Monumental Achievement

A city history class gets the state to mark the site of a 19th-century race riot.

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Student drivers: A Masterman history class got this sign installed at Sixth and Lombard.

It was her first year teaching history at J.R. Masterman School. But Amy Cohen and her class of 26 seniors managed to make history.

Students say Cohen isn't the kind of teacher who passes time by assigning busy work. Instead, they say, she wants her students to be engaged beyond the dusty facts found in their thick textbooks. So last fall she gave them an ambitious assignment: Research one of the city's race riots, and argue why it was a major historical event.

On presentation day the racially diverse group of students-white, black and Asian, representing neighborhoods from the Northeast to South Philadelphia-learned about the city's Lombard Street riot.

On Aug. 1, 1842, the Young Men's Vigilant Association, a black pro-temperance society, gathered along Lombard Street between Fifth and Eighth to commemorate the end of slavery in the British West Indies. More than 1,000 blacks took part in the parade. Their banner, showing a black man breaking his chains, read: "How grand in age, how fair in truth, are holy Friendship, Love and Truth."

An Irish mob attacked the marchers near Mother Bethel Church. Bodies were bloodied, and buildings-including a church and an abolitionist meeting place-were burned throughout the predominantly black neighborhood. The riot lasted three days.

At the time Philadelphia was home to the nation's most influential free black community. But the city was also rife with racism and intolerance-part of its history that's often ignored.

"It opened my eyes to the way history is told," says Cohen's former student Kirkland Alexander Lynch, now a sophomore at the University of North Carolina. "When you hear about Philadelphia history, you hear about Betsy Ross' flag, the Constitution. But the history of Africans being killed in the City of Brotherly Love is nowhere to be found."

"I think it's very intentional leaving negative things out of history," says former student and Temple sophomore Jake Winterstein, "and it's very detrimental to the learning process. The importance of learning history is to understand why things are the way they are. If we don't understand how our city has racism in its founding, how can we work to end racism that still exists in our city?"

The class decided to petition the state for a historical marker commemorating the Lombard Street riot.

"We have the standard view of Philadelphia history, and it's a very partial picture," says Cohen. "It's important for us as a society to realize that African-Americans have a deep history. And the idea that there's been continuous oppression of African-Americans throughout that history is really worth knowing. There were huge obstacles that had to be overcome. Some of them have been, and some of them haven't."

The class completed the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission's seven-page application, whose guidelines require that "the person, event or site ... has had a meaningful impact on its times," as well as statewide or national significance.

Months after the class graduated, Cohen learned that their application had been accepted. It would become the first of the city's more than 2,500 historical markers to recognize a race riot.

"The Lombard Street riot was notable because it was so violent," says Commission press secretary Jane Crawford. "And knowing about it today shows how far we've come in living and working together."

The day before Thanksgiving a plaque was installed at Sixth and Lombard streets in an unveiling ceremony that brought together Cohen's former and current students, along with public and community officials.

For the former students, their last semester in high school turned into their most significant learning experience.

"You go through so many classes in your life, and you learn so much stuff," says Lynch. "Sometimes you get lax, but look what we accomplished. We created our own history."

"It's exciting for the students to see that their work in school really had an impact," says Cohen of the historical marker. "This will be here forever."

Kia Gregory (kgregory@philadelphiaweekly.com) wrote the recent cover story on the retirement of Inquirer columnist Acel Moore.

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