Bill Cosby, one of the world's most well-known comedians, brought his more serious side to address Girard College's Class of 2011 on Thursday.

"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 people, 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, opened in 1848 as a boarding school for poor, white orphan boys under the 1831 will of merchant Stephen Girard. After marches in the 1950's and 60's, the whites-only clause was removed and the school was also later opened to girls.

Now the 518-student body is made up of 55 percent girls. 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: 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 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.

Hiree Peoples, 19, said of Cosby's speech, "It was excellent. I enjoyed it. It was serious, but he gave it in a funny way."

Peoples will attend the University of Pittsburgh at Titusville on a track scholarship and will study sports management.

A Girard College spokeswoman said it is normal for 100 percent of its seniors to go to college.

Fatima McDonald, 18, said it felt "bittersweet" to graduate. She will study English at Temple University next fall and also plans to attend law school.

"It's not like leaving a regular school because we sleep here, we eat here," McDonald said. "It's like leaving a family. We make real connections here.

"I'm going to miss it a lot."