Historical Markers
Girard College Civil Rights Landmark Historical Marker
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Girard College Civil Rights Landmark

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Corinthian and Girard Aves., Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

The Girard College, drawn by T.U. Walter; on stone by J.C. Wild, 1840.
Lithograph of Girard College, Philadelphia, PA, 1840.
Built as an innovative orphans' school north of Philadelphia's original city line, Girard College eventually became engulfed by a troubled North Philadelphia neighborhood and controversy over its exclusion of blacks. The school was founded by Philadelphia merchant and banker markerStephen Girard (1750-1831), who willed much of his estate to Philadelphia for a school to educate "poor white male orphans between the ages of six and ten," then defined in Pennsylvania as fatherless children. Rather than a classical curriculum centered on Greek and Latin, Girard advocated a practical one, including French and Spanish, what would be useful for trade and commerce.
Oil on canvas of a man wearing a suit, seated at a table.
Stephen Girard, by James Reid Lambdin, c. 1832-1889.

To protect the orphans from sectarian controversy, Girard specified that no "ecclesiastic, missionary or minister of any sect" ever be allowed "for any purpose, or as a visitor, within the premises"; a provision unsuccessfully challenged by Daniel Webster representing Girard family members who contested the will. Despite the prohibition of clergy, students studied the Bible as a "book of ethics" and attended chapel services run by lay school personnel. As late as 1973, however, the school barred a priest from a public organ recital but later, after admitting a black minister, revoked this policy.

Starting with ninety-five pupils in 1848, Girard College's enrollment grew to 1,574 by 1890 when its new middle school opened. In 1934, 1,724 students attended Girard, including almost 250 boys from Luzerne, Lackawanna and Schuylkill Counties, where mining accidents had left many children without fathers. By the end of the 1950s, however, enrollments had shrunk to less than half those reached during the Great Depression. Growing entitlements from Social Security and welfare made it easier for single parents to care for their children, widows were more apt to remarry, and many mothers worked.
Scene of a North Philadelphia neighborhood adjacent to Girard College, 1945
A North Philadelphia neighborhood adjacent to Girard College, circa 1945.

When Girard College opened in the 1840s, it was surrounded by open fields. In the decades that followed, however, Philadelphia came to surround the campus, and after World War I the surrounding neighborhoods became home to many of the city's growing African-American residents. In accordance with its founder's will, Girard College was for white orphans only. In 1944, Dr. Nathan Mossell, one of the city's most prominent African-American physicians, challenged the school's white-only policy, and was soon joined in the fight by the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Adopted in 1951, Philadelphia's Home Rule Charter attacked racial discrimination and established a Commission on Human Relations. Then in 1954, the year of the landmark Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision, six black students applied to Girard College. After the school denied them admission, prominent black civil-rights lawyer markerRaymond Pace Alexander sponsored a City Council resolution asking for a ruling on the racial exclusion.

In September, Mayor Joseph Clark and the Commission on Human Relations petitioned the Orphans' Court, and Alexander filed as a private attorney on the boys' behalf. The case then passed from Philadelphia Orphans' Court, where Judge Robert Bolger in 1955 upheld the Board of Directors of City Trusts' refusal to admit black students, to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which upheld his decision, to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed it. Rather than admit black students, however, the Orphan's Court removed the Board of Directors of City Trusts as trustee, a decision that was again appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the transfer and denied a petition for a rehearing.
Martin Luther King, Jr. standing and speaking into a microphone.
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Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering a speech outside the wall of Girard College,...

The court rejection of pleas for integration in 1958 spurred Philadelphia's growing civil rights movement to target the college. On May 1, 1965, the Philadelphia NAACP, led by the combative Cecil Moore, began picketing Girard and threatened to climb over its walls, forcing a large on-going police presence. Moore challenged Girard's educational license and tax-exempt status in the courts and objected when negotiations between governmental officials and the Girard trustees excluded the NAACP. Soon, Girard College became the symbol center of the struggle for racial equality in Philadelphia, mobilizing residents–many of whom gathered at meetings hosted by the nearby Church of the Advocate and drawing prominent civil-rights leaders, including James Farmer and markerMartin Luther King, to the picket line. Moore marker opposed King's presence at the College, until public opinion forced him to welcome the national civil rights leader.
Procession Around the Girard College in Philadelphia, led by Members of the St. Thomas Episcopal Church 1965.
A protest march outside of Girard College led by Members of the St. Thomas Episcopal...

After the city and state sued on behalf of seven black applicants on December 18, 1965, Moore halted the picketing, but resumed it in October 1966 to force a resolution. Citing Pennsylvania Public Accommodation Act 121, Judge Joseph Lord of the U.S. District Court ruled that the school must admit all races, but the U.S. Court of Appeals backed the trustees by ruling that the Girard College was an orphanage, not a school, returning the case to Judge Lord. This time, he ruled that the racial exclusion violated the Fourteenth Amendment. On May 20, 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case. On September 11, 1968, Girard welcomed its marker first minority students. Charles Hicks, one of the seven boys from the lawsuit, became the school's first black graduate in 1974.

Girard integrated successfully, but later suffered from staff turnover and enrollments that declined into the 200s in the late 1970s. To attract students, the trustees increased the upper-age limit for admission to fourteen, admitted motherless boys, opened the school to "functional orphans" who lacked adequate parental care, and in 1982 removed the restriction on girls. By the early 1990s, 70 percent of the students were black or Hispanic. In the early 2000s, enrollment had climbed to more than 700 students, all of whom receive full scholarships to take part in the school's strong academic program.
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