Special Report

Remembering the Berwyn School Fight

by Tanisha Agrawal

Bertha Jackmon & Tanisha Agrawal with the Berwyn Schoool Fight historic marker. Mt Zion AME Church may be seen in the left background.
Tanisha Agrawal interviewing Bertha Jackmon in Mt. Zion AME Church.
Mrs. Esther Long (center) at the 2023 commemoration ceremony at Conestoga H.S. with event organizers Senae Laryn Harris and Jaela Eaton, leaders of the African American student union at Conestoga. Miss Penny Washigton is seated on the left.

While I have frequently come across narratives about the civil rights struggle in the South, my understanding of the movement's impact in the North was somewhat limited. It wasn't until my school celebrated Black History Month last year, that I became increasingly curious about the civil rights history within my community.

Coincidentally, I was on the lookout for an engaging topic for my National History Day (NHD) project. During my online research, I uncovered a surprising event: an historic school desegregation battle in my district. Learning about this event was a shock, considering the progressive nature of our district, but it also sparked a sense of excitement within me, as I had finally stumbled upon the perfect subject for my NHD project.

Up until 1932, the elementary schools in the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District (TESD) were integrated. However, the newly appointed president of the school board, Norman J. Greene, decided to segregate elementary schools. This move incited a strong reaction from the local African-American community, who met at Mt. Zion AME Church to organize resistance against this discriminatory measure. Over two years, their activism took the form of protest marches, jail-ins, mass meetings, boycotts, and legal battles. Eventually, their efforts proved successful as the segregation order was revoked, allowing students to return to integrated schools.

My research began by reading secondary sources such as scholarly articles and newspaper reports. However, the bulk of my research was based on local resources that Dr. Oscar Torres, Director of Equity at the TESD, briefed me about. Mt. Zion AME Church Historian Bertha Jackmon provided invaluable insight during a tour of Mt. Zion, sharing primary resources including interviews with survivors of the school struggle. Additionally, the works of local historians Penny Washington and Roger Thorne were instrumental in shaping my research. I also interviewed civil rights lawyer Samuel C. Stretton, who provided a legal perspective on Raymond Pace Alexander, a key figure in the Berwyn School Fight. The archives of the Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society (TEHS) offered a wealth of primary materials including newspaper clippings, photographs, and legal documents. After this, I meticulously collated all my research to present it in the form of a 10-minute long documentary called "The Berwyn School Fight: A Rehearsal for the Civil Rights Movement."

Upon completion, I presented my documentary at the NHD Regionals competition, where it earned first place. While this is an accomplishment, in hindsight, there was a bigger accomplishment: the profound impact it had on our community. In the past year, I've had the privilege of presenting this documentary to various institutions, including Conestoga High School, Wayne Presbyterian Church, the TESD School Diversity Committee Board meeting, and now, TEHS. Notably, TESD has fully incorporated the Berwyn School Fight narrative into the 3rd, 8th, and 10th-grade curricula starting with the 2023–24 school year, ensuring that every student who graduates from our district knows about the Berwyn School Fight. Moreover, on April 29, 2023 Conestoga held a commemoration for Mrs. Esther Long, who at 99 years of age is one of the last known survivors of the Berwyn School Fight.

When asked why I chose this topic, my answer is simple: to tell our community about the struggle behind what made our district liberal and progressive. While the unsettling history of elementary school segregation evokes trauma and shame, it also serves as a beacon of immense pride that the brave families of our district fought for their rights. The nonviolent nature and success of this fight make it a little-known yet significant legal and social frontier in the history of Pennsylvania. Furthermore, it paved the way for the 1935 Pennsylvania Equal Rights Bill that made segregation unconstitutional. This local fight not only advanced the civil rights movement in the North but also laid a significant foundation for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, leading to the desegregation of all public schools in the United States. It's a story of resilience, progress, and the power of community voices that will be etched in our history forever.

At the time of this writing in November 2023, Tanisha Agrawal is a senior at Conestoga High School in the Tredyffrin Easttown School District. Her junior year research project led her to the Society's website, and to Roger Thorne's seminal article on the "Berwyn School Fight" of 1932–34. Tanisha also worked with Society archivist Chery Leibold, and board member Bertha Jackmon — also church historian at Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church in Berwyn — in the process of developing her notewothy video presentation for an award-winning National History Day project. Her commendable work on this project has been recognized broadly, and has brought the subject to the attention of a large new audience almost one hundred years after the original events.

The Berwyn School Fight: A Rehearsal for the Civil Rights Movement


SOURCES (used to make documentary)

  • "Civil rights." Main Line Times. Accessed 24 Dec. 2022
  • David Canton, "Dress Rehearsal for the Modern Civil Rights Movement. JSTOR, vol. 75, no. 2, Mar. 2008, www.jstor.org/stable/27778832 Accessed 9 Mar. 2023.
  • "MAZIE HALL: Friends, relatives at birthday of Mt. Pleasant icon." Main Line Times.
  • "Penny Washington - Black History Month Speaker Series." 12 Feb 2023, Accessed 9 Mar. www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSaZSrpcC2s
  • Bertha Jackmon_"Workshop: Diversity and Preservation 2021." Chester County Historic Preservation Network, www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIULMetoEa4. Minutes 38:58 to 40:34
  • "TESD local history." TESD, www.tesd.net/Page/16810 
  • Barone, Micheal. "A very civil act." Wall Street Journal, 2 July 2004.
  • Brake, Rich, Dr. "The value of local history: Lessons learned from the School Fight 1932-34." Tredyffrin Easttown History Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 52–54.
  • Canton, David. "A case involving human rights': The Berwyn School Desegregation Struggle, 1932–1934." JSTOR, vol. 10, no. 2, Accessed 9 Mar. 2023.
  • Cunningham, Bessie Marshall. "Berwyn School Fight." Post-Civil War and the Road to Recovery, produced by Chester County Planning Commission. Minutes 23:31 - 35:55
  • www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWuSXqi-Sz4. Accessed 9 Mar. 2023
  • Holmes, Kristin. "Remembering a Chesco school segregating fight." Philadelphia Inquirer, 8 May 2010. Accessed 9 Mar. 2023.
  • Jackmon, Bertha L. The Christian Recorder, 9 March 2021, Accessed 9 Mar. 2023. www.thechristianrecorder.com/mt-zion-ame-church-devon-unveils-official-pennsylvania-state-historical-marker/ 
  • Mastrull, Diane, and Dale Mezzacappa. "22 years before Brown." Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 May 2004.
  • Mezzacappa, Dale. "Suburban Philadelphia district's equity initiative provokes anger over critical race theory." Chalkbeat Philadelphia, Accessed 9 Mar. 2023. philadelphia.chalkbeat.org/2021/6/17/22539217/suburban-philadelphia-districts-equity-initiative-provokes-anger-over-critical-race-theory 
  • Pennsylvania State, General Assembly, Assembly. Mt. Zion's NHPR. United States Department of the Interior, Section 7,8,9,11. Accessed 9 Mar. 2023
  • Staff reporter. "Marker Commemorates Historic Fight to End School Segregation." Chester County government. chesco.org, www.chesco.org/4807/History-Marker 
  • Thorne, Roger. "SEGREGATION ON THE UPPER MAIN LINE." Tredyffrin Easttown History Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 3-20, Accessed 9 Mar. 2023. www.tehistory.org/hqda/html/v42/v42n1p003.html#BSF
  • Women In the Struggle. Mt. Zion church, 2010. CD
  • Kristin E. Holmes, Inquirer Staff. "Effort Leads Devon Church to National Registry." March 17th, 2015
  • Walsh, Camille. Racial Taxation: Schools, Segregation, and Taxpayer Citizenship, 1869–1973. Google Books, UNC Press Books, 2 Feb. 2018
  • Burkholder, Zoë. An African American Dilemma: A History of School Integration and Civil Rights in the North. Google Books, Oxford University Press, 5 July 2021
  • Post, J.B. "7 Decades of Maps 1937-2007." Tredyffrin Easttown History Quarterly, Vol. 44 No. 44 pp 180–184. http://www.tehistory.org/hqda/html/v44/v44n4p180.html
  • Frederick Douglass Digital.klnpa.org, Accessed 17 Mar. 2023 digital.klnpa.org/digital/collection/wcnp01/id/1066/rec/31
  • "Exclusive Negro School In Berwyn Bitterly Opposed." Daily Times, 16 Mar. 1932
  • "Greene's stand on Negro School Brings Protest." Main Line Times, 11 Mar. 1932
  • "Historic Salem School to be closed; pupils move." Main Line Times, 19 Sept. 1938
  • Google Earth. Google
  • "'Jim Crow' school hotly denounced by Negro citizens." Main Line Daily Times, 17 Mar. 1932
  • "Townships will provide exclusive colored school." Main Line Daily Times, 10 Mar. 1932
  • "Joint Board Asks Negro School to be given fair chance." Main Line Daily Times, 7 May 1932
  • "Recently completed Easttown School at Berwyn." Local Times, 21 Oct. 1932
  • "Schools Expand Under Depression." Main Line Daily Times, 22 Apr. 1932
  • Archives, Brown v. Board of Education
  • Bertha Jackmon, Interview. 23rd February 2023. Mt. Zion Church. Self-conducted 
  • Norman J. Greene, Segregation Agreement Legal Document. March 7th, 1932
  • Burton, Estelle, and Mazie Hall. Interview. Conducted by Roger Thorne, 9 Sept. 2004.
  • Class photograph. St. Parsonage Church homeschooling | Elementary School Photograph. TEHS archives, Berwyn/Devon at Paoli Elementary School 
  • United States, Congress, Pennsylvania Equal Rights Bill of 1935. PA State, House Bill 132.
  • Chester County Historical Society Library—common newspaper abbreviations
  • Joseph H. Rainey. "Segregation Ends in Public Schools of Two Townships." Philadelphia Record, May 1, 1934.
  • News, VOA. "Alabama City Remembered as Climactic Battle of Civil Rights Movement." YouTube, 24 Aug. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggUt0gJh9U8.
  • "Dedication of Berwyn School Fight Historical Marker." tredyffrin.viebit.com
  • New York Times. May 19, 1954. "Brown v Board decision 9-0"
  • Samuel C. Stretton, Interview, 22nd March 2023, Self-conducted
  • Raymond Pace Alexander, Petition for Mandamus No. 58, Oct 1932

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