Educating Harlem
A Century of Schooling and Resistance in a Black Community

Chapter 4. Cinema for Social Change: The Human Relations Film Series of the Harlem Committee of the Teachers Union, 1936–1950

by Lisa Rabin and Craig Kridel

Chapter 4 Map

Map design by Rachael Dottle and customized for chapter by Rachel Klepper. Map research by Rachel Klepper. Map layers from: Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, Department of Urban Planning, City of New York; Atlas of the city of New York, borough of Manhattan. From actual surveys and official plans / by George W. and Walter S. Bromley New York Public Library Map Warper; Manhattan Land book of the City of New York. Desk and Library ed. [1956]; New York Public Library Map Warper; and State of New Jersey GIS. Point locations from: School Directories, New York City Board of Education, New York Amsterdam News via ProQuest Historical Newspapers, and multiple archival sources cited in relevant chapters.

In the spring term of 1946, boys in the Youthbuilders student leadership club at James Fenimore Cooper Junior High School (JHS) 120 on 120th Street near Fifth Avenue sat down to watch and discuss Dead End (1937), a film directed by William Wyler.1 Dead End, starring Humphrey Bogart as a gangster returned to the poverty-stricken neighborhood of his childhood on Sutton Place and the East River, was based on the eponymous 1935 Broadway play written by Sidney Kingsley. It features a gang of boys on the verge of embracing or resisting the fate of the Bogart character.2 Dramatizing the contemporary sociological discourse on the negative social effects of poverty and deprivation, the film argued for the welfare state’s responsibility to its children, particularly via public housing and recreation.3 Yet watching Dead End nearly ten years after its production, the Youthbuilders in Harlem drew on their own knowledge and experience to critique the film. In their lifetimes, public housing had resulted in more neighborhood segregation—a structural form of racism that, as the African American students at Cooper JHS 120 noted, was a root cause of delinquency. Ten years on, Cooper students judged Dead End’s solution to have become part of the problem.4

Over the 1940s the Cooper Youthbuilders program created a space where Harlem students used their own understanding of the world to critically reflect on media. In 1943, for example, the boys (as Cooper was an all-boy school) staged a schoolwide forum on rectifying history textbooks that neglected Black people’s contributions to United States history, broadcast programs about race prejudice on the local radio station WNYC; and, in a major civil rights victory, successfully lobbied for the removal of the racist stereotype “Steamboat” character from a nationally popular comic book.5 Writing about the students’ work in the education journal American Unity, the Youthbuilders’ mentor, Sidney Rosenberg, emphasized that the boys’ work had moved beyond mere discussion: “After all this (talk about prejudice and discrimination), the question . . . remained: ‘What can a group of pupils from Cooper Junior High School do about it?’”6

Cooper Youthbuilders’ work in resisting and overturning racial stereotypes in the public sphere shared ideas and approaches with the critical use of media endorsed by the Harlem Committee of the New York City Teachers Union. The Teachers Union was the city’s most activist teacher organization of the time and the Harlem Committee was its most politically assertive cadre, created in 1935 to mobilize Harlem civic and religious groups, parents, students, and community members as well as teachers in the struggle against pervasive school inequality. Although the specifics of the relationship between the union and Youthbuilders is not documented, Cooper students’ critical discussion of the movie Dead End recalls the activist form of film education advocated by the Harlem Committee as part of their larger civil rights platform from the 1930s through the 1950s. One of the major strands of the Harlem Committee’s work in this period was a radical multiculturalism that sought to combat damaging discourses and stereotypes of race, class, and gender in textbooks and the media (led in part by teachers at JHS 120, as discussed in chapter 5 of this volume).7 The Harlem Committee compiled bibliographies of “films of an intercultural nature” and “human relations films,” and sponsored a “human relations” film series in 1948 and 1949 at the Teachers Union Institute on West Fifteenth Street.8 The Harlem Committee of the Teachers Union used cutting-edge documentary and animated film to teach about African American history and experience as well to explore the damaging effects of institutionalized racism.9

The Harlem Committee’s approach to film education in city schools took inspiration, but also diverged somewhat, from earlier film-based curricular efforts. One important influence was the experimental film curriculum launched in 1936 by Alice Keliher of the Progressive Education Association’s Commission on Human Relations. Known as the Human Relations Film Series (HRFS), Keliher’s project consisted of edited shorts from Hollywood feature films that were shown in classrooms across the country as a way of encouraging students to address current social problems, explore their beliefs, and engage with and take action in the social world. One of the HRFS’s first experimental sites was Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem, where English teachers Abraham Poneman and Louis Relin used the series in 1937 to prompt discussion among their Italian American, Puerto Rican, and African American students.10 In the 1940s, Louis Relin took the HRFS to multiple educational venues across the city, including the Communist Jefferson School of Social Science in Lower Manhattan. The Harlem Committee then became acquainted with the project and adopted it for its civil rights platform in Harlem.11

In the 1930s and 1940s in Harlem classrooms, students and teachers came together around contemporary media in a variety of ways. Teachers often saw film as a way to recognize and interrogate oppression and racism, topics on which the traditional curriculum was silent or even racist itself. In some select but evocative cases, teachers and students together went beyond discussing film to drawing on student knowledge of racism to critique and seek to improve media representations of African American individuals and communities. This chapter contextualizes this use of film in Harlem classrooms of this period within national and local mandates on film education, paying particular attention to the activist nuances that the Harlem Committee encouraged for the classroom use of educational film.

Human Relations Film in the Classroom: Origins

The Human Relations Film Series (1936–1941) was the signature project of the Progressive Education Association’s (PEA) Commission on Human Relations, directed by Alice Keliher of the Yale University Clinic of Child Development. The Commission on Human Relations, also known as the Keliher Commission, was one of three working groups that composed the PEA’s Eight-Year Study (1930–1942), which collected and circulated progressive pedagogical approaches in curriculum, assessment, and teacher learning.12 Human relations as historically conceived and developed by Keliher and her commission members represented a distinctive yet now overlooked aspect of progressive education that has become overshadowed (as well as confused with) loosely conceived notions of mid-twentieth-century intercultural, intergroup, and multicultural education. In contrast to “intercultural” education (such as Rachel DuBois’s “fairs and festivals” multicultural curriculum or Hilda Taba’s “intergroup education,” grounded in psychological and developmental theory and addressing topics of neighborhood configurations and the nature of social relationships), human relations education as originally developed by the Keliher Commission arose from a more psychoanalytical and sociological view of adolescence.13 Rather than focusing on the interests of the students, now viewed as a mainstay of progressive education practices, human relations programs sought to ascertain personal-social needs so that students and teachers would better understand themselves within the context of their culture and society.14

The Keliher Commission distributed curricular materials, including film productions, that introduced personal and social dilemmas as a stimulus for teenagers to engage critically with pressing issues of their time and to develop activist projects outside the schools as an extension of classroom discussions.15 The materials encouraged teachers to examine social problems in relation to their effect on the individual psyche in what became known as a “psychocultural” perspective. Thus, unlike an intercultural education festival that introduced some previously unknown or unappreciated nationality (DuBois’s approach) or an intergroup program that addressed classroom topics and issues related to changing community demographics (Taba’s approach), Keliher’s programs sought to generate students’ understanding of themselves as a way to initiate social agency and community action.16 All these approaches occupied a moderate left-liberal position in a time when the broader political continuum in the country, particularly in Harlem, included vibrant radical, communist, and nationalist perspectives.17 Nonetheless, there were consequential variations within these approaches to thinking about racism and working with students and media in classrooms.

The Human Relations Film Series was the Keliher Commission’s primary curriculum development program.18 From 1936 to 1940, the commission produced sixty film shorts excerpted from Hollywood feature films, which they promoted as prompts for teachers to generate “instructive discussion” on personal and social problems in the secondary classroom. Selections were accompanied by a study guide containing source material, bibliographies, and suggestions for class discussion. The HRFS productions were conceived not to present content and/or an interpretive perspective, common elements for documentary film.19 Rather, these film clips were edited to encourage the classroom audience to discuss the film’s narrative as a way to address social and personal issues. In keeping with the Eight-Year Study’s commitment to field testing, research, and curricular experimentation, schools submitted transcripts to Keliher’s staff, who then examined classroom discourse for evidence of the film’s effect on students. Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem served as a test site. By 1941, the Human Relations films had been distributed to over 3,000 public and private schools throughout the United States.20

The ambition of the HRFS was not mere discussion. Keliher and the Eight-Year Study staff hoped to encourage action among students. Keliher maintained that “young people need to sense their responsibility for assuming action as a part of their citizenship in a democracy.” A distinct sense of involvement—“activity with meaning”—became the intent of the series. Keliher described students forming a welcoming committee at their school after seeing The Devil Is a Sissy (directed by W. S. Van Dyke, 1936), a film describing the difficulties of an adolescent entering a new school in a low-income community and planning a community recreation center after seeing Alice Adams (directed by George Stevens, 1935).21 One of the most striking examples of students inspired to take action occurred at Tower Hill School in Wilmington, Delaware.22 After watching the March of Time short film Juvenile Delinquency (1936) students pursued research projects on asocial behavior of youth in Wilmington, investigating the role of poor housing, low income, lack of recreational spaces, and compromised health on delinquency and reporting on governmental neglect of these problems. In words that epitomized Keliher’s goals for her film series, the instructor of this class pointed out that “Juvenile Delinquency had the capacity to arouse student awareness to the point of motivating a study of actual conditions in the community. It seemed also to sensitize the students toward social action so that what they did after seeing the film seemed more important than what they said.”23

Turning discussion into action depended on many factors, including school administration and community support that could enable teacher or student organizing. After its test use of the Human Relations Film Series in 1937, Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem adopted the HRFS across the curriculum in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s and also screened film excerpts at schoolwide assemblies. Yet even at this high school where students had structured opportunities to pursue community outreach and activism, there is only one instance in which the HRFS was paired with social action: when Franklin students participated in Vito Marcantonio’s East Harlem campaign for fair housing in the late 1930s.24 Otherwise, despite the stated ambitions of Keliher and the HRFS, classroom discussion remained the chief outcome, at least as perceived by the HRFS and visible in the historical record.25

In one transcript from the experimental use of the HRFS at Franklin in 1937, for example, Abraham Poneman’s English class discussed racialized violence in relation to a twenty-two-minute film clip from director Fritz Lang’s Fury (United States, 1936). Fury starred Spencer Tracy as a newcomer to a small U.S. town who is wrongly accused of a crime, hunted down by an angry mob, and nearly lynched. One boy in the class complained that Fury featured a white man, rather than the Black men most likely to face lynch mobs in the 1930s United States: “The picture doesn’t teach anything about a racial background.” Another student retorted: “There’s no need to tell how many negroes are lynched down South by whites . . . just because they’re negroes. All the world knows it, and it is a disgrace to the United States.”26 Notably, this narrative account of East Harlem youth watching Keliher’s series contrasts with the story of film education at Cooper Junior High School with which we began this essay. In 1937, the HRFS transcript suggests that at least the Franklin students who discussed Fury seemed to approach racism from a distant position: racialized violence was happening in the South, not East Harlem. When Cooper’s Youthbuilders saw Dead End in 1946, their personal experience with segregation and racism informed their viewing.27 Franklin’s teachers appeared to see Fury and class discussion as a conduit to awakening students’ understanding of social problems, but Cooper’s Youthbuilders approached film as a representation of social realities that they themselves knew well.

Yet even as Franklin students’ engagement with the HRFS might have been limited to abstract discussions of racism, it is important to recognize that Keliher’s model of human relations film education had given students a vehicle through which they could reflect on the root causes of state-sponsored race violence, racial discrimination, and class inequality. Crucially, when human relations became conflated in the 1940s and 1950s with intergroup and intercultural education, film education became primarily focused on teaching students to develop new psychological attitudes toward diverse others. Many teachers in New York City used this more limited approach to the HRFS. As we will show in this next section, however, critical approaches to teaching film developed into the 1940s when the HRFS was repurposed by radical educators in different contexts, including via the Harlem Committee of the Teachers Union’s activist approach to intercultural education.

Film and the Harlem Committee

After Alice Keliher’s commission concluded its work in 1942, the Human Relations Film Series was made available to teachers through New York University’s Educational Film Library (which Keliher directed until 1948) and from other university and commercial distributors.28 In New York City, the efforts of Louis Relin, another English teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School, helped disseminate the HRFS across the city. By the early 1940s, Relin began routinely using the selections for addressing racism in multiple settings, in various schools and in citywide events. The Harlem Committee of the Teachers Union itself adopted the Human Relations Film Series for antiracist education in the late 1940s.

In the 1940s, a dominant approach to a multicultural curriculum merely exposed students to or encouraged their understanding of diverse others.29 This approach is captured in the words of Esther Berg, a teacher who served on the Audio-Visual Committee of the New York City Board of Education and wrote often on multicultural film education in the New York City teachers’ journal High Points in the mid-1940s.30 As a measure of her psychological approach to teaching human relations through film, we can observe Berg describing Keliher’s series as “excerpts from full-length feature films designed to provoke discussion of problems of behavior in everyday relationships.”31 The Harlem Committee practiced a type of radical intercultural education in the 1940s, one strongly differentiated from this multiculturalism focused on the matter of individual encounters.

Far from reducing social struggle to “problems of behavior in everyday relationships,” the Harlem Committee instead devoted itself to a full overhaul of hegemonic approaches to the teaching of U.S. history and culture. As discussed in chapter 5 and chapter 6 in this volume, the committee lobbied against racist textbooks, taught Black history for in-service courses at the Teachers Union Institute, and developed extensive curricula on Black history and children’s multicultural literature throughout the 1940s. Their curricular products included substantive descriptions of thirty-six documentaries and animated and theatrical films introducing economic and racial inequality, portraying desegregation efforts, championing the contributions of African Americans and Latinxs to U.S. culture, and debunking racial ideologies, in alignment with the committee’s view of intercultural education. The committee shaped its own “Human Relations Film Series” in the fall of 1948 and 1949 and organized monthly screenings.32

The Harlem Committee’s interest in film in the classroom also aligned with national patterns in media in schools. As film historians have noted, film education as a form of citizenship building both inside and outside the traditional U.S. classroom gained considerable momentum after World War II, capitalizing on U.S. enthusiasm for film’s utility in military training and in building patriotism during the war.33 In particular, film was judged highly useful for promoting postwar values of internationalism and tolerance for diverse others in the school and the workplace.34

The Harlem Committee’s work with film reflects transitions in the organization’s work during the World War II and postwar years. Founded in part in response to the Harlem riots of 1935, amid high levels of unemployment and insufficient public services in the area, the initial activities of the Harlem Committee were firmly oriented toward structural change: the desegregation of Harlem schools, the improvement of infrastructure, the provision of equal material resources and qualified teachers, the parity of employment of Black teachers with white ones in the city school system.35 As World War II and rising anticommunism in the postwar years constrained the space for radical activism, the committee’s turn to more inclusive curricula and school materials represented a less controversial field of work (although one that was not without controversy and consequences, as detailed by Jonna Perrillo in chapter 5 of this volume).

Like the radical writers and artists, as Julia Mickenberg describes, who used juvenile genres as a method to sidestep censorship and to keep the politics of the Popular Front alive into the 1950s and 1960s, the Harlem Committee continued in the spirit of earlier efforts via their film program.36

The Harlem Committee’s film series and corresponding bibliographies represent one way in which the Teachers Union’s dedication to civil rights survived in an extremely constricted era. The committee’s film project made prodigious use of documentary film, in contrast to Keliher’s original series of film excerpts from current-run theatrical film. Indeed, twenty-seven of the thirty-six films on the Harlem Committee’s list—nearly 80 percent—were documentary, and four of the remaining films were animated. A number of films on the Harlem Committee’s lists focused on racism and segregation: For Us the Living (Freedom Films, n.d.) argued for desegregated housing, An Equal Chance (New York State Commission Against Discrimination, 1949) called attention to employment discrimination, Color of a Man (International Film Foundation, 1946) exposed Jim Crow policies in the South, Sydenham Plan (World Today, n.d.) showcased the work of the first interracial hospital in the United States, located in Harlem, and That All May Learn (Mexico, EMA Mexico and the United Nations, 1949) documented the exploitation of a Mexican family that had not received formal schooling.

Several films sought to portray the dangers of racism to a democracy, as in the U.S. Army’s Don’t Be a Sucker (1946) and Freedom Films’s Hidden Wall (1951). A number of other films demonstrated the contributions of people of color and of immigrant communities, like the films on Black servicemen in World War II, The Negro Soldier (directed by Stuart Heisler, 1944) and Teamwork (U.S. Army Signal Corps, 1946); a film on World War II refugees and their work in the U.S., New Americans (directed by Slavko Vorkapich, 1944); and a film on the labor of world peoples in contributing natural resources to manufacturing, Made in the U.S.A. (Association Films, n.d.). Another grouping of films aimed to debunk ideologies of racial superiority, not only The Races of Mankind (United Film Productions, 1946), based on the work of Columbia University anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish, but also One Man-One Family (B.I.S., n.d.). Relatedly, some films pictured antiprejudice and intercultural activities across the country and the world, such as Americans All (March of Time, 1944), It Happened in Springfield (directed by Crane Wilbur, 1948), Make Way for Youth (directed by Robert Disraeli, 1948), the Cummington Story (directed by Mervyn LeRoy, 1947), For All the World’s Children (directed by William K. McClure, 1949), and Picture in Your Mind (directed by Philip Stapp, 1948).

Even as the Harlem Committee sought to leverage these films for pedagogy against racism, the films themselves contained problematic elements or silences. The Negro Soldier addressed segregation in the military abroad and proposed integration as crucial to the war effort but wholly elided segregation at home; although the animated film The Brotherhood of Man debunked the biological rationale for racism, it also included troubling caricatures of ethnic minorities. The extent to which these limitations became grounds for student critique and reflection depended on teachers’ use of the films.37

In the Harlem Committee’s creation of their own film series with documentaries on social and economic justice, desegregation, history, and antiracism, they updated intercultural education through contemporary and in some cases pioneering media. As the documentary film scholar Jonathan Kahana has argued, subtending all documentary work since its inception in the early 1920s—whether avant-garde in the 1920s, state-sponsored in the 1930s and 1940s (which characterized most of those on the committee’s list), observational in the 1960s and 1970s, or performative in the contemporary period—is the filmmaker’s intention to make a social intervention, a contribution to discourses obtaining in the public sphere.38 Accordingly, along with their teaching of Black history and their resistance to racist textbooks, the Harlem Committee’s use of documentary was part of its long and concerted effort to provide accurate knowledge on the historical and contemporary world.

The committee saw documentary film as a vehicle for human relations teaching in both its subject matter and its form. The group sought to resist stereotypes not only in the media, but also in textbooks, including through efforts based at Cooper JHS 120 and discussed in chapter 6 of this volume. At the 1951 annual conference of the Teachers Union, Harlem teacher and committee member Alice Citron asked: “Radio, T.V., films, the theatre, publications—what are they doing to the minds of our children?” “How are the schools meeting this threat?”39 By turning to documentary films, the Harlem Committee’s version of midcentury film education sought a corrective to the products of white-dominated commercial media.

Both Keliher’s Human Relations Film Series and the Harlem Committee’s film project hoped to encourage viewers to craft a critical stance on social problems and to take action to address them. Far more common in the city and the country in the 1940s was the use of film for a decidedly less expansive intercultural or human relations education model than that of the Teachers Union’s Harlem Committee —one that teachers such as Esther Berg recommended for changing attitudes and developing new psychological stances toward diverse others. This mainstream model of film education was visible even at Cooper JHS 120. In addition to the Youthbuilders’ program described above, Cooper had a schoolwide “human relations film” program under way in 1946. Writing in High Points, the Cooper teacher Dina Bleich described the program as a series of assemblies in which students across the school watched documentary films on U.S. internationalism and better race relations “emphasiz[ing] the development of worthwhile attitudes in the field of human relations.”40 Bleich reported that the assembly screenings were structured toward guiding students to “analyze their attitudes” and to “grow emotionally as well as intellectually.”41 Consistent with the rise in post–World War II discourses promoting film education for multiculturalism and internationalism, Bleich and many educators asserted that film was the best means by which to “provide our children with information and cultivate in them attitudes that will enable them to act intelligently as citizens of a world community.”42

The Cooper Youthbuilders club approached film very differently compared to the approach of the school assemblies. Rather than teachers and administrators managing students’ speech and behavior to conform to preestablished directives on film discussion, the Youthbuilders’ mentor, “Mr. Rosenberg,” asked the boys to use Dead End’s story as a prompt to consider the problem of youth delinquency in their neighborhood and how it might be solved. Notably, film viewing and discussion here were presented as means by which students could think critically about the roots of social problems in their local world—and what they themselves knew about these problems and could do about them. Bleich wrote that the discussion included the boys’ reflections on “lack of parental control, segregation, and the large number of ‘crime movies’ marketed to their neighborhood.” Although “lack of parental control” and the danger of “crime movies” as causes of delinquency might suggest that the students’ thinking mirrored dominant and often racist social discourses of the day, some elements suggest otherwise. They discussed “segregation” as delinquency’s root cause, interpreting the film via their lived social experience with institutionalized racism. In 1946, this allowed them to actualize Dead End’s original social message: by worsening the segregation of African Americans and Latinxs in the city, “fair housing” (the film’s term for public housing) had in fact contributed to (instead of resolving) inequality.

“Mr. Rosenberg” identified himself in connection with the Harlem Committee of the Teachers Union in an article he wrote in 1943 about the Youthbuilders for the teachers’ journal American Unity. Viewing films such as Dead End provided a springboard to several club actions to combat racist stereotypes in textbooks and the media: lobbying publishers to remove racist stereotypes in national comic books; directing a schoolwide assembly at Cooper on the representation of African Americans in history textbooks and planning the writing of a supplement to textbooks on the contributions of diverse racial and ethnic groups to U.S. history; and broadcasting three radio programs over WNYC radio—“How Do Comic Books Affect Our Education?” “What Is Our Responsibility to Improving Pan-American Relations?” and “And How Can Pupils Combat Race Prejudice?”43 These critical engagements with media represented the most assertive form of the radical multicultural education advocated by the Harlem Committee in the 1940s. Cooper JHS’s 120 students merged film viewing with knowledge of their communities in dealing with their larger struggles against racism and inequality.

The multiple uses of film in Harlem schools in the late 1930s and 1940s revealed the intersection of two fundamental forces in U.S. education: the rise of public secondary schooling in socializing U.S. children on a mass level and the rise of institutions of educational film (and later television) to deliver on technology’s promise in instructing these mass numbers of students. As media historians have pointed out, in spite of the utopian strands in the long history of educational technology over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, instructional media have been primarily characterized by instrumentalism, or use in the education of citizens to adapt and compete under advanced capitalism.44 So too, as Brian Goldfarb relates in his history of media education in the United States, technological approaches to education have typically been associated with compensatory education and curricular approaches targeting low-income children of color in schools.45

Even when progressive modules of educational media have been developed—notably, Keliher’s HRFS for the PEA’s Commission on Human Relations—they have been almost invariably adapted and turned into something far less expansive by educational institutions in latter years.46 Despite striking examples such as the Youthbuilders’ program at Cooper JHS 120 and despite Alice Keliher’s stated ambition to facilitate not only enlarged student consciousness but also action, most film education work lost its potential for larger social critique in the 1940s and 1950s. As exemplified by the work of Esther Berg in the New York City school system, the hegemonic understanding of human relations came to be understood as an educational process through which peaceful and tolerant interactions among individuals from different backgrounds could be facilitated in the classroom, playground, and eventually the workplace.47

As educational film became institutionalized as a vehicle for differentiating and racializing students, or at best for sugarcoating social inequalities, Harlem’s educational uses of film stood in relief. At Benjamin Franklin High School, film helped provoke student discussion of state-sponsored violence and unemployment discrimination; at James Fenimore Cooper Junior High School 120, students and teachers built on film and student knowledge to resist racism in schools and the media. For the Harlem Committee of the Teachers Union, the Human Relations Film Series became a mode in which civil rights work could continue even as larger forces inhibited structural change in the Harlem schools. Film education in 1930s and 1940s Harlem appears not as new technology fad or a panacea for solving social conflict but as another space in which Harlem students and educators sought to perceive and act upon their social realities.

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  1. Dina Bleich, “A Film Program for Social Living,” High Points 28, no. 7 (1946): 37. ↩︎

  2. See also Mr. DuLac, “Review: Dead End,” Letterbox, accessed January 4, 2017. The young actors in the play Dead End re-created their roles in the movie and went on to play members of the same neighborhood gang in a series of spinoffs, becoming successively the Dead End Kids, the Little Tough Guys, the East Side Kids, and the Bowery Boys all the way into the 1950s. Pamela Robertson Wojcik, Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child in American Film and Fiction (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2016), 41–42. ↩︎

  3. Amanda Ann Klein, “Realism, Censorship, and the Social Promise of Dead End,” in Modern American Drama on Screen, ed. William Robert Bray and R. Barton Palmer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 9–28; and Wojcik, Fantasies of Neglect, 55–61. The 1935 play Dead End was considered influential in the passage of the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act of 1937 and the expansion of Boys’ Club facilities in the late 1930s. Klein, “Realism, Censorship,” 12. ↩︎

  4. Bleich, “Film Program,” 37. ↩︎

  5. Sidney Rosenberg, “They Go After the Comics,” American Unity: A Monthly Manual of Education 2–3 (1943): 10–11; see also Sidney Rosenberg, interview, cited in New York Board of Education Advisory Committee on Human Relations, Administration of Human Relations Program in New York City Schools: Report to Honorable F. H. LaGuardia Mayor of the City of New York (New York: New York Department of Investigation, 1946), 77. ↩︎

  6. Rosenberg, “They Go After the Comics,” 10. ↩︎

  7. Jonna Perrillo, Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 47–82. See also Clarence Taylor, Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights, and the New York City Teachers Union (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 75–100, 237–71; and Celia Lewis Zitron, The New York City Teachers Union, 1916–1964: A Story of Educational and Social Commitment (New York: Humanities Press, 1968), 94–97. ↩︎

  8. The Teachers Union Institute, “Human Relations Film Discussion Series,” October 18, 1949, in “Audio-Visual Material” and “Reference List,” box 44, folder 7, Teachers Union of the City of New York Records, 1920–1942, Collection no. 5445, Kheel Center for Labor-Management and Documentation, Cornell University (hereafter TUCNYR). ↩︎

  9. Perrillo, Uncivil Rights, 60–61; and Anna McCarthy, “Screen Culture and Group Discussion in Postwar Race Relations,” in Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States, ed. Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 397–423. ↩︎

  10. “Project Progress,” December 24, 1937, in General Education Board Collection, Record Group 632.1, PEA—Commission on Human Relations—Motion Picture, 1939–1941, Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York (hereafter GEB), series 1.2, box 284, folder 2965. “Appraisal, Motion Picture Project,” January 1940, 4, in GEB, series 1.2, box 284, folder 2962. ↩︎

  11. The Teachers Union Institute, “Human Relations Film Discussion”; Esther L. Berg and George E. Levinbrow, “The Use of Motion Pictures to Develop Better Human Relations,” Educational Screen 23, no. 3 (1944): 112–14. “The Road to Life,” New York Teacher News 6, no. 13, December 8, 1945, 2; “School Reminders: For High School Students,” New York Teacher News 6, no. 31, April 20, 1946, 2; and “In Short: “Film[s] That Fight Prejudice,” New York Teacher News 7, no. 19, January 25, 1947, 2. ↩︎

  12. Craig Kridel and Robert V. Bullough Jr., Stories of the Eight-Year Study (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007). ↩︎

  13. DuBois launched the PEA–sponsored “Commission on Intercultural Education” in 1936 and quickly developed a major profile in pluralist circles, frequently carrying out workshops for educators and interfaith organizations, for example, in New York City and across the nation. Diana Selig, Americans All: The Cultural Gifts Movement (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008), 197–202, 240; and Ethel J. Alpenfels, “Principles Underlying Education for Better Group Relations,” in The Study of Intergroup Relations: Papers from the 1945 Meeting of the Council on Cooperation in Teacher Education (New York: American Council on Education, 1945), 11. ↩︎

  14. Alice Keliher, Life and Growth (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1938). ↩︎

  15. “Commission on Human Relations: Motion Picture Project, Appraisal,” January 1940, in GEB, series 1.2, box 284, folder 2962, 1. ↩︎

  16. The HRFS must be viewed as a component of the Eight-Year Study where both the Keliher and Thayer Commissions were articulating a conception of personal-social needs. When placed within this context and when the series is recognized not as a form of documentary film or aligned directly with the Rockefeller Foundation film efforts (rather, the project was guided by the General Education Board staff), the HRFS’s “personality and psychological self” theme is not as pronounced as some have interpreted. Rob Aitken, “‘An Instrument for Reaching Into Experience’: Progressive Film at the Rockefeller Boards, 1934–1945,” Journal of Historical Sociology, accessed January 16, 2015. ↩︎

  17. Nikhil Pal Singh, Black Is a Country (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005). ↩︎

  18. Craig Kridel, “Educational Film Projects of the 1930s,” in Orgeron, Orgeron, and Streible, Learning with the Lights Off, 215–29. ↩︎

  19. We thank Dan Streible for pointing out the HRFS’s relation to trigger films. Edward F. Newren, “The Trigger Film: Its History, Production, and Utilization,” Association for Educational Communications and Technology Annual Convention, Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1974. ↩︎

  20. “Project Progress,” December 24, 1937, in GEB, series 1–2, box 284, file 2965; and “Appraisal, Motion Picture Project,” January 1940, in GEB, series 1–2, box 284, file 2962, 4. ↩︎

  21. Alice Keliher, “Human Relations Series of Films,” New England Educational Film Association (n.d.), xii, in Alice Virginia Keliher Papers, Bobst Library, New York University, manuscript collection 139, box 17, folder 7. ↩︎

  22. Tower Hill School served as one of the twenty school sites for both the PEA’s Eight-Year Study and one of the seven sites for the American Council on Education Motion Picture Project that measured the effect of film curricula on students’ learning outcomes. For a report on all seven projects, see Charles Hoban Jr., Focus on Learning: Motion Pictures in the School (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1942). ↩︎

  23. “A School Uses Motion Pictures,” 48–49, cited in Hoban, Focus on Learning, 87, 172; emphasis added ↩︎

  24. Lisa Rabin, “The Social Uses of Classroom Cinema: A Reception History of the ‘Human Relations Film Series’ at Benjamin Franklin High School, East Harlem, 1936–1955,” Velvet Light Trap 72 (2013): 58–70. In addition to showing films in classrooms and to students involved in citywide debates, Franklin also used the HRFS series for at least one community discussion in East Harlem itself. The student newspaper in the East Harlem community, East Harlem News, announced in its October 1941 issue “Captains Courageous and an Excerpt from an Andy Hardy Film” (most likely, A Family Affair) were to be shown at the Franklin auditorium on November 6, 1941, with Franklin students along with their principal Leonard Covello, English teacher Louis Relin, and the chairperson of the New York City Schools Motion Picture Committee to lead discussions. “Franklin Stages Film Program,” East Harlem News, October 1931, 3, col. 2, Covello Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, box 131, folder “East Harlem News.” ↩︎

  25. Michael C. Johanek and John L. Puckett identify a historical struggle between Franklin’s original “community-centered” ethos and its need to conform to a more traditional curriculum, which won out in the 1940s. Michael C. Johanek and John L. Puckett, Benjamin Franklin High School: Education as if Citizenship Mattered (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006). ↩︎

  26. Alice Keliher, stenographic notes of “Student Discussion following showing of excerpts from ‘Fury,’” Benjamin Franklin High School, New York, New York, August 10, 1937, in GEB, series 1.2, box 284, folder 2966, 44–73, 66. ↩︎

  27. We are grateful to Ansley Erickson for helping us develop this argument. ↩︎

  28. “PEA—Commission on Human Relations—Motion Picture Project—Draft,” in GEB, series 1.2, box 284, folder 2962, 2. ↩︎

  29. Perrillo, Uncivil Rights, 47–82; Taylor, Reds at the Blackboard, 75–100, 237–71; and Zitron, New York City Teachers Union, 94–97. ↩︎

  30. Esther Berg et al., “The Use of Motion Pictures to Teach Better Human Relations,” High Points 26, no. 2 (1944): 39–49, adapted by Berg and George E. Levinrow, the director of Child Guidance for New York City Schools as “The Use of Motion Pictures to Develop Better Human Relations,” in the national publication Educational Screen 33, no. 3 (March 1944): 112–14; Esther Berg, “A List of Films for ‘Human Relations,’” High Points 27, no. 6 (1945): 74–51; Berg, “Films to Better Human Relations,” High Points 27, no. 5 (1945): 17–22; Berg, “Recent Visual Aids for Intercultural Education,” High Points 28, no. 10 (1946): 65–72; and Charles G. Spiegler and Esther Berg, “Films Can Fight for Democracy,” High Points 28, no. 5 (1946): 44–47. A 1946 report by the Board of Education’s Advisory Committee on Human Relations to Mayor LaGuardia referenced the use of film in human relations teaching across the city school system. New York Board of Education Advisory Committee on Human Relations, Administration of Human Relations Program in New York City Schools, 76, 78, 86, and 91. ↩︎

  31. Berg, “List of Films,” 74. ↩︎

  32. The TU Institute, “Human Relations Film Discussion Series”; “Audio-Visual Material”; and “Reference List,” TUCNYR. ↩︎

  33. Charles Acland, “Curtains, Carts and the Mobile Screen,” Screen 50, no. 1 (2009): 148–66; and Acland, “Classrooms, Clubs, and Community Circuits: Cultural Authority and the Film Council Movement, 1946–1957,” in Inventing Film Studies, ed. Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008), 145–81; and McCarthy, “Screen Culture.” ↩︎

  34. Zoë Druick, “Reaching the Multimillions: Liberal Internationalism and the Establishment of Documentary Film,” in Grieveson and Wasson, Inventing Film Studies, 66–92; Acland, “Classrooms”; McCarthy, “Screen Culture”; and Lisa Rabin, “A Social History of US Educational Documentary: The Travels of Three Shorts, 1945–1958,” Film History: An International Journal 29 no. 3 (2017): 1-24. ↩︎

  35. See Thomas Harbison, chapter 2 in this volume; Taylor, Reds at the Blackboard, 237–71; Perrillo, Uncivil Rights, 47–82; Lauri Johnson, “A Generation of Women Activists: African American Female Educators in Harlem, 1930–1950,” Journal of African American History 89, no. 3 (2004): 223–40; and Johnson, “Making Democracy Real”: Teacher Union and Community Activism to Promote Diversity in the New York City Public Schools, 1935–1950,” Urban Education 37, no. 5 (2002): 566–87. ↩︎

  36. Julia Mickenberg, Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). ↩︎

  37. Thanks to Clarence Taylor for this helpful interpretation. ↩︎

  38. Jonathan Kahana, Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008). ↩︎

  39. “Forum II: Bigotry and Thought Control—Threats to American Culture,” Schools and the Fight for Peace and Freedom, Fifteenth Annual Educational Conference of the Teachers Union, Local 555, UPW, Saturday, April 7, 1951, in box 46, file 9, 1, TUCNYR. ↩︎

  40. Bleich, “Film Program,” 32, emphasis added. Bleich wrote two other essays on the use of films for citizenship building in the late 1940s. Dina Bleich, “Films and Attitudes,” High Points 29, no. 8 (1948): 18–31; and Bleich, “Strengthening Democracy Through Films,” High Points 32, no. 8 (1950): 5–16. Cooper School’s human relations film program appears in Advisory Committee of Human Relations, Administration of Human Relations Program in New York City Schools, 76, 91. ↩︎

  41. Bleich, “Film Program,” 36. ↩︎

  42. Bleich, “Film Program,” 38; see also note 43 below. On the institutionalization of film education in the United States midcentury, see Zoë Druick, “The Myth of Media Literacy,” International Journal of Communication 10 (2016): 1125–44; Acland, “Classrooms,” 145–81; and Gregory A. Waller, “Projecting the Promise of 16mm, 1935–45,” in Useful Cinema, ed. Charles Acland and Haidee Wasson (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011), 125–48. ↩︎

  43. Sidney Rosenberg, interview, cited in Advisory Committee on Human Relations, Administration of Human Relations Program in New York City Schools, 77. Rosenberg himself wrote about the program in the education journal American Unity. Rosenberg, “They Go After the Comics,” 20. ↩︎

  44. Druick, “Myth”; Acland, “Classrooms”; and Waller, “Projecting the Promise.” ↩︎

  45. Brian Goldfarb, Visual Pedagogy: Media Cultures in and Beyond the Classroom (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002), as cited in Druick, “Myth,” 1131. ↩︎

  46. Druick’s recounting of the co-optation of critical media studies by educators and technocrats as “media literacy” has been helpful to us here. Druick, “Myth.” See also Kridel’s treatment of the HRFS’s “transition” to Film Custodians. Craig Kridel, “Examining the Educational Film Work of Alice Keliher and the Human Relations Series of Films,” Rockefeller Archive Center Research Reports, 2010, accessed August 14, 2016. ↩︎

  47. Perrillo, Uncivil Rights; McCarthy, “Screen Culture”; and Rabin, “Social History.” ↩︎