What Owen Gowans III remembers most about his first day of second grade are the cameras: the click and flash of dozens of cameras as he and three other black boys made history.

The day was Sept. 11, 1968, and the boys integrated Girard College, the stately boarding school in the heart of North Philadelphia that was previously closed to African Americans. It took months of round-the-clock protests, a Philadelphia speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and years of court fights to open the gates to children of color.

On Tuesday, Gowans and others involved in the fight returned to Girard College, to mark the 50th anniversary of that historic day.

Alan Bond, left, and Owen Gowans III pose for a portrait in the hallway of Girard College during a visit to the campus on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Alan Bond, left, and Owen Gowans III pose for a portrait in the hallway of Girard College during a visit to the campus on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018.

Girard College, with its white-columned buildings and pristine campus, was founded through a bequest from the financier Stephen Girard, who wanted his estate to fund a boarding school for orphaned white boys. By the 1960s, Philadelphia NAACP president Cecil B. Moore was looking for black boys to be part of a lawsuit to force desegregation at Girard College, and Alan L. Bond fit the bill, a bright boy with his single, hardworking mother hungry for a top-notch education for her son.

He was just a child, but the turmoil is fresh in Bond's mind.

"I'll never forget it," said Bond, 59, who was admitted to Girard College a few months after Gowans. "People used to call our house and threaten us, call us terrible names."

One day in court, U.S. District Judge Joseph Lord asked Bond, who was 8, why he wanted to go to Girard College.

"I said, 'I want to play with the other kids,' " said Bond, who had been ostracized and targeted by gangs.

Gowans, now 57, wasn't part of the lawsuit, but his mother had prepared him a little for the first day of his new school, dressing him in a suit and telling him he would walk in with the other boys.

Once the media went away, the furor died down some, Gowans and Bond said. The staff did all they could to cocoon the kids of color, including two Asian students. But there were bumps.

Early on, a staffer approached Bond's mother, telling her that her son would never make it at Girard College. (On his graduation day, in 1979, the woman apologized.)

"Some of the students were OK, but some alienated us. They'd say, 'You don't touch my stuff, or you can't play with us,' " said Bond, who went on to study art at the school now known as the University of the Arts.

Both boys remember looking incredulously at the comb that was issued to them: a short, stubby thing, the same as the white kids got. It was the 1960s, the era of Afros, and that comb was useless in their hair, they said.

Gowans brought an Afro pick to use, but "they thought it was a weapon," he said, chuckling. "They took it from me."

Still, both men agreed — they look back on their Girard College time with fondness.

Gowans said that college was a foregone conclusion for him, that "we were the generation people fought for."

Bernyce Mills-DeVaughn (left), Jibril Abdul Jaleel, and Karen Asper-Jordan, three of the Cecil B. Moore Philadelphia Freedom Fighters, pose for a portrait outside the gates of Girard College while visiting the campus on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Bernyce Mills-DeVaughn (left), Jibril Abdul Jaleel, and Karen Asper-Jordan, three of the Cecil B. Moore Philadelphia Freedom Fighters, pose for a portrait outside the gates of Girard College while visiting the campus on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018.

Some of the freedom fighters came to Girard on Tuesday, too, reflecting with pride on the stand they took.

Karen Asper-Jordan was a 16-year-old student at Gratz High School when the call came from Moore to protest at Girard College. She spent 7 months and 17 days on the picket line.

That first day, in 1965, "all you saw was police barricades and officers shoulder-to-shoulder," said Asper-Jordan. Officers sometimes turned their cars around to blow exhaust into protesters' faces. One day, a commander sent police, with dogs and horses, to disperse the crowd.

Bernyce Mills-DeVaughn's sister, who was 14, tried to run home. She slipped on a cobblestone, then got trampled by dogs, who bit her. An officer put his foot in her chest and the girl got arrested for disorderly conduct and obstruction of justice.

The protesters sang, chanted, and marched. They held signs and listened to King, who stood outside the gates on Aug. 3, 1965, pronouncing that: "This wall, this school, is symbolic of a cancer in the body politic that must be removed before there will be freedom and democracy in this country."

Cecil B. Moore and Stanley Branche lead protesters around Girard College wall in 1965.
Jack T. Franklin
Cecil B. Moore and Stanley Branche lead protesters around Girard College wall in 1965.

They were just kids, the freedom fighters said.

"We didn't see the big picture at the time," said Jibril Abdul-Jaleel, 20 at the time. "We saw something that was wrong. We thought, 'How dare you tell us that we can't?' "

To the current students who listened, raptly, to the stories of the freedom fighters and the first Girard students of color, it was a day to remember.

"These men went through all this — all that racial tension," said Najiyah Sanders, a Girard junior who is black, like most of the student body of about 300. "They came through, and now I can be here."