The Bok school was rife with racial tensions in the late 1960s.

The words might sound familiar to anyone who’s paid attention to recent development in Philly:

“We’re concerned about human rights and the Bok situation.”

They were uttered by Rev. Robert Raines of Germantown’s First United Methodist Church, during an hourlong roundtable that featured a panel of both black and white Philadelphians. Among other things, the group talked about the history of South Philly’s Bok school and the legacy of former Mayor Frank Rizzo.

Despite the discussion’s relevance to issues Philadelphians are grappling with today, it took place exactly 50 years ago.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Raines hosted a social justice talk show called Input. Last month, reelblack, a Philly-based film production and promotion company, posted a new episode of the show that originally aired back in ’68.

Titled “BOK: Racism Unleashed | Tension at a S. Philadelphia High School,” it covered discussing racial tensions at the Edward W. Bok Technical High School, which first opened in 1938 and desegregated about 30 years later. As might be predicted, allowing African American students into the school was not the end of the tension.

Fifty years ago, Bok sat in a mostly Italian-American neighborhood of South Philadelphia, an area rife with racial prejudice.

YouTube video

An attempt at dialogue

The video starts by explaining that Bok students often felt unsafe in their school neighborhood, where there were white “gang fights” and police often sided with white neighbors over black students. Racial tensions came to a head with the suspension of black Bok students in 1967 for demonstrating around their school, and then the arrests of 42 students who marched for racial justice in Philly public schools.

The panel was made up of:

  • Raines, the reverend and talk show host
  • Roger Pinkard, a Bok student
  • James Lester, an organizer with the Young Afro-Americans
  • Charles Highsmith, then-superintendent of Philadelphia Public Schools
  • Charles Peruto, a Philadelphia attorney
  • Vito Carbone, an assistant pastor at South Philly’s Saint Mary Magdalen de Pazzi church

Back in the late ’60s, it seems that the panel moderator Raines intended to start a meaningful dialogue about the Bok situation and ultimately come to some sort of mutual understanding about race relations at Philly public schools.

So much for that.

The video was characterized almost entirely by arguments and shouts over other panelists.

The modern controversy

Perhaps no one on the panel could’ve anticipated the future of the Bok school.

The rooftop bar at Bok, a former South Philly public school. Credit: Renata Certo-Ware

Long after the racial tensions of the late 1960s, the vocational high school suffered a fate common among some Philly public schools. It closed in 2013 amid tremendous financial struggles, and students were relocated to the worse-performing South Philadelphia High School.

And racial tensions returned to the location about two years later, when new developers turned the former school into a bar, called Le Bok Fin, which many argued catered to the white, upper class.

It quickly became a battleground for talks about gentrification — Philadelphians wondered what it meant for a largely African American public school to turn into a fancy bar within two years of its closure. Some Bok alumni visited the bar and expressed satisfaction that the building had turned into something useful — but others fought the bar’s existence entirely.

But more recently, the new Bok has solidified its relationship with the local community. Developer Scout Ltd. has received much positive feedback from area residents, per principal Lindsey Scannapieco, and even provides free space for local neighborhood groups to hold meetings.

An hour of arguing

In the 1968 roundtable, however, participants were not able to reach a common ground.

The discussion started out civil, with the one black Bok student on the panel discussing his experiences with prejudice.

Pinkard described himself and his fellow students being antagonized by white South Philly residents, and increased police presence in the neighborhood didn’t help — the police seemed to always take their side.

The Bok student present on a 1968 panel discussion about racism in the Philly school Credit: YouTube screenshot

So Lester, the organizer of the Young Afro-Americans group, jumped in, saying: “They didn’t want black kids to get an advanced education, so they’re running them out.”

That line was all it took to incite a full hour of turmoil. Panelists fought over the desegregation of schools, the presence of black student union groups in schools, even the actions of then-Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo.

Lester asked the panel: “How are you going to have harmony in Philadelphia with a police commissioner like Rizzo?”

Lester, a black man, suggested Bok be returned to an all-white school, and Philadelphia build a new vocational school strictly for black students — all in an effort to make African Americans feel safer. Peruto, a white attorney on the panel, responded by calling him an “agitator.”

“Why is it called racism when the white community does it,” Peruto asked, “but elevation when the black community does it?”

“The purpose is not to let our brothers go through the same thing they’re going through at Bok,” Lester responded.

The Bok school was the site of racial tensions in 1968… and then again in 2015. Credit: Sydney Schaefer / Billy Penn

Throughout the 58 minutes and 50 seconds of tension, there were two panelists who seemed interested in cooling down the heated discussion. Raines, the moderator, alongside Charles Highsmith, then-superintendent of Philadelphia Public Schools, attempted to validate the concerns of the black panelists and calm down the white ones.

“I want these young people to be able to go to school without anyone bothering them,” Highsmith said about halfway through the episode.

Ultimately, the episode ended as it began: literally cutting people off in the middle of an argument. There was no sense of agreement or mediation on either side of the argument, and the tension continued… for at least another 50 years.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...