Fred Wiseman’s cinema verité documentary High School is a 75-minute time capsule of a different world. It was filmed at Northeast High School during March and April of 1968.
Teachers, clad in suits or dresses, deliver content as students, dressed only a bit less formally, sit passively listening. An older English teacher, for example, recites the dozen verses of the song “Casey at the Bat” to her audience of expressionless teenagers. In another classroom, her younger counterpart reads aloud the lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Dangling Conversation” to a similarly disengaged group of students. Even when she plays the song, on a giant contraption she has borrowed from the theater department, the zombie vibe persists.
Among the boys, signs of life emerge in the form of snickers and guffaws as a skeevy gynecologist offers bawdy replies to their anonymously submitted questions about sex. Girls, on the other hand, receive a humorless lecture on the perils of promiscuity. They are sternly warned to avoid wearing culottes.
Gym class is also single sex. Like robots in gym clothes, girls perform a listless choreography to the song “Simple Simon Says.”
The school disciplinarian, sporting a crewcut and a University of Pennsylvania class ring, dismisses any student concerns and metes out detentions and suspensions to all who come before him. Respect for teachers, for rules, for adult authority is more important than fairness. No questions asked.
Although the Tet Offensive in Vietnam had occurred the month before filming, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated when camera crews were on-site, this is a sealed off world of conformity, conventionality, and extreme homogeneity. The teachers are all white. Among the hundreds of students shown over the course of the film, all are white with the exception of five black boys, only one of whom we hear speak.
The story of how Northeast High School became a nearly all-white institution beginning in 1968 is an extraordinary tale of structural racism. If you have listened to the popular podcast “Nice White Parents,” it will be a familiar tale. But a more jaw-dropping one. In the 21st century, however, demographic shifts have made this erstwhile bastion of whiteness into a multiracial, multilingual, multiethnic place of learning that Philadelphia’s 1950s and 60s era of “nice white parents” could scarcely have imagined.
School of Stars
Northeast High School was founded in 1890 as the Northeast Manual Training School. It was located near Front Street and Girard Avenue until its move to 8th Street and Lehigh Avenue in 1905, a site it occupied until 1957. Although 8th and Lehigh today is considered North Philadelphia, at the time of the school’s founding it was indeed the northeast portion of the city. Much of what became the Great Northeast we know today was then farmland.
Like Central High School, it was an all-boys institution known for academic excellence, competitive sports (Northeast and Central have played an annual Thanksgiving football game since 1892 making it the oldest sports rivalry between public schools in the country), and high-achieving, loyal alumni.
With a national reputation, the school attracted famous visitors including Babe Ruth, Marian Anderson, and Albert Einstein. In 1951, Northeast High School was chosen as National School of the Year in recognition of “the citizenship of its students and for the success of its graduates in business, professional, and public life.” Northeast High School became known as the “School of Stars” because, according to the Philadelphia Bulletin, “so many of its graduates have advanced from humble homes to places of eminence.”
In 1954, the executive committee of the Northeast Alumni Association went before the Philadelphia School Board indicating that the school needed a new building due to deteriorating conditions and increased enrollment. The School Board, whose president Walter Biddle Saul had been the guest speaker at that year’s Alumni Association Annual Banquet, approved nearly $6 million for the construction of a new building.
Although the new school was to be co-ed and located seven miles to the northeast of its longtime location, the School Board approved the Alumni Association’s request that the “faculty, traditions, alumni, endowments, and aspirations of Northeast be transferred to this new school.” Thus, on May 1 1957, a dedication ceremony sponsored by the Alumni Association officially relocated Northeast High School to a brand new building at Cottman and Glendale Avenues in Rhawnhurst. This state-of-the art facility, surrounded by vast, pristine playing fields, would draw students from the surrounding neighborhoods of Mayfair, Oxford Circle, and Fox Chase.
The Plot Thickens
Thanks to diligent research conducted by teams of Northeast High School students in the early 2000s, however, we can see that the public justifications given for the 1957 relocation do not align with the facts. Under the guidance of social studies teacher Donna Sharer and with the support of a Disney education grant, teenaged sleuths discovered many an inconvenient truth about the real reasons the Alumni Association advocated for a school in a new location.
Although the Alumni Association claimed that the physical plant at 8th and Lehigh was outdated and no longer conducive to providing a top-notch education, the school building was neither closed nor renovated. As soon as Northeast moved out, the facility became home to the new Thomas Edison High School. Even when Edison moved to a new site at Front and Luzerne Streets in 1988, the building remained a school, housing Julia de Burgos Middle School until 2002. The building was torn down in 2013.
The Alumni Association had also cited increasing enrollment as an impetus for the move. The student researchers, however, consulted Northeast High School yearbooks and student newspapers and found a marked decline in enrollment between 1944 and the mid-1950s. While there were over 800 freshmen each year between 1944 through 1948, by 1952 there were 621. In 1947, 846 students graduated from Northeast High School. In 1952 the total was 561.
Enrollment was not declining, but it was certainly changing. In 1947, fewer than five percent of Northeast graduates were Black. The percentage rose to 17 percent in 1952 and to 37 percent by 1956. The final class of Northeast High School students to graduate from the 8th and Lehigh location was 46 percent Black.
The increase in Black enrollment reflected the changing demographics of the surrounding neighborhood. In 1940, the area was 94 percent white and 6 percent Black. By 1960, 28 percent of the residents were Black, and a Puerto Rican community was developing as well. In contrast, the area around the new Northeast High School was, like much of Northeast Philadelphia during the mid-20 century, over 99 percent white.
When Northeast High School moved from 8th and Lehigh to Cottman and Glendale, nearly all of the current students were left behind, many likely to attend the new Edison High School in the old Northeast High building. The only exception was for students who could show that their grandfathers–who would have been all or nearly all white–had attended Northeast High School. The term “grandfather clause” originated in the post-Reconstruction South when laws were passed to prevent Black people from voting. Northeast High School’s grandfather clause clearly had similar intent.
Right before the move, the school at 8th and Lehigh was chosen as a pilot site for a two-year high school program for low achieving students. From a 1956 Bulletin article found by the student researchers: “Occupational courses are being developed for slow learners with little academic desire and aptitude so that the reorganized school may serve directly the needs of certain students.” Born amidst this atmosphere of diminished expectations and serving mostly poor Black and brown students, Edison High School went on to become the American high school that lost the highest number of students during the Vietnam War.
White Flight: Part One
The overwhelmingly white composition of Northeast Philadelphia in the mid-20 century was the result of deliberate policies. During the Great Depression, color-coded maps developed by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation differentiated between the newer, whiter neighborhoods of the still bucolic “new” Northeast (Rhawnhurst, Oxford Circle, Mayfair) and the older, more mixed areas of the “former” Northeast (Feltonville, Frankford, Juniata Park). This redlining solidified divergent trajectories for the regions.
As housing demand increased during the 1940s, federal funds were used to build Pennypack Woods and Oxford Village, public housing developments available only to white war workers and their families. After World War II, a construction boom encouraged “white flight’’ from the older, denser, and diversifying areas of the city to burgeoning Northeast neighborhoods, often financed by federal home loans that were nearly impossible for Blacks to obtain. The Northeast was thus firmly established as enclaves of all-white, mostly Jewish and Catholic, middle-class families. Realtors and homeowners cooperated to maintain the all-white composition of most blocks, and residents resisted municipal efforts to build low-income housing which could have brought minorities to the area.
The film High School encapsulates an era in which Northeast students lived in this intentionally created bubble of whiteness. The overwhelmingly white student body that we observe in Wiseman’s documentary reflects the unstated wishes of the 1950s-era Alumni Association.
Politics and policies gradually chipped away at the racial uniformity of Northeast High School. In spite of overwhelming community pushback, in the late 1960s some Black students were bussed to the school. In 1978, several African American teachers were forced to transfer to Northeast to comply with the School District’s faculty integration policy.
White Flight: Part Two
What really changed the makeup of Northeast High School’s student body, however, were demographic shifts rather than desegregation policies. Beginning in the 1980s, “white flight” accelerated from the neighborhoods surrounding the school, what we today call the Lower Northeast. White families who could afford to do so moved to areas like Somerton and Bustleton in the Far Northeast, an area served by George Washington High School, which opened in 1962. Other white families left for suburban Bucks and Montgomery Counties. The neighborhoods around Northeast High School became more affordable and attracted working class Black, Asian, and Latino residents. In 1990, the Northeast was still 92 percent white. By 2010 it was 58 percent white.
In recent years, the Lower Northeast has become a magnet for immigrants from literally all over the world. Sizable enclaves of Brazilians, Uzbeks, Syrians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Portuguese, and Colombians have transformed this once homogeneous region into a place that is remarkably multicultural. A 2018 Philadelphia magazine story captures the ethos of the area: “One recent morning, on a well-trafficked strip of Castor Avenue in Oxford Circle, a Chinese Buddhist, a Hindu of Guyanese descent, a Muslim from Morocco, and a Filipino Christian opened a new thrift store…(in a) building that had been home for 69 years to Jewish-owned Singers Appliances.”
A School Transformed
Northeast High School today is the most diverse school in the city. Currently the student body is 29 percent Black, 24 percent Hispanic, 22 percent Asian, and 18 percent white. In a 2019 Philadelphia Tribune article, Principal Omar Crowder describes it as a “small city,” a school of 3,500 students who come from over 60 countries. One in five receive English as a Second Language services. On a pre-COVID visit to Northeast High School, Crowder gave me a copy of America Border Culture Dreamer: The Young Immigrant Story for A to Z, a book of artwork and personal histories that explores the widely varied experiences of first-and second-generation immigrant students. It is not surprising that the photographer and educator Wendy Ewald who led the project chose to do this work at Northeast High School.
Academic magnet programs with competitive admissions criteria attract students from across the city. The SPARC Robotics Program, known for simulated space flights, is featured in Wiseman’s High School film and continues today.
In 2009, actor Tony Danza tried his hand at teaching 10th grade English at Northeast High School in the short-lived, but poignant reality show, Teach. The world he enters is completely different than the one depicted in High School. Watch the full 75-minute documentary for free via Kanopy.
Although the students are mandated to wear uniforms beginning that school year, everything about the school feels more casual. In a reversal of the authoritarian discipline of 1968, Mr. Danza is reprimanded by an administrator for denying the requests of students with learning differences to visit the school’s resource room.
As a retired teacher, I know I would much rather teach in the lively, egalitarian, and polyglot atmosphere of today’s Northeast High School than in the stilted, sexist, and nearly all-white environment of the late 1960s.
Wow. As a NEHS graduate from the era of Fred Wiseman’s documentary, I don’t know what to say. In the first place, his documentary is wildly slanted, which is something you would know if you bothered to interview any of the alumni from that era. Secondly, I too am the first generation of an immigrant family that owned a home in Oxford Circle. I appreciate the historical data you provide but it is so much more complicated than your neatly packaged essay.
Sorry EJ, the numbers don’t lie and you were a student, not an adult looking in from the outside. Nobody is saying you did anything wrong or your education was bad. It is simply pointing out what many people deny.
I happen to be the guy who, in the film,got suspended (wrongly)by that terrorist, brush cut redneck vice principal (can’t remember his name at the moment, but everyone knew him as one mean s.o.b. I think the article above made a similar reference to him. I don’t recall any sort of racism going on then but that because the entire student body and pretty much the whole of the highly populated surrounding area known as “the greater northeast” was all white, which is racism itself, but I didn’t know the difference. It just seemed normal at the time. Anyway, the suspension was a turning point in my life and shouldn’t have even happened (if you listen real carefully to the dialogue between robo-principal & myself, he suspended me because he misheard what I said. I had actually agreed to do what he said. Anyway, I had no idea the movie was being made and never new if until 50 yrs later when I accidentally stumbled upon it and was able to download it. The scene with me is very near the beginning and I was ASTOUNDED!as you might imagine. At 1st, I didn’t realize it was me, but I immediately recognized the mean ol vp. It took a few minutes and several watches, before I realized it was me. I even remembered the unusual shirt I was wearing. The thing is, I still don’t remember the actual thing happening but there’s no doubt it’s me. My mind was so blown when I realized I was watching a cinematic film quality movie of not only my alma mater but of a very personal thing that happened to me, which I believe, led to me ending my attendance at school and worsened my relationship with my parents and led finally to me leaving philly altogether. I miss the 7-eleven & burger chef and most if all, the country club diner with its best in the world cheesecake. Anyway, I realize now that the entire greater NE was racist, and systematically so at the time, by keeping all other peeps out, but at the time I was oblivious to the fact. I never got it straight if my house was in Rhawnhurst or Fox Chase but was only a few blocks from the high school (at the end of Whitaker ave). It was a cool place to grow up and the many many neighborhoods surrounding, were all nice and clean and we’ll kept everywhere you went for miles. But I understand that now, even though it’s far more diverse in peoples, that it has become, let’s just say, far less nice and desireable. There is an oxford circle blog I discovered years ago and made many comments on, and everybody on that blog says the same thing about how badly deteriorated the area has become. That’s a damn shame to know. I haven’t been back for many years. It was very beautiful when I grew up there.
Sorry,but it just dawned on me that in contrast to what I said above, I actually was a victim of a form of racism.. Even though Jews,such as myself, made up a large percentage of the population of the greater NE, there still was (and still is) lots of anti semitism (I don’t know why it’s called that? It’s anti Jewish,not semetic). I experienced it many times in high school and junior high (Wilson). So that is a form of racism the way I see it.
I was a black student who was bused to school in the N.E. since the 2nd grade. I went to Ctossan, then Wilson, the N.E. The first time I realized that racism was real and not just stuff you see on tv, I was in the 4th grade. We got to school one morning and found out someone had sprayed a sw*stika on our schools annex building. I remember that very few of our teachers wanted to discuss what happened. However, my music teacher(who was Jewish)took the time out to explain to us what happened, what the swastika meant, and how we would be the ones to eliminate racism and anti-demotion. I believe a week later, we had a new music teacher. As a kid, you don’t absorb the magnitude of that moment but when you become an adult and educate yourself, it puts everything into perspective.
I attended Northeast high fron Sept. 1966 to June 1969 and was a witness to the beginnings of Blsck students first coming to Northesst high. They all were well accepted and I do not remember and problems from the student body accepting the new black students. To my knowledge there were no racial problems and the black students were well accepted- several black students played on our football team including our 1968 team which won the Public Leage championshoip.
From what I read, black and white students coexisted peacefully at the old NEHS as well. The only record of serious racial conflicts I found were from the 1970s.
Attended NEHS from 72 to 75. Was involved in student government as well as 3 varsity sports.Not once did I witness racial issue or anti semitism. There may have been perhaps isolated instances.There were about 8to10 African Americans that were my teammates on the football team as well as the track team. We all got along very well. Rumors seemed to be the On,y issues.
I did not see where the article says the students had problems.
The article never claimed that the student body had confrontations.What the article does reveal is the racism that existed behind the move of North East High from 8Th & Lehigh to Cottman Ave & Glendale Ave.What I wished the article did reveal is why many African Americans were struggling academically.
This is so interesting! Thank you, Amy Cohen. I attended NEHS in the early 1970’s. Girls were finally allowed to wear pants in school and we were just beginning to see an increase in racial and ethnic diversity of both students and teachers. As a white, Jewish girl, I fit right in.
It was only when I looked back with adult eyes after seeing more of America that I understood the segregated bubble in which I was raised. That recognition was the start of the start of my real education in preparation for the EEO, affirmative action, diversity and inclusion field which was my career for 38 years.
Half of my career was spent outside of Pennsylvania. While I was away, I was proud when my mother sold, to a young family who immigrated from India, the NE Philly house my parents bought in 1958. The old neighborhood, that had been farmland, was finally changing hands. Likewise, when I returned to Pennsylvania to retire after living in other states for nearly 20 years, it was gratifying to learn NEHS has also become more inclusive to a broad diversity of students.
Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences. I appreciate it.
My father sister and mother appeared in the documentary high school with dr boodish. Rhonda Batoff Marian batoff and marvin batoff they were discussing grades.My sister wanted to be a cosmetologist.
A vivid encounter for sure. How fortunate you are to have this record of your family in 1968.
Non story here. The new school was built in the Northeast where there existed the need for a new high school with a growing population. The old school building continued to serve as a public high school for that neighborhood. The only quabble here is over the actual name “Northeast HS”. But it exists in the present day Northeast Philadelphia, so transfer of the name to the new school now seems appropriate.
If the author wanted to write a story about true racism in the Philadelphia public school system how about the horrific attacks on Asian children committed by black students at Southern about 10 plus years ago? That involved black students engaging in blatant acts of violence directed toward innocent Asian kids… you know, actual real life racism.
Attended NE from 72 to 75. Never saw an issue with racial differences. There were at least a dozen African Americans that were teammates of mine on the football team. We got along very well.On the field we were friends and off the field we went our separate ways.
Interesting story. Thanks for sharing. 131 class of 72.
Amy, You may have some misinformation. I was a student at NEHS from 1968-1971. I had at least 1 black teacher, a sociology teacher. As for the 1968 video, I found it an unflattering picture of reality. Also, NEHS was a science magnet school and so we had (although a minority) other ethnic groups from other Philadelphia neighborhoods. The current CEO of Merck was in our class.
I did not know that Ken Frazier went to NEHS! My mother used to work with him back when he was a practicing attorney. Thank you for sharing that information.
1 black teacher? Doesn’t that kind of validate her point?
You’re trying to tell us that people left their homes, neighborhoods and livelihoods to avoid black people because of their color and not the crime. You are perhaps well-intentioned but filled with white guilt or worse and certainly part of the problem.
It’s more complicated than crime or skin color. Many other factors come into play.
As a student of Northeast High School in the 60’s I found this article very disingenuous and written through a liberal white privilege lens. Neighborhoods always change and people feel comfortable with those who share similar values and interests. School districts respond to those changes along with the population shifts. Northeast Philly was dominated by whites back then so naturally, the population in the school would reflect that. Political leaders in the city along with school board administrators determine where new schools are built.
Making fun of how teachers and students dressed back then, and the subject matter of the day shows a lack of awareness of the times. It’s sad that academics and others today have to go back 50 years and look for examples of those past prejudices.
Forced diversity and poor-performing schools are the results of other societal factors and a lack of adherence to educational standards.
I would like to see this writer focus her attention on how Teachers’ unions have brought us poor-performing schools and a fast decaying Public Educational system.
As a former member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, you are unlikely to find me take that particular slant. I encourage you to learn more about the numerous housing policies that prevented middle class black families from moving to the Northeast in the mid-20th century.
“comfortable with those who share similar values and interests”
What similar values and interests? We’re talking about education. Everyone within this context shares the same values and interests.
NEHS grad who became a teacher in a parochial school here.
The “conformity” that is portrayed in the film is a one-sided highly-edited view of what is called discipline, and this discipline is associated with safety and higher educational scores. When the schools became less safe due to cultural shifts, families who could move, did move. That is the history of upward mobility in the United States.
I teach in a parochial school now, one that requires an entrance exam but that accepts almost everybody because the tuition is needed. Almost all the students are there not for the religious education, but for the safety, compared to public schools. Most of the students are black, and as a group struggle due to poor discipline and defiance of authority. The Asian immigrant students are well-behaved and “conformist,” but clearly have the best academic outcomes. The white/Hispanic students fall somewhere in between. I feel sorry for the families who are paying for an education when that education is diminished by those families who are paying solely for safety. Ask any teacher if there are group cultures like this in their school, and the answer will be yes.
My family are all a proud product of the Philadelphia school
system. We are not privileged and have nothing to apologize for. My parents were bullied out of North Philadelphia and also left because of crime. All of my past friends left because of the state of affairs. I chose to stay, but my neighborhood certainly didn’t improve. It’s filthy and only a few actually care. Sad but true. Now I’m left to contemplate should I stay or should I go. I love this city but!
Sounds like you are in a difficult position. Thanks for taking the time to comment.
Class of 131 1972 and my advisor was African American and an Art teacher, Mrs. Pitchford. Some of my closest friends were black because of All City Choir. What I remember most is that there were very few gentiles. Most of the students were Catholic or Jewish. This reflected the neighborhoods that fed NEHS. I was also the only gentile on my street in Fox Chase. Our graduating class was over 1200 students and there were lots of opportunities at the school academically and socially which brought diverse people together. I became a teacher because of many of these role models and went on to get a PHD in Urban Education at Temple U.
That is all great to hear. Thanks for sharing.
I did not go to NEHS, but I did live in the neighborhood for all of my childhood. We use to play in the yards surrounding the school, it was safer than playing in the streets! I remember when my folks moved to Rhawnhurst. I always thought and heard frequently that the white folks were moving out because black folks were moving in!
Thanks for sharing your memories.
I am born and raised in Philadelphi, starting with Castor Garndens and now Rhawnhurst. Now I am 40, so I cannot speak to 1967 demographics of the school or region. But I can speak to the 80’s when compared to today. Yes this area was by far and large, white, now it is not. That is not offensive, why are so many of you mad? Northeast is a neighborhood HS. So the student body reflects that fact. Why are you mad about pointing out how the teachers were white? Given the difference in higher educational opportunities, it was a reality of the times. Nothing is wrong with the article, there is something to be said about the responses though.
I appreciate your comments. I think you underscore the sensitivity (sometimes called fragility) that often surfaces when white people are asked to think about racism in any form.
Good article! As a 1973 NEHS grad you pretty much called it as it was. Most people knew, but never said that NE Alumni moved the school due to racial issues.
We had several black students in our class and we all got along. It was a predominately Jewish student population, as a Christian, I remember having only 6-8 students in classes on the high Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur before they became school holidays. The class of ‘73 also suffered through a teachers strike where as seniors we had sham classes by administrators and juniors and sophomores did not attend during the strike.
It was a great school to attend. Thanks for sharing it’s “hidden history”.
Elaine Soloff Bottomley Lanick
Class of 1969 NEHS 128
Loved my time at Northeast…
Never looked at it as Black and White..just teachers and friends
My 3 Daughters also Graduated from Northeast..Class of 92..96..and 2013
The school certainly changed through the years but was always a Great School with a Fabulous Staff and Students..WE ❤ NEHS
In 1965,my English Teacher Philomena O’Hanlon wrote a book Archive 75, an Historical and Photographic Book on the 75th Anniversary of NEHS. I was fortunate to have designed the 75th Anniversary Emblem.
I attended high school during Danza’s filming. I can assure you the school at that time did not provide adequate resources or equal treatment, and wasn’t casual in its atmosphere. ForDanza’s show, the painfully overcrowded hallways were cleared and then staged with a friendlier number of kids. Students were interviewed and hand-picked for the show. For the rest of the school, discipline was doubled down on, certain policies were added to make money off students, and certain activities were limited and catered to Danza – band, choir, some others. The marching band was kept from competing, which so many students had worked hard for, so that they could be used to embellish the show. Honestly, that year many things changed for the worse. The school is diverse, and has a lot going for it, but the show Teach was a farce at representing Northeast.
The comments were very interesting to read. I for one grew up in Mayfair but attended Abraham Lincoln H.S. at Roland and Ryan Ave. graduating in ’66.
Lincoln had way more blacks during my tenure and many were close friends. I left in ’67 joining the military and live in the South presently. When I returned to Philly in the 70’s I was displeased to see its decline and decided to not return to raise a family. My Grandparents on both sides were lifelong residents of Holmesburg.
Anyways, I found it interesting that nobody mentioned that NEHS educated the now prime minister of Isreal Benjamin Netanyahu the same time I was attending ALHS.
Thanks for the article.
You display all the prejudiced opinions and self-righteousness of someone raised in Center City, now living in”West” Mount Airy. Except that prejudice is for white people not of your class.
I’m curious whether your children attended neighborhood pubic schools.
I attended the old Northeast but graduated from Edison. Of course, the alumni association pushed for a new school because the 8th and Lehigh area was becoming black. No one was fooled by its motives.
My sons attended the new school in the 1980s. It was not an inspiring place for the students but, perhaps, burned-out teachers were to blame more than air-head kids.
I was graduated from NEHS in 1966, from a class of over 1200 students, mostly Jewish with some Catholic students, and all but three or four students of color. When I saw the Frederick Wiseman’s banned-in-Philadelphia documentary in 1968 with my Boston-area college friends, I didn’t understand why my friends thought it was so “hysterical”. NEHS was exactly as I had remembered it– rigid, conformist, and homogeneous, just like the neighborhood. I thought everyone’s high school was like that. Growing up in the Northeast where people were hesitant to go downtown, I felt I had to see the world, leave Philadelphia, and never come back. After 10 years in other cities mostly on the east coast, I returned to Philadelphia to take a job at Temple University. The city looks very different from my home now in North Philadelphia and my place of employment at Temple. Amy Cohen’s piece is very helpful in illustrating the structural racism that formed our neighborhood and our school, and the racism that has pervaded our city for centuries. I am proud now to tell my students that I was graduated from the NEHS that is 2020.
As a historian, a native of N. Phila. who moved to Rhawnhurst in ’56, a resident there and Bustleton for decades, and a member of NE 118 (June ’62), there’s much of interest here, in both the article and the comments. I ’62 I headed the group of seniors who began the research for Miss O’Hanlon’s 75th Anniv. book. The photo of the original NE is the first I’ve ever seen. The school was immediately east of the Schmidt’s Brewery complex. The 2nd NE’s main building on Lehigh Ave. was called “The Old Stone Fortress”; “Made of granite are thy walls, built for strength and might. And the teachings of thy halls guide our future right.” From my 7th grade homeroom at Wilson JHS we could see the completion of the 3rd NE’s construction. It opened in Feb.’57. The playing fields don’t “surround” the school; they are behind it. I doubt that the new school served Mayfair, which is Lincoln territory. As for areas north of Cottman Ave., it served Rhawnhurst, Burholme, Fox Chase, Bustleton, & Somerton. I believe that anyone could go to Frankford or Mastbaum, which is what many of my Wilson classmates did, all gentiles. I don’t recall any Jewish classmates who went to Frankford from Wilson; they all went to the new NE or Central. I suppose that there were some Catholic students at NE, but yes, it was heavily Jewish. Regarding its current demographic, google a Facebook website which shows its 2020 National Honor Society members from numerous ethnic and religious backgrounds, many Middle Eastern. How many relatively new residents of the neighborhoods close to NE moved farther north to Bustleton & Somerton? I rather doubt that many did. But my main concern is the overall negative tone of the article, and its focus on race. I’ve read a more detailed account of NE’s relocation from N.Phila., which enlightened me. But should that subject have been the focus of this article? Why not more about the teachers, who seldom get the recognition they deserve. They are never mentioned at 118 class reunions! For instance, Miss O’Hanlon was a very fine lady, and if the cited disciplinarian was crew-cut Mr. Allen, yes he was very formidable, but also a reasonably good social studies teacher. As for the students and the school day, my recollection does not conform to the dull, dreary, depressing description of NE c. ’68, obsessed with conformity. Even if there was a certain degree of truth in that depiction, some comments in effect correctly say “so what?, that’s the way it was then.” I lean toward that response.
I went to Julia de Burgos Middle School, also known as Bilingual Middle Magnet School, and was in the first graduating class. I was aware of its former name, North East High School, and then Thomas Edison High School. I also knew that the area was the North East before zoned to be part of North Philadelphia. I didn’t know, however, the details of why it moved to Cottman and Glendale. Thank you!
I agree I fail to see the need for the racism theme in this article. I attended NE from 1957 to 1961, one extra year because I didn’t like the place and I didn’t hide my shear distaste for anything there. What I do remember is the school met the standard of its demographics as there was a somewhat affluent, mostly Jewish community, north of the Boulevard and east of Broad Street. The school was probably 75% Jewish, both students and staff, and it was a ghost town on Jewish holidays. I think there were two or three black students out of the total 3,000 student body. What I mean before anyone gets excited is that the majority Jewish culture and attitudes were the driving interests which is understandable. This was a challenge.
Something I found very interesting is a colleague I knew in St. Louis had a very similar experience to mine. He attended University City HS in St. Louis. In his experience this was an affluent, predominantly Jewish community at the time he attended in the 1960s and he had many of the same, exact experiences as myself in that environment.
It all has little to do, if anything, with race and more to do with evolving demographics. Which ever culture is majority tends to drive the environment. I can say with some confidence I know many Jews don’t live in that community now so NE is probably a far different experience today than it was when I was there.
I went to Julia de Burgos Middle School, also known as Bilingual Middle Magnet School, and was in the first graduating class. I was aware of its former name, North East High School, and then Thomas Edison High School. I also knew that the area was the North East before zoned to be part of North Philadelphia. I didn’t know, however, the details of why it moved to Cottman and Glendale. Thank you!
As a graduate of Class 118 in 1962, I read with interest the reply sent by Clifford Tobias. We were mates back then and have recently been communicating by email. I enjoyed the clarity of Clifford’s comments. I live in Stockholm, Sweden, and have done so since 2000. The comparisons between Philadelphia then and now are astounding at the least. To compare Philadelphia to Stockholm would be ludicrous. I enjoyed my time at NorthEast High, and only wish I was not among the minority there.
I do hope my memories of NEHS will be remembered by others. As a political descendant of a successful presidential family, I chose to avoid that avenue. I became a successful entertainer, and I never regretted that choice. Everyone should pursue what they feel most confident about and enjoy their brief segment of time on Earth. Robert A. Taft, Stockholm, Sweden
Several comments have mentioned that the neighborhoods that went to the new NEHS were predominantly Jewish. What was not mentioned is that many families were Holocaust survivors who had come to the US determined to rebuild the families and lives that were stolen from them. For these families a good education was a top priority that came from past generations and was instilled in the current and future generations. I spent three hours a day commuting to and from Girls High from Wynnefield. My family stayed there during the “white flight” and watched the neighborhood we loved become unsafe and unsightly, and the once excellent schools that two generations of my family attended become poor performing academically and crime ridden. This seemed to be the norm in Philly neighborhoods in the 70s onward. Where does the blame and guilt lie for that? The Jewish immigrant population that arrived in the lower Northeast were just a few years past the murder of European Jewry. Are their values the ones that the author and several commentators are critical of? Achievement has nothing to do with race or religion. It’s up to each individual to decide their goals in life and to work on fulfilling them. However these days it’s much easier to blame others and make excuses for failure, crime, etc,
Suzanne, your comment is an explosion of truth so bitter and yet so full of common sense!
Hello Amy Cohen: First.my Son DrewSteinbrecher was a 7th grade social studies student of yours at Masterman during the 2011-2012 school year. Today he is 23 years old and serves as a Radiology specialist in the US Army at Ft Lewis WA He has grown up to be an amazingly intelligent young with a fantastic future ahead of him.
I am a member of NEHS 131st class of 1972. i arrived at Northeast in September of 1969. i remember my 3 yearsthere very well. There was a major change in the atmosphere during my time there. This may have been as a result with the introduction of the Student Bill of rights and responsibilies. i believe this improved the way the staff and students interacted towards each other. The school at that time was predominately White, but was becoming more diversified at the time. I had aGym teacher in 11th and 12th grade, Mr.T Lewis Moore who was black, who showed me a great deal of compassion in helping me overcome coordination challenges in Physical education. it’s been 50 years, and I remember his willingness to work with me on a one to one basis. Also the President of our 11th grade class,Archie Elam, a black student who traveled over an hour eachday from North Philly to get to Norheast. He was a major inspiration to our class of over 1260 students. After graduation, he went on To West Point and became a distinguished officer in the US Army..As a matter of fact, has reached out to Mr. Elam for career advice as he navigaates his current career in the Army.
i really enjoyed reading your story. it gave me some insight on things I knew existed in our city. Philly was very segregated with sharp dividing lines of population in certain neighborhoods. i am very happy that today we are a much more diversified city as a whole.
Families moving north through the city are criticized for being racist when in some instances it is about safety.
For me, a graduate of NEHS’72, I found the minorities extremely interesting. Friendships were established. Minority teachers were fair and enlightening. I was exposed to other cultures including the Jewish community. My household was somewhat poor, catholic & white. My Dad had a factory job and drank everyday. I had a bedroom where the snow and rain came in around the loose window while I looked up at the missing ceiling and the underside of the tar covered roof boards. Being exposed to the partially diverse teachers and students served me well. I went on to work for the city in North & West Philadelphia for 41 years. And I continued to benefit from my exposure to varied cultures and poverty. With all that I lived through safety is still my first factor in deciding where to live and enjoy recreation. So am I racist? Maybe this is the problem when others rebuke the history you painstakingly detailed.
The grammar in these comments is often abysmal.
I did see this documentary around 2002, on a local PBS station in central PA. My interest in it has never waned as I find myself now (2022) researching the film and its comments online today.
Reading opinions from people actually THERE or who lived in the area makes my head spin. Do any of you proofread? I find this insight from these contributors enlightening and interesting, but mentally exhausting and will have to check out more later.
Also, not one mention that people are FREE to live where they want, where they can afford, and likely alongside people of similar backgrounds. Racism this and racism that…I realize there was a swastika painted on a door. Heinous as that is, it only takes ONE student to have done that. The vast majority otherwise probably did not espouse racist views.
There are some positives in the comments:
“I found the minorities extremely interesting. Friendships were established. Minority teachers were fair and enlightening. I was exposed to other cultures including the Jewish community.”
Experiences like that (above) no one sees as a success. Instead, people dwell on negatives.