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New mural honors Cecil B. Moore and teenage protesters who helped end segregation at Philly’s Girard College

The 1965 protests outside the North Philly school lasted seven months and 17 days and even attracted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Kenneth “Freedom Smitty” Salaam sings with members of the original Philadelphia Freedom Fighters at the Cecil B. Moore Freedom Fighters mural at Girard College in Philadelphia on Saturday. The mural was painted to honor the Philadelphia Freedom Fighters and Cecil B. Moore for their efforts to desegregate Girard College.
Kenneth “Freedom Smitty” Salaam sings with members of the original Philadelphia Freedom Fighters at the Cecil B. Moore Freedom Fighters mural at Girard College in Philadelphia on Saturday. The mural was painted to honor the Philadelphia Freedom Fighters and Cecil B. Moore for their efforts to desegregate Girard College.Read moreTHOMAS HENGGE / Staff Photographer

A new mural honoring the Black teenagers and other community members who protested along with activist Cecil B. Moore the whites-only admissions policy at Girard College in 1965 was unveiled Saturday at the North Philadelphia boarding school.

Moore, then the president of the Philadelphia NAACP, had filed lawsuits challenging earlier court decisions upholding the school’s segregation practice.

But Moore decided to expand the battle from the courts to the streets. And Georgie Woods, the WDAS radio announcer and Uptown Theater host, rallied the city’s residents to come out in support.

The 1965 protests lasted seven months and 17 days, from May 1 to Dec. 17. Protesters marched outside the 10-foot walls that surround the 43-acre campus.

The boys inside the school were white, while most of the people living outside the walls were Black.

But on Saturday, former protesters — now well beyond their youth — were invited inside the Girard College walls for the dedication of a new mural, called “Cecil B. Moore Philadelphia Freedom Fighters.”

The mural, created by lead artists Felix St. Fort and Gabe Tiberino, is on one of the school’s buildings near 22nd Street and North College Avenue.

It differs from many murals in the city that focus on powerful and dynamic leaders because it puts “the many unseen women and young people” who protested at the forefront of the design, said Cari Feiler Bender, a spokesperson for Mural Arts Philadelphia.

Both Moore and Woods are prominently featured, but they are in the background, behind the people holding picket signs denouncing school segregation.

Karen Asper Jordan, 72, a retired registered nurse who was 16 when she joined the protests, attended the dedication.

“We are really honored. We never thought that we would be honored like this with a mural that represents the young people in the movement,” she said.

Marie Hall and Eugene “Tree” Dawkins, two teenage protesters, are featured prominently on the right side of the mural, shown clapping their hands while marching. Hall is wearing a pair of plaid pedal pushers, and Dawkins is behind her, dressed in a white shirt and light-colored pants.

Both were beaten when some of the Girard College protesters demonstrated outside the former State Office Building, then located at Broad and Spring Garden Streets. Negotiations were held there over legal challenges to Stephen Girard’s will, including its requirement that the school be for white boys.

Asper Jordan was there the day Hall and Dawkins were beaten. She remembers trying to stop a police officer using a nightstick on Dawkins.

“The sound was awful. It was like if you hit a table with a piece of wood. Thud! Thud!” Asper Jordan said. “... I had never seen anything like that. He was unconscious.”

Asper Jordan said she also saw Hall being “beaten and manhandled” by police officers.

A picture of Hall, surrounded by Philadelphia police officers and then-Deputy Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, holding a baton and staring at the camera, is included in an article on the Historical Society of Pennsylvania website called “Civil Rights and the Rise of Frank Rizzo in 1960s Philadelphia.”

The caption underneath the photo says: “Rizzo, with club, leading police beating on black girl demonstrator at State Office Building, Broad and Spring Garden streets.”

Asper Jordan identified the girl in that photo as Hall, who later told Asper Jordan she spent 30 days in jail.

Hall has since died, and Dawkins, now living in a nursing home, was never the same, Asper Jordan and another protester, Bernyce Mills-DeVaughn, said.

Many people made sacrifices for the freedom movement, they said.

“Some of our folks had failings, some didn’t finish school, some people lost their jobs and lost their families because of the ‘freedom bug,’ as they called it,” Asper Jordan said.

» READ MORE: Explore our timeline of the history of police violence against Black people in Philadelphia

Where there’s a will

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregation in public schools, six Black Philadelphia boys applied for admission, but Girard College rejected them.

College officials said they were following the wishes of Girard, a French-born immigrant banker and shipping merchant who left money to the city in his will for a school for “poor, white male orphans.”

Civil rights lawyer Raymond Pace Alexander filed lawsuits that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected despite its 1954 ruling.

By then, Girard College and city officials created a new “private” board of trustees to remove control of the school from a body that was more directly under the city government’s control.

The aim was to help Girard College appear more like a private school, thus freed from requirements of the Brown ruling, according to a history of the protests by Swarthmore College.

In 1965, Moore renewed legal challenges, and added the protests, which attracted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who described the wall where the protests took place as “a kind of Berlin Wall to keep God’s colored children out,” according to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

It would not be until Sept. 11, 1968, when the first four Black and two Asian American boys were admitted to the school. The first female student was admitted in 1984.

The teenagers who marched at Girard College came to be known as “Cecil’s People” and the “Cecil B. Moore Philadelphia Freedom Fighters.”

Mills-DeVaughn, 72, a retired pharmaceutical company control officer, said the protests were mostly peaceful.

But one day, Mills-DeVaughn said, Rizzo, who would later become the city’s police commissioner and mayor, ordered police officers to “bust up” the demonstration.

“There were police on horses and motorcycles, chasing after people,” she said. Her younger sister, Debbie, then 14, was trampled by the crowd.

When she fell down, police dogs repeatedly bit her. She was treated for her wounds and then charged with assaulting police officers and the police dogs, Mills-DeVaughn said. She was placed on probation.