Immigrant Jewish Philadelphia: School Days


 
Going through photographs on PhillyHistory.org, I was struck by the number of photos showing Philadelphia public grade schools from years ago, most now torn down although some still remain. These photographs show the construction of new schools during the period of heavy immigration into the country at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries as well as the inside of classrooms, the first day of school, schoolyards, formally posed photographs of classes and informal scenes of children playing in the schoolyards. In The Immigrant Jew in America, edited by Edmund J. James, Ph. D., LL.D., with the collaboration of Charles S. Bernheimer from Philadelphia, and published by New York, B. F. Buck & Company in 1907, I found on page 202 a record of schools located in the Russian Jewish areas of South Philadelphia and the population of Jewish children for each school given as both a number and as a percentage of the total number of students. The area covered is from Locust Street on the north, Moore Street on the south, the Delaware River on the east and 19th Street on the west—the district composing the greater portion of the Russian Jewish community of the city in 1905.


 
Generally, the greatest percentage of Jewish children is in the schools located immediately surrounding the 5th Street and South Street areas. Other large percentages of Jewish students are in schools north of Washington Avenue, east of 8th Street, south of Locust Street and west of 2nd Street, although there are several exceptions such as the Fletcher School near Front Street that had a Jewish population of 79 per cent. There are only a few schools west of Broad Street, and the largest percentage of Jewish students in these “western” schools was 18 per cent. The schools with the highest percentage of Jews were those in the Jewish quarter surrounding the eastern end of South Street. The listing on page 202 described the total and percentage distribution of Jewish children in 39 kindergarten and grade schools in the area in 1905. Some of the schools with the largest Jewish percentage of children are presented below in chart form. I have also included a few other schools to demonstrate that the farther you went from 5th and South Streets the fewer number of Jewish children were enrolled in these schools. For a more complete listing of the schools, see The Immigrant Jew in America.

 

School Location Number of Students Number of Jewish Students Percentage of Students who were Jewish
Horace Binney Spruce below 6th 935 700 75
George M. Wharton 3rd below Pine 1345 1210 90
Wm. M. Meredith   5th & Fitzwater 1011 950 95
James Campbell  8th & Fitzwater 1560 782 50
Fagen 12th & Fitzwater 585 285 49
Mt. Vernon Catharine above 3rd 1200 1070 89
Fletcher Christian above Front 958 755 79
Geo. W. Nebinger 6th & Carpenter  1158 671 58
Wharton 5th below Wash’ton 1885 1411 74
John Stockdale 13th below Wash’ton 258 17 6
Washington Carpenter above 9th 1338 30 2

From the above figures, it can be determined that the school populations were determined by the neighborhood patterns of ethnic growth during the immigrant years. If we had the above statistics for earlier and later years, it would be dramatic in demonstrating just how quickly this south Philadelphia neighborhood changed from one ethnic group to the next. The above figures demonstrate how many grade schools there were years ago and how close they were to one another. Determining school boundaries is beyond the scope of this little blog, but I am sure that there are old school records held by the School Board of the City of Philadelphia which would describe, by streets and perhaps house numbers, the boundaries for each school.


 

The photographs on PhillyHistory.org, especially those of the Mt. Vernon School, give you a good picture of what school life was like in the year 1909, the year that many of the photos were taken of the Mt. Vernon School, the schoolyard and what appears to be the first day of school. Children still went to school barefoot and the girls were dressed in the finest that the immigrant families could afford. Perhaps you will not find a photographs of your own grandparents or great grandparents among the treasures being displayed on the web site, but you can learn something about how they were educated, where they were educated and how they grew up to become American citizens.

When the immigrants came to Philadelphia in the 1880s and 1890s, many families—especially those where an immigrant father died young—required the help of younger children to run a business and make a living. Children left school after 4th grade to help out. Why after 4th grade is not clear, but anecdotal stories note children dropping out of school after the 4th grade. In the 1900s, 1910s and 1920s, economic conditions improved. According to The Immigrant Jew, during this period there was “a steady growth in attendance in the upper grades, the high schools and the professional institutions” among the Russian Jewish immigrants. It was during this time that the colleges, especially Temple College (now University) and the University of Pennsylvania enrolled a remarkably large number of Russian Jewish students. 


 

Ironically, many of the students who enrolled at Penn during this time got there first real taste of knowledge at the Hebrew Literature Society, 312 Catharine Street, directly across the street from the Mt. Vernon School. Children of the immigrants clamored for more learning and a group of the leaders of the Hebrew Literature Society contacted Penn. Penn agreed to send professors to the Society’s meetings on Sundays afternoons to instruct the youngsters on subjects that were either not taught in the local high schools, like bacteriology, astronomy, etc., or that augmented and advanced studies taught at schools such as Central High School. In the year 1905, Penn furnished over a dozen professors as part of this program to help educate the children of the immigrants.

The article on the Philadelphia schools in The Immigrant Jew contains the following paragraph written in 1905: “Probably no single agency has a more far-reaching educational influence, especially in molding ideas in accordance with standards of our country and our time, than the public school. It gives to the son of the immigrant the same advantages as to the son of the native born, and in many instances the transformation to similarity with the latter is swift and complete.” Although daughters would not have all the same educational opportunities for two more generations, daughters did attend Mt. Vernon School, the other schools in the area and were openly welcomed by the Hebrew Literature Society at their Sunday afternoon sessions. 

 
Sources:
 
James, Edmund J. ed. The Immigrant Jew in America. New York: B. F. Buck & Company, 1907.

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