Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (6 of 9)
A local business community leader spent time today at Meade as a Principal for a Day. This is an event sponsored by Philadelphia Cares, a local non-profit organization. I have hosted a principal for a day each of the last four years.
My guest this year was Lana Felton Gee. She owns her own public relations firm in the city. Lana is a graduate of Meade School. She was a student here in the 1950’s. I didn’t know she was coming until yesterday when I received e-mail from Philadelphia Cares that stated she would be my Principal for a Day. She told me that they originally had slated her to visit a school in Mt. Airy, but she asked them to place her at either Meade or John Wanamaker. Meade had been her K-6 school; Wanamaker had been her junior high school. Lana didn’t want to go to any other schools. She wanted to revisit her childhood roots.
When she arrived we grabbed a quick cup of coffee and began to acquaint ourselves. There wasn’t much time for office chitchat. Lana had to leave by eleven-thirty, in order to be on time for a business meeting at noon. We conversed as we walked and toured the building and classrooms.
Meade is a far different school community than the one Lana had experienced as a child, over forty years ago. As we talked through the morning, those differences were made quite clear to me. I listened to her recollections of her childhood in Meade and North Philadelphia. It was a trip down memory lane for her.
“At the top of these stairs was my safety post. I was elected school president when I was in fourth grade. I was the youngest president ever elected.”
She asked questions about the current students and their parents. Lana observed the small number of students in each of our classrooms. I explained how I used the school budgets and additional grant monies in order to reduce class size. She was mildly surprised to see the students in uniforms. We watched bits of lessons and she chatted briefly with each of the teachers whose classrooms we visited. When we went through the lunchroom, Lana pointed out that it used to be the boys’ gym. In her day, everyone went home for lunch. I commented that it is quite a walk to where some of our children live. She replied, “We got a lot of work done in those days. In an hour’s time, we walked home and then back to school. We ate lunch and still managed to jump rope.”
Her old home was on Sixteenth Street, between Oxford and Master Streets. It was three blocks from the school. This was and still is a block of very large and beautiful homes. There are several mansions located there where yesteryear’s rich and influential people once lived. The neighborhood around Meade had been built in the time just following the end of the Civil War. Most of the public schools in this area of North Philadelphia are named in honor of Civil War generals.
Along Broad Street and the nearby blocks of Fifteenth Street, elaborate homes were constructed by the wealthy as they built their way north and eventually into what would become known as the suburbs. Farther away from Broad Street, the houses changed block by block gradually losing height and elegance until they settled into the solid squat row homes, which surround Meade.
In the fifties, Meade was an integrated school. According to Lana’s recollection, at least a third of the school was white. I knew the school had been integrated as early as the twenties and thirties. I had seen the racial makeup of the school reflected in old photographs of graduating classes that I had found, buried in dusty file cabinets
The boy students shown in those photos were dressed in suit coats, shirts and ties and the girls wore long white dresses. Meade School was built in the late 1870’s. The current school building was built in 1937 on the site of the original school. In the 1950’s, an addition was constructed.
It wasn’t until after the Columbia Street riots that the socioeconomics of the school started to take a serious change.
The childhood world of Lana Felton Gee was middle class. Her family lived in a large single family home where Lana had a beautiful fireplace in her bedroom. Her grandparents and parents owned businesses along Columbia Avenue. They were part of the hidden black middle class of the time. Her family was prosperous and successful.
After the riots along Columbia Avenue, Lana’s parents and grandparents decided to leave the neighborhood. They sold their businesses and other properties and moved to Mount Airy. This is a neighborhood of Philadelphia renowned for its high degree of integration in a city long known for its racially isolated communities. Many of their other North Philadelphia neighbors did the same. Her old home, she sadly related , was converted into a number of apartment units. This fate befell most of the housing in the community. The riots had a profoundly negative effect on the neighborhood. There was a mass exodus of middle class residents during the sixties and seventies. The housing stock in the community deteriorated. The cost of upkeep was more than what those who remained could afford. Today her glorious childhood neighborhood is a ravaged shell of by gone grandeur. I learned much of the neighborhoods history from her.
The day continued to move quickly after Lana’s departure. A constant stream of problems, none of which were memorable, captured my attention until late in the school day. Sometime near two, I sent for Samuel. It was time to follow up on his street misadventure. I started our conversation by stating my regret at his having been arrested. He pretended to not understand what I was saying to him. I shot him a look. He dropped the act.
“What I don’t understand Samuel is how you managed to get yourself into this eighth grade feud. I didn’t think you had anything to do with this busting game that the wise guys have been playing on the big boys.”
“No, I don’t know nothing about that. Here’s how it goes. I was hanging on the corner over at Bolviere Street after school. I was chilling with my friends. We were talking like boys talk, joking and making cracks.”
“Who were you with?”
“Taron and Derrick and Donte.” As he started to list his friends, the connection between him and the twins became clear: Samuel was hanging with the main troublemakers in the eighth grade.
“So I was standing there talking and this dude came up real fast on me. He had a belt and he started swinging. He caught me in the face with it. I started swinging on him. It was like real unpredictable the way it happened. I was really surprised.”
“You were at the wrong place at the wrong time. The other guys you were with are the guys who the twins wanted. Some of those guys are always busting on people. They have a gift for getting people hurt. Do you know that?”
“We are friends, we like to joke.”
“Well it’s no joke that you’re going to court.”
“I guess you’re right. My parents are mad.”
“They were scared. They don’t want to see you get hurt or go to jail.”
We talked for a while longer. In the course of the conversation, he dropped some interesting information. He had been to court before when he was in his old school. Samuel isn’t a choirboy. I wondered, was he really just an unsuspecting by- stander? Our meeting ended abruptly with an urgent call from Amy a fourth grade teacher.