DEVON, PA — State Senator Andy Dinniman joined officials and members of Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church on Saturday in dedicating a historical marker commemorating its central role in the Berwyn School Segregation Case, a historic battle for civil rights in the early 1930s.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), of which Dinniman is a member, approved the marker officially commemorating “The Berwyn School Fight 1932-1934” earlier this year.
“The commitment of African American parents, students, and families against the segregation of schools remains an inspiration for those who continue to work today for equality in education and against racism and discrimination,” Dinniman, who serves as minority chair of the Senate Education Committee, said.
Bertha Jackmon, the church’s historian, celebrated the dedication and spoke to the need for including instruction on the historic event in local schools.
“Today, one of Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church’s, many dreams come true,” she said. “It is a tremendous accomplishment, and I am so proud for and about the people of this church and the roles they and the community played to get us where we are. To the ancestors involved in the School Fight, and their descendants, first, and then to the large numbers of attendees here and to the wider community and beyond, this beautiful and distinguished historical marker is for you.”
Pastor April Martin thanked both Dinniman and Jackmon for their persistent efforts in making the marker a reality.
“As I look at this historic marker, I am in awe of its beauty and what it represents. People of color have been fighting for their right to have fair and equitable education for their children for a very long time and the fight continues even today. The marker represents victory when people come together for a cause that is right and just,” Martin said.
Founded as the New Centreville AME Church in 1849, Mt. Zion AME Church has a long and rich history of civil rights advocacy in Chester County. The historical marker specifically tells the story of the church’s vital role as a meeting place in a battle against school segregation.
The case, also known as “the School Fight,” began in 1932, when Tredyffrin and Easttown school board leaders attempted to impose previously unenforced segregation policies in the districts’ schools. They planned to consolidate all black students, teachers, and staff in two older schools, while the existing high school and a new elementary school would be reserved for white students. At that time, the decision was in line with the U.S. Supreme Court 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that established the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
Black families across the local area used Mt. Zion AME Church as a communal meeting place to plan and strategize their protest efforts against the attempt at segregation. They signed a petition, enlisted the help of the NAACP, picketed the school, and even boycotted sending their children. For a time, some children were taught in the church’s parsonage while others were homeschooled or traveled to nearby schools. Some did not attend school and their parents were threatened with losing their jobs, fined and even arrested and jailed for having “truant” children.
According to Roger Thorne of the Tredyffrin/Easttown Historical Society, who deserves credit for writing a detailed historical account of the case in the organization’s publication “History Quarterly,” the jailings reportedly came to an end when a mother with an infant in her arms refused to pay the fine on principle and agreed to go to jail in place of her husband, so he would not lose his job. Her stand reportedly caused the court to stop arresting parents.
After two years of fighting and national attention on the case, Pennsylvania Attorney General Schnader intervened and on April 30, 1934, the segregation plan was scrapped, and black and white students returned to sharing the same classroom.
The case had several impacts, including assisting in the passage of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Bill in 1935, spurring on the organization and coalition-building efforts of the NAACP, and demonstrating the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance strategies and methods that would become the hallmark of the modern Civil Rights movement.
Still, it would be another two decades before the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling establishing segregation in public schools as unconstitutional.
The church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 2015. According to congregants, at that time it was and today it remains the first and only such African American entity listed on the NRHP in Tredyffrin and one of only a few dozen listed on the NRHP across the Commonwealth.
Thanks for visiting! MyChesCo brings reliable information and resources to Chester County, Pennsylvania. Please consider supporting us in our efforts. Your generous donation will help us continue this work and keep it free of charge. Show your support today by clicking here and becoming a patron.