LaToya Winkfield couldn’t believe it when she saw the photo: Bill Cosby, fresh out of prison, standing outside his Elkins Park home with an arm aloft, wearing a Central High School T-shirt.
Winkfield owned the same shirt, white with “256″ in hand-drawn gold letters on a crimson background, a nod to the storied Philadelphia magnet school’s 256th graduating class, which earned diplomas in 1997. Her reaction was visceral.
“I hate to say ‘ew’ as a 41-year-old, but it was very much an ‘ew’ moment,” said Winkfield, who was particularly disturbed that printed on the back of Cosby’s shirt is her name and the names of all of her 256 classmates.
Cosby was freed from prison Wednesday after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned his 2018 sex assault conviction on a technicality.
For many Central alumni, Cosby’s post-release assertion of his ties to the iconic school in the city’s Logan section left a bad taste in their mouth. On social media, Winkfield and some of her classmates lamented the 83-year-old comedian’s wardrobe choices. “I feel tarnished,” one wrote.
One post on an alumni Facebook page had 76 comments and three shares, and inspired people to post pictures of themselves in their 256 shirts.
» READ MORE: Central High dumps Cosby from Hall of Fame
Cosby briefly attended Central in the 1950s before he left the school for Germantown High. For years, Cosby showed up at Central functions, speaking to graduating classes and donating money to various causes. He was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 1998, then removed in 2015 after allegations of sexual abuse surfaced.
At the time, the Central Alumni Association said Cosby’s removal came from “a desire to eliminate an issue that was distracting from the mission of the Alumni Hall of Fame.”
Winkfield, who directs the Upward Bound program at Temple University, remembers Cosby often visiting Central. When she was a senior, someone gave him a class shirt.
“They paraded him as if he was this prestigious alum, showing up for some kind of programming every year,” said Winkfield. But when Central students learned Cosby didn’t actually graduate from the school, “he kind of became a fraud for us.”
That rankles Tiffany Green, too. Cosby often castigated Black people for not working hard enough, but “his grades didn’t make the cut. The hypocrisy is astounding to me,” said Green, another member of the Central Class of 1997.
Green, an economist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, hated the sight of Cosby in a shirt that showed his ties to Central. And it’s upsetting to her that Cosby and his team have used his ties to schools like Central and Temple and the “America’s Dad” persona he cultivated through The Cosby Show to try to deflect the evidence that he sexually assaulted Andrea Constand in 2004 and other women before her.
“This idea that his legacy is so profound and so important that women’s lives don’t matter is ludicrous,” said Green. “I’m horrified that in 2021, we still live in a world where this man is being uplifted because of a 30-plus-year-old TV show and donations to schools.”
She was also uncomfortable with the notion advanced by some in Cosby’s circle that he was targeted for prosecution because he is Black.
“We have a long history in the United States of Black men being subject to violence because of false rape accusations, but that doesn’t mean that 60-plus women are lying,” said Green.
Aja Beech, who graduated from Central in 1996, was a little relieved Cosby was representing 256 and not her class, 255.
Beech, who attends law school and works in victim advocacy, thought Cosby’s T-shirt choice was calculated.
“He knows how to work things, and it endears him to people, and it reminds people of him being from Philadelphia, and of all he’s done for these educational institutions,” said Beech. “It was a ploy, and I don’t appreciate it being used in that way.”
But it was shocking, still, Beech said — imagine if a convicted Penn State official was released from prison and then photographed wearing a Penn State uniform.
Youma Diabira, who graduated from Central last month, thought Cosby’s Central shirt was “embarrassing.”
“It was almost disrespectful to the institution for him to throw on that gear,” said Diabira.
A spokesperson for the Philadelphia School District said the system had no comment about Cosby and his ties to Central.
In an unexpected way, the national spotlight on the 256 shirt did have some benefits, some alums said — it caused them to reconnect, if only electronically, and to share jokes about how they wish Cosby had worn a shirt representing Northeast High, Central’s longtime rival.
And at least someone might profit from it: Replicas of the Central 256 shirt suddenly are popping up for sale online.