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Education for African Americans in the 20th Century - Woven With Words


Karen Kraemer


For much of the twentieth century, in Berks County and across the country, race has been a factor in how students have been educated, with African Americans often excluded from opportunities open to whites.  For a good part of the twentieth century, public education for African Americans in Berks County has implicitly meant “Reading.”  Due to housing patterns, schools in the suburbs didn’t have African Americans attending until the 1940s.  Today, some suburban schools still have a very small population of African Americans.


Over the years, African Americans have attended Reading school district in increasing numbers as their population grew.  According to Angela Haupt, “After passing an entrance exam in 1879, a girl named Lizzie Terry was the first black student to be admitted to Reading High School (Haupt 2002).  There were 303 African American pupils out of 17,012 total students in the district in 1929, and 309 out of 18,662 in 1930, according to the Reading School Bulletin (Reading 1931).


While Reading was among the first cities to provide education for African Americans and to integrate its public schools, it was assumed that African Americans would not progress at the same rates as whites.  Older residents such as Frank Gilyard report that African American students were assumed to be “slow” and often found themselves in “dummy” classes.  Because a college education or a profession such as secretary, teacher, or nurse was not a realistic expectation for African Americans well into the 1950s, commercial or college preparatory courses were not encouraged.  It was implicitly assumed that general or trade tracks would be pursued.  Integration did not mean equal treatment in Berks County, where patterns in education mirrored the larger patterns in general society.


The first African American teacher in the Reading school district in this era was Velma King Bannerman, hired in 1957.  Her husband, Rev. James C. Bannerman, was the pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church.  Velma Bannerman was a full-time substitute in English at Southern Junior High.


The move of African Americans to suburban schools was slow, as was the move of African Americans to the suburbs in general for at least the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.  African Americans began attending suburban schools in the 1940s, with five families whose children attended Muhlenberg.  In the 1950s, Governor Mifflin School District saw its first African American students.  In the 1960s and 1970s, several African Americans enrolled in Tulpehocken school district.  By the 1970s, there were African Americans in Wilson School District.  In the suburbs, African Americans sometimes found themselves the only students of color.  Dick Johnson attended Governor Mifflin in the 1950s and recalled that his family was the only African American family in the district (Gilyard 2005-06).


Sometimes, African Americans were refused admission to suburban schools for what appeared to be dubious reasons.  In 1960, the Douglass Township school board banned five African American foster children from attending public school because as foster children, they were not “bona fide residents of the district” (“Ban Negro Children” 1960).


As African Americans joined the flight to the suburbs, representation in some districts has increased, sometimes substantially; in other districts, the numbers remain low.  The African American population of Boyertown School District has grown slowly.  Gloria Frankenberg Kraemer, a Boyertown graduate of 1965, graduated with two African Americans; in 2001, there were five African American graduates (Kraemer 2005). A telephone survey of county school districts conducted by Mary Ann Watts for this project in October 2005 gathered the following information: Brandywine school district reports that between 1990 and 2005, Africans Americans in the district ranged from two to nine.  The school district hasn’t had any African American teachers.  The Antietam school district had a minority population of less than 5% from the 1970s until the mid-1990s, but between 1998 and 2005, the district has seen an increase to well over 20%, about half of whom are estimated to be African Americans.  In the Governor Mifflin school district, there were 156 African American students out of 4,289 total students in 2005.  There are three faculty members who are African Americans.  In 1998, there were 2,311 African American students enrolled in the Reading school district out of 14,903 total students.


Pine Forge Academy opened in 1946 with the goal of providing a high school education for African American and Seventh Day Adventist students.  Known as Pine Forge Institute until 1965, its first class had about ninety students.  In August 2002, the opening enrollment was 174.  Even though Pine Forge Academy is open to all ethnicities, the student body is predominately made up of African Americans from all over North America (Poole-Gibson 2005).


Watts’ survey in 2005 showed that only a handful employ African American teachers, and most employ none. In the five institutions of higher learning in Berks County, Penn State University employs one African American instructor, Albright three, Alvernia twelve, and RACC one.


African Americans began to attend colleges in the Berks region in the late 1940s.  Joseph E. Coleman became the first African American graduate of Albright College in 1948, and Bessie Reese Crenshaw is acknowledged by Kutztown University as its first African American graduate.  Crenshaw, who graduated from Reading High School in 1946, graduated in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in education.  As the only African American student she sometimes felt alone and isolated, but did form some friendships with other commuting students. She unsuccessfully sought a teaching job in the area, but it would be several more years before local districts would begin to hire persons of color.  Crenshaw went to North Carolina, where she taught for sixteen years before returning to Reading in 1969 to begin a twenty-year teaching job at 10th and Green Elementary School (Crenshaw 2005).


Penn State Berks records show that the first African American to attend Penn State Berks was Tyra L. Key, who registered for graduate level courses between the summers of 1971 and 1975.  The first African American student to graduate from Penn State Berks with an associate degree was Reginald Saunders, who completed a degree in Individual/Family Studies/Services in fall 1982.  In 1994, Adrienne Payne, a journalism major, became the first African American graduate of Penn State Berks with a baccalaureate degree (Mballa-Fonkeu 2005).


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