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School Bells Are Ringing by George Stern

September 17, 2013

ImageIt’s 8:45 a.m., and the bell in the belfry of Germantown Academy (then at the corner of School House Lane and Greene St.) is calling us to our morning program. Writing a history of Germantown Academy in the second issue of the Germantown Crier, Wilbur Oda said, “The bell has a romantic story. Brought over in the tea ship Polly in 1774, it was turned back with the rest of her cargo and rested in England until 1784 when it again voyaged across the Atlantic and was at last hung in the belfry for which it was cast. Since then it has rung out the assembling hour for many generations of Academy boys.”

With all the agony over the School Distract of Philadelphia, I decided that it would be appropriate for my first blog for Freedom’s Backyard to take a look at Germantown’s earliest schools. Since I graduated in GA’s last Germantown (1965) and witnessed the controversy over the removal of that bell to the Fort Washington campus, I started a little research there. The Germantown Union School House opened in 1761 and was incorporated as the Public School of Germantown in 1784. Students chose either English or German classes. The school was unique in that had no religious affiliation. Its first prospectus said that “the said schoolhouse shall be free to all persons of what denomination soever and wheresoever residing, to send their children thereto, without any regard to name or sect of people….” One of its earliest board members was Col. Isaac Franks, a Jewish military man who at the time owned the Deshler-Morris House (“the Germantown White House”), which he rented to George Washington during his early presidency. Washington’s stepson George Washington Parke Custis attended GA.

An anecdote that I found especially interesting this era of school defunding is the following: “There must have been some merit in his [David James Dove’s] teaching methods, for in December, 1761, the trustees, who regularly sent a committee to visit the classes, gave Dove forty shillings for distribution ‘among the schoolboys in such manner as he may think proper as a gratuity for their expertness and aptitude in their learning, the Trustees present having an opportunity of hearing several of them to satisfaction.’ At the same time, Dove, also, was given a bonus.” Today we might consider such courses as art and music, and the presence of sufficient counselors, as rewards due children.

ImageNot many years later the Concord School was founded, in part because of “the Distance and particular Inconvenience through the Winter Seasons of Sending their Children to the Lower School,” i.e., Germantown Academy, only one mile away. Parents have always been concerned about the location of their children’s schools, even when, as in 1775, safety was not a factor. (Similarly, Germantown High was built a hundred years ago as a result of pressure from families protesting the lack of a high school in the neighborhood.)

Concord School minutes from 1814 attest to the presence of both black and white students. Similarly the Emlen School (which I also attended) was integrated from the day it opened in 1926, as was Germantown High. I’ll share more about often strained race relations at the high school at another time, but the fact remains that racial integration in Germantown schools is at least two centuries old.

Excellent schools, then – often founded at the insistence of parents, — are nothing new to this part of the City. Our challenge today is to keep them that way.

George Stern grew up in Mt. Airy and, after many years away, moved back in 2002. He attended Emlen and Houston Schools, then graduated from Germantown Academy in 1965, the last graduating class in Germantown. An ordained rabbi, George served a New York suburban congregation from 1972 to 1999. From 2002 to 2011 he was Executive Director of the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement (NIM). Currently he is the coordinator of a Friends-based older adult project in Center City and serves as President of JSPAN, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, which seeks to expand its coverage of social justice issues in the city and state and on the national scene. George and his wife, Deborah, the Library Director at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, are parents of two adult children and two grandchildren, one of whom attends Green Street Friends School.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    September 24, 2013 1:20 am

    Thanks so much for this! Your stories need to be told. Please keep writing on your experiences in Germantown and Mount Airy.

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