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NORRISTOWN — The many cameras outside Bill Cosby’s trial (remember there are about 150 journalists covering this media circus) have a pretty good chance of catching Gloria Allred. The renowned women’s rights attorney has dominated interviews, ranging from local TV stations to celebrity infotainment like Inside Edition. She even became a storyline in the courtroom, having been kicked out twice for her cell phone going off and being pointed out by Cosby attorney Brian McMonagle while interviewing a witness.
She was a target of McMonagle for good reason: Allred is one of the comedian’s most prominent enemies. She isn’t representing Andrea Constand; she is acting as counsel for 33 other Cosby accusers in a range of civil litigation.
This is one of the first times Allred and Cosby have crossed paths in person. But here in Philadelphia, however, they were growing up across the city from each other, marking off many of the same accomplishments.
“I always say Mr. Cosby and I have a lot in common,” she said. “I went to the Philadelphia High School for Girls. He went to Central High School. Then he went on to Temple. I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania …The big difference is he’s been charged with three felonies.”
The jab, said plainly and warmly but with no hint of humor, has been Allred’s staple for nearly the last two years. Before then, Allred gained fame for her role in civil rights cases mostly dealing with women and for representing famous clients such as Nicole Brown Simpson’s family and Rachel Uchitel, one of Tiger Woods’s mistresses.
Cosby grew up impoverished in North Philly. Allred had a working class upbringing in Kingsessing, on the 5500-block of Springfield Avenue, as the child of two parents whose educations ended in the eighth grade. Her father worked six days a week selling enlargements for photographs door to door. Her mother was a homemaker, like most of the others on her block.
They lived in a rowhome. She attended S. Weir Mitchell Elementary and Shaw Middle School and walked home for lunch.
“Philadelphia had three things that were really important,” Allred said, “Excellent subway transportation. I could get anywhere in the city on a bus, trolley car, a subway. Wonderful public libraries…For a poor child I had the world opened up to me.”
Nearly every Sunday, Allred would go to the Central Library to “read for pleasure,” her favorites classics by Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
“And then, of course,” Allred continued, “the last one was wonderful public schools.”
In her neighborhood, Allred said she rarely found encouragement that a young woman could strive for a professional career. That changed when she got into Girls High in 1955. Just down the street from Central High, Girls was among the city’s most competitive high schools. It was formed in the middle of the 19th century as the first all-girls secondary school in Pennsylvania and has endured despite budget cuts and Central High taking many students who would have gone to Girls in the past. Girls High is believed to be one of only two all-girls public schools in the country (the other being Western High in Baltimore).
“We were taught that girls and women were of value,” Allred said. “In those days I never heard that anywhere else. That was really important. That was instilled in me that girls can be leaders.”
Alumnae include recording artists Lisa “Lefteye” Lopes and Jill Scott; Judith Rodin, the first woman president of Penn; and, actually, Cosby’s mother, Anna Pearl Cosby. She attended but did not graduate.
“Our archivist…was able to find her blue card, the record of being at the school for however length of time and shared that with Cosby,” said Barbara McDowell Dowdall, a 1964 graduate and retired School District of Philadelphia teacher.
McDowell Dowdall met Allred three years ago at an alumnae luncheon. She gave Allred a copy of a video made to celebrate the high school’s 150-year anniversary and got Allred to sign a copy of her biography, Fight Back and Win (In it, Allred tells several stories about Girls High).
McDowell Dowdall has had interactions with Cosby, too. She heard him speak at Central during the 1982-83 school year when she was teaching there and “smiled” when her daughter heard him speak at the school yet again in the ’90s. He also gave a full scholarship to Spelman to a Girls High grad.
“It’s all upsetting,” McDowell Dowdall said.
She continued in an email that she was “both grateful and proud of Gloria’s standing by these women — including the times she has been evicted from the courtroom. As we say at our alma mater, ‘You can always tell a Girls’ High girl, but you can’t tell her much.’”
At Girls High, Allred at first felt like she didn’t belong. She recounted in her book the time she explained to a counselor she was ready to leave the school. The counselor asked her who she thought was the smartest girl in school. Allred gave her a name. The counselor took out a folder, scanned for that name on a list and then for Allred’s and said her IQ was just a couple points lower. It was a shot of confidence. Also: It was completely fake. There was no list.
Allred graduated from Girls High in 1959. Then came four years at Penn. Then a job as a substitute teacher for the School District of Philadelphia, followed by a full-time teaching position at Benjamin Franklin High School at Broad and Green.
Allred began aiming even higher in the mid-1960s. She commuted two nights a week to NYU to work on a master’s degree and two other nights she volunteered at a cerebral palsy clinic. At the same time, she was living with her parents and raising her daughter, Lisa, by herself.
“Single parents do what they have to do to survive to make a better life for their children,” Allred said. “And that’s what I did. And millions of others are doing that still.”
Why’d she leave Philadelphia for Los Angeles? The weather — “I wanted my girl to grow up in the sunshine all year” — and opportunity. Recruiters from Los Angeles had visited Philadelphia in 1966 seeking teachers who would work in Watts, where massive riots had broken out the previous year and white flight was taking place.
“So I said, ‘I’d like to teach out in Watts,’” Allred recalled, “and they said, ‘how soon can you come?’”
A few years later Allred enrolled in law school in Los Angeles, started a practice with two colleagues and began a career that has lasted for decades. She said she comes back to Philadelphia on occasion. Girls High honored her several years ago as a distinguished alumni, and she was a keynote speaker in 2014 for a reunion luncheon, delivering a talk about the role of women in society. It was the largest crowd Girls High ever had for such an event.
At Central, Cosby was once a member of the school’s hall of fame. But the school revoked that honor after sexual assault allegations were again publicized against him starting in 2014.
On Sunday, Allred went to lunch at Zodiac at the King of Prussia Mall with her best friend from high school. But her stay in the area will be short. When the trial ends here, she’ll head back to California, awaiting a June 27 deposition for one of her clients who’s filed a lawsuit against Cosby.
And once again, Allred will face off against her Philadelphia rival.