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FRONTLINE: Retrospect

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Price of Change
Money was the motivation when a local school accepted its first black student.

Do people prepare for change? Or, when it happens, do they simply learn to deal? The 1937 admission of the first black student at Media Friends School—the area’s first Quaker school to integrate—suggests a good shove is often handy.

Many parents weren’t ready. The school nearly collapsed when a third removed their children. An inspired few enrolled children for the first time. And integration-minded Quakers learned that, while someone has to push for change, there are smart—and dumb—ways to go about it.

“Integration elsewhere was much later —and much smoother, less dramatic and less costly to the financial health of the schools,” wrote Sue Gold, a former MFS teacher. “But Media Friends had shown the way.”

Founded in 1876, MFS’s first class—12 students and one teacher—met over a stable on Baltimore Pike. In 1881, the school was adopted by Media Quakers “for the accommodation of Friends’ children and others who were willing to comply with our rules.” In 1885, MFS built a one-story brick structure next door to the Quaker meetinghouse. Tuition was $21 a year.

Though founded relatively late, MFS was similar to dozens of Quaker schools that dotted the region beginning in the Colonial period. An educated population had been part of William Penn’s vision. In his 1682 Fundamental Laws of the Province of Pennsylvania, Penn wrote that “all persons having children shall cause such to be instructed so that they may be able to read the Scriptures and to write by the time they attain to 12 years of age.” In the mid-18th century, Friends also established schools for girls and for blacks.

Many of these schools went out of business with the arrival of free public education in the 1830s. Some turned over their buildings for the new schools’ use. Others—particularly upper schools such as Friends Select (Philadelphia), West-town (Chester County) and the George School (Newtown, Bucks County)—became more peculiarly Quaker to differentiate themselves. That appealed to many Friends who, amid social change, thought their children more likely to remain in the faith if they didn’t mix with non-Quakers. Other Quakers were skeptical of the generic Protestantism observed in public schools. Still others thought public schools too accepting of militarism and of an unquestioning type of patriotism.

MFS preserved some distinctive practices. Students attended a meeting once a week and called the days and months by their number—“Second Day,” for instance, rather than Monday. Quaker students used “thee” and “thou,” but non-Quakers were excused from this quirk.

LIKE PRIVATE schools today, MFS attracted affluent professionals.A survey of fathers’ professions in the late 1940s found three lawyers, two advertising writers, three farmers, a photographer and 31 engineers. The school itself, however, was not rich. There was no endowment. MFS paid teachers’ salaries and overhead out of tuition. There wasn’t much excess and, if fewer students enrolled than expected, there could be problems.

In 1934, in the depth of the Depression, the school advised its four teachers that they would have jobs “with the understanding that all revenue for the period after payment of operating expenses would be available for teachers’ income.” The teachers—also responsible for maintenance and fencing the play area—agreed. Fortunately, 75 students enrolled, generating enough revenue to pay everyone, plus a couple of part-timers.

“The committee feels and desires that the meeting should share its deep sense of obligation to the teachers for going ahead in the face of financial uncertainty,” wrote T. Barclay Witson, chairman of the board.

One advantage, perhaps, of MFS’ hand-to-mouth existence was that the board had little investment to protect. It could afford to take chances and, perhaps, exercise some principles. (Today, of course, private schools are both vastly more expensive and more careful about actions that threaten revenue. In Bryn Mawr, the Baldwin School—with a $5.8 million endowment—was sued earlier this year by a former teacher who said she was dismissed because her strict methods offended a family of rich donors.)

In 1904, MFS had sponsored five Doukhobor children and a couple who cared for them at a rented house in Media. The Doukhobors were Russian pacifists persecuted by the Czar who had immigrated to Saskatchewan. During the world wars, the school resisted demands that its students perform patriotic exercises. In 1921, at an annual community fair, MFS displayed student essays on the disarmament conference that followed World War I.

“This was one of the best ways in which the school could acquaint the general community with its unique philosophy,” wrote former teacher Vincent Pinto in MFS’s 1976 centennial book.

MFS always had non-Quaker students. In 1950, a survey of students’ religious affiliations found equal numbers of Quakers and Methodists (20 each), followed by Episcopalians (12); Lutherans (9); Presbyterians, Baptists and Jews (8 each); Unitarians (6); Catholics (4); and one Pentecostal. A 1932 brochure declared the school “open to children of all parents who are in sympathy with our ideals, regardless of religious affiliation.” The brochure made no mention of race—but, in fact, all students were white.

In January 1937, the chair of the school committee received a phone call.

“This is Mrs. McKnight of Media, Dr. McKnight’s wife,” said a female voice. “I am wondering how the Media Friends School would feel about having our little boy in the nursery school?” Always eager for students of the right kind, the official said MFS would be “delighted.”

“Really?” said the woman in a surprised tone. And only then did Dorothy Biddle James realize that she was speaking with a black woman.

Thelma McKnight was the wife of Dr. Lancess McKnight, who maintained a medical practice in Media while also serving as physician at Cheyney University. (Cheyney’s McKnight-Rogers Hall, dedicated in 1977, honors McKnight’s nearly 40 years of service.) Their son, Lancess Jr., was 4 years old.

There is no record that blacks had ever applied to MFS previously. But, in 1933, the Westtown School had rejected two sons of black activist Max Yergen, then working for the international YMCA. It ignored a recommendation from the president of Fisk University who called Yerner “one of the most influential Christian statesman of the world today.” A poll of Westtown parents revealed most were so opposed to integration that they would withdraw their children. Some responses were openly racist.

Historically, nearly all Quakers have been white—and they don’t proselytize, so they have remained white. Some Quakers had been leaders in the anti-slavery movement, but the rank-and-file had never been immune to prejudice.

Even the most progressive Friends preferred a white-glove approach to work on behalf of blacks. In 1930, Philadelphia Quakers’ race-relations committee wrote to President Hoover, protesting his appointment of known racist John J. Parker to the Supreme Court. The group also lobbied Harrisburg to require insurers to write auto insurance policies for blacks, who often had trouble getting coverage.

But mixing with African-Americans was another matter, as Sadie T.M. Alexander complained to the committee in 1938. Alexander, the first black woman admitted to the Pennsylvania bar, was upset that blacks had been turned away from Friends Hospital and her own daughter from Germantown Friends School.

“This refusal,” wrote Alexander, “brings before my eyes and those of other concerned Negro people the question as to the real attitude of the Society of Friends toward the Negro people of America.”

James visited the McKnights that evening. They didn’t want trouble. “All I want,” said Lancess McKnight, “is the best for my child just as you want the best for yours.” James recommended acceptance. The committee concurred and decided to move ahead with no announcement to the parents. “Had a white child applied in the middle of the year, no letter would be sent,” James later wrote.

Little Lancess arrived on a Monday in mid-February. Protest erupted on Thursday, culminating in a Sunday gathering at which 39 dissenting parents signed a letter informing the school they would not “be preached to.”

“If, after the end of the current school year,” said the letter, “you continue to have as a pupil a child who is a Negro, we fear that it will be inadvisable for us to continue to send our children to the school.”

Other letters—including some from respected Quakers—warned that most Negroes carried venereal disease. The children, too.

Even the Media Quakers who controlled the school were critical. But they declined to interfere. Therefore, wrote James, “the committee felt it right to proceed.” It told parents that the decision would stand.

“We feel it right,” wrote James, “to uphold the principle of treating applicants as individuals and not to exclude a colored person as such.”

School opened that fall with 62 children, down from 93 a year earlier. Officials had feared enrollment might fall as low as 25. Among the students were two children of John Maxwell Adams, a Presbyterian minister in nearby Wallingford. The Adamses believed in public schools, but thought MFS deserved support. (The family later moved to Minnesota where one of the children, Joan, married Walter Mondale, who became Jimmy Carter’s vice president in 1977.)

MFS records do not reveal how the school paid its bills after losing a third of its students. It may have received quiet contributions from supporters. But the budget was not balanced again until 1943. Today, roughly 25 percent of its 150 students are African-American.

Little Lancess transferred to public school in September 1938. Before he left, though, the chair of the Quaker race committee replied to Sadie Alexander, defending Friends by pointing out the trouble MFS was enduring in their mutual cause.

And other Quaker schools took note. When they finally integrated—Westtown and George schools in 1945, others later —they consulted their parents first.

Some people, after all, prepare for change. Others have to be prepared.

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at dixon_mark@verizon.net.

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