It’s hard to believe that 50 years have passed since Penfield High School admitted its first African-American students, including my two sisters Johnette and Gwendolyn Whitis. What made this occasion so unique was that it happened peacefully — only 10 years after President Eisenhower had to summon the 101st Airborne to protect the Little Rock Nine as they integrated Little Rock High School.
Notably, Penfield High School went down in history as first school in the nation to desegregate upon the initiative of the students themselves. Here’s how that incredible achievement took place:
In 1966, Penfield High School senior David Honig organized a team of student leaders from Penfield and from Rochester’s Madison High School to propose the Penfield-Madison Exchange. Twenty-five Madison students would attend Penfield High School for a week, living in the homes of their “twins” in Penfield. Then the next week, the exchange would be reversed, with 25 Penfield students attending Madison High School and living in the Rochester African-American community with their “twins.” No one, anywhere in the nation, had tried anything on this scale before.
On Jan. 30, 2017, Rochester’s Radisson Hotel hosted the 50th Anniversary Penfield-Madison Exchange Reunion Dinner. Honig, along with several exchange participants and numerous Rochester and Penfield school and other public officials, was there to recount how the Exchange supporters pulled off this civil rights victory.
Honig recalled his reason for taking action. “I believed that a school’s mission ought to be to prepare students for life after graduation. We were not being fully educated because we were not being prepared to live in a diverse society.”
Honig knew that major change required organization and collective effort. Working with Norman Gross, a history teacher at Madison High School, and with Madison students Curtis Edwards and Rosemary Morris, they planned the exchange and presented it to the Rochester and Penfield school boards. The Rochester School Board took two minutes to approve it by a unanimous vote.
“But it took three mass meetings with long lines of adults speaking in disapproval before the Penfield Board of Education approved the exchange by a vote of 5-2,” Honig recounted. “What turned the tide of opposition was Penfield’s Superintendent of Schools Elmer Peck, a truly extraordinary educator and leader who put his career on the line to speak with great passion in support of our proposal. Peck’s stand for principle and the editorial support of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle made all the difference.”
The exchange almost didn’t happen. All five board members who voted for it were defeated for re-election, the voters turned down the school budget for the first time in over 100 years and the first Madison students showing up for class in Penfield were greeted with a false bomb threat. Nonetheless, the integration of previously all-white Penfield High School came about peacefully. The exchange was successful in changing hearts and minds of students, their parents and both communities.
Janice Howard, Madison High School Class of `69, helped organize the reunion dinner, connecting with eight exchange participants. A lifelong Rochesterian, Howard declared that the city has “gone through numerous changes, yet we are still in the same place as we were 50 years ago.”
Kitty Lindsay, Penfield High School Class of `67, is an exchange participant, who attended the Reunion Dinner. She was surprised and pleased to learn that many exchange participants had sent their own children to the 50-year-old Urban-Suburban Program.
One of the dignitaries at the reunion dinner, Penfield School Superintendent Tom Putnam, remarked that the exchange helped set the stage for Penfield’s positive experience as a host of the Urban-Suburban Program and for the district’s ongoing work teaching about racial justice and understanding.
“I don’t know if there has been any significant change in the stereotypes that isolation incubates or in each community’s relationships since 1967 and now.” Honig mused. “The opportunity for young people to challenge their stereotypes and get a better education is as important now as it was then, if not more so.”
In 1967, Honig put everything about the exchange, documents, photos, school newspapers and local newspaper articles in a makeshift time capsule. “I made copies of everything, wrapped them in plastic to keep them safe from the elements. I locked them in a steamer trunk that I carried with me throughout the next 50 years as an academic and a civil rights lawyer. I labeled the trunk “Open on Jan. 1, 2017.” On New Year’s Day this year, I wondered, what is in here? I still had the key, but had forgotten what was inside. When I opened it, all this history was preserved like it had happened yesterday.”
Honig’s plans for moving forward include creating a permanent Facebook page. “Our accomplishment will remain long after we’re gone. Penfield can take pride in leading the nation, in 1967, in accomplishing the peaceful desegregation of its high school. A bunch of us kids got it done. It was the best thing any of us ever did.”