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Despite change, McKeesporters still protest school name

| Thursday, March 28, 2013, 4:56 a.m.

Calling attention to what he believes to be racial inequity and inconsideration in McKeesport Area School District, Keith Murphy approached school directors Wednesday evening with heavy, rusted shackles in hand.

“I would encourage everybody to feel these,” Murphy said, placing chains on the table in front of director Terri Kisan. “To say ‘no objection' to John McKee being a slaveholder and a slave owner ... This is why that became so offensive.”

Murphy, a McKeesport resident, said school directors should have researched McKee's background before naming a new school in his honor two weeks ago.

That concern was raised during a regularly scheduled session of the district's diversity committee Wednesday afternoon, where approximately 30 community members and McKeesport Area staff discussed the naming of a new primary/intermediate school after John McKee, one of McKeesport's first landowners.

The name was changed to Twin Rivers Primary/Intermediate last week.

The McKeesport Political American African Committee brought circumstances to light of McKee's late 1700s settlement, during which he was a slaveholder. That information — and the post-vote, public protest of fliers and emails in which it was presented — prompted the majority of board members to change their decision.

“Community members were quite clear in what their concerns are and were quite clear about historical concerns,” school director and diversity committee chairwoman Trisha Gadson said. “Members of the board who were present were receptive in hearing the concerns identified by the community. After hearing the concerns we reviewed and outlined for the strategic process what we've been working on, which identifies several general areas (targeted by the diversity committee).”

Gadson listed parent and community engagement, diversified recruitment, hiring and retention, development of community mentors and leaders, training and support activities, and faith-based and grassroots efforts to increase performance for all students.

Some of those desired outcomes were included in Murphy's public comments at the school board meeting, including a request to put Bernice Vaughn's name in front of the Twin Rivers school. Murphy said Vaughn should be recognized for her accomplishment as the first black woman to serve on McKeesport's school board.

“She was a community woman and lived two blocks away from that school,” Murphy said.

He spoke about his misunderstanding of how Founders Hall was named.

In 2004, McKeesport Area senior Jeremy Acie named Founders Hall for the nation's founding fathers with nearby streets already bearing the names Washington, Jefferson and Franklin.

“If it was an issue, it should have been an issue back then when it came to face, as opposed to now after the fact,” director Steve Kondrosky said.

Murphy said he initially thought the school had been named for the district's early administrators.

“You're getting a piece right now of the founding fathers,” he said as the shackles circulated around the room. “Of the 21 founding fathers, 14 were slave owners.”

Murphy — an unsuccessful candidate for mayor in 2003 and school director in 2009 — brought back concerns he mentioned in previous campaigns regarding alleged nepotism and a lack of minority or local workers on district construction projects.

While school director Chris Halaszynski opted during the meeting to keep his opinions to himself, he explained his position when the session broke.

Halaszynski said he's angered by Murphy's “shock tactics” by displaying chains during the board meeting and distributing horrifying images of mistreated slaves over the weekend.

“His agenda wasn't to educate tonight, but to scare and shock everyone,” he said. “As a black community leader, why has he never until today been to a cultural diversity meeting? He obviously picks and chooses when he wants to be heard.”

School director Tom Maglicco said he was offended by a McKeesport Political American African Committee flier that was distributed over the weekend. The document questions McKeesport Area leadership and asks if board members listen to, honor and respect their community.

“This board is a great group here, and we've made some great strides,” Maglicco said. “I can't account for previous years, but this board ... I feel that the flier painted us in a picture that, if they didn't know us, they would think something completely different.”

Maglicco suggested dialogue — even public discussions — rather than the dissemination of one-sided documents.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or jvertullo@tribweb.com.

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