reelected four years later.
While Fishbein is “a capable and dedicated individual with policies that are aligned with the best interests of students at large,” a school board serving a majority Black student body requires cultural proficiency, the alliance said. It questioned “whether this is the best leadership we can expect at such a pivotal time in the country’s reckoning with its history.”
In his letter to the community Monday, Fishbein said repairing “the injury I caused requires action, not just words.” Vice president Pam Henry will become interim president of the board, which will be requiring that all graduation speeches going forward be reviewed in advance, Fishbein said. He also said that cultural proficiency consultant Barbara Moore Williams would be working with the board “to develop other action steps to promote healing and to rebuild trust.”
“I have learned that I had an enormous blind spot in my understanding of the trauma our country’s history of slavery and continuing racism has inflicted,” Fishbein said. “I apologize most of all to the students. I am deeply sorry that my poor choice of subject matter and words inflicted further pain particularly on what should have been their joyous occasion.”