Revenge Killings 50 Years Apart
On October 16 2020, the BBC warned listeners the next story depicts gore and shame. As he was leaving school a junior high teacher in a Paris suburb was beheaded by a teenage Islamist terrorist.
On February 1, 1971, the city of Philadelphia went into shock, when a 14 year old student killed a junior high school teacher as he was leaving school, with a blast through the back of his head exiting through his face.
These horrific events amplify and detonate existing antagonisms. Both are tragic in personal and public ways that cannot be given ample elegy or operatic sorrow. The two historic wounds are an oblique reminder of violence persisting unchecked and risk takers are often punished.
These two junior high teachers were leaders working for freedom of expression and civil rights, and both worked hard trying to enlighten their communities across volatile divides. And they were both named Sam. They were killed by marginalized kids charged with crude revenge. Both deaths lit firestorms of anger, grief and dangerous tensions. Both men were martyred, igniting protests and elaborate media frenzy funeral processions, pole vaulting political dynamics to a new excruciation. Schools, monuments and movements enshrined them but provide little remedy.
Samson Freedman was a 56 year old artist, teacher and community leader living in West Oak/Mt.Airy neighborhood. He taught ceramics at Leeds Junior H.S. for fourteen years. He served on the School District Human Rights Commission.
Samuel Paty was a 47 year old history, geography and civics teacher at Cinflans Sainte Honarine, where he taught for eight years. He lived with his wife and 5 year old nearby in Val-d’Orse. He taught about the Charlie Hebdo cartoon controversy and massacre every year since 2015, as part of current events in France and lessons on freedom of expression. When Paty showed the cartoons portraying the prophet naked, considered offensive by many Muslims, he always suggested students who may be offended leave the classroom. A parent of a student who was not present began a protest, calling Paty a thug and created videos calling for his punishment that were posted on a Parisian mosque website.
Kevin Simmons was a 14 year old student, who had been transferred to Leeds Junior High School the year before, as a disciplinary measure. He had been transferred after his father had a fight with a teacher. He brought his father’s souvenir handgun to school and kept it in his locker. He lived in West Oak Lane.
Abdoullakh Anzorov was born in Moscow and given refugee status in France when he was six with his Chechnyan refugee family. His half-sister had joined ISIS in Syria in 2014. He lived an hour away in Normandy and drove with a friend to target Samuel Paty, after social media posts called for the teacher’s punishment. Minutes after he attacked Paty he bragged on Twitter “I executed one of your hellhounds who dared belittle Muhammad, ” posted with an image of Paty’s severed head
Samson Freedman, Samuel Paty, Abdoullakh Anzorov are dead. Kevin Simmons was released from jail in 1983, long out of supervision, hard to trace. Many would like to know.
There is one person on this high profile list that I know. Samson Freedman was my godfather. It turns out Samson and Phyllis Freedman were godparents to several of my cousins in our generously extended family and introduced many of us to “culture” — museums theater, dinner in an ethnic restaurant, Danish modern furniture, collecting and making art. He drove tiny foreign cars including an Iseta that was smaller than a VW bug, when everyone else drove big American cruisers. Stories stir with brio in our clan — the Plumer Link. Fifty years has gone by in a wink. That’s two days from now. I write this on Saturday night lockdown in San Francisco.
In the current upheaval and tedium of shelter in place, it was nourishing to call family scattered around the country. Yet when asked about Samson, everyone shuddered with fresh grief. All stressed the reasons Uncle Sam was killed — racism, gun violence, economic crisis, schools in crisis — had only grown worse. I pointed out the first school shooting in the United States was in 1874, a century later there were only a handful and Sam was the first teacher killed in Philadelphia. On the charts these tremors are hairline in the rupture of school mass shooting now. In 1971 conversations about gang violence, student rights, metal detectors, mandatory sentencing, falling in the cracks, white flight and police brutality were hot with fury and flared with Samson’s murder. The drift and rift to now are as self-evident as these truths be told, so help me. On whatever sacred text you swear. These antagonisms in civic tensions, racial, authority, violence, grievance propel forth to January 6, 2021.
Yet the deeply personal prevails over all the public pontification. Richardson Dilworth, former Mayor of Philadelphia, President of the Board of Education, last Main Line White Anglo Saxon Protestant mayor serving with class privilege and patrician bearing, Yale Law degree, sat in Samson’s living room, although tasteful was a modest row house in West Oak Lane. Dilworth was the city official at the shiva after Samson’s funeral. The men in the family, all black suits, yarmulkas and torn fabric, offered Dilworth a schnapps, which he accepted. He repeated the necessary words — senseless tragedy, such a loss. He promised Samson will be honored, his widow, Phyllis will be provided for and addressing school safety a top priority.
Dilworth likely forgot his response to a letter Sam wrote him six months earlier. Sam was an avid advocate writing to right what he understood as reparable. He would likely have an active twitter life today. In his time, Sam wrote letters, formed community groups, was President of the Neighborhood Association, with a stern sense of unstoppable energy. Sam had petitioned the Board to advocate emergency funds to address low functioning students and gang violence. Dilworth had dismissed the request saying other programs addressed the issues and there was no further funding. The kind of perfunctory response most authorities give to good suggestions offered from the front lines that are usually easier to reject that implement. My father, a genuine bon vivant, sat across from Dilworth at the shiva. steered the conversation away from politics and overwhelming grief, asking Richardson Dilworth about his experience on the Andrea Doria, a ship that sunk crossing the Atlantic in the fifties. Dilworth looked relieved to change the subject, “My wife and I were the last survivors rescued in a lifeboat picked up by the Ile de France.” Samson and Phyllis sailed each summer to Europe. My father would see them off on the Queen Mary. The departures were parties. The men got quiet and refilled their glasses.
In 1959, when Richardson Dilworth was elected mayor by a landslide, Samson Freedman had run for a spot in the Democratic primaries for City Council. He came in second. Richardson Dilworth did not recall that either.
Only a city like Philadelphia, with a cracked Liberty Bell, still hanging by Independence Hall, the mantel of Brotherly Love, hung like a wreath of wishful enlightenment, could sack a legacy so painfully. Since the marriage of science and humanism lead by most revered Citizen Ben Franklin, and Philadelphia struggled with power and violence. Philadelphia welcomed Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad and yet race riots plagued the city as they had across America. In 1959 Samson called for a Declaration of Education, in the city where the Declaration of Independence was written. In a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer, he criticized underfunding, lack of constructive outcomes and wrote “Polarized partisan politics plague the problem. It is regrettable that politics keep education at a standstill. While tomorrow’s America suffer an injustice, because time does not stand still for them Too little too late will make America second rate.”
A Family of Many Teachers
Samson’s parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. His father worked as a railroad watchman, laundryman and cigar store owner. His mother worked as a presser. He showed eager energies as a talented young artist and student at Central High School, wrestling, fencing, and excelling academically. He went on to Stella Elkins Tyler School of Fine Art, then located on a verdant campus in Elkins Park. He later got a masters at the Philadelphia Museum School. In 1939 he married Phyllis Fox, who was the granddaughter of Morris Fox, prominent Socialist in Philadelphia early twentieth century politics. Phyllis’ father died in the 1918 Pandemic, so she was mostly raised by her aunt Anna Fox Plumer, mother of nine, grandmother of several dozen, including me. This made Phyllis both Aunt and godmother to the bevy of nieces and nephews born over the next century. The family hub was grocery on 20th & Greene Street, Isadore Plumer built the townhouse and retail in 1923. Through the century of change the family name remains on the building. Sam entered service in August 1943 in the second wave that including married men, serving in Europe from March 6 1944 to September 12 1945 and discharged February 1946. Phyllis worked as a Naval inspector at the Philco plant during the war. They followed Lil and Bernie, one of the sisters and her husband, to West Oak Lane and were the first couple to move into the newly built townhouses. Soon several of the family moved close by creating a cluster of Plumers in the neighborhood who were in and out of each other’s houses.
Samson was a serious man, responsible, inspired, and engaged. His sincere brown eyes, hair with a sandy reddish cast, marcelled in waves, goatee and mustache, always impeccable clipped, stylish glasses, nice demeanor, bow tie, sports jackets, described as looking like a beatnik or a rabbi. He was a minimalist, progressive and resourceful. His primary vocation was as an artist, setting up a full studio in the basement with a kiln, wheel and lathe. Phyllis and Samson’s living room doubled as a gallery, The Red Door, distinguishing it on the street from domestic dwellings. Samson was a prolific potter, sculptor and woodworker, taught classes at home and school and promoted work of upcoming artists. He organized an annual neighborhood show featuring hundreds of artists for decades. Many an alum of Leeds Junior High still has a pot made under Samson Freedman’s tutelage, with his grade marked in pencil on the bottom. Samson always gave pluses, adding a +, even if a D because he wanted to encourage his students. Samson was a gentle soul, soft spoken yet in school he was a tough disciplinarian, strong in his way of thinking, righteous to some, self-assured and a respected community activist. One quality all recalled was that Samson was always helping.
Phyllis called him Shem. They adored and doted on each other. Samson was a devoted husband who made all the money and decisions and Phyllis was a gentle, supportive homemaker, who did not drive. Phyllis had seven miscarriages and one still birth in 1953 after they had furnished a baby’s room fully, painted with charming pictures, Sam had to take the room apart.
Samson was a teacher by day, humanitarian by night, very involved in community, an early civil rights champion which was not popular in a racially tense city. He was always organizing and sometimes overreaching. You wouldn’t know this mild and meek man as he was not the same at school. He was powerful and some students were afraid of him. It was a time with only handful of male teachers, so they were given duty to monitor the halls. Samson walked the halls making sure students did not linger, or sneak out, but made it to the next class. He had a posture of rectitude recognizable in most WW2 veterans, bearing, training, pride in posture, tolerating no nonsense. He was a bit of a control freak sometimes gave the impression of superiority. Some speculate that may have contributed to why he was killed. He was straight-backed and not always sympathetic to other people’s point of view, “meddling” in someone’s life if he wanted to do “good”. Samson had no compunction about butting into someone else’s life. His power over Kevin Simmons lead to his death. It is easy to praise Samson’s ideals and see how they made him a target.
The moral obligation is to honor of Sam in all his glories, flaws and martyrdom. That’s what happens when you are killed in the line of duty. You become an emblem, not a life, an ironic tragedy, a pinpoint in the escalation of a dirty war, and schools are named for you as a reminder to the teachers and students they are on insecure turf.
Phyllis and Samson bought one of the new row houses on West Oak Lane when the locals thought Jews were spoiling the neighborhood. Few recalled this pattern when the racial pressures changed the neighborhood twenty five years later. As close family moved across the street and around the corner. Everyone counted on Samson, his steadfast, capable presence was essential to Plumer family life. He was Uncle Sam, with all the jokes and expectations that name carried.
Uncle Sam lived across the street from Ethel, Dave and their three children. One day Doreen ran to Uncle Sam after she found her mother splayed cold on the kitchen floor in a sea of broken glass. Ethel had fallen off the step stool trying to reach her favorite Corning ware to start a roast for dinner. The shelf came down with her, crashing her collection to sharp shards and splinters. Maybe Ethel was spared the sound of the crashing as her hearing was so poor she has worn aids since she was a teen. Her aids skidded across the floor as she landed and the world went black. Doreen’s face was looming over her, was this a dream but she could not hear Doreen screaming only her mouth opened wide and her eyes wide with a streak of panic. Ethel was afraid to move, every direction dangerous with chips, her back on fire with pain. Ethel’s face was pierced with blood droplets and her hair a disheveled tiara of tiny broken bits of glass. Phyllis and Sam rushed over and saved this day as Sam ingeniously and patiently vacuumed the slivers out of Ethel’s hair.
There were many teachers in the family, Lily, Sheila, Polly, Arline and Bernie was the principal of two schools. Most eminent was Dr. Arthur Eilberg who had developed the school systems first computers in the 1940’s and his daughter and granddaughter would teach math and computer science in the system for decades. Samson’s death was not the first gun slaying in the family. Dr. Eilberg’s wife, Freda Plumer, was killed in a robbery by the neighborhood postman while helping out at her brother Lou’s real estate office on South Street. They family knew the killer well. He was black and one of the first killings in a spree of post office workers around the nation, spawning the now antiquated phrase “gone postal”. He likely knew the office dealing in rents had some cash behind the counter and two women would be easy to scare off. Freda was much taller than Mary so the bullet landed squarely in her heart. The family cried for years, why didn’t he just ask, they were so the kind of women who would just have given him the money not out of fear, but compassion. The postman killed himself in jail a few days later. His desperation a bleakness akin to a young boy angry at his mean teacher, or angry at life That killing in 1943, during the war, was not the first shock to the family with violent death. Next door, twenty years earlier, Uncle Julius, had a grocery. He was killed in a robbery, gunshot, tragic, too close to home. Samson’s murder woke traumatic memories for the Plumer family.
Freda and Arthur, had one child, a precocious girl named Polly, doted upon from all directions. Arline, Freda youngest sister was just a few years older, came home from Girls’ High and couldn’t find her father, Pop Plumer to the clan, anywhere in the store, any afternoon usually busy and he would be behind the register. She searched the giant four story townhouse till one of the helpers who slept in the cellar, told her Pop Plumer was down there. She found her father, who rarely stopped working or doing, hunched over squat on an upturned crate, a towel hanging over his head and shoulders like a tallis, with the furnace grate open to combustive dance of heat warming his despair. When Arline, his beloved child sat beside, he could not speak, his eyes told her by the flood of disbelief something was irreparably wrong. This shadow grief, rehearsal for tragedy was braided like a challah into their closeness, their losses, forced the family to cover the holes, while Polly, deprived of the remainder of her mother’s love, was shot again with tragic anger when Samson was shot.
Polly’s daughter Fredda, named for her slain grandmother, waited at home for her mother, on the afternoon of February 1, 1971. She blurted to her mother that Samson was shot. Polly drove in a mad panic to the hospital. They found Phyllis in the hall with her head on a gurney, wailing. Someone had draped her coat over her and it was slipping to the floor as her shoulders shook like weak fence in an ice storm. Then they knew Samson was dead. For Polly it was her mother’s death replayed.
Neighborhood Real Estate
The Mount Airy neighborhood still commands great affection, attracting a steady Facebook fan base and organizing giant gatherings with the appeal “Still cruisin’ after all these years. If you grew up in Mt Airy between the years that Elvis first appeared on Ed Sullivan and the Beatles broke up, if you hung at the Hot Shoppes or Stenton dinner, show up for the Mt Airy Reunion”
Race relations played out in Philadelphia’s knack for great music, the home of American Bandstand, where the white crooners, Frankie Avalon and all the greased up pompadour boys, played non-stop on the juke boxes where teens hung out, sipping and swaying, pushing nickels for a song to swoon to, or dance to any of the black seducers with equal time, Sam Cooke or the Delphonics, Stylistics or Spinners.
Sultry sexuality fueled the violence, the rough defense of territory, or the game of one-up-man- ship in the streets. Mostly the kids were good at home, followed family routine, showed up at school even if half-hearted, and craved the freedom to roam, as they had since small children growing up in the hood, in and out of each other’s houses, not expected home before dark.
Mount Airy was developed before and after WW2, as young white families left inner city to move to the “country”. The inner City was now a playing field of violence and repression, police brutality, race riots. Insecurity was common to black and white communities. There were a few long standing well integrated neighborhoods like Germantown and parts of Mount Airy, the homes were more well-appointed and the population comfortably middle class. West Oak Lane was a mix of row houses built after the war and smaller single homes of both working and middle class.
Morris Leeds Junior High School began to integrate, accelerated with busing programs in late sixties. By 1970 the gang tensions showed up in schools. Leeds had dangerous bloody hall brawls, the kids who were sent home after another “race riot”. Troubles increased with the learning tier system was filled with students labeled slow learners who were, in Samson’s words “undisciplined and often had little parental or institutional support.”
Samson was aggressively progressive, taking a stance that would comfort the leaders of Black Lives Matter today. Can’t apply coercive or punitive measures to deeper problems was his argument, stating the police were the wrong public office to address the needs and misdeeds of troubled youth. Their philosophy spawned more violence, disrespect and disregard to social norms. Yet it is hard to read Samson’s earnest progressive testimony knowing he will be the victim of that violence six months later. My cousin Barrie, Polly’s second daughter, described walking past a hallway on the first floor of Leeds after a brawl, shocked by the streaks of fresh blood. The school was closed for two days. No mention, no assembly, life goes on when school resumed. At least for the students, the administration took the show must go on attitude. The task of the teachers with hall duty shifted to vigilance and strict enforcement. Barrie thought it’s a good thing my family is moving. I might be going to a safer school. Her family was moving to get a bigger house, cramped in the row house with three kids and a mother-in-law, but there was a sense of moving up and out.
Most troubling were gangs, making everyone nervous on the buses, public and school, that some dangerous stupid thing could happen, anytime. Fredda, was on the bus when her friend was stabbed in the hand, an arbitrary assault as a gaggle of rowdies were getting off the back door and one pulled a switchblade and cursed as he flashed his open knife, slashing the hand that held the pole near the door. He was off and gone before anyone heard Fredda’s friend scream. That wasn’t every day, but sharp boosts to the slow brew of nasty dynamics. West Oak Lane and Mount Airy were insecure, holding the edge of the racial dynamics across the city. White Leeds students came home reporting that the “colored” kids were hassling us, stealing our lunch money.” School became a scary place for white kids. At the same time The Jewish Defense League organized in the community, as in New York the JDL was part of the white backlash surrounding the New York City teachers’ union strikes of 1968. The strikes brought to the surface racial tension between the predominantly Jewish teachers union, and black residents who were seeking greater control over their neighborhood schools. JDL units “patrolled” predominantly Jewish areas, which increased ethnic polarization of neighborhoods. Sometimes the nasty tactics mirrored the senseless violence like throwing marble on the ice to wreck hockey players in spectacular falls.
The Bradfords were the first black family on the 7900 Thouron Ave block. Mr. Bradford was a 21 year Army Veteran. Samson was first and only neighbor to welcome them. “Samson was never too busy to help. Samson was a charter member of the local NAACP, one of the few white members. The tragedy is that Samson who was trying to do so much for the neighborhood”
Samson was a prominent voice who fought the rising neighborhood panic. He organized to monitor aggressive real estate behavior. His efforts at the neighborhood level were praised by the papers. “Neighborhood committees are more qualified than state and local agencies in determining patterns of real estate sales which deliberately create segregated neighborhoods which in turn become ghettos and create double misery. Whites, in unnecessary panic, sell at deflated prices, which blacks, in turn must buy at high prices.” Samson Freedman said, “I do not like walls between societies.”
In fall of 1989 Home Agency, one of city’s largest, photographed Freedman’s house and displayed it in the Agency’s office at 1485 Vernon Road. The papers reported that “Freedman raised his usual quiet hell. His home was not for sale.” The photograph was an illegal display. and Samson complained to Real Estate Commission.
Block by block “block busters” were predatory. The approach real estate offices took was “enterprising”, undisguised opportunity to make sales. Aggression was rewarded. Salesman were given lists weekly to put up homes that were not on the market. They would then knock on the door and talk to the owner about the advantage of selling now before the prices plummeted. It was not too difficult to persuade, leveraging and stoking the climate of fear.
The blocks tumbled, like a creep across West Oak Lane. Discussion in every household “should we stay in the neighborhood”. A friend of Barrie’s told her she was moving with a quick comforting qualifier, “It’s ok, my parents sold to a white family.” Even with parents who espoused “tolerance”, they could not pretend there were no stigmas, or cautions. These white children were taught a sense of magnanimous middle class oblige. They swam once a week with the inner city kids bussed to the all Jewish swim club, yet easily noticed the differences in behavior and wardrobe. The white children were instructed to be “friendly”, yet cautious. “Tolerance” was the idealist word of the moment, characterized in public service campaigns as a white and black hand, both severed at the wrist, in a mutual handshake, disconnected from the actual body.
Public Trust and Gang Violence
In October 1964 Samson wrote a letter to the editor calling the Democratic Party a machine to be feared, calling forces at City Hall “Gestapo”. His anger was not polite, fearing pressure on private citizens when they protested irregularities in City administration under Mayor Tate.
Six months before he was killed Samson was called to testify before the Congressional Hearings on Gang Violence. He submitted the following statement. It is appalling this message is still urgently needed in fifty years later.
Crime in America Youth Gang Warfare
Hearings Ninety-first Congress HR 17 July 16
Samson Freedman submitted a prepared statement to the Committee as the President of the Northwest Neighbors Association
A small percentage of youth are the problem. Funds should be allocated for truly representative community. The fragmentation of resources and funding has led to utter chaos. It is important for agencies to encourage sharing information and working together. Let the teachers and social workers address youth with a constructive and compassionate understanding. The policeman should do law enforcing. There should be a continuous educational training program in which all police participate to be prepared for the sociological aspects of today’s citizens. There should be no repeaters among the police in maltreatment of any citizen. High salaried officials have cut too much from the pie. Police should not be involved in recreational programs, feeding, clothing or sheltering people who are in want of these basic human needs. The recreation departments should be funded. We should engage equipped agencies to perform these human services. Immediate emergency funds should be appropriated to alleviate problems relating to gang killings.
Trained personnel redirect the activities of youth into constructive channels. The goal is to help youth get educated, employed and placed in growth positions.
Samson’s murder was an extreme shock to the family because it was in the suburbs. The family worried more about Buddy Plumer, still working on South Street, barely beginning to gentrify, where Freda and Mary were shot. Buddy was a prime mover in moving Society Hill as in the Society of Quakers, a long dangerous slum, into a city center revitalization, eventually charmed with gallery and restaurant life. The Plumer Realty office as a fixture on 2nd & South for most of a century till recently. Buddy was impulsive, even though the area continued to be dangerous. One day a kid grabbed a donation canister on the counter and darted out the door. Buddy was so outraged he leaped over the counter and chased him down the street. The robber dropped the canister in a trash can.
Buddy was a prominent civic leader, and functioned as leader of the Plumer link. Buddy and his wife Pearl went to identify Samson’s body at the city morgue. They waited a long time in a room, bare except for table, heavy wooden chairs and a small close circuit television. They waited with an officer and their attorney. They waited a very long time in pained silence. Suddenly on the television they saw a rolling stretcher with a body bag down a long corridor. An attendant positioned the top of the stretcher in front of the camera and unzipped the bag. They had 30 seconds to look. They had no doubt, although it was hard to ignore a chunk of his face was missing where the bullet burst through his head. Half his goatee remained, his wavy hair a mess, never was Samson so ungroomed, thought Pearl, a double blow to leave in so ghastly a manner. Buddy confirmed the identity of the body, although he knew that was not Samson, that was meat, like slaughter, that was a crime. They did not weep before the police. They did not weep. They were too numb to talk. They felt a sense of duty they had spared Phyllis this ordeal. Buddy’s own mother was shot, and lived, the day Freda was killed in 1943. On South Street they had a greasy spoon and always feed the hungry. There were plenty of hungry people.
Kevin Simmons lived on Cedar Ave, in North Philadelphia when he was young and later on Sommers Road, West Oak Lane . He transferred to Leeds, after a series of disciplinary incidents at Wagner Junior High, his previous school. His father had become a “problem” at Wagner, complaining and belligerent. The administrators were determined to transfer Kevin, so they could avoid further antagonism with Kevin’s father. It is easy to imagine the many confusing tensions in the parent school relationship. Blame and power dynamics prevailed over the student’s need. The student, and his family were a “problem”. This problem, like the other predictable discord, were the molecular and personal stories that multiply into catastrophic neglect.
Kevin didn’t want to be in school. He had been to so many schools, he lost count, at least four in elementary school and three in the last three years. Leeds was the end of the line for him, labeled a damaged kid who could not be reached. He probably never had a chance to catch up on reading as he changed schools so often when basic skills are acquired, by the time he was at Leeds, he was so low functioning he had given up academically, making him hate school, school work and his teachers. He was a failing student, an eighth grade repeater with 3rd grade reading level, suspended the year before for kicking a chair. Teachers said Kevin was highly unmotivated boy who had to be pushed to work often found running in the halls refusing to work or follow instructions. He often took great pleasure in turning the lights off in the cafeteria when the monitor teacher’s back was turned, creating instant mayhem. From the moment he started school he tasted defeat and failure often.
The day Mr. Freedman gave him another pink slip for foul language, Kevin went into fear or flight. His behavior reveals both cocksure arrogance of a young person set on revenge and the fear addled mind of someone covering his tracks. He bragged of his intentions to friends and he tried to steal the pink slip to make his problem disappear. Kevin Simmons reached into his pocket and showed his gun to his friend James Scott. “Is it for real”? spooked James asked. “Yeah”, Kevin said, stuffing the handgun into his pants. “I am going to kill Mr. Freedman.” James knew Mr. Freedman was going to suspend him and Kevin was angry about that. James was scared but skeptical. “I didn’t believe him. Just showing off.”
He didn’t carry his plan out till following Monday at 3:01. At least a dozen students were watching and noticed he had a gun. Frozen they watched as he ran up to Mr. Freedman and blow away a the back of his head. Girls began screaming and Kevin ran away. The police arrested him at home three hours later.
Rizzo Rises for the Righteous
The day after Samson’s killing, a memorial service was held at Leeds. Seven hundred students sat motionless in collective shock, some weeping, while administrators and students talked of Freedman. About half the school stayed home, in fear or respect. Tom Fox, local writer called the killing a “Showcase of Urban Tragedy”. “If you don’t know, you haven’t been following the box scores on human bang-bang. The senseless death of Samson Freedman was a black and white tragedy, a mirror of the racial nightmare in this country. Samson was not shot because he was white and Jewish. The significance lies in the neighborhood, once a predominately Jewish neighborhood. Now it is mixed and with mixing, now there is alarming crime. These are facts, not abstractions. The neighborhood is a classic example of urban trauma. The neighborhood is new, less than 25 years old, but steeped in ancient Jewish tradition. With migration of blacks to Mount Airy, there was a natural cultural clash. It has been most evident at Leeds.” It was sad to see this reaction as Samson had stood above the shouting. He believed the races could live in harmony.
Someone who did not share Samson’s approach to harmony was Frank Rizzo, a high school drop-out who rose to Police Chief under Mayor James Tate. Mr. Rizzo gained nationwide reputation as “tough cop” and as a champion of law and order. Recognizable as Bull Conner and other bullies of the era.
Frank Rizzo announced his candidacy for Mayor of Philadelphia on the day Samson was killed. He ran on a law and order campaign and won easily. Frank Rizzo spoke a lot like Donald Trump, like a 5 year old, little tough guy.
The day one bullet went into the head of one teacher, it lodged a place of raw distrust, always threatening. Rizzo’s platform was as punishing as Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Some in the family thought Frank Rizzo was a good mayor, because he was front line leader, who showed up for every crisis in person and did hire minorities. Rizzo was the guy in charge who would not yield appealed to enough voters to get him elected again and again.
Visceral reactions rattled the city, in every school, for every parent, fortifying fear across the board. Samson Freedman’s funeral was organized like a state procession, massive crowds including the entire Teachers Union, police patrols and full court press. Samson had told Phyllis long ago he wanted no eulogy, no “flowery rhetoric”, he disliked pomp. He trusted those who knew him needed no rosy portrait. At the brief service, the Rabbi spoke to five thousand crammed in Goldstein’s Chapel, about Samson as a “man who lived by his ideals and a genuine person in a world of pessimism and bitterness.” The rabbi addressed the people affected Samson’s death — teachers, have courage, do not be afraid to continue work; to students, remember Mr. Freedman for honesty, conviction and shalom, peace; and to his neighbors, Samson lead you in living together in dignity, do not turn your backs on your community who needs you more than ever.”
Twenty thousand more crowded outside. Reporters and camera from every major national news organizations followed the funeral caravan to the cemetery and dangled microphones over the grave to catch the sound of the ceremonially shoveled dirt and the crush of mourning. The paparazzi treated Sam’s widow, like Jackie Kennedy, who wore a mantilla of grief, bearing so harsh a sudden tragic public killing.
Phyllis could be heard screaming, inconsolable for months. You could hear it outside day and night. Her neighbors were helpless to calm her wailing. She was a ghost, empty. Very sad was an inadequate description, bereft, distraught, she became a second life extinguished. She was no longer Phylis, but the tragic widow, a role she held for the rest of her life, unable to enjoy anything without him.
Samson’s death emptied the neighborhood, triggered mass and final exodus. The year after Samson was killed white flight was dramatic, creating a black majority. Many families say his death was the moment they decided. Mt. Airy was a beloved neighborhood, so these were not easy decisions, long standing relationships, sense of place, the back alley’s emptied of the white kids pranks and filled with new music and multi-generational families, from North Philly , who felt like they had “moved to the country”, or at least the suburb with your own garage, lawn, basement and better schools. The old pattern of who moves in and out, played out in Mt. Airy in textbook protocol. Businesses shuttered, synagogues became churches and mosques, the schools were not integrated, they were all black. Most of the white families moved to real suburb, barely two miles away, to white majority Cheltenham High School, and out of row houses into split levels and your own quarter acre. Social mobility fueled by notion of protecting your family.
The questions around safety dominated schools. What do you do? Put a cop in every classroom?
Polly decided she would never give detention after Samson’s murder. The teacher’s union demanded eliminating the Student’s bill of rights including re-instituting locker searchers. Teachers blamed parents for lack of positive controls or models and parents blamed schools for the gangs in school that drew marginally functioning students into organized foul play. Permissiveness, break down in discipline was muttered across the teachers union, and at family tables across the city. Separate “disciplinary schools” were set up, not as “prisons” but ways to isolate the behavior problems. Little was spoken about the disciplinary schools as exaggerating violent tendencies, using repression and punishment instead of support and engagement. Tougher measures were called for with little acknowledgement of the broad underlying causes from non-stop violent media to economic disparity creating a climate of permanent unrest and impossible odds for a low functioning black student with little home guidance.
It took a year after Samson’s killing before a journalist asked the equally important question — where had the school system failed the murderer? No one needs to explain unexamined rage yet few had bothered to address Kevin Simmons as more than an ongoing problem. The rhetoric of deterrence and tough on crime prevailed.
Bernie, had also been prominent in the school system, a principal of two schools. Not long before Samson’s murder, the school superintendent demoted Bernie forcing him into a humiliating early retirement. Already upset with the school system, Bernie’s anger was further provoked by Samson’s killing. Bernie wanted the boy to get the death penalty. Bernie was the most well-read of the uncles, a tennis champ in his youth, an avid stamp collector, world traveler and man of authority. Samson’s killing revealed authority itself was a target, that could as easily been him, admonishing some confused resentful kid on a playground for something stupid, and inviting a slingshot of revenge from anywhere. By the end of the next year, Bernie destabilized. At this stage in his life, Bernie was fighting demons . He never recovered his sense of purpose or mental health. Like any trauma, the damage reverberates for incalculable lengths in boomerang ways. Samson and Bernie were top citizens, accomplished and contributing. Their demise a loss to their families and communities.
Phyllis went to none of Kevin’s parole hearing, would not fight “in the spirit of Sam”, who would not want anyone locked up and thrown away. She wondered what kind of prison time Kevin was doing, comforted he could do no harm to others, never convinced punishing him would help anyone, maybe just feed the cycle of violence. The high road she took did not comfort her wounds, Sam’s absence was the only world she could inhabit, trying to fill it with his values.
No one raised Kevin’s age as a factor in the press, in the courts or in the family. Politically ambitious District Attorney Arlen Specter speculated about bringing criminal charges against Kevin’s father, Henry, for not keeping the gun away from his son.
March 23, 1973 jury of seven women and five men found Kevin guilty of pre-meditated first degree murder with mandatory life sentence.
The trial was contested because of prejudicial remarks by the judge to the jury.
Kevin was retried in August 1974 on second degree murder. At his second trial the prosecutor’s office created a plea deal stating that 2nd degree manslaughter was brokered. Sounding grand to defend his decision, his reason reeks of accommodation to pressures. The prosecutor stated in the record, “In this case there are substantial overtones that are not in the best interest of the community, there are factors that can tear society apart, and the fewer times society has to be exposed, we are all better off.” The DA called that logic “hogwash.” He questioned this logic was not a community poll but a matter of law and advocated for maintaining first degree murder charge. The judge accepted the “light sentence” plea deal based on other judge’s work in the homicide program.
Kevin Simmons pled guilty to second degree murder and was given 10–20 year. It is not difficult to assume Samson would have wanted Kevin Simmons to be treated as a minor worthy of attention and given a second chance to make a worthwhile life. Kevin was released in 1983 and as of 1993 no longer under court supervision.
Home Agency, the real estate company who had illegally displayed a picture of Freedman’s home without authorization, was ruled after Samson complained to Real Estate Commission two years earlier. Last year, nearly a year after Samson’s death and the Commission suspended the firm’s license for sixty days and in the same breathe suspended the suspension and the Home Agency is allowed to operate. Samson would have fought this complicit corruption.
A year after Samson’s death, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist rightly observed that Samson’s death was preventable if Kevin Simmons had been recognized for his needs instead of constantly punished. “Look at the thousands of students exploding in anti-social behavior most are failing because no one addressed their problems in time, to engage them, build skills, interest, confidence Teacher proposing individualized learning to find each student’s strengths, rather than struggle with single approach to learning might have a chance not to lose so many students to the apathy and failure of neglect.”
In 1993, metal detectors were proposed for schools in Philadelphia
In the summer of 2020, in concert with a mass national protest against police brutality after the death of George Floyd, streets in Philadelphia filled with a cry for justice. The crowds filled the plaza and iconic steps of the art museum with a sense of reckoning for Black Lives Matter. No city in America is exempt from coping with cops, nor with violence white on black, black on white and everyone scraping with themselves. In this ecstatic melee, statues tumbled and repressive history demanded review. Since 2016 citizens called to remove the monumental statue of Frank Rizzo walking down the steps to greet the people. A sign was hung around the statue’s neck in 2017 with the stinging message, “The system is still racist.” As Black Lives Matter and portraits of Black victims were painted in grand scale, Rizzo’s statue was vandalized and removed, toppled like the Confederate generals in the South. And a Rizzo mural was defaced. His iron righteousness was a symbol of homegrown white supremacy. Rizzo rose to power on the same turbo train of fear and xenophobia that was in the glaring light..
The teenage terrorist who beheaded Samuel Paty, claimed responsibility moments later. He posted an audio message in Russian, “ I am ready to be a shadid (martyr) .I have avenged the prophet upon Samuel Paty who had “showed him in an insulting manner”. Anzorov was shot and killed by police minutes later.
The hashtags #Je Suis Prof and #Je Suis Enseignant, both meaning “I am a teacher”, were launched in support of the victim and in support of freedom of expression. Samson Freedman would have worn that badge of honor in proud solidarity.