Dreaming big at the Hill School in Germantown
In the first half of the 20th century, the 100 block of West Rittenhouse Street and the 100 block of West Price Street in Germantown were a tight-knit middle-class African-American neighborhood. The area was anchored by the St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Mount Zion Baptist Church, Dr. William Warrick’s medical practice, the real estate office of George W. Deane around the corner on Germantown Avenue, and the Joseph E. Hill Elementary School, the latter of which, according to local resident Geneva E. Gedney, encouraged students to “Hitch Your Wagon to a Star.”
The Hill School was founded in 1868 by William Cole as the first school for Black children in Germantown; Cole named the school after an early Black educator in Philadelphia. Many members of the Black community who went to the Hill School noted its teachers were strict but fair.
In an oral history interview conducted in 1992 as part of the Germantown Historical Society’s and the Philadelphia Alumni Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta’s African Americans in Germantown Between the World Wars oral history project, local resident Alyce Jackson Alexander remembered her years at the Hill School in the late 1920s during an interview conducted during the project:
We had good teachers there— they were strict and very learned people. A lot of them went to Black schools in the South. They took time with you. That was the first to the sixth grade. We did math, reading, writing, and handwriting… At our class reunion, we talked about the strict teachers. Some were mean. They accepted no excuses not to learn.
Alexander would later go on to the Roosevelt Middle School, at Musgrave Street and East Washington Lane, and then to Simon Gratz High School. Like Alexander, some of the former Hill School students graduating in the 1920s and 30s avoided going to Germantown High School. Though the High School was much closer, some of the students avoided it because they’d heard about the prejudice many Black students experienced there.
As for the Hill School, it remained open at 58 West Rittenhouse Street through 1979. (It was demolished in 1980.) After briefly relocating to 201 Spring Lane in Upper Roxborough, the school moved to Crittenden and Tulpehocken streets in East Germantown by 1982. It remained there for over 30 years; by 2010, it had been renamed the , which still exists today as the Hill-Freedman World Academy, at 1100 East Mount Pleasant Avenue in Cedarbrook.
As for the school’s original site on West Rittenhouse Street, members of the School’s alumni association installed a memorial there in 1987, in memory of the School’s faculty and students.
Notable alumni include Allen B. Ballard, author of several books including The Education of Black Folk: The Afro American Struggle for Knowledge in White America and Preaching Jericho, and artist and calligrapher Roland Ayers, whose Calligraphy of Dreams is currently on exhibition at the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill.
Though no longer located on West Rittenhouse Street, the Hill School lives on in the memories of surviving alumni, in the African Americans in Germantown Between the World Wars oral history project, and in the Hill-Freedman World Academy, which continues the legacy of providing an education to our area’s children.
NOTE: The interviews of the African Americans in Germantown Between the World Wars oral history project were an invaluable source of information about the Joseph E. Hill School. The interviews were originally recorded on cassette tapes in the early 1990s; these are currently being digitized through the generous support of Louise Strawbridge, who initiated the project, and Tom Boyle, a former Germantown Historical Society volunteer.
About the Time Machine
This regular series goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director of Historic Germantown, as he picks some of his favorite images from the Germantown Historical Society’s extensive collection. Alex Bartlett, Librarian and Archivist of the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing photos from the distant past to life. For additional information or to learn more about the history of our area, please contact Alex at (215) 844-1683, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.