Nia Weeks felt the air being sucked from her chest as she listened to the recording of Karen Asper Jordan, a Black woman like her, recounting Philadelphia’s 1967 student walkouts. A white police officer had knocked Asper Jordan to the ground, dragged her along the sidewalk for nearly a block, then savagely beaten the man who tried to protect her.
It was startling, Nia thought, how studying history could leave her feeling the same heaviness she’d felt scrolling social media after police had killed Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Laquan McDonald, young Black people of her own generation.
It was the summer of 2019, and Nia was 15. Along with four of her classmates from Julia R. Masterman High School, the rising junior was doing research for a proposal to convince the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to erect a marker to commemorate the walkouts, when thousands of local students marched to protest racial injustice more than 50 years earlier. The demonstrators had won a citywide Student Bill of Rights and helped launch the national ethnic-studies movement. But those victories had come at a steep cost. Fifty-seven protesters had been arrested that day in 1967. Dozens more were injured, several so badly they had to be hospitalized.
Such history took on new significance this May and June, when hundreds of thousands of people across the country took to the streets to protest racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer. In city after city, the demonstrations expanded to include conflicts over historical monuments and markers, many of which critics deemed racist. In Philadelphia, demonstrators quickly took aim at a 10-foot, 2,000-pound bronze statue of Frank Rizzo, the white former police commissioner and two-term mayor who unleashed the violence at the 1967 walkouts when he gave an infamous command: “Get their black asses.”
A big reason Nia and her friends spent hundreds of hours investigating such details of the 1967 walkouts — which remained largely overlooked, even though experts described the event as one of the largest youth-led demonstrations for educational equality in the nation’s history — was because they wanted to create a historical counterweight to the Rizzo monument.
“He had a very clear agenda of targeting Black communities,” Nia said. “I couldn’t understand why we had a statue praising Rizzo and what he represented.”
For decades, fights over racist historical monuments and markers have swirled in and around America’s public education system. About 200 schools in 18 states are still named after men with ties to the Confederacy, according to a 2020 analysis by Education Week.* At least 22 more, including South Carolina’s majority-Black Strom Thurmond High, are named after members of Congress who signed the infamous 1956 Southern Manifesto opposing racial integration in public schools.
In June, a video featuring Louisiana activist Gary Chambers Jr. went viral after he sharply criticized a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board who defended the name of a high school that honored Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. In New Jersey, the Camden school district plans to rechristen a high school named after Woodrow Wilson, the former U.S. president and N.J. governor who oversaw the segregation of federal offices.
In Philadelphia, attempts to remove the Rizzo statue and recognize the 1967 walkouts have ebbed and flowed for years. Helen Gym, a Korean American City Council member, had tried to leverage the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 to get the city to take the Rizzo statue down. But she ran into vocal opposition. She pivoted, organizing a series of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the walkouts.
Tagging along was Gym’s daughter, Taryn Flaherty, then a freshman at Masterman. The following year, she took African American history, a required course in Philadelphia schools that is an enduring legacy of the 1967 walkouts. When the class started with a discussion of how the walkouts led directly to the curriculum the students were about to study, Flaherty’s curiosity was piqued. She made the walkouts the focus of her research project for a National History Day competition, during which she bonded with four other Masterman classmates and fellow history buffs.
Alison Fortenberry was also studying the walkouts. Aden Gonzales was researching COINTELPRO, the FBI’s effort to surveil and infiltrate civil rights and anti-war organizations. Tatiana Bennett was studying the history of hip-hop. And Nia, who would ultimately win first place in Philadelphia’s citywide National History Day competition, was working on a project about the 1963 Children’s Crusade, in which hundreds of children protesting segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, were met with mass arrests at the hands of Bull Connor.
After the school year ended, the five girls decided to work together on a formal proposal to nominate the 1967 walkouts for a state historical marker. They quickly became obsessed, meeting for several hours every Saturday around Flaherty’s kitchen table. Listening to old recordings, the girls began to see how history folds over on itself, layering recurring traumas and acts of resistance one on top of another until something finally gives. They also began to see the crucial role that people their own age had played in key moments throughout history.
“Before that, I’d never really thought about youth being the people to incite change,” Tatiana said. “I’d always thought it was adults who got tired of things and decided to march together.”
Philadelphia’s black student walkouts, staged on a chilly November morning in 1967, started hopefully.
The focal point was the city’s Board of Education building. At around 10 a.m., at least 3,500 students began walking out of their schools and marching toward its towering limestone edifice, adorned with bas-relief sculptures of Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann and other white historical figures. Shortly after the first demonstrators arrived, a negotiating team of two-dozen students entered the building and headed upstairs to meet with the superintendent and the board of ed’s leaders.
About 140 public school buildings are still named after Confederate leaders, according to a 2018 analysis by Education Week. At least 22 more, including South Carolina’s majority-Black Strom Thurmond High, are named after members of Congress who signed the infamous 1956 Southern Manifesto opposing racial integration in public schools.
The children told the adults they were fed up with the school district’s overwhelmingly white teaching staff, with their ignorance of Black history and their penchant for suspending Black children for wearing natural hairstyles and African clothing. The students brought 25 demands, including changes to the curriculum and the removal of police officers from city schools. As the negotiations unfolded, the mood outside was festive, with teenagers in skullcaps and Black Power pins chanting and distributing leaflets.
Shortly before noon, a young man from the negotiating team opened a large upstairs window. He yelled out the good news. The board had agreed to all but one of the students’ demands. A celebration began.
But the plainclothes civil disobedience squad monitoring the demonstration was antsy. Police radios crackled with reports of more teenagers leaving their schools and running toward the Board of Education building. The commanding officer called the new police commissioner, Frank Rizzo. A barrel-chested white man, Rizzo was swearing in dozens of new sergeants several blocks away at City Hall. He ordered the group onto police buses, and they headed for the education building.
There, a young demonstrator climbed on top of a car, and plainclothes officers moved in to arrest him. A group of students swarmed around them. The commissioner plunged into the crowd himself, swinging a billy club alongside his officers. The resulting chaos spread into downtown Philadelphia, where fleeing children knocked over pedestrians and vandalized buses and subway cars.
“It sounds weird, a 17-year old girl going to the archives with her friends for fun. But it really was.”
Aden Gonzales, 17
During their research, Nia and her classmates immersed themselves in such details, interviewing participants and scouring primary sources. At Temple University’s Urban Archives, the girls combed through boxes of old news clippings. They handled some of the original leaflets that organizers had distributed in the run-up to the walkout, wondering if they would have had the courage to take part. For hours on end, they sat at the archives’ clunky Steenbeck film editor, watching contemporaneous newscasts from November 1967, preserved on 16-millimeter film.
“It sounds weird, a 17-year old girl going to the archives with her friends for fun,” said Aden Gonzales, who is Hispanic and white. “But it really was.”
Sometimes, though, the emotional toll of their work would bring them to a halt. When she first learned about the order Rizzo gave his officers, for example, Tatiana Bennett, who is Black, was overcome by memories of similar stories of police brutality she’d heard from her father. One cop had sicced a dog on him in a subway station, trapping him in a turnstile; another had pulled a shotgun on him while he waited for the bus on a street corner. In such moments, when history became personal and painful, the group chat that the girls maintained to keep their project moving would turn into private texts, Tatiana reaching out to her best friend for support that no one else could provide.
“It’s OK,” Nia would text back. “Take a deep breath.”
On December 1, 2019, the girls submitted their exhaustive nominating proposal to the state historical commission. Gym treated the group to Korean barbeque, then everyone quickly got lost in the swirl of end-of-semester exams and winter break.
The daughter of an assistant professor of education at Rutgers University and a Verizon technician, Nia had been grappling from a young age with the racism that seemed to be everywhere. In the summer before she started sixth grade, for example, police in Missouri had killed Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old who’d recently graduated high school; a few months later, police in Cleveland shot Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy playing with a toy gun in a park. Shattered, Nia had joined a silent protest at Masterman. Some of the school’s staff also participated, according to Principal Jessica Brown, who said she was supportive of the small demonstration. But other staff at the school expressed annoyance or ignored it altogether, Nia said.
The anger and confusion she felt at the time stayed with her.
But Nia’s investigations of history have given her a new understanding of the world around her, and her role in it. “I feel a lot more comfortable confronting people about their racist tendencies and the consequences of their inappropriate actions,” she said.
“We shouldn’t have to fight for the basic right to not be scared of being killed by the police. But we will.”
Nia Weeks, 16
In early March of this year, she and her fellow researchers, now all 16 or 17, received official validation for their efforts. A letter arrived at Flaherty’s house. “We are pleased to inform you that the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has approved the historical marker nomination for the Black Student Walkouts marker that you recently submitted,” it began.
The Commission said it would erect a blue-and-yellow marker recognizing the walkouts. It will stand outside the old Board of Education building, not far from where Rizzo unleashed his officers on the young protesters.
The subsequent celebration, however, was short-lived. Just days after the young Masterman researchers learned of their success, the world was flipped upside down.
Philadelphia joined the rest of the nation in shutting down its school buildings to slow the spread of the raging coronavirus. Then, yet another spate of police killings of Black Americans sparked national outrage. After video surfaced of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes until he died, the nation erupted.
Nia and her family joined an enormous protest in Philadelphia in late May, marching by City Hall and the Rizzo statue, past the old Board of Education building and out to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, chanting “I can’t breathe” and “Black Lives Matter.” Her cries were echoed by tens of thousands of others who felt the same way. Suddenly, all that history she’d studied no longer seemed scattered across isolated pages in her history books or disconnected posts in her newsfeed.
“This is my life, my reality,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to fight for the basic right to not be scared of being killed by the police. But we will.”
In Philadelphia, one of the demonstrators’ first targets was the Rizzo statue. Protesters covered the monument’s bronze face in red paint. They tagged its torso with white letters reading “FTP” (short for “f— the police”). They set the statue’s base on fire, then tried to topple it by pulling on a rope attached to Rizzo’s outstretched arm.
“I always used to say, ‘When you go into battle, you have millions of people behind you, your ancestors and the people you love, so don’t feel like you’re alone. These kids are why I still believe things are going to change.”
Karen Asper Jordan, community activist and participant in the Philadelphia’s 1967 Black student walkouts
Among those watching on the news and social media was Karen Asper Jordan, now 72 and still a community activist. The news that the state would recognize the walkouts in which she had taken part more than a half-century earlier filled her with pride. Asper Jordan wished desperately that she could be out in the streets again, but the still-rampant coronavirus left her to cheer the demonstrations on from the safety of her home.
“I always used to say, ‘When you go into battle, you have millions of people behind you, your ancestors and the people you love, so don’t feel like you’re alone,’ ” Asper Jordan said. “These kids are why I still believe things are going to change.”
Within a week, the Rizzo statue was gone, removed by city workers under cover of darkness. In a statement, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney called it “a deplorable monument to racism, bigotry and police brutality.”
The Masterman researchers, who had taken it upon themselves to help rewrite their city’s story, shared a common reaction.
“It’s about time,” Nia said.
This story about student protests was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
*Update: This story has been updated with the most recent number of schools named after men with ties to the Confederacy.