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Jerry Kinderman What I witnessed as a boy at this school I will never forget

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Jerry Kinderman

Posted: Wednesday, May 9, 2012 12:00 am

To challenge Attorney General Eric Holder's assertion that as a nation we're cowards as it pertains to discussion of matters of race, I thought as someone with a direct connection to the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement in Philadelphia, I might shed a different light on the matter.

In September 1965, as an 8-year-old boy from South Jersey, I was deposited into Girard College, a private boarding school located in North Philadelphia founded in 1848 by Stephen Girard for "poor, white, male orphans."

In short, Girard College was a hard place to get used to. The abuse from other boys and those paid to care for us was often severe and unrelenting. Over time, I learned to bob and weave while blending into the woodwork. But even those tactics didn't always work. In time I had toughened up enough to develop a love/hate relationship for the place I will always refer to as my childhood home.

In 1965, however, things were not peaceful on the other side of the Wall, a 10-foot-high structure surrounding the school's impressive 42-acre campus. While Girard's will had been unsuccessfully challenged many times before, with the changes going on throughout the country black leaders and citizens in Philadelphia would find a way to "break" it once and for all.

So it was in 1968, after one death, years of picketing, a visit from Martin Luther King, small riots, sharp and heavy objects hurled over the wall from the streets onto our playgrounds, and strict limitations on our comings and goings, when the U.S. Supreme Court found the way to alter the course of history for Girard College. In spite of its private funding, Girard's money had been managed by a city entity. This connection alone would be enough.

Although we didn't realize it at the time, the Class of 1974 — of which I was a member — would become a part of racial history. Because on June 8, 1974, along with 27 of his Girard brothers, Charles W. Hicks would be the first black boy to graduate from a school whose graduating classes had been white for its previous 126 years.

Diminutive and quiet, Charlie found his place in our class in much the same manner we all did. Disagreements were commonplace and often resulted in name-calling and fights followed by making up and moving forward. Our yearbook ("The Corinthian") bears out that Charlie at least appeared to assimilate well as he participated in sports; Boy Scouting; a member of the Society of Outstanding American High School Students; and recipient of the Union League of Philadelphia Good Citizenship Award among other accolades. He even signed my book as his "'G' bro, Charlie." Oh, and his nickname was "Brew" (an offshoot of the word "Bro," a name Charlie himself included on his page in the 1974 yearbook).

On graduation day we were greeted by all manner of media from newspaper reporters to cameras from CBS's "60 Minutes." This was indeed a big deal for Philadelphia, and for Charlie.

Still, memories have a way of changing even in spite of evidence such as memorialized in my yearbook. A few short years ago Charlie was quoted as saying that Girard was very racially charged for all of his six years, he had few friends, and that a member of his class threatened to kill him nightly prior to going to sleep.

One thing is for certain: There is no way I could imagine what it was like for Charlie being the only black student among a class of white faces, especially considering that he was admonished to do nothing to give the school a reason to get rid of him. After all, he was special — he had to succeed. To be fair, nearly all of us were threatened with bodily injury or death from those who hated us. And in all the time I was at Girard, no black student ever threatened me in this fashion; but the white upper-classmen took their shots.

I suppose Charlie has reasons for his memories. I won't challenge them. However, after conferring with other 1974 graduates, our perception of Charlie's life with us at the Hum reveals that he was treated no better and certainly no worse than anyone else during his six years as our "brother."

I ran into Charlie at Girard about five years ago. He didn't have much to say as he was busy signing autographs for the myriad current Girardians in awe of this historical figure. While Girard College still admits children from financially challenged households, there are no longer limitations based upon race or gender. Some of the older alumni have a hard time with these changes, but not those of us who graduated with Charles W. Hicks, aka "Brew." I didn't really understand it nearly 38 years ago, but it is an honor and privilege to be a part of that history and to have Charlie as one of my "'G' bro's." Perhaps in time he'll feel the same way again; or maybe he never really felt that way at all. But at least I'm talking about it now.


As a postscript: Today Girard College offers full scholarships which include tuition, clothing, food, healthcare and virtually anything and everything necessary to prepare its students to become happy, well-adjusted and contributing members of society. In addition, the majority are black and female.

Nearly all graduates are accepted to good colleges and universities around the country. Missing from these statistics however, are the numbers indicating how many of them actually finish their advanced education. There are also other data requested by the alumni and others that would give a better picture of what is really happening within the confines of the Wall.

Jerry Kinderman is a retired 20-year Lodi resident, computer software developer and writer. He can be reached at girard1974@comcast.net.

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