Desegregating Penllyn School

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

Penllyn was known for their African American population in the Wissahickon Valley Region. Based on my research on the area, as well as in Ambler and Whitpain, there were no racial tensions. The communities were ahead of their time before the Civil Rights Movement. Ambler High School was already integrated before the 1950s; African Americans were living happily and working hard in Ambler, Whitpain, and Lower Gwynedd in the early 20th century.

If these communities were ahead of their times, then how come there was one particular school that was segregated? The school that faced this was the Penllyn School.

But first, let's take a quick look at how the state of Pennsylvania began to desegregate their schools.


Desegregating Pennsylvania's Schools

It all began after PA Governor William Bigler signed the legislation of PA's common schools on May 8, 1854. An African African named Elias H. Allen from Crawford County, PA challenged the law that stated, "separate schools for the tuition of negro and mulatto children."

He attempted to enroll his two children in the South Ward School in Meadville, Crawford County, PA. He failed, but appealed to the Crawford County Court of Common Pleas and sued the Crawford County School Board. He based his case on the 14th Amendment from the US Constitution.

President Judge of the Thirteenth Judicial District Pearson Church heard the case, and found it unconstitutional to have separate schools for African Americans.

"The General Assembly of Pennsylvania ended misinterpretation of the legislation by outlawing desegregation with an act entitled 'A Further Supplement to the school law of this commonwealth and to abolish all distinction of race or color in the public schools thereof.' The bill—passed in the state senate by a vote of 30-6 and by the house with a vote of 109-25—made it 'unlawful for any school director, superintendent or teacher to make any distinction whatever, in account of, or by reason of the race or color of any pupil or scholar in attendance upon, or seeking admission to, any public or common school, maintained wholly or in part under the school laws of this commonwealth.' Governor Henry M. Hoyt (1830–1892), in office from 1879 to 1883, signed the bill on June 8, 1881, amending the 1854 legislation."

- Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine

Fun Fact #1: In 2000, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) erected a state historical marker commemorating the desegregation of PA schools at the Second District School, which was the site of the original South Ward School."

Even though the law ended segregation of schools, local governments tend to ignore it. Even after the Civil War, they still ignore the federal and state laws, including the 14th Amendment.

Which leads me to Penllyn School!


History of the Penllyn School

The Penllyn School was one of the earliest schools in Gwynedd during the 19th century when common schools were established. Gwynedd, during that time, objected to the new school system, at first, until it was passed in 1840 with a vote of 86-80. As a result, 4 public schools were established: Cedar Hill, Dager, Maple Grove, and Penllyn.

It was unknown when the first Penllyn School was built, but this was the school where both white and black students attended. Not a lot of people, who attended this school, remembered the first Penllyn School, but they indeed remembered the newly built Penllyn School.

The new Penllyn School was built in 1923, and students from the old Penllyn School were moved into the new Penllyn School, and ran for the next 3 decades.

NOTE: There were only 2 schools that operated in Lower Gwynedd after 1928: the new Penllyn School and the Spring House School.

Montgomery County 1893, Upper and Lower Gwynedd Townships, Lansdale, North Wales, Spring House, Ambler Right; J. L. Smith, Publisher
Google Satellite Plan View: 409 Old Penllyn Pike, Penllyn, PA 19422
Google Satellite Birdseye View: Looking North

The New, Segregated, Penllyn School

"Some in the community feared that it would lead to a segregated school system... However, the majority of residents voted to build the new school, and the school was built on land donated by the Ingersoll family. For the first time village children attended a segregated school. Residents considered the school segregated because white children who lived on nearby estates and in surrounding areas were bused past the Penllyn School to the Spring House School. At one time, Black children from a girls' home on Bethlehem Pike in Spring House were bused to the Penllyn school, even though they lived just down the road from the Spring House School."

- E. Gloria Stewart Jones, 72

Atlas: Montgomery County 1934 Vol A, Plate 15, Franklin Survey Co., Publisher

When students' and parents' needs were neglected, and school repairs that were needed were dismissed, families sued the school board for mistreatment:

"Finding that the students in the Penllyn School were being short-changed in terms of needed supplies, textbooks from the Springhouse school, no cafeteria, no facilities for inclement weather or recreation, the school needed a new roof."

- E. Gloria Stewart Jones, 73

"Springhouse school had new classrooms, and they were sending old textbooks from Springhouse over to the segregated school, which was here in Penllyn. So we felt — my wife, myself, and four other families — joined together to try to desegregate the schools and bring all of the kids together."

- Thaddeus Smith, one of the parents involved in the lawsuit


Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

"In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms. We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does... We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefor, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been bought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."

- Chief Justice Earl Warren, May 17, 1954


Four Families v. The Lower Gwynedd School Board

The families who sued the school board sought help from a prominent Black Philadelphia lawyer Raymond Pace Alexander. It was during that time he was a member of the Philadelphia City Council.

It was then he recommended the families to A. Leon Higginbotham, another Black Philadelphia lawyer during the 1950s who became the first African American member of the Federal Trade Commission and a federal judge.

Fun Fact #2: This was the first case Higginbotham had handled during his career as a young lawyer in Philadelphia.

As the case was being filed, the families who were involved with the case were under pressure from the school board. Luckily the families had legal expenses, and had the money to hire tutors for their children.

"My mom and dad, and the four families, paid a teacher to come up here on the train, every day, from Philadelphia, to teach my older sister and the three other kids. Right here in this room, for a year, while they kept them out of the school."

- Lynn Johnson

When the parents refused to send their children to the Penllyn School while the Spring House School refused enroll their children, Justice of the Peace Robert Houlshoulder fined the parents $1 for "violating the compulsory school attendance law."

The case was heard in the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, and it was determined that the school board indeed violated the Supreme Court decision of the Brown v. Board of Education. In September 1955, the integration of the Penllyn School students into the Spring House School occurred. As a result, the Penllyn School closed down.

Fun Fact #3: In 2015, Thaddeus W. Smith Jr., one of the parents involved in the case, was named Lower Gwynedd Township's Citizen of the Year.


The Parents and Children Involved in the Lawsuit

Thaddeus W. and Irene L. Smith, and their son Ledley B.

Phillip and Janet Queenan and their daughter Sandra

George E. and Naomi Robinson and their son Lawrence

Joseph and Hattie Stewart and their daughter Lillian

"The complaint also averred that on Sept. 8, Ledley B. Smith, 7, and Sandra Queenan, 8, were accepted at the Spring House School. 'However, on the next day, they were discharged from the Spring House School and brought to their homes' by a school board member.
The mandamus proceedings also averred that Lawrence Robinson, 10, and Lillian Stewart, 11, were denied enrollment in the fifth and sixth grades at the Spring House School by the principal and the School Board Director."

- The Times Herald, September 25, 1954

It's interesting to note that the families who faced segregation with the Lower Gywnedd School Board is similar to Elias H. Allen when he faced segregation with the Crawford County School Board. Both situations knew the school boards violated the 14th Amendment, sued them for it, and won their cases that impacted Pennsylvania.


The 14th Amendment

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the executive and judicial officers of a state, or the members of the legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such state, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state.

Section 3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any state, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any state legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any state, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any state shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.



"14th Amendment." Legal Information Institute. Accessed December 30, 2020.

"A. Leon Higginbotham: Youngest Federal Judge By Hans Knight." Negro Digest 13, no. 12 (October 1964): 24.

"Desegregation of Pennsylvania Schools." Pennsylvania Heritage XXXVI, no. 2 (Spring 2010).

"Distance Calculator." DaftLogic. Accessed December 30, 2020.

"Education." Jet 6, no. 23 (October 14, 1954): 27.

Franklin Survey Co. Atlas: Montgomery County 1934 Vol A, Plate 15, 1934.

Jones, E. Gloria Stewart. Penllyn Village: Lest We Forget: A History and Personal Memories of a Black Settlement in Lower Gwynedd Township in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. (USA: E. Gloria Stewart Jones, 2008): 70-74.

Joseph, Gar. "Who was Leon Higginbotham? A Philly civil rights pioneer worthy of recognition." The Philadelphia Inquirer. Last modified February 25, 2017.

McKenna, John J. "A Brief History of the Wissahickon School District." Montgomery County Federation of Historical Societies as Part of a Project in the preparation of The 1984 Bicentennial Book of Montgomery County History (April 1980): 6.

Sarat, Austin and Stuart Scheingold. Cause Lawyering: Political Commitments and Professional Responsibilities. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998): 164.

Smith, J. L. Montgomery County 1893, Upper and Lower Gwynedd Townships, Lansdale, North Wales, Spring House, Ambler Right, 1893.

Sokil, Dan. "Lower Gwynedd's Thaddeus Smith honored for lasting legacy." The Ambler Gazette. Last modified January 14, 2016.

"Stewart et al vs the School Board." Johnson Pinkney Stewart. Accessed November 30, 2020.

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