Bill Cosby, one of the world's best-known comedians, brought his more serious side to address Girard College's Class of 2011 yesterday.
"I'm 74 years old," the native Philadelphian began, "and when I was a kid, this school was known as Girard College, and no Negroes, no coloreds, [were] allowed. And so it sat here, in the city of Philadelphia, as a symbol of racist thoughts."
But Cosby reminded the largely African-American graduating class - which also included several Hispanic, Asian and white students - that they were not the first "to have broken that particular barrier."
Cosby noted that others, including whites, "fought with us to make a day like today."
"I want you to understand that there are souls and spirits looking at you," said Cosby, dressed in a mostly lime-green Hawaiian shirt. "You are walking on the bridges that they built. The bridges that they set. The insults that they took, regardless of race, color or creed, and they stayed on it.
"And they walked around this wall until that mind-set, because of laws, had to change. So, others came before you - building bridges, stairways, steps, and here you sit."
Girard College, at Corinthian and College avenues, in Fairmount, opened in 1848 as a boarding school for poor, white orphan boys under the 1831 will of merchant Stephen Girard. After marches in the 1950s and '60s, the whites-only clause was removed, and, later, the school was opened to girls.
Now girls make up 55 percent of the 518-student body. Thirty-three young women made up the majority of yesterday's 56-member graduating class.
Cosby warned the young women about the young men in their lives:
"You are not to let him talk you into anything that doesn't make sense," Cosby said. "Because if he loves you, he will not ask you to have his baby. . . . If he's worth anything, he wouldn't be talking about that. He'll be talking about a plan and setting goals."
And he dared to touch on a subject at the heart of many students from Girard College, which is for children from single-parent homes. He brought up the fact that many have missing fathers.
"Don't let that drag you down," he said. "Don't let a man who won't come and claim his child defer you from your rightful place." After the ceremony, graduate Nehemiah Eldridge, 19, from Maryland, said that he enjoyed Cosby's message.
"It touched on everybody's individual story," Eldridge said.
Eldridge is attending the Art Institute in Philadelphia in the fall to major in film, although music is his first love.