It was a packed house in Upper Dublin High School’s Performing Arts Center as community members young and old came together to honor the school district’s rich African-American history March 29.
Some were long-retired former teachers, some were former students whose lives were changed by those teachers, some have gone on to enjoy illustrious careers on the stage and screen and one was a Major League Baseball player. But no matter their ages or occupations, everyone in attendance at A Celebration of African-American History & Achievement had one thing in common: a deep and abiding love for the School District of Upper Dublin.
“As far as I’m aware, this was the first event of its kind,” district Superintendent Michael Pladus said. “What we wanted to do was put together a night to remember, to learn from, to celebrate and hopefully to inspire. There were some stories told, some that may have not been shared before, some that may have been forgotten and were deserving of being retold, shared and celebrated. This wasn’t just an African-American event — it was an Upper Dublin event.”
Among the many who spoke at the event were former faculty members, many of whom shared memories of teaching during the turbulent 1960s when the nation’s schools began desegregating.
Bill Rose, one of the first African-American teachers hired by the school district during the ’60s, remembered being asked to take the job: “[The superintendent] came to me and said, ‘Do you want a challenge?’” Rose accepted the challenge and remained on staff for decades.
Former teacher Floyd Dinkins shared his own memories.
“There were so many white people,” he said. “It was a challenge, a struggle.” But in the midst of that struggle, one beacon of light for Dinkins was athlete Kim Gallagher, whom he coached on the high school track team. Dinkins and Gallagher became close, and as her skill as an athlete became more apparent, Dinkins began offering her more and more encouragement.
“If you make it to the Olympics [in 1984],” he told Gallagher, “I’ll be there.”
Gallagher did make it to the ’84 Olympics, where she earned a silver medal, and returned in ’88 to earn a bronze medal.
“She was a very, very beautiful person, inside and out,” Dinkins said of Gallagher, who passed away in 2002 at the age of 38.
Actor Josh Tower, Class of 1988, shared memories of Rose and Dinkins, and then spoke about how the Upper Dublin community shaped his own life.
“It’s incredible to hear all these stories,” he said. “I was a mixed child raised by a single white mother who adopted my sister and me in the ’70s, and you can probably imagine how difficult that is … But sitting here tonight, I didn’t realize how many trailblazers I was amongst when I was actually here on this ground. So, I thank all of you, all the teachers. Growing up without a father, you were my fathers.”
Tower, credited as the longest-running Simba in Disney’s “The Lion King” on Broadway, performed the song “Endless Night” from the show to massive applause.
The actor also portrayed African-American poet Langston Hughes off Broadway in the show “Langston in Harlem” and performed a jazzy rendition of “Juke Box Lovesong” from the show.
But Tower wasn’t the only performer to take the stage.
All over the audience, parents pulled out their cameras as the Elementary Ensemble performed former Upper Dublin resident Linda Creed’s “The Greatest Love of All.”
Peter Alston, principal of Thomas Fitzwater Elementary School, then offered a tribute to Creed, who he said was crucial in developing what’s known as “the Philly sound.”
“After an illustrious career,” Alston said, “Creed decided to raise her family in Upper Dublin.”
Not long after the tribute to Creed, former Major League Baseball player Dorn Taylor took the stage to offer thanks to his alma mater and talk about his experience pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates from ’87 to ’89 and for the Baltimore Orioles in ’90.
“One thing about baseball, there weren’t many black baseball players,” he said. “It was a struggle. I always had to go through the racial problems. I had people always saying racial things to me as a black player. That pushed me even harder, because I knew I’d be able to make it. All I had to do was keep a good attitude and keep playing.”
Throughout the night, such tales of uplift were shared by all speakers.
Lucienne Davis, chairwoman of the event’s planning committee, considered A Celebration of African-American History & Achievement a great success.
“[The event took] approximately nine to 10 months to put together,” she said. “[It was] the brain child of our diversity committee. We were at a summer workshop, and we were saying we really should do something that’s a little more than the usual routine celebration of African-American history and culture.”
What they ended up with was a three-hour, multifaceted tribute to the school’s decades of cultural progress.
“We realized there are some aspects that we as a district hadn’t had the opportunity to celebrate [before],” Davis continued, “such as Kim Gallagher’s success [and] that we are no longer a segregated school district — that even though we were at one time a segregated school district, many great things came out of that situation.”
But perhaps it was Tower who best summed up the feelings of everyone present that night.
“[Upper Dublin] is part of my fabric,” he told the audience. “And I’m so proud to wear it today.”
Follow Dutch Godshalk on Twitter @DutchGodshalk.