A tragic wake-up call
The brutal 1958 murder of Penn graduate student In-Ho Oh led to rethinking of Penn's relations with West Phila.
January 18, 2005, 5:00 am·
In-Ho Oh was killed for petty cash, and nothing more.
On the night of April 25, 1958 the 26-year-old Penn graduate student stepped out of his Powelton Village apartment to mail a letter home to his parents in Korea. Before Oh could make it back from the mailbox on the corner of 36th and Hamilton streets, he was bludgeoned to death by a group of at least seven area youths, aged 15 to 20.
Neither Oh nor his assailants -- who scurried away from the scene of the crime, leaving their still-breathing victim to his fate -- could have imagined the uproar the murder would cause in Philadelphia. Nor could they have imagined the profound effect it would have on the way the University would interact with the West Philadelphia community. In this regard, the murder helped to set in motion a series of events that is still ongoing.
Admission was 65 cents a head to a dance being held on the night of April 25, 1958 in West Philadelphia, and the would-be attackers, or "hoodlums" as they would come to be called in the Philadelphia papers, didn't have the money to go. They thought Oh might. As it turned out, Oh had nothing of value on him, save his glasses.
When the police and an ambulance arrived shortly after the altercation, they would find those glasses on the ground near the corner mailbox, separated from Oh, who lay unconscious on the other side of the street. Detectives would later theorize that Oh had tried to escape the mob and had momentarily gotten away.
The police also found a broken pop bottle on the ground which would be determined, along with a blackjack -- a small blunt object -- to be the instruments the murderers used to beat Oh about his face and head.
The ambulance rushed Oh to the Presbyterian Hospital, but he died only 10 minutes after police arrived.
Parents ask for leniency
Oh had come to America and the University of Pennsylvania to pursue his graduate work in political science, having already earned a bachelors degree in philosophy at Eastern Baptist College in Wayne, Pa. He worked nights as a bank clerk and shared his apartment with his uncle, who was working toward a Ph.D. in archaeology at nearby Dropsie College -- which closed in 1988 -- and his aunt.
Oh had also served as an interpreter for U.S. forces during the Korean War.
Mourning their son's death in Korea, his parents urged for a shocking degree of leniency and forgiveness to be shown to their son's murderers. The couple went so far as to donate $500 "for the guidance" of the youths. They said in a letter, "It is our sincerest desire that the fund be administered in this rehabilitation."
Philadelphians were not nearly so forgiving, as the murder caused a citywide uproar. There were mass protests against inadequate police protection, including what The Daily Pennsylvanian called a "spontaneous" meeting in which approximately 600 fearful Powelton residents angrily confronted then-Police Commissioner Thomas Gibbons.
The United States government even issued a formal apology to the Oh family through the secretary of state's office. The Philadelphia newspapers, augmented at times by press from New York City, covered all nine of the separate trials for Oh's attackers. Of the eleven youths who were arrested, all had been arrested before. Nine of them were brought up on a variety of charges.
Seven were convicted and forced to serve time in prison. Sixteen-year-old Leonard Johnson was convicted of second degree murder and given life in solitary confinement. Nineteen-year-old Alfonso Borum was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by electric chair.
The trial of Borum became such an event that on the day before it was set to begin, when Borum and his lawyer visited the scene of the crime, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported that "More than 75 persons stood on porches, under trees, under umbrellas or in the downpour to watch."
The outcry against juvenile crime in the city was so great that Philadelphia Mayor Richardson Dilworth reported that concerned citizens had sent him such suggestions as to "Install a public whipping post, do away with pardons and parole, shoot prowlers on sight, try all persons under 12 as adult criminals and keep everyone under 21 off the streets after dark."
Dilworth, who believed that improving the conditions of Philadelphia's most destitute neighborhoods was the most sensible course of action to lessen crime, at the time described these proposals as "touched with hysteria."
One of the more poignant moments in the immediate aftermath of the murder came at Oh's funeral, when Dilworth broke down in tears in the middle of his oration, too distraught to complete his remarks. Although Oh's parents mourned that day from Korea and would not be able to visit their son's grave for 13 years, Oh's tombstone still bore their fingerprints.
The epitaph said, simply, "To turn sorrow into Christian purpose."
At the time of Oh's murder, "the University was indifferent to its neighbors," University Archives and Records Center Director Mark Lloyd says.
This stance had its roots in the wake of World War I, surmised Penn professors Ira Harkavy and John Pluckett in a 1991 article printed in the Journal of Research and Development in Education. They said that with research focus shifting from local to national and international issues, "the campus and its surrounding physical community mattered less and less as the years passed."
Oh's murder and the firestorm that came with it forced the University out of its state of apathy.
"There was pressure on [University President Gaylord Harnwell] to do something," Lloyd says, "He had to devise some high-level institutional response to the perception that the neighborhood around Penn was deteriorating."
"The murder of In-Ho Oh led directly to the establishment of a University priority to improve the quality of life in West Philadelphia."
The upshot of this was the formation of the West Philadelphia Corporation in 1959. The WPC was a partnership between Penn, other area colleges and universities and the Presbyterian Hospital. The goal of the WPC was to improve the quality of life in West Philadelphia, with a special focus on the public schools.
Lloyd believes that the creation of the WPC was a "watershed" event in the history of the University, as it "began a process of engagement with the West Philadelphia community that has continued and grown more deeply intertwined over subsequent decades."
However, Harkavy, who is the director of the the Center for Community Partnerships at Penn, believes that "1959 was a two-edged sword." The greater watershed moment for the University, he says, came in 1983 when new University President Sheldon Hackney transformed the WPC into the West Philadelphia Partnership. The new partnership was a more democratic organization that, unlike its predecessor, included members of the West Philadelphia community.
Prior to 1983, Harkavy believes that West Philadelphia "represented a problem rather than a partner," and that the University "was in -- not of -- the city."
Having led demonstrations against the way Penn interacted with the community in the 1960s, Harkavy says that the University was acting unilaterally in community matters.
"They wiped out houses. You take neighborhoods that existed and bulldozed them," Harkavy says. "The WPC had certain benefits, but also many negative impacts."
"The 1980s began a turn toward an increasingly more positive relationship with the community," Harkavy says.
Over time, Harkavy's Center for Community Partnerships has come to be the focal point of much of Penn's interaction with the community. Moreover, current University President Amy Gutmann made improving the school's relationship with the surrounding area one of the key points in her "Penn Compact" upon her inauguration in September.
"Penn," says Harkavy, "through President Gutmann's Penn Compact, is going to take new strides in this direction."
The epitaph on Oh's tombstone, then, appears to have foreshadowed what would follow in the aftermath of his death.
Sorrow, it seems, has indeed led to a purpose.