Walt Palmer: Organizer & Activist

Scroll to read about Walt Palmer’s life as an organizer & activist, or click an image to jump to a section.

Walt Palmer was born in 1934

in Atlantic City, and moved to Philadelphia in 1939. Walt grew up in the Black Bottom, raising his siblings when his father died at 12 and helping to provide for his family by doing odd jobs and performing music and dance on the streets.

Walt Palmer was arrested for the first time at age 12, he was shot and stabbed before high school, involved in local gangs, and went on to graduate from West Philadelphia High School, graduated from University of Pennsylvania’s School of Respiratory and became director of Cardio-Pulmonary Care at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, studied business and communications at Temple University, went to Cheyney University for his teacher’s degree in history, social studies, and communications, then went to Howard Law for his Juris Doctorate.

Additionally, Walt has worked for many organizations doing community organizing, he’s helped to buy and sell many major businesses, was a chief negotiator between MOVE and the city, worked in education, and is a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He was inducted into the Philadelphia College of Physicians in 2005.

Scroll for his degrees, areas of work, life timeline, and to request him as a speaker.

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Areas of experience & expertise

Afrocentrism, Black Liberation & Black Power

Palmer loves African expression and soulful art of African people.

As a little boy his father would recite Paul Laurence Dunbar, a Black poet from the 19th century. The stories of Black life intrigued Palmer. He would listen to the older men in his neighborhood discuss African history and Black history. Because of his natural curiosity, Palmer became fascinated with history in regards to Africans.

“Don’t refer to me as a person of color… that to me is dismissive of the fact that I’m a displaced African in America, with a peculiar history, unlike any other immigrant. And I’m not an immigrant. Immigrants come voluntarily, I was forced to come. I never got a chance to make a choice.”

Walt Palmer

In 1960, Palmer created the Society for the Preservation of African and African American History. As an artist himself, Palmer got his art friends to start painting pictures of African history. Palmer eventually took those portraits and stood on street corners in Philadelphia to talk about history. He would stand on a crate and talk about African history and Black history, in what he called ‘Curbstone College.’ His speeches would draw crowds all over the city. Palmer then took this practice and started going into schools to lecture on the history of African Americans. He would go around to organize in neighborhoods and communities trying hard to help them change.

Palmer would go on to organize students in a school strike and work with student bodies in universities to champion Black history and African history as a course. Palmer helped create the Black Student Union at Temple University and the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) at the University of Pennsylvania. He believes that the ultimate challenge for Blacks is to liberate ourselves. When we do, we must model it for others. Palmer uses the tool of self-liberation to fight for Black people.

Business: Entrepreneurship and minority buyouts

From a young age, Walt observed how Black people participated in business and gained a passion for enterprising from his father. Before American slavery, African societies had their own communities, cultures, governance, and enterprises. During slavery, they were forced to participate in business, essentially building the entire American economy, through uncompensated labor. Although slavery was over by the time Palmer was born, Black people were still did not have equal rights in the labor world. Palmer noticed how Black people in Atlantic City built the boardwalks, hotels, hospitals, restaurants, and schools, but could not use them.

Despite this discrimination, Palmer’s family persevered.

His maternal grandfather worked as a laborer during the day and owned a speakeasy which his daughter, Palmer’s mother, helped him operate in the evenings. It was here that Palmer’s mother and father met. Like most Black people during that time, Palmer’s father did not get much work so he did every odd and end job he could. He worked in a produce market; he carried wood, coal, and ice; he shined shoes; he combed beaches; he did anything he could to provide for his family. Palmer loved his father’s indomitable spirit and adopted this unwavering work ethic.

At 11 years old, when Palmer’s father passed away, he started enterprising by collecting junk and selling it. He sold newspapers and convinced the produce man to let him sell produce. He built his own wagon to carry orders and named the business “Palmer Brothers Incorporated.” He had a steady flow of trusted customers. Palmer had many more jobs and created many more types of business in his youth while still attending school. 

As an adult, Palmer continued to be involved in business ventures with a keen interest on increasing Black people’s participation in business. He, along with a group of others, created the Black United Fund during the 1960s to offer small loans to Black people who were considered unbankable. One of the largest business endeavors Palmer embarked on was attempting to re-open the Wisconsin Steel Mill in Chicago. During this process, founder of Jet Magazine John Johnson, made it his mission to meet Palmer because he was impressed by how big he dreamt and how he went after them. 

Palmer saw the ways business intersected with every aspect of his life. He used business to fight for freedom. He developed and built a Freedom School in 2005 to provide young people with the education and training necessary to learn how to organize around social change and become leaders. Palmer spent his life training people to be activists. He spent his life encouraging Black people to intentionally participate in global economics. He possessed a hunger for all Black people to be free and understood how enterprising would play a big role in liberation. 

Community

Community highlights Walt Palmer’s long history of leadership and connection within the Philadelphia community. This book moves with Walt through his life in the once heavily segregated Atlantic City to the Black Bottom in Philadelphia all the way to his future prodigies in community leadership. As a child, Walt was a star at youth organizations, lending his talents to both the Cobbs Creek Civic Association and Black Oak Park. Later in his life, he created the Black People’s University of Philadelphia, one of the first Freedom Schools in the United States, and further, the Walter D. Palmer Leadership School, a K-12 school dedicated to community development, restoration, and leadership. Community not only explores Walter Palmer’s connection with the city of Philadelphia, but it also serves to inspire Black youth every day to foster community connection.

Dance & Percussion

Walt Palmer became the caretaker of his family after his father’s passing when he was eleven years old. Motivated by his father’s work ethic and his determination to provide for his family, Palmer earned his chops by performing on the street corner in Center City, Philadelphia. Dance and Percussion highlights two artforms that are dear to Dr. Palmer’s heart. While never classically trained in either, both dance and percussion were prominent in Palmer’s early years and acted as the glue that would bring him together with some of the most important people in his life. 


Dance and Percussion builds upon Music, Art, Dance, and Drama by providing a more focused look into Black artistry, as well as how Palmer was able to use his musical talents to advocate for himself and his community. The book highlights Black dancers and musicians who were exceptional in their respective fields while also having to combat the racism and prejudice present in the two arenas. It covers dancers such as the Nicholas Brothers and Lavaugn Robinson, percussionists like Lex Humphries and Doc Gibbs, and even bandleaders like Paul Whitman and Dizzy Gillespie. Like in Music, Art, Dance, and Drama, the goal of the story is to expose young people to the power of the arts in the past 50 years of American History. Rhythm and dance have the power to become sites of both happiness and pain, community and individuality.

Education: Black People’s University, University teaching, & charter school

As a young boy, Palmer loved school, although he did poorly in junior high and high school. He enjoyed playing school and sharing information with people in his neighborhood. His natural curiosity about the world piqued his love of learning. Despite not doing well in school, Palmer believed he could succeed. Palmer cites his family as influential and foundational for his becoming into the activist he is today.

Before the age of 21, Palmer created the Freedom School to educate young people.

Walter Palmer was born in Atlantic City, NJ in 1934, after the Great Depression before the Second World War. During this time, African Americans fled the South to reestablish in the North, which was known as the Great Migration. When African Americans arrived to the North they found themselves in segregated cities, with hardships that resembled those in the South.  They faced discrimination with jobs, segregation in schools, and many other abuses that were reminiscent of Jim Crow laws in the South. As Palmer grew up, he formed the foundational belief that education is the key to liberation.

Palmer taught character and discipline, along with history and international relations. Although Palmer was not advanced in math, he used art to help him learn. His major was mechanical art, which he used to work and help his mother. Palmer continued to use his creative gifts of music and art to teach kids how to play drums and chess, even going on to play professionally with Sammy Davis Jr., John Coltrane, Billy Paul, and Dizzy Gillespie to name a few. Throughout his life, the struggles he had with education and black life strengthened his ability to overcome adversity. 

Palmer continued to teach about African history and racism, which led to the emergence of the Walter D. Palmer School in 2000. The two-story, 55,000 square foot building housed 200 preschoolers and 1100 k-12 students.  Large paintings of black activists lined the school hallways. The Walter D. Palmer School was a place for students to learn about their history and activism for Black liberation. 

Government, Politics & Law: Law degree, neighborhood defense from expansion, political campaigns

Walt Palmer has been involved in political activism since his youth. He even got involved in a political group before he was old enough to vote, and later went on to work on local, state, and national campaigns. His campaign and social activism work connected him to quite a few government officials, and he often acted as a liaison between them and community members. He also started mentoring younger activists, many of whom went on to become prominent politicians in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. In his campaign work, his experiences from other parts of his life helped him understand strategies, negotiation, and how to motivate people. Walt Palmer also believes that politics is not just electoral politics— people are negotiating and using their power in all sorts of ways, every day. 

Walt Palmer attended Howard University law school at the age of 37, and immediately began to lead protests and social movements at the university. After graduating, he went on to clerk for community legal services and work with a variety of attorneys in the city of Philadelphia.

Media: Radio, television production & directing

Medical: Cardio-Pulmonary therapy, pediatrics, and mental health

Walt Palmer grew up in Philadelphia with limited access to healthcare, often rejected from hospitals or given poor care on the basis of race, using mostly neighborhood pharmacies and the Philadelphia General Hospital for medical care. Once he graduated high school he worked as a surgical attendant at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, then was encouraged by his boss to apply to UPenn’s School of Respiratory Medicine. 

“There’s always been a distrust of African Americans and the Medical Industry”

Walt Palmer

Despite racism he encountered, he graduated from the program and got a job at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and was given a director position, given carte blanche to start and run the Cardio-Pulmonary department. For 10 years he worked with famous doctors, worked on improving ventilators, grew his department, and fought racism and segregation within the hospital. He treated patients including John F Kennedy’s infant son Patrick as well as New Jersey Governor Hughes’ child, and was involved in the Medical Committee for Human Rights.

When he left CHOP after 10 years, he worked for North Philadelphia Model Cities as director of community organizing, with a major accomplishment being his organizing of the November 17th, 1967 Philadelphia School Strike. He then worked at Temple University as the director of community organization for their Community Mental Health Center, and did a 30 day fast to protest the restraints being imposed on the Center. He’s worked with Philadelphia gangs, taught in the Medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, and today is a Fellow in the Philadelphia College of Physicians.

Music, Art, Dance & Drama

Walt Palmer learned about music at his kitchen table. His father, musically inclined and eager to pass it on, showed young Palmer rhythms by playing two spoons on the countertop. Knives and forks became his first drum set, and his childhood was filled with the melodies of his father’s tap shoes, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, and Ella Fitzgerald’s blues. Music was inescapable and would become the foundation for his teaching later on in life.

While some might be surprised by the influence the arts played in Palmer’s career, he notes that “it had a sense of power. It was a way of galvanizing people and getting their attention right.” The people foregrounded in this story are not just singers or painters, but activists and role models. These stories act as a preservation of the past from which to build on in the present moment and the future.

In Music, Art, Dance, and Drama, Dr. Palmer celebrates the legacies of Black artists who have left their mark on both him and the world. Showcasing star musicians like John Coltrane and Nina Simone, cultural curators like John Allen and Shuna Ali Miah, and visual creators Barbara Bullock and Carole Byard, the book covers a broad spectrum of Black artistic history and invites young readers to increase their knowledge.

Philly Talk - Black Arts: the dawning of the age of Aquarius
Walter Palmer with Sammy Davis Jr.
Religion

Religion has been a part of Walter Palmer’s life since birth. He was born into a large family on the northside of Atlantic City, NJ, and soon moved to bustling West Philadelphia. While his parents were less pious, they instilled a deep adoration of community, music and devotion. On Sundays, Walter split his time between Catholic mass and jubilant Episcopalian ceremonies, carefully donating a portion of his allowance to each institution. These churches served as a place for Walter to connect and rise with others, a specialty he continues to hold today. 

Throughout his later years, Walter incorporated his work with the church with his social justice initiatives. In 1968, Walter convinced Reverend Paul Washington to allow him to use the Church of the Advocate for the second national Black Power Conference. With over two thousand attendees, this event was a pinnacle of Walter’s ability to form connections with others and bring change. 

This book will dive into the intricacies of Walter Palmer’s relationships with God, family & community to showcase the opportunities that arise from religion.

Nativity Scene painted by Walt Palmer in coffee shop window in Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
Nativity Scene painted by Walter Palmer in Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia coffee shop window
Sports

Walt Palmer grew up during a time where the sports world was racially segregated. Black athletes were beginning to gain attention as they were breaking records, winning championships, and using their fame to stand up against racial discrimination. Palmer remembers hearing stories about Jesse Owens and how he dominated track and field in the 1936 Olympics. Palmer quickly understood how important this was for Black people as a whole. Owens’ wins were wins for the entire Black community to express to white people that they were talented, smart, and deserving of basic human rights like anyone else. This rang true for the wins of other Black athletes. Palmer learned that sports were political. 

Joe Louis was another athlete who inspired Palmer. In his childhood, Palmer’s father would put a small radio on the porch and the neighbors would gather around to listen to Louis’ boxing matches. He was incredible! Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested an individual meeting with Lewis to explain to him how important it was to win a particular fight against German Heavyweight Champion, Max Schmeling. Similar to Owens’ wins, this win would show Adolf Hitler that his beliefs in a superior Aryan race were completely inaccurate. Again, Palmer saw how sports were political. 

Palmer played sports for fun with the children in his neighborhood and eventually played on teams as he became a teenager. He danced, played football, basketball, and ran track. He continued with track and field well into adulthood. He had natural speed and learned technique along the way. He trained for 4 hours every day. He may have been a little late to the game beginning to attend meets at age 25, but he became a sub-master by age 30 and master by age 40. He continued to run and won all types of medals and trophies until the age of 80. 

Palmer used sports in every way he could. He brought people in his neighborhood together through sports and mentored young people through sports. Through his participation in activism, sports, and art, Palmer was able to connect with many people such as Walt Chamberlain, Muhammad Ali, and Sammy Daviss Jr., and observe how activism for civil rights was expressed in the sports industry. 

The Times Herald - Walter Palmer Sets 50 Yard Dash Record
Degrees

University of Pennsylvania

School of Cardio Pulmonary Care. Years: 1953 – 1957

Cheyney State University

Bachelor’s degree in secondary education with certifications in history and social studies. Years: 1964 – 1966

Temple University

Studied business administration as well as radio, television production, and direction. Years: 1962 – 1964

Howard University Law School

Juris Doctorate degree. Years: 1971-1974

” We can’t change anybody else, we can only change ourselves. But we can be a model for other people. It’s one person at a time, starting with yourself. “

Walt Palmer

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Walt Palmer’s Early Life Timeline

  • October 7th, 1934

    Walt Palmer is born

    I was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey to Walter Palmer and Hannah Byrd as the second chlid of eight children. The hospitals, schools, post office, police and fire department were segregated, where the Blacks lived on the north side and whites lived on the south side.

  • 1941

    Moved to Philadelphia

    Because my father would push chairs on the boardwalk and could not get consistent work due to racial discrimination and segregation, we moved to the West Philadelphia Black Bottom in 1941, when I was fire or six years old. My family (eight siblings) move into 3645 Market Street, Philadelphia in a two bedroom flat with a small kitchen, bathroom and yard.

    I attended Kendrick Elementary School at thirty eight and Woodland Avenue, followed by Shaw Junior High School, and finally West Philadelphia High School at forty seventh and Walnut.

    The Black Bottom, Philadelphia

    The Black Bottom ran from 32nd St East to 40th St on the West, bounded by University Avenue on the south and Lancaster Avenue on the North. Philadelphia, like Atlantic City, was also divided by race in every aspect of public accommodation.

    In this West Philadelphia neighborhood I was once again living in a segregated community divided by Blacks who lived North of Market Street and whites that lived south of Market Street.

  • 1947

    My father died

    My father died in 1947 at fifty two years old and I became parentified.

    My first arrest

    By age twelve I had my first arrest for burglaring University of Pennsylvania in dormoritories and I would become a serial juvenile delinquent.

  • 1949

    Mother met step father, more siblings

    My mother met my step father and over the next few years they would have five more children, and now there were twelve children and two adults living in two rooms.

  • 1952

    Hired as a Surgical Attendant

    After high school I was hired as a Surgical Attendant by the University of Pennsylvania Medical Centre.

  • 1954

    Got accepted into Penn’s School of Respiratory Therapy

    Despite being rejected at first on the basis of being Black, I fought and was accepted into Penn’s School of Respiratory Therapy and began studying, finishing the program successfully.

  • 1955

    Created the W.D. Palmer Foundation and the Freedom School

    In 1955, I founded the W.D. Palmer Foundation as a family foundation, and created the Black People’s University of Philadelphia Freedom School.

  • 1957

    Hired at CHOP and became a director

    I was hired at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and I became the director of Cardiopulmonary Care. I was the first Black and youngest director in the nation. I remained in the job for 10 years while doing community organizing.

    Ongoing studies

    While working at CHOP, I got degrees from Temple University and Cheyney State University.

  • 1967

    Became director of Model Cities

    After I left CHOP, I became director of the “Model Cities” grassroots organizing effort of North Philadelphia, community planning and development.

  • See full timeline

    Click here for link to timeline

    Full timeline shows the history of the W.D. Palmer Foundation side by side with Black history in the US and the City of Philadelphia. (1950 to Today)

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Archives

Walt Palmer’s story has been told in many ways, by many people. Visit the links, watch the videos, or download the files below to find out more.

By Format (Youtube videos, links, and PDF Files)
Youtube Videos
Links to websites

Only certain articles available online. To see all articles since 1968, please visit Archives:

July 16, 2013 // Philadelphia Tribune // “Activists, organizations call for massive Florida boycott”

Activists, organizations call for Florida boycott | News …www.phillytrib.com › news › activists-organizations-call-f…

April 25, 2014 // Philadelphia Tribune // “Walter D. Palmer vows to fight charter suspension”

Walter D. Palmer vows to fight charter suspension | News …www.phillytrib.com › news › state-and-region › walter-d-…

April 27, 2014 // Philadelphia Tribune // “Charter school founder vows to fight suspension”

Charter school founder vows to fight suspension | News …www.phillytrib.com › news › charter-school-founder-vow…

May 23, 2014 // Philadelphia Tribune // “Charter school founder prepares for legal battle”

Charter school founder prepares for legal battle | News …www.phillytrib.com › news › state-and-region › charter-s…

May 25, 2014 // Philadelphia Tribune // “District changes direction in attempt to shut charter” 

District changes direction in attempt to shut charter | News …www.phillytrib.com › news › district-changes-direction-in…

May 30, 2014 // Philadelphia Tribune // “Charter supporters rally to save school”

https://www.phillytrib.com/news/walter-palmer-charter-supporters-rally-to-save-school/article_96b0f318-bf66-5645-8946-d292bd1974e6.html

July 8, 2014 // Philadelphia Magazine // “No, an Uzi was not found at a Philadelphia Charter School”

No, an Uzi Was Not Found at a Philadelphia Charter Schoolwww.phillymag.com › news › 2014/07/08 › uzi-not-fo…

August 19, 2014 // Philadelphia Tribune // “Walter Palmer school denied $300,000 reimbursement fees”

Walter Palmer school denied $300,000 reimbursement fees …www.phillytrib.com › news › walter-palmer-school-denie… 

October 16, 2014 // 6ABC Action News // “250 Students forced out of Philadelphia charter school”

250 students forced out of Philadelphia charter school – 6abc …6abc.com › walter-d-palmer-charter-school-lottery-phil…

October 28, 2014 // Philadelphia Inquirer // “Embattled Palmer charter to close its high school”

Embattled Palmer charter to close its high schoolwww.inquirer.com › philly › news › local › 20141028…

October 28, 2014 // Philadelphia Tribune // “Palmer Charter high school closes its doors”

Palmer charter high school closes its doors | News | phillytrib …www.phillytrib.com › news › palmer-charter-high-school-…

October 28, 2014 // ABC Action News // “Parents Demand Answer After Charter School Closes Abruptly”

Parents demand answers after charter school closes abruptly …6abc.com › palmer-charter-closes-school-frankford-phi… 

December 19, 2014 // Philadelphia Magazine // “Philly Charter School Shuts for Good Today” 

https://www.phillymag.com/city/2014/12/19/philly-charter-school-shuts-good-today/

December 28, 2014 // 6ABC Action News // “Philadelphia charter school closing its doors”

https://6abc.com/education/philadelphia-charter-school-closing-its-doors/453161

December 30, 2014 // ABC Action News // “Parents Scramble in Wake of Walter Palmer Charter School Shutdown”

Parents scramble in wake of Walter Palmer Charter School …6abc.com › education › parents-scramble-in-wake-of-p…

December 31, 2014 // Philadelphia Daily News // “Palmer Charter Parents Make Last Ditch Plea to the State”

Palmer Charter parents make last-ditch plea to statewww.inquirer.com › philly › education › 20141230_Pa…

January 5, 2015 // Philadelphia Magazine // “Q&A: Lynne Abraham Talks Pot, Race Relations, Schools and More”

https://www.phillymag.com/citified/2015/01/05/lynne-abraham-mayoral-race-2015-decriminalization-ferguson-police/

January 6, 2015 // Philadelphia Tribune // “Upheaval follows Palmer charter school closure”

Upheaval follows Palmer charter school closure | News …www.phillytrib.com › news › upheaval-follows-palmer-ch…

January 16, 2015 // Philadelphia Tribune // “Shuttered Palmer school still owes ex-employees”

https://www.phillytrib.com/news/shuttered-palmer-school-still-owes-ex-employees/article_3da51c75-76bf-5378-9cc2-f5fd814b3bd5.html

PDF Files

See archives:

The Black Bottom Archives

25 years worth of Walter Palmer’s work can be found at this website, with information about how the University of Pennsylvania gentrified and took over a historic neighborhood in West Philadelphia, the Black Bottom, in addition to many other neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

https://theblackbottom.wordpress.com/

Other links with information about the Black Bottom:

https://collaborativehistory.gse.upenn.edu/places/other-neighborhood-definitions/places/black-bottom

https://philly.curbed.com/2013/7/11/10221368/the-long-and-troubling-history-of-penntrification-in-west-philly

https://www.34st.com/article/2002/10/node-1584

About Walt Palmer

University of Pennsylvania Links:

Walt Palmer as a speaker:

https://speakerhub.com/speaker/walter-palmer

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Request Walt Palmer as a speaker

Or reach out for more information

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Contact Us

The Palmer Foundation, Inc.

Walter D. Palmer, J.D./Founder/President

PO Box 22692

Philadelphia, PA 19110

Phone/Fax: 267-738-1588

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