October 22 — 2:51 pm, 2019

Attending Hallahan changed my life, but it wasn’t perfect

Reflecting on the lessons of an integrated Catholic high school in the 1960s.

Eileen McCafferty DiFranco

John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School in Center City Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Earlier this month, Philadelphia school officials were forced to scramble and temporarily relocate about 1,000 students from Science Leadership Academy and Benjamin Franklin High School due to an incomplete and troubled construction project. One of the alternate sites they considered was an unoccupied wing of Hallahan High School, a Catholic girls’ school located a few blocks away. Alarmed alumnae circulated a petition, which quickly gathered hundreds of signatures, protesting the presence of “public school students” in the building. The District ultimately chose other sites.

“O Girls of Hallahan High”

I wish I could recall all of the words of our school song, which begins: “Let a flood tide of song from our hearts pour along, O girls of the Hallahan High.” But it will be 50 years in June since I left those hallowed halls. Although I forget the words to the song, I do remember the four years I spent at the school because my experience at Hallahan made me the person I am today.

While cities throughout the nation were violently protesting school integration, way back in 1970, Hallahan was a peacefully integrated urban school. This peaceful integration occurred not because of any farsightedness on the part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. It occurred because happenstance, geographic proximity, and socioeconomics – with a little religion thrown in for good measure – brought African American, Caucasian, Asian American, and Latino girls together as classmates.

There was some parental grumbling, of course, when my parish, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, changed a 20-year practice of sending 9th graders to Little Flower, my mother’s alma mater. Yes, we were going to have to attend classes with black girls from North Philly. However, the archdiocese knew that our observant parents did not have the social capital to protest an integrated school. They would also not complain loudly to force the archdiocese to change its plan. And, if they did, the archdiocese would tell the lot of them to send their daughters to public school, perhaps an even greater horror. The archdiocese had to put us all somewhere as new high schools were being built in the burgeoning Northeast and suburbs, a place to which many families fled to escape scenarios that my neighborhood, Port Richmond, was then facing.

And so, we all showed up at Hallahan as classmates: white girls from Port Richmond, Fishtown, Fairmount, East Falls, Manayunk, and Roxborough; black and Latino girls from North Philly; and Asian girls from Chinatown. Not only did we sit together in classes, we also ate lunch together. Here again, the school did not consciously integrate the lunch table. The nuns were all about rules and order, so they randomly assigned seats for the year and kept seating charts so they could keep track of us all.

Although few students crossed racial lines to become bosom buddies, our daily proximity to each other encouraged school friendships and relationships that were largely unavailable in most other places. When you sit in class together every day and play basketball or play in the orchestra together, it’s pretty difficult to regard those who might look different from you as “the other.”

Hallahan, however, was hardly perfect. All of us, the staff and the students, were products of our time. Racism doesn’t disappear just because one’s school is integrated. Some of the girls were racists, as were some of the staff, who were almost all religious sisters.

I met one of my black classmates, Evelyn, 40 years after we graduated. I didn’t know her well while we were in school, but she told me that she was so poorly treated by the prefect of discipline that her pastor called the principal, a fellow priest, to direct the prefect to leave Evelyn alone. Her older sister had been subject to the same disdain and burned her uniform in the back yard on the last day of school. Although this particular nun treated everyone quite horribly (I met a 75-year-old graduate last year who said she still has nightmares about her), she subjected the black students to quite another level of contempt. Another friend, Debbie, told me that the lockers of the black girls were regularly searched if something went missing, but I never knew that this same sister regularly called my fellow students vulgar names to their faces.

I would like to think that most of the Class of 1970 grew during the four years we spent together, avoiding the prefect of discipline and learning that we had more in common than we were led to believe. During senior year, we elected a Chinese American girl as president, a white girl as vice president, and a black girl as secretary. In my adolescent mind, this ushered in the Age of Aquarius, when all things were possible. As the associate editor of the yearbook, I was going to point this all out, just in case anyone didn’t get the picture.

I persuaded the yearbook staff to adopt the theme, “Because all men are brothers,” never noticing the incongruity of using male pronouns to describe my fellow classmates, my gender “wokeness” being a couple of years in the future. Under the words is a picture of the class officers holding hands to highlight the differences in the color of their skin. On the opposing page is a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s book The Brothers Karamazov: “Until you have become really, in actual fact, a brother to everyone, brotherhood will not come to pass. No sort of scientific teaching, no kind of common interest, will ever teach men to share property and privileges with equal consideration for all. Everyone will think his share too small and they will be always envying, complaining, and attacking one another.”

Below those words are my words written almost 50 years ago: “These words of Fyodor Dostoevsky are part of the pervading tone of a Hallahan education. The graduating class of 1970 has been furnished with much more than academic attainment. Our Alma Mater has afforded us the opportunity of associating with young women of many racial, religious, and cultural backgrounds. Through this experience, we are better adept to confront a world of prejudice and intolerance. Hallahan’s women may never change the world, but they will extend a little brotherhood and happiness to all they meet.”

This is what the much-maligned noun diversity did for me at the tender age of 17. Attending a diverse school changed my world, changed my life, and formed the person I would grow to be. And so it pains me that a petition written by an alumna to prevent public school children from sharing space with Hallahan students would have been signed by more than 1,000 of my fellow alumnae. Did they forget from whence they came?

Eileen McCafferty DiFranco, Hallahan Class of 1970, is a resident of Mount Airy and was a longtime nurse in the Philadelphia School District. 




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