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On the Shoulders of Giants

Becoming the president of Girard College

Police and protestors at the gates of Girard College in 1965. Courtesy of the John Franklin Photograph Collection, African American Museum of Philadelphia.

“We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”

—John of Salisbury, 12th-century theologian

On Oct. 16, 2009, I was formally invested with all the rights and responsibilities of the 16th president of Girard College in Philadelphia. Close to 1,500 people assembled to celebrate the historic moment.

Girard College is a private boarding school created through the bequest of 19th-century merchant-banker Stephen Girard to educate poor, white, orphan boys. In the 1830s, setting aside an enormous sum of money for a school to operate in perpetuity was a hugely progressive notion. To plan the school to serve poor orphan boys was unique, because that group did not have access to the caliber of education that Girard’s school would offer. Stephen Girard believed that if Americans didn’t address the needs of the disenfranchised, the whole democratic experiment could fail. Girard died the richest man in America in 1831, and his school accepted its first students in 1847, when educating orphans was revolutionary—the most aggressive form of inclusion possible.

In the 1960s, Girard College played a difficult yet pivotal role in Philadelphia’s civil rights history. Stephen Girard may have been forward-thinking for his time, but he was very much a man of his times in limiting his school to “poor, white, orphan boys.” After the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education required the desegregation of schools, hundreds of activists walked around the 10-foot-high wall surrounding the 43-acre Girard campus in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia. The protests lasted eight months, around the clock. There were numerous arrests, dog attacks, lawsuits that went to the Supreme Court twice and even a visit from Martin Luther King Jr. in August 1965. All of these acts caused Stephen Girard’s will to be reinterpreted. Boys of color first entered Girard in 1968. In 1984, the first female students took their place at Girard. The school still provides full scholarships for children who come from families struggling with poverty.

Now the school is being led by a woman of color, both firsts for this 162-year-old institution. I like to think that if Stephen Girard were alive today, he would see the evolution of the school as the logical extension of his progressive ideals.

As I stood at the podium delivering the speech of my life to current students, alumni, faculty, parents, politicians, television cameras and family, I felt confused. I had not yet done anything! All of these people, however, were hanging on my every word. Emotions welled up within me and I was in tears. How could I, the first female president of the school, stand in front of an audience and cry? The tears didn’t belong to me, but rather to the men and women who had marched outside of my new school before I was born. These were the tears my mother cried as she experienced gender and racial discrimination in sewing factories in New York City and Pittsburgh. These were the tears my maternal grandmother cried as sweat poured from her brow and stung her eyes as a cleaning lady and laundress.

It is clear to me that my achievement belongs to those men and women, black and white, young and old, whose work and sacrifice changed the world enough that I might become a leader and an educator.

During the reception following my investiture, a Girard parent told me she wanted her daughter to grow up to become president of Girard. Instinctively, I shared that I hoped her daughter’s aspiration would not be so limited. I will see it as a personal failure if my students do not earn success that surpasses my own. I expect that girl to be president of a larger organization, a university or the United States. I want that young woman to sit on my shoulders, as I sit on those of the protestors who marched around the walls of Girard all those years ago—the ones who changed laws, the educational system and the nation.

Autumn J. Adkins is a native of Monongahela, Pa., who spent much of her childhood in Richmond, Va. In her UVA college admission essay, Adkins said she hoped to open a boarding school for low-income students. After earning degrees from UVA and Columbia University, she worked as an administrator at several private schools, including Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., and Friends Seminary in New York City.