Civil rights era freedom fighters visit Wissahickon Charter

 (John Corrigan/for NewsWorks)

(John Corrigan/for NewsWorks)

Bernyce Mills-DeVaughn stepped outside her home at 20th and Girard Streets and stepped into history.

People were marching along the walls of then-segregated Girard College in 1965 when then-Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo had had enough of the protest, ordering police canines to be unleashed.

“The rush of people screaming, children falling and yelling,” Mills-DeVaughn recalled. “I’m seeing people being trampled. I’m seeing my sister knocked down and dogs biting her.”

The police arrested Mills-DeVaughn’s sister for resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. She was taken to the Youth Study Center along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the current home of the Barnes Foundation.

“My sister was released, but we could never figure out why she was taken there since she was the one attacked,” Mills-DeVaughn said. “But it didn’t matter.”

Mills-DeVaughn’s sister was 13 years old at the time, which raised the eyebrows of the 7th and 8th graders fascinated by the Cecil B. Moore Philadelphia Freedom Fighter’s tales during a visit to Wissahickon Charter School. Mills-DeVaughn, 68, and her fellow Freedom Fighter, Karen Asper-Jordan, 67, spoke with several classes for two and a half hours last Friday, discussing their participation in the civil rights movement during the 1960s.

“Our students don’t often get a chance to hear directly from people who were part of the civil rights struggle, so this is a great opportunity,” said Kristi Littell, CEO of Wissahickon Charter School.

The Freedom Fighters’ visit was the brainchild of Shira Cohen, social science teacher at Wissahickon Charter, who wanted her students to meet the city’s African American heroes.

“It’s really important for kids to see that the history we’re learning about is alive and well,” Cohen said. “When you bring in people who can do this, there is an automatic connecting of the dots for our students. Right from the start, they were like, ‘hey, I’m from North Philly.'”

The students prepared for the visit by watching “Cecil’s People,” an Emmy-award winning documentary about the Freedom Fighters created by Sam Katz’s History Making Productions.

Inspired by the activism that paved the way for their own education, the students wrote letters of thanks, created art projects and brainstormed questions for their guests.

“When people can come in and share what life was like for them when they were 12, 13, 14, and doing this work that I think a lot of kids really feel is over,” Cohen said, “then maybe it can motivate these students to fight against the injustices that they see around them.”

Mills-DeVaughn and Asper-Jordan, along with other Freedom Fighter members, have been visiting local schools and sharing their experiences for the past few years.

“It’s a good oral history for the students to see what they might not get in a textbook,” Mills-DeVaughn said. “I saw a lot of interest and that’s exciting because once you see the interest, then you want to give more.”

A seventh grade girl said she always had the question in the back of her head about what role did Philadelphia have in the civil rights movement?

“It was pretty incredible to finally get the answer,” she said.

“They weren’t on TV like Martin Luther King Jr., but they were still involved in the movement and helped make life better for us,” said an eighth grade boy.

Each class asked the Freedom Fighters if drudging up these memories caused any heartache.

And each time Asper-Jordan replied that it was emotional, but in a good way.

“These kids help us relive our lives,” Asper-Jordan said. “We never thought we’d be doing this. Our hero, Cecil B. Moore used to say, ‘We loved you before we knew you.’

He meant we weren’t protesting for us. We were protesting to help other people,” Asper-Jordan said.

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