In this era of protest, students win approval for historical marker of 1967 walkout
Allison Fortenbery and Aden Gonzales were among the students who urged an end to school police at the Board of Education hearing Thursday night.
They did so with some historical perspective: They are two of five students from Julia R. Masterman Laboratory & Demonstration School who have secured approval for the installation of a state marker to commemorate the 1967 Philadelphia school walkout, during which student protesters were beaten by police.
The walkout is an example of student-led civil rights activism. With protests and police violence now in the news, the recognition is especially timely.
Fortenbery and Gonzales were joined by Tatiana Bennett, Taryn Flaherty, and Nia Weeks, all rising Masterman seniors, in submitting the application to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the marker. The students came together in the summer of 2019 to organize their proposal for the marker after all five of them won the 2019 National History Day competition at both the city and statewide levels.
Applying the research skills they had developed, the students were able to shine a light on an often-overlooked aspect of Philadelphia’s history.
The Philadelphia walkout took place on Nov. 17, 1967, when students, teachers, and officials from across the city gathered for a peaceful protest of racial inequality in schools in front of the Board of Education, which then was located at 21st and Winter Streets, near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
More than 3,000 students from all over the city gathered. Students gave the Board of Education a list of 25 requests, including the removal of police from school settings, the introduction of draft-focused counseling (this was during the Vietnam War), the end of the academic tracking system that saw few Black students in advanced classes, the integration of African American studies into the curriculum, and the freedom for Black students to wear dashikis and other ethnic garb and natural hair in school without intervention.
“Our research focused on the 25 demands, what got implemented, and the walkout itself,” Bennett said. “This is mostly speculation, but I want to say this issue [they protested] is similar to today. I want to say this was another case of police being inserted where they probably were not the best. Instead of keeping children safe as they were supposed to, they ended up causing discomfort.”
The superintendent at the time, Mark Shedd, was receptive to the students, and a delegation from the group was meeting with him in his office when Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, who later became the mayor, decided to take control. After one student reportedly jumped on top of a police car, Rizzo ordered the crowd to disband and sent roughly 300 police officers to the scene in riot gear. Twenty-two people, including both teenagers and adults, were seriously injured in the mayhem that followed. Fifty-seven people were arrested.
One eyewitness – David Hornbeck, who was then a 25-year-old community organizer and later became superintendent of the Philadelphia School District – said that he saw the police beating students.
He disputed Rizzo’s account that students had been violent or jumping on cars.
“I was the rebuttal witness that said none of that was true,” Hornbeck told the Notebook on the 50th anniversary of the event. He said he saw Rizzo “give a signal,” and the police “just waded into the kids and started beating them with their batons.”
Through their research, the Masterman students found that the Philadelphia protest set a precedent for several other school walkouts across the country.
“We found the 1967 Philadelphia walkout preceded the ethnic studies movement,” said Flaherty. The students found that even though a 1968 protest in San Francisco had been considered the start of the ethnic studies movement, “they were taught by Philadelphians who walked out in 1967.”
Flaherty said that in order to get the proposal for the marker approved, “we had to make our own argument that the Philadelphia walkouts kick-started the ethnic studies movement.”
With help from teachers at Masterman and professors and archivists at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and the University of Michigan, the five students successfully made their case in their application to the Historical and Museum Commission. The commission, which opens applications for new state markers annually, asks that proposed events demonstrate historical significance not only locally, but statewide and nationally as well. With the submission of their 104-page application, the students were able to document the national impact of the Philadelphia protest.
Though the marker was approved, the students still had to raise money to cover installation costs. They set up a GoFundMe page to raise the necessary $2,200 – a goal they ultimately surpassed.
“Because we ended up getting more money than we needed to put up the marker, we are currently creating micro-grants to help African American history teachers across the city,” Weeks said.
“We wanted to do something with the money that would go along with what the students were protesting and demanding in 1967,” said Gonzales. “They wanted Black history to be taught in schools, and they wanted to have the ability to form student governments. So we are trying to push our efforts and money to something that they would have wanted.”
In 2005, Philadelphia became the first big city to make an African American history course mandatory for graduation.
The students hope the marker will remind Philadelphians of more than just the event.
“I hope when people see this marker, they are encouraged to find their own hidden history,” Weeks said. “I think it makes you wonder how much history in our country and in our city that we just genuinely do not know about that deserves recognition. So I hope people are encouraged to dig a little deeper into history.”
Bennett added: “A Eurocentric point of view isn’t the only point of view. African Americans have been in this country just as long as whites. So for them to only be taught in relation to slavery and Jim Crow isn’t fair. It doesn’t give them the credit they deserve. I’m glad that we were able to work on this project and highlight a little piece, not only of Philadelphia history, but Black history that might otherwise have been swept under the rug.”
Fortenbery said she grew up in Philadelphia but “until I did the project on it last year, I didn’t even know that this protest happened.”
She added, “We want the students involved in the walkouts to know that we are very grateful for what they did and we want to honor them with the marker.”
Weeks said, “I also really hope that the marker reminds us of student voices and youth activism. I really hope people can look at this marker and understand that they, too, have a voice and they, too, can have an impact. I hope it can serve as a template for other young people who want to make change where they live.”
Bennett said that working on the marker project has helped her cope with what is happening now and made her feel that she is making a difference.
“When all the protests started and word got out about Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, I felt hopeless. I felt like I could post on social media, sign petitions – but what else could I really do? But this state marker going up, I see it as a sign that Philadelphia is finally taking a step toward change.”
The five seniors especially hope that other Philadelphia students will be inspired by the marker.
Gonzales explained: “Philadelphia schools do not have the best reputation. We hope people acknowledge that for a while, Philly students have been advocating for themselves and have been trying to better their school district.”
Said Flaherty: “This marker is a big step forward, because Philadelphia is acknowledging its complicated yet inspiring history – but this is just one step forward. We have so much more work to do.”
The former Board of Education building is now a condominium complex. The students are waiting for approval of the marker’s location. They hope to invite the community to a dedication ceremony this fall after the location is approved and the marker is installed.