History

A Lesson on Structural Racism and Redemption at Northeast High School

September 16, 2020 | by Amy Cohen

Film poster of director Fred Wiseman’s 1968 documentary High School. | Image: Kanopy

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 Manual Training School on Howard Street below Girard Avenue a week before it was demolished in 1932. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

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.”

Northeast Manual Training School’s second building at 8th Street and Lehigh Avenue in 1912. The building, later known as Edison High School and then Julia de Burgos Magnet Middle School, was demolished in 2013. | Image courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

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

Northeast High School’s new third building at Cottman Avenue and Glendale Street shortly before it opened in 1957. | Image: Newspapers.com

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.

Edison High School (former Northeast High School) in North Philadelphia in 1973. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

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

New homes in Oxford Circle being built in 1951. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

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

Black students Angela Murray and Parrish Hale were bussed in from another school district to attend Northeast High School in 1979. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

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

A flier advertising Northeast High School’s annual Multicultural Show. The school, rated the biggest and most diverse in the city, has 3,380 students and nearly one-fifth are enrolled in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program. | Image: Northeast High School

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.

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About the Author

Amy Cohen Amy Cohen spent 20 years as a social studies teacher, most recently at Masterman. She is currently the Director of Education at History Making Productions where she develops educational materials to accompany documentaries about the Philadelphia region. Amy was born and raised in Center City long before the era of sidewalk cafes and pop up beer gardens. She now lives in West Mount Airy with her husband—also a lifelong Philadelphian—and their two daughters.

31 Comments:

  1. EJ says:

    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.

    1. RHAWNHURST Adam says:

      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.

  2. Bob Gershkovitz says:

    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.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      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.

    2. RHAWNHURST Adam says:

      I did not see where the article says the students had problems.

  3. Judy Hirsch says:

    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.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences. I appreciate it.

  4. Rene Weiner says:

    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.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      A vivid encounter for sure. How fortunate you are to have this record of your family in 1968.

  5. Ron Chubin says:

    Interesting story. Thanks for sharing. 131 class of 72.

  6. 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.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      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.

    2. RHAWNHURST Adam says:

      1 black teacher? Doesn’t that kind of validate her point?

  7. For my safety - anonymous says:

    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.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      It’s more complicated than crime or skin color. Many other factors come into play.

  8. Mark Dubis says:

    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.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      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.

  9. Joan says:

    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.

  10. Sue says:

    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!

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Sounds like you are in a difficult position. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  11. Nanci Ritter says:

    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.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      That is all great to hear. Thanks for sharing.

  12. James Clark says:

    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!

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks for sharing your memories.

  13. RHAWNHURST Adam says:

    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.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      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.

  14. PJ says:

    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”.

  15. Elaine Soloff Lanick says:

    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

  16. Frank S. Burstein says:

    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.

  17. Karina says:

    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.

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