Marker commemorating the Berwin School Fight

From left, Bertha Jackmon, historian for Mount Zion AME Church, the Rev. April M. Martin, the church’s pastor; state Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman; and Nancy Moses, chair of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, stand under a newly unveiled marker commemorating the Berwin School Fight. — SUBMITTED PHOTO

The Pennsylvania Historical Museum & Commission dedicated a historical marker at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church last Saturday in commemoration of the 1930s Berwyn School Fight.

The legal and moral battle, which took place from March 10, 1932, to April 30, 1934, served as a precursor to later civil rights efforts to end segregation.

Mount Zion AME Church, located at 380 N. Fairfield Road in Devon was a meeting place for local Black families in 1932 to plan how to respond to segregationist school policies. The Tredyffrin and Easttown school districts kept Black and white children in grades 1 through 8 in separate systems.

For two years, the desegregation battle was a milestone in Mount Zion’s history as Black families strategized with local leaders, such as Primus Crosby, Harvey Tyre and Edgar R. Powell. Others lending their support included Oscar DePriest, the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century; Crystal Bird Fauset, first African American woman to serve in a state legislature, and Joseph H. Rainey, editor of The Philadelphia Tribune.

With the support from the local Bryn Mawr Branch of the NAACP, the Black families boycotted the elementary schools and found alternative education opportunities for their children. Many parents faced losing their jobs as well as legal repercussions such as fines, arrest and even were jailed for their “truant children.” But they showed their resolve to break the legal impasse maintained by the state attorney general.

The families won when the case was settled out of court on April 30, 1934. Their children went back to school the next day, although they returned to the same grades that they left two years earlier.

Three of the significant outcomes of this important event that impacted civil rights were:

The case assisted in the passing of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Bill in 1935.

The NAACP realized the importance of expanding their coalition-building.

The civil rights strategies used by the Black families were a “dress rehearsal” for the succeeding Civil Rights Movement.

The Devon church boasts being the first recorded African-American congregation of any denomination in the United States as well as being the oldest continuous AME assembly in the Philadelphia area. Its church building and cemetery have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2015 —one of 313 such listings in Chester County and among at least 24 with a definitive African-American connection, according to the state Historic Preservation Office.

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