When Pennsylvania passed the Public School Act in 1834, Montgomery County didn’t exactly jump to comply. Some townships took several years to establish public schools because both the Quakers and the Pennsylvania Germans believed education was the province was the family and the church.
Norristown opened its first school in 1836 on Church Street with 113 pupils, all white. When more space was needed, the school board rented rooms. In 1839 the board rented out a lower room in Thomas Bruff’s house for educating black students. Jacob Glasgow was the teacher, and he had 15 students to begin with.
In 1846 the board rented space at Mount Zion AME Church, which was then on Chain St. When the Oak Street School opened in 1859, the white children moved into that building, and the African-American children moved into the old school for a brief time. Soon, they were moved again to a two-story building on Oak St. That was replaced by the Powell Street School in 1874.
Powell Street School
According to Edward Hocker, by the 1880’s the African-American parents in Norristown began to insist that their children be permitted to attend any convenient school in the borough. In 1883, the board decided to integrate Norristown’s schools, and all students were allowed to attend the school most convenient to them. There was little controversy over desegregation in Norristown.
In 1900, the county school superintendent, Joseph K. Gotwals, delivered an address to the Historical Society of Montgomery County on the history of education in Norristown. He only touched on desegregation briefly, but he said, “I cannot help feeling that the old separate arrangement was the better one.” He went on to say that the Powell Street School had 100 pupils. Twenty years later, he was doubtful that there were that many African-American students in all of Norristown’s schools despite the population increase.
“The larger colored girls and boys would come to school when they were with their kind. They were willing to go and read in the first reader when their companions of the same age were in the same grade, but after the change was made we found that they did not want to go into the 'baby' room with six or eight-year white children.”
Gotwals didn’t seem to think there might be other solutions to this problem or that it might be his job to find them.