Rochester’s Urban-Suburban program has celebrated its 50-year anniversary recently, and so has a similar, but lesser-known program, the “Penfield-Madison Exchange,” which was a local student-exchange program students started in 1967, in an attempt to integrate Penfield High School.
In January of that year, 25 African-American students from Rochester’s Madison High School participated in the program, attending Penfield High for one week, while living in homes with Penfield families.
The following week, 25 students from Penfield High School did the same in the city, attending Madison, and moving in with families in the city for one week.
David Honig, who was president of Penfield’s Student Union for Integrated Education at the time, advocated for the exchange.
“We did not know it at the time, but the exchange marked the first occasion anywhere in the United States when a school district underwent desegregation upon the initiative of students,” he stated.
According to Honig, he came up with the idea after meeting the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s national president in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Honig, who now works as counsel to the NAACP, said he heard Dr. King speak during a lecture through his church’s local youth group.
“We think of leaders as people who were always talking about themselves,” he stated. “This man was just the opposite. He had just given the most powerful sermon I’ve ever heard in my entire life — and I’m close to Rev. Jessie Jackson, he’s a good friend. I’m chief counsel to the NAACP in Florida. But, I’ve never heard a sermon like the one he gave in 1965. At that point, I was absolutely hooked, and decided that this was what I was going to do, going forward. At that point I said, ‘What can I do to desegregate my high school?’ And, that was the idea. They used to have a foreign-exchange student program, and I’m thinking, well Madison High School is eight miles away, why don’t we send our students there, and have their students come here?”
As a result, students presented the idea to district officials in both Rochester and Penfield, and, although Honig said accomplishing their goal was not without challenges, the students eventually received approval from both school boards in each of the respective districts.
“We put it before our student council, who rejected it 2 to 1,” he stated. “We took it before our superintendent, and he liked it; took it to the Rochester school board, and they said, ‘Yes, of course we’re going to do it.’ We took it to the Penfield school board, which took three meetings, and they voted for it 5 to 2. All five members who voted for it were defeated when they ran for re-election.”
However, despite those challenges, Honig said the students were able to complete the exchange.
And, according to Honig, the experience was a life-changing event.
“I thought it was remarkable,” Honig stated. “There was no drama. There was no one that didn’t get along, and had to be pulled out. We were afraid someone was going to freak out in some way; nobody did. Everyone was very well-received. Everyone felt that this was a defining event in their lives. They met lifelong friends.”
On Jan. 30, about 20 of the students who participated in the program, along with former Mayor Bill Johnson, Penfield superintendent of schools Thomas Putnam, and other local officials, gathered at the downtown Radisson Hotel, in memory of the exchange.
“It was terrific,” Honig stated. “We need to do it again soon.”
And, although Penfield schools currently participate in the Rochester City School District’s Urban-Suburban program, and the area presently has more diverse residents, Honig said inclusive programs like the “Penfield-Madison Exchange” may still deserve another look.
“Programs like the Penfield-Madison Exchange deserve a renewed look,” he stated. “If more high school students had the opportunity to get to know other students their age, who live nearby, but have a very different background and life experiences, perhaps their entrenched stereotypes would fall by the wayside. Then, in a few years, we might find ourselves with a new generation that is well-informed, thoughtful, inclusive, and compassionate.”