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

Chapter 6. Harlem Schools and the New York City Teachers Union

by Clarence Taylor

Chapter 6 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.

Many parents in Harlem schools complained that teachers were indifferent to the children they taught. In 1949, a report examining a project to provide counseling to children in four schools in Harlem with high delinquency rates described teachers in those schools as punitive and unsympathetic to students. Forty percent of the teachers were labeled inexperienced and close to 50 percent were seen as indifferent to students.1 Speaking before the Urban League in 1954, Kenneth Clark, a professor of psychology at City College, declared that the “average reading and math levels were two years behind grade level for those schools studied. In some classes there was no improvement in scores from the beginning to the end of the school year. Most teachers in Harlem schools were inexperienced and poorly supervised; there were 103 local classes for children with “retarded mental ability,” in the lexicon of the time. However, only three schools had classes for “intellectually gifted children.”

Clark believed that institutional racism was responsible for poor education in Harlem. “It is no longer necessary to have specific techniques for gerrymandering schools and excluding Negro children from academic and other specialized high schools. These children are not prepared to pass the tests for these academic and specialized high schools. This is a most effective form of racial exclusion” for Harlem’s Black children, who had been born in the city, migrated from the South or immigrated from the West Indies.2 In the 1950s and 1960s, segregated Black schools “stood in marked contrast to those in white areas” of the city and the suburbs, as the historian Jerald Podair noted. They were “overcrowded, poorly maintained, and often staffed by teachers who had ‘washed out’ elsewhere in the system.” Diminished material and human resources accompanied diminished expectations from many white teachers for their Black students. Many Black teachers were “angered by what they perceived as [white teachers’] matter-of-fact acceptance” of the then-ascendant culture-of-poverty thesis. Its adherents, following the anthropologist Oscar Lewis and later the sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, conceived of poverty not as momentary or changeable material privation but as a cause of enduring changes that defined personality and ability across generations.3 In schools, teachers could follow the culture-of-poverty logic to suggest that the fact of students’ impoverishment indicated their current and future intellectual promise. Teachers “responded to this self-fulfilling prophecy with indifference and benign neglect.”4 Although Harlem had more Black teachers than did many parts of New York City, racist hiring practices limited their number sharply.5 Recounting his experience as a child growing up in Harlem, the author James Baldwin wrote: “We hated many of our teachers at school because they so clearly despised us and treated us like dirty, ignorant savages.”6

Some New York City teachers organized behind a different view of Harlem and other Black and Latinx communities. Before the Cold War and before the founding of today’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the recognition of its collective bargaining rights, the New York City Teachers Union (TU) was the largest teachers union in the city with six thousand members. The TU was founded in 1916 by social democrats who maintained that teachers should receive decent salaries and respect from administrators. It opposed loyalty oaths and called for academic freedom. After a few decades of internal debate about the focus and scope of its organizing, the TU identified with industrial unionism and called for organizing workers at all levels, including part-time and unemployed teachers, toward building a strong working class. This meant eliminating walls, such as racism, that divided the class. Thus, the TU led a major campaign to end institutional racism in the educational system, similar to what is known today as social-justice unionism. The union fought for higher wages and improved working conditions for its members, and also made social and racial justice for people of color in the city a central mission. Members of the TU contended that structural factors robbed Black children of a decent education.

What distinguished the multiracial TU from other teachers unions and organizations was that it promoted a form of unionism that cultivated strong ties with parents, civil and religious organizations in Black and Latinx communities. The TU, parents, and community groups in Harlem fought together for better services to schools and students, new school buildings in communities where the oldest school buildings existed, and an elimination of racist and biased textbooks from schools. However, anticommunist repression during the Cold War helped marginalize the TU.

Over the 1950s, the rival Teachers Guild (the Guild) became the dominant teachers union in the city, and its approach to unionism differed from that of the TU. The Guild was founded in 1935 when seven hundred teachers left the TU because of the growing number of communists in its ranks. The Guild members asserted that the TU was pushing the agenda of the Communist Party of the United States of America, and it was not concerned with the interest of teachers. The Guild’s major objective was to provide better pay, improved working conditions for teachers, and other benefits for its members. The Guild, unlike the TU, did not build strong alliances with parents of color and civic organizations in Harlem and other Black communities in New York.

Before a targeted anticommunist campaign by the New York City Board of Education helped dismantle the TU, the union forged a working alliance with parents in Harlem in search of a decent education for the children of that community. At a time when many Harlem teachers harbored racist ideas about their children, the TU had been an unusual activist presence. When it was dismantled, Harlem and New York City lost an important alliance between parents and teachers.

This chapter documents three episodes in the history of the TU, noting the way its type of unionism enabled it to forge a cooperative relationship between Black parents and teachers. The first incident, in the mid-1930s, involved a principal in Harlem who was accused of brutalizing a Black child. Although the TU joined with many in the Harlem community calling for the removal of the principal, the Guild came to his defense, thus opposing the community’s effort to have a voice in determining who was appropriate to educate and supervise children of Harlem.

The second issue, emerging in the late 1930s and early 1940s, was juvenile delinquency and its roots in racial segregation and inequality. Several Harlem-based advocacy groups were operating in the post–World War II landscape, targeting multiple forms of segregation in housing and employment.7 In a similar vein, the TU accused the Board of Education of racial discrimination because it segregated Black and white children and discriminated when allocating resources and personnel. Meanwhile, the Guild downplayed racial discrimination and inequality as a major factor in student conduct. It blamed a deficient Black culture that needed rehabilitation. The TU sought to work with the Harlem and other predominantly African American and Latinx communities of the city to develop solutions that would tackle structural inequality, and the Guild called for tough punitive action against juveniles, more often restricting than supporting their access to schooling.

In the 1950s, after the TU’s influence had waned, but as parent and community advocacy against segregation peaked, the integration of the teaching force became a third issue that often divided many in the Black community and teachers. After the Supreme Court handed down its Brown v. Board of Education decision, New York City activists placed greater pressure on the New York City Board of Education to integrate its student body and to provide equal resources and services to all children regardless of race. Parent activists understood unequal teacher qualifications along with substitute rather than permanently assigned teachers as manifestations of segregation in Harlem schools. When the Board of Education Commission on Integration recommended an involuntary transfer plan to bring more experienced teachers into communities of color, the Guild alienated Black and Latinx activists and parents by vigorously opposing the recommendation.

These three cases illustrate the nature of the TU’s advocacy, the limits of the Guild’s vision of teacher activism, and the displacement of the former by the latter by the 1960s. This transition helped form and nurture a feeling of resentment and distrust among African American and Latinx parents and activists against teachers long before the Black Power era or the headline-grabbing Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict and teachers’ strike of 1968.8

The Schoenchen Case

On October 21, 1936, fourteen-year-old Robert Shelton escorted his sister to her first grade class at Public School (PS) 5 on Edgecombe Avenue between 140th and 141st Streets. The historical record is not clear about the sequence of events but Shelton claimed that principal Gustav Schoenchen took him to his office and beat him across the head and arms with a stick. The Permanent Committee on Harlem Schools, made up of parents, activists, and members of the New York Teachers Union, called for the removal of the principal. Two physicians examined the fourteen-year-old and wrote in an affidavit that “there were contusions of the left forearm about the wrist and postero-laterally about three inches below the left elbow.” Shelton also had contusions on his left shoulder and “traumatic injury to the muscles involving the area between the sixth and eighth ribs…” There were injuries on his scalp, “one and a quarter inches long in [the] left frontal region.”9

Schoenchen had a reputation for being hostile and insulting to parents who attempted to talk with him about problems with their children. The PS 5 Parent-Teacher Association also accused him of interfering in its activity. As a result of Shelton’s injuries and complaints from parents, the TU passed a resolution calling on the Board of Education to “investigate thoroughly the charges against Mr. Schoenchen” and to discharge him as principal.10

The New York Teachers Guild was critical of both the TU and Harlem activists. The Schoenchen case, the Guild contended, demonstrated how communists manipulated racial tension for their own benefit. It accused the TU of “promoting a highly prejudiced handling” of the case. It blamed the so-called Committee for Better Schools in Harlem (which counted powerful figures like Ella Baker among its leaders) for circulating an “alleged” statement of facts that accused the principal of brutally beating Shelton. The committee “caused an ‘emotional outburst’ and a prejudging of the principal.” In condescending and insulting language, the Guild claimed a crowd of “overwrought persons” at the trial helped to create the “impression that Principal Schoenchen was guilty.”11 The Guild ridiculed the committee for passing out leaflets calling for mass action and asserting that “Schoenchen Must Go.” One handout even labeled Schoenchen a “savage child beater.” The Guild questioned the severity of Shelton’s injuries, noting that although photos showed him covered in bandages, “the boy was in bed only during the normal sleeping hours.” Echoing the tactics of southern racists who blamed Jews and communists for Black protest and thus denied Black agency, the Guild declared that “demonstrations were conducted by white leaders with a following of Negro children from the school.”12

Claiming that it held “no brief in support of a principal or teacher who used corporal punishment,” the Guild did “hold a brief for the maintenance of the process of orderly inquiry into all charges before the courts as well as before the Board of Education.” Accusing the Teachers Union of creating hostility between principals and teachers and promoting racial tension, the Guild called on its members to “guard against race riots, and against class war.”13 On the question of a New York City principals’ treatment of a Black student, the Guild appeared to side with the school system.

The Guild’s statements revealed its attitude toward Black communities, brushing off the grievances that Harlem addressed to school officials. That the Guild was silent about PS 5’s Parent-Teacher Association’s claim that the principal interfered with its functions indicated how far divorced the new union was from the Harlem community. Rather than explore complaints by parents, the Guild accused the TU of exploiting Black anger. The Guild’s criticism of Black activists and their white allies demonstrated it had no interest in building strong ties with parents, working with them, and taking part in a movement that would empower them when confronting school officials.

The Teachers Union, unlike the Guild, connected the Schoenchen case to the socioeconomic conditions in Harlem. According to the TU, the case represented another, if dramatic, example of the systemic discriminatory treatment of Black people. Black children in Harlem were provided the poorest school facilities, their parents were relegated to the lowest-paying jobs and experienced the highest unemployment in the city. Prefiguring arguments that other New York City activists would make through the 1960s, the TU claimed that the “educational policies of New York City did not differ fundamentally from the Jim Crow practices in other parts of the country.” The Teachers Union declared that the schools in Harlem were overcrowded and segregated, having a 90–100 percent Black and Latinx student body. Children were malnourished and came to school “in revolt against their unhappy lot and resentful to discipline.” The curricula ignored the contribution African Americans made to the nation. In the view of the TU, these were the conditions that underlay protest against Schoenchen.14

Activists lodged their complaints in dramatic fashion, via a mock trial of the Board of Education staged at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in January 1937. Some of the nation’s most prominent Black leaders played a major role; Abyssinian was one of the largest Black churches in New York City and one of the most important Black institutions in Harlem. The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr., then the assistant pastor of Abyssinian before becoming its pastor in 1937, played the role of the judge. The jury featured an esteemed group of leaders: Charles Hamilton Houston, the dean of Howard University Law School; Frank Crosswaith, the onetime organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the chair of the Negro Labor Committee, and a close ally of A. Philip Randolph; Lester Granger, the organizer of the Los Angeles branch of the National Urban League (and later the executive director of the organization nationally); and East Harlem’s United States Congressman Vito Marcantonio. Two thousand people who attended the trial listened to condemnation of the Board of Education (BOE). The board was found guilty of not addressing the deteriorating conditions in Harlem schools.15 The trial’s location, its illustrious participants, as well as its large audience revealed the depth and breadth of frustration over education in Harlem, a frustration the TU sought to help address.

The Schoenchen incident and the responses it provoked highlight the differences between the Guild and the TU. The Guild’s more cautious response demonstrated a concern for due process. But the union was also concerned about the role that parents and community leaders played in education. As its criticism of parents and civic leaders of Harlem hinted, the Guild opposed what it saw as the intrusion of parents into the professional realm of the education of their children, including monitoring the performance of teachers and administrators. When the TU and parents demanded that their children not be physically abused by school officials or denied a decent education, the Guild accused them of attacking a principal without evidence. For the Guild, protecting the principal was part of protecting the tenure of teachers against community action. If the Harlem community could have a principal fired, it could take the same action against teachers. The Teachers Union formed an alliance with parents and Harlem leaders in an effort to empower the community in addressing their concerns with the Board of Education, but the Guild and its successor the UFT did not foster such a relationship. The Guild repeatedly responded to Black community efforts to shape and improve the education of their children with concern for due process for teachers. This tension appeared in the mid-1930s, but recurred frequently through the late 1960s—when the tension between Black parents and predominantly white professional authority and union power boiled over in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy and citywide teacher strike.

Rehabilitation of Black Children

One of the major problems plaguing Harlem was juvenile crime or misbehavior. After a fifteen-year-old white male was killed in Harlem by three Black teens in 1941, the white-owned press published a number of articles claiming that there was a crime wave in the predominantly Black Manhattan neighborhood.16 Despite the sensationalism of the coverage and complaints from the Black press that its white counterparts were conducting a “crime smear” campaign, juvenile crime in Harlem was a reality. Although crime among juveniles throughout the city was increasing, in Harlem it was 50 percent higher in the post–World War II years.17

The Guild represented the problem as a matter of cultural deficiencies of African Americans and Latinxs. Calling the situation in Harlem an “abnormal one,” the Guild claimed that it was “futile to expect the schools in those problem areas to function adequately by normal standards.” The TU and the Guild diverged on their understanding of the origins of juvenile crime, particularly in relationship to segregation and the inequalities it accompanied and compounded.

Before 1954, the Guild did not focus on school segregation as a problem. Instead the union portrayed the children of Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and other communities of color as below par, in desperate need of social and psychological healing. The Guild did not point out that these students were denied essential services, given the least experienced teachers and denied a full day of instruction. Instead of stressing the lack of educational services the Guild argued that pathological conditions in the ghetto hindered children’s learning. Hence, the answer, as the Guild saw it, was the need for special services and the modification of behavior on the part of children and adults of color.18

The Guild, like the TU, blamed juvenile crime on inadequate school financing, oversized classes, the war and its emphasis on brutality, and bad housing. The Guild did offer solutions to juvenile crime—often referred to as “juvenile delinquency” in Harlem. It called for reducing class sizes to twenty-five students, building new schools in ghetto areas, creating adult education classes, extending “child guidance and social services as an integral part of the schools,” and offering industrial training in an effort to address job insecurity. It also urged the BOE to hire more teachers. The Guild’s program emphasized a social contract that demanded state responsibility to fight against juvenile crime and called on the government to provide vital funding for education and job training.19

A report prepared in 1945 by the Guild’s Committee on Delinquency was far reaching, but revealed a commitment to ideas of racial uplift, with education leading to mobility and individual opportunity. Broader structural or institutional change of the sort supported by the TU and particularly its leftist and communist members was not necessary. The Guild called for physical and dental inspections, adequate nutrition, and vocational training. Vocational training respected the bounds of a segregated labor market, focusing on the demands of “specialized groups” via classes for “Negro beauty culture,” for example. The elimination of discrimination in the schools would lead to a “more cooperative attitude on the part of minority groups toward government, school, and society. Equality of opportunity in public education,” the report maintained, “will encourage minority groups toward increased efficiency and will raise the compensation in unskilled trades by somewhat reducing the number of those seeking employment in these fields, thus raising the standard of living.” The Committee on Delinquency argued that “well-adjusted family relations” were essential for preventing delinquency, but “only in a small proportion of our homes do these relations exist.” Proposed solutions included a school curriculum dealing with family relations, vocational guidance, “physiology, personal hygiene, boy and girl relationships and community responsibility.”20 Elizabeth L. Danin, who was the chair of the Guild’s Educational Policies in Wartime Committee, blamed juvenile crime on the negligence of city authorities, poor funding, crowded classrooms, and the war but she also claimed that “parental neglect” was a major cause.21

With its focus on what the Guild identified as the social pathology of the ghetto,22 the union supported policies that would further segregation. The Committee on Delinquency called for immediate steps, including the segregation of troublesome students in special schools. It also sought to institutionalize teacher resistance to working in “underprivileged areas” and called for teachers so assigned to have “preferred status in obtaining transfers to vacancies in schools in other areas.”

Some of the Guild’s specific policy suggestions aligned with ideas furthered by the TU as well. But the two organizations were miles apart in their understandings of impoverished Black communities and their schools. The TU argued that the major problem was racial bigotry on the part of school officials; the solution included hiring additional African American and Latinx staff and integrating the student body as well as providing adequate services. When the New York Times asserted in November 1941 that a “wave of terror” had hit Harlem, consisting of boys between the ages of twelve and sixteen.”23 In response to the problem, the police commissioner proposed more police be assigned to Harlem to reduce juvenile crime.24 Citron declared that she had witnessed increasing rates of unemployment, the “most wretched of housing conditions,” and thousands of mothers who were forced to work for low wages to supplement the family income. Refuting the Guild’s implicit claim that Harlem parents were responsible for juvenile crime, Citron wrote that her “intimate contact with the people of Harlem,” showed her “how deep and strong are the aspirations of Negro mothers and fathers for their children.”25 Rather than more police, Harlem needed a slum-clearing project, thousands of jobs for young people, and the enforcement of Roosevelt’s executive order 8802 outlawing discrimination in industry.26

Citron also called on the school system to change its curriculum by adding a “full program of Negro history and culture.” Like Citron, the TU contended that teaching Black history and culture was beneficial to Blacks and children of other races and ethnicities because it would make them aware of the role Black people played in building America. Such knowledge would challenge the racist notions that Black people were inferior to other groups.27 Lucile Spence, one of the few African American teachers in the public school system and also a leading member of the TU, helped form the union’s Harlem Teachers Committee. The Harlem Committee led a campaign to include “Negro History” as part of the schools’ curricula. As described in chapters 4 and 5 of this volume, the Harlem Committee created and distributed to school teachers literature on the accomplishments of African Americans. Black history was seen as a way of uplifting Black students because it would challenge the racist distortions in textbooks that depicted Black people as inferior. The TU member Virginia L. Snitow, who taught in Harlem, claimed in an article she wrote for The Nation magazine, that her students came from maladjusted homes and extreme poverty. Despite their difficulties, Snitow maintained that “it is not money we lack, but honest understanding, courage and the will to wipe out an old evil.” According to Snitow, “So simple a thing as introducing discussions of Richard Wright’s Native Son, of important figures in Negro history and culture, of the Negro newspaper” and the “People’s Voice [a Harlem Black weekly], produced a changed class.”28

The TU did not want the teaching of Black history and culture to be limited to students. The Harlem Committee attempted to help teachers gain greater knowledge of the children they taught by providing educators an opportunity to study Black history and culture. Under Spence’s leadership, the Harlem Committee created a number of in-service courses for teachers, including, The Contribution of the Negro People to American Civilization, the Negro in Early American History, the Negro in the Reconstruction Period, and the Negro in Literature, Art and Music. The goal of these and other in-service courses on Black history and culture was to furnish teachers with a better understanding of the social, economic, and political conditions of African Americans.29

Both the Guild and the TU called for changes in Harlem schools in response to popular concern over “juvenile delinquency.” The TU took a more expansive and systematic understanding of the problem, however, but the Guild resorted to blaming Harlem families, echoing the developing “culture of poverty” view of Black children and urban communities.

Blackboard Jungle

After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision finding school segregation unconstitutional, New York City activists highlighted segregation in many areas of the city’s schools. One type of segregation emerged in teacher assignment. Unlike many other urban school systems that typically assigned larger populations of Black teachers to Black-majority schools, New York City continued to have a radically smaller proportion of Black teachers than Black students. Yet segregation appeared in a different form—with far fewer experienced and fully certified teachers assigned to Harlem schools than in other whiter neighborhoods in the city.

On this issue as in earlier cases, TU aligned itself with Harlem parent and community activists whereas the Guild alienated itself from those groups. The Guild had been outspoken on the issue of desegregation. In September 1954, the Guild president, Charles Cogen, pointed out that Richard Parrish, who was an African American and an executive board member of the Teachers Guild, helped bring forth the amicus curiae brief submitted by the American Federation of Teachers in support of the Brown desegregation case. Cogen contended that in “every area of living we need to overrule in practice every vestige of discrimination.” He attempted to put the Guild’s position on desegregation in a trade-union context claiming that the Guild proudly followed the leadership of its international, the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL, immediately following the Brown decision, urged Congress to establish a billion-dollar fund to build new schools and hire teachers. For Cogen and the Guild, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown meant that race was becoming less significant as a factor in hindering advancement. Reading Brown as a statement to the Cold War world, was a “fitting reply to our totalitarian and fellow traveling critics.”30 Cogen drew on remarks by Buell G. Gallagher of City College in claiming that Blacks had advanced from bondage to first-class citizenship faster than any group in human history. Despite the Guild’s rhetorical celebration of Brown, desegregation, and the growing civil rights campaigns in the South, the union became locked in a heated battle with community and civil rights organizations in New York City over its position on desegregating the city’s teacher resources.

A few months after the Brown decision and after the City College professor Kenneth Clark’s charge that the school system was racially segregated, the New York City Board of Education created a Commission on Integration and tasked it with deriving methods of promoting desegregation. The commission was divided into five subcommissions, including one examining the assignment of school personnel. On December 7, 1956, the Sub-Commission on Personnel and Assignments issued a report with sixteen recommendations, including providing schools with large proportions of Black and/or Puerto Rican students more supervisory personnel, relieving teachers of clerical and nonteaching duties, establishing smaller classes, modernizing school facilities, and improving the physical plant. These were largely uncontroversial, but one recommendation set off a firestorm as it sought to address the comparatively low levels of experienced and certified teachers in schools that served New York’s African American students. Although the BOE’s practice was to allow teachers to transfer to their choice of schools once they had achieved sufficient (usually only a few) years of seniority, the Sub-Commission called for more active and equity-minded teacher assignment. The BOE had the power to transfer teachers “when they are needed,” and this power should be used to aid “improvement of teaching conditions in the difficult schools.” “It may be difficult to get teachers’ acceptance at first,” the Sub-Commission recognized, but “it can and must be done.”31 To ensure that skilled teachers were present in schools that needed them, the Sub-Commission recommended that transfers begin in the fall of 1957 and be completed by September 1959. Although it suggested that a voluntary transfer list be created first, vacancies in the predominantly Black and/or Puerto Rican schools that the BOE referred to as “subject schools” should be filled with regular appointed teachers by “declaring in excess the number of teachers necessary to bring the school to the ratio established.”32

The TU joined with parents in their support for the transfer plan, arguing that it was needed to overcome racial disparity in access to qualified teachers. The TU maintained that the major reason that children in Harlem and other Black and Latinx communities performed so poorly in the classroom is that they had so few experienced teachers.

The Guild, usually a vocal supporter of civil rights causes, opposed the plan as “forced transfers” that violated teachers’ rights as professionals. It also opposed such a scheme because the involuntary transfers were based on the racial composition of the schools involved. Guild leaders contended that such race-conscious policy would undermine a merit-based system, a system it thought had been assured with the end of legal segregation after Brown. The scholar Daniel Perlstein notes that the Guild had an “ideological commitment to social democracy” and wanted to “extend America’s political democracy to economic life.” It believed that the trade union movement was the best means of gradually moving the United States to socialism without changing the political order. Once economic conditions improved, race would no longer be a factor in a more perfect meritocracy. Eventually, the logic suggested, “America might achieve a universally held culture, with universal standards of judgment, in which all would assimilate.”33

The Guild had condemned and continued to condemn racial bigotry and celebrated the contributions of African Americans. By the early 1940s, the Guild was presenting strategies for addressing the needs of poor Black and Latinx children, strategies consistent with its social democratic ideals. However, it never condemned racism as an overarching reason for African American and Latinx inequality. It also did not contend that bad schools were the result of a flawed political system, or a problem of structural barriers. Instead, the union concerned itself with people unable to take advantage of meritocracy.34 Thus, the solution, the Guild emphasized, was to help provide opportunities to the “disadvantaged” so they could take advantage of a political and economic system that had provided opportunities to others. Race-conscious teacher assignment seemed to threaten the Guild’s hope for a race-blind meritocratic future.

The Guild campaigned against the teacher transfer plan, declaring, “Integration Yes! Forced Rotation No!” Cogen justified the Guild’s opposition to involuntary transfers by claiming that such a plan would lead to a “transient teaching staff,” lowering the quality of education and antagonizing the professional staff whose goodwill was essential for implementing integration. Cogen argued that “difficult schools” were not a “racial problem,” but he quickly turned to blaming families and communities, as the Guild had done before. The children required more remedial and guidance services, not because of inadequate resources to African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latinx neighborhoods, but because of “complex socio-economic causes.”35

Cogen also shifted to criticizing schools in Harlem and other Black communities of the city as far too dangerous (presumably for his constituent teachers, rather than for children). Student behavior, “varying from child to child, run[s] the gamut from annoyances to serious crimes.” In classrooms, children of color refuse to “stay in their seats, using obscene language toward the teacher and fellow pupils, ringing false fire alarms and in general refusing to obey the necessary rules and regulations of a school situation. Criminal behavior includes assaults, robbery, extortion, destruction of property, starting fires and other types of action which bear some similarity to the Blackboard Jungle.”36 Cogen was referring to a contemporary motion picture that portrayed the daily hardships in the classroom of a new teacher with his students from the inner city.

Civil rights and civic groups attacked the Guild’s position. Edward Lewis, the executive director of the Urban League of Greater New York expressed “shock” at the Guild’s opposition to placing more seasoned teachers to teach in Harlem and other predominantly African American and Latinx communities.37 Speaking to four hundred people attending a conference of the United Neighborhood Houses, Lewis claimed that New York City teachers were involved in an organized campaign to avoid serving children of color. In what the New York Times reporter Murray Illson described as a “bitterly worded keynote speech,” Lester Granger said, “One of the most disturbing symptoms that have recently appeared,” among teachers, is their “organized and sanctioned effort” to avoid serving in predominantly African American and Latinx schools. The Intergroup Committee on New York City Public Schools, which represented twenty-six organizations, publicly denounced the Guild’s and the High School Teachers Association’s opposition to the transfer plan. One member of the Commission on Integration said that the teachers lacked courage. In a letter to the Board of Education president Charles Silver, the Intergroup Committee urged the board to implement the teacher transfer plan without delay. The Guild, which was part of the group, refused to sign the letter to Silver.38 The president of the National Urban League, Granger, argued that it was more than a coincidence “that these difficult schools are almost invariably those with heavy concentrations of mainland and territorial children of dark complexion. Call them Negroes, or call them Puerto Rican, the schools that these children attend are those which too many school teachers seek to avoid—and their avoidance in far too many cases is viewed by their superintendents and principals with a tolerant eye.”39

Cogen accused Granger of confusing dark-skinned children with difficult children, claiming that the problems of integration and difficult schools were two separate issues. Despite this defense, the Guild could not eradicate the perception that it cared more for its teachers than for the children of color they served. By focusing on children’s “deficiencies,” the Guild had failed to address the clearly discriminatory policy that had resulted in unequal teacher assignment. To make matters worse, years of stressing professionalism had left little or no room for parents to become partners with teachers in their children’s education, and the union’s unwillingness to work with community networks had only alienated it from those communities.40

Taking a view much more in line with the views of many Black parents in Harlem and elsewhere, Rose Russell, the legislative representative for the TU, criticized the Board of Education for not taking steps to prepare, educate, and encourage teachers to volunteer to transfer. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times on February 7, 1957, she argued that the board did not mention the improvements it planned to make in the schools or offer an incentive to teachers. She wrote, perhaps naively, that if the “Board discharges its responsibilities teachers will respond, for besides the fear of change there is also a feeling of unpreparedness for the problems to be faced.” As had the Sub-Commission on Assignments and Personnel, Russell urged that transfers had to go hand in hand with a commitment to smaller classes, additional remedial and clerical assistance, and adequate supplies in the subject schools. Incentives for teachers should include “liberalized sabbatical leaves, credit towards salary increments and similar fringe benefits along with a program of reorientation and inter-group education.” By listing all the corequisites for the transfer, Russell was attempting to placate teachers. Accusing them of being racist would only alienate them from the union. Russell hoped that with incentives enough teachers would volunteer so there would be no need for forced transfers.41

Teachers Union leaders knew that if there were any chance of getting teachers to support the plan, they could not afford to alienate them. On the other hand, the union wanted to maintain its commitment to the Black community. Union leaders claimed that principals had organized their faculties and PTAs to conduct a letter-writing campaign against the Sub-Commission’s report. According to Lederman and Russell, it was not too late to undo the damage and they called on the Board of Education to explain the facts of its plan, stop principals from using scare tactics, create school and district conferences, and create a program of improvement and incentives to persuade teachers to transfer to “subject schools.” At its February 20, 1957, meeting, the Executive Board of the TU voted to urge the Board of Education to institute reforms in the schools in African American and Latinx communities and call for volunteers to solve the staffing problem.42

Despite its optimistic statements about voluntary transfers, the TU knew that forced transfers would be necessary, a fact signaled when it publicly backed the Sub-Commission’s recommendations.43 On February 28, the Board of Education officially approved the Sub-Commission’s plan and agreed to submit an estimation of implementation costs to the Board of Estimate. In a letter to the board president Charles Silver, the union asked that the school agency “lay the groundwork for a successful call for volunteers” by creating improvements in the schools, offering incentives for teachers, distributing material, and holding discussions. The call for volunteers, the union argued, was the key ingredient to successful implementation.44

Teacher transfers were not the only issue the TU took on in the 1950s, joining other activists in concern about the “obsolete” condition of many New York City school buildings in Black and Latinx areas. The Urban League invoked the Cold War struggle to make its case for equality in education, quoting Valerie Hawkins, the education director of the Interracial Agency, who argued that the successful Soviet launches of Sputniks 1 and 2 should challenge the system to educate all children “to the best of our ability, without discrimination.” Schools “must develop all our manpower to its utmost potential if we are to retain our self-respect and our security in the world today.”45

In the 1950s, both the Guild and the TU spoke in support of civil rights for New York City school children. Faced with the question of whether they would help redistribute the unequally divided resources—human as well as material—in New York City schools, however, the TU and the Guild took divergent routes. The Guild pointed again to community and family failure as a source of educational inequality, and lodged complaints against race-conscious policy making, which they thought competed with their race-blind meritocratic ideal. The TU, aware also of potential teacher opposition to transfers, nonetheless spoke of the need to equalize teacher resources as well as strengthen Harlem schools.

Ann Matlin taught at PS 184 in Harlem from the early 1940s until she was forced to leave because of her membership in the Communist Party. She recalled that her students would arrive at school hungry because their families could not afford to provide them breakfast. To make matters worse for learning, the school building was dilapidated and classes were overcrowded. Matlin joined the Harlem Committee for Better Schools, a group of parents, teachers from the TU, and community leaders, who conducted rallies, lobbied administrators, and demanded improved conditions for the children of Harlem. Matlin worked with the Harlem Committee to assure that new school buildings be constructed in Harlem. Even though the Board of Education declared that it would not build any new schools during the war, the committee managed to get four new schools built. Matlin joined the TU activists Alice Citron, Norman London, and Morris Seltzer, all members of the Harlem Teachers Committee who worked steadfastly to improve conditions for the children of Harlem.46

Citron, Matlin, London, Seltzer, and other TU members had a broad view of unionism that went beyond providing benefits and higher wages for its members. The Teachers Union’s objective—building a radical movement for social change—connected its concerns to the working-class African American and Latinx communities. TU members established a teacher and community relationship unparalleled in the city’s history. But due to the anticommunist ethos and, at times, hysteria of the Cold War, the TU became a target of the BOE. More than 1,100 members were called before the superintendent of the Board of Education or his representatives and viciously grilled on their political beliefs and associations. Close to 500 TU members were fired, forced to resign, or forced to retire. By 1950, the BOE had passed the draconian Timone Resolution, which denied recognition of the union. Despite its efforts to function, by 1964, the Teachers Union had folded.

With the TU’s demise, a model of teacher-parent cooperation in Harlem and elsewhere was over. In Harlem and other African American and Latinx communities of New York City, members of the New York City Teachers Union forged an alliance with parents and community leaders to help build a coalition to challenge Board of Education policies that denied the children of that community an adequate education. This included eliminating overcrowded classes and dilapidated school buildings, securing experienced teachers and administrators who did not physically abuse students, and using textbooks that did not denigrate people of African origins.

Harlem parent and community organizing alongside the TU managed to persuade the Board of Education to build new school buildings in Harlem, eliminate racist and biased textbooks, and take other steps to improve education in that community. Because of the TU’s isolation and eventual collapse, its rival, the Teachers Guild prospered. Eventually, its brand of unionism became the only game in town. The Guild and later the UFT worked to improve wages and working conditions for teachers but did not cultivate strong alliances with the parents of Harlem and other communities of color in the city. Instead of working with parents, community activists, and civil rights organizations to challenge Board of Education policies that were harmful to students, the Guild’s emphasis on social pathology as the cause of African American and Latinx failure in schools rather than structural inequality only alienated Harlem and other communities of color.

The contrast between the TU and the Guild illustrates that teacher-parent conflict is not inherent in teacher unionism, and that New York City’s teaching force was never a homogeneous entity. By the late 1960s, with the UFT as the dominant voice of teacher unionism, New York City became home to multiple potent confrontation between a predominantly white teachers union and predominantly Black and Latinx communities. From Intermediate School 201 in East Harlem (discussed in chapter 8 of this volume) to Ocean-Hill Brownsville, and across teacher strikes from 1967 through the early 1970s, conflict often characterized teacher-parent relationships. The roots of these confrontations lay in the demise of the TU’s vision of strong teacher and community relations.

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  1. Rachel Ellen Lissy, “From Rehabilitation to Punishment: The Institutionalization of Suspension Policies in Post–World War II New York City Schools” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2015) 23. See also “Harlem Project: The Role of the School in Preventing Maladjustment and Delinquency (1947–1949),” series 240, Board of Education of the City of New York Collection, Municipal Archives (hereafter, BOE, MA)150. ↩︎

  2. Clarence Taylor, Knocking At Our Own Door: Milton A. Galamison and the Struggle to Integrate New York City Schools (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 52–53. ↩︎

  3. On the origins of the “culture of poverty,” see Alice O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), chap. 4. For its consequences in education, see, among others, Jack Dougherty, More Than One Struggle: The Evolution of Black School Reform in Milwaukee (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), chap. 3; and John Spencer, “From ‘Cultural Deprivation’ to Cultural Capital: The Roots and Continued Relevance of Compensatory Education,” Teachers College Record 114, no. 6 (2012), 1-41. ↩︎

  4. Jerald Podair, The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002), 154. ↩︎

  5. Christina Collins, “Ethnically Qualified”: Race, Merit, and the Selection of Urban Teachers, 1920–1980 (New York: Teachers College Press, 2011). ↩︎

  6. James Baldwin, “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White,” New York Times, April 9, 1967. ↩︎

  7. Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003). ↩︎

  8. A growing number of scholars have blamed 1960s Black Power proponents for the tension between Black communities and public-school teachers. For example, see Richard Kahlenberg, Tough Liberal, Al Shanker and the Battle Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); Jonathan Kaufman, Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America (New York: Scribner, 1988); and Joshua Zeitz, White Ethnic New York: Jews, Catholics and the Shaping of Postwar Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007). ↩︎

  9. “Step-Children of New York,” New York Teacher, February 1937, 9. ↩︎

  10. “Step-Children of New York,” New York Teacher, February 1937, 9. ↩︎

  11. “The Schoenchen Case,” Bulletin, December 15, 1936, United Federation of Teachers Collection (hereafter UFT), box 1, folder 2, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University Bobst Library (hereafter Tamiment). ↩︎

  12. “The Schoenchen Case,” Bulletin, December 15, 1936, UFT, box 1, folder 2, Tamiment. ↩︎

  13. “The Schoenchen Case,” Bulletin, December 15, 1936, UFT, box 1, folder 2, Tamiment. ↩︎

  14. “Step-Children of New York,” New York Teacher, February 1937, 9–10. ↩︎

  15. Robert Michael Harris, “‘Teachers and Blacks’: The New York City Teachers Union and the Negro, 1916–1964” (MA thesis, Brooklyn College, 1971), 40–41; and New York Age, January 16, 1937. ↩︎

  16. Eric Schneider, Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), 57. ↩︎

  17. “Harlem, South Central or Cabrini Greens,”, September, 22, 2007,, accessed March 10, 2017.” ↩︎

  18. Guild Bulletin, November 24, 1941, January 16, 1942, UFT, box 1, folder 9, Tamiment. ↩︎

  19. Guild Bulletin, November 24, 1941, UFT, box 1, folder 9, Tamiment. ↩︎

  20. Guild Bulletin, October 22, 1943, UFT, box 1, folder 10, Tamiment. ↩︎

  21. Guild Bulletin, October 22, 1943, UFT, box 1, folder 10, Tamiment. ↩︎

  22. Guild Bulletin, October 22, 1943, UFT, box 1, folder 10, Tamiment. ↩︎

  23. “Crime Outbreak in Harlem Sours Drive by Police,” New York Times, November 7, 1941, p.1 ↩︎

  24. “250 More Police in Harlem to Stamp Out Crime Wave,” New York Times, November 8, 1941, p. 1 ↩︎

  25. Alice Citron, Letter to the Editor of the New York Times, November 12, 1941, p. 22 ↩︎

  26. Alice Citron, Letter to the Editor of the Ne York Times, November 12, 1941, p.22 ↩︎

  27. Clarence Taylor, Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights, and the New York City Teachers Union (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 289–90. ↩︎

  28. Taylor, Reds at the Blackboard, 252. ↩︎

  29. Taylor, Reds at the Blackboard, 287–88. ↩︎

  30. Charles Cogen, “De-Segregation: A Historic Decision, The President’s Column,” Guild Bulletin, September 1954, 2. ↩︎

  31. Report to the Commission on Integration, Board of Education, City of New York by Sub-Commission on Teachers Assignments and Personnel, December 7, 1956. BOE, MA ↩︎

  32. Report to the Commission on Integration, December 7, 1956, ↩︎

  33. Daniel Hiram Perlstein, “The 1968 New York City School Crisis: Teacher Politics, Racial Politics and the Decline of Liberalism” (PhD diss., Stanford University, 1994), 39. ↩︎

  34. Perlstein, “1968 New York City School Crisis,” 45–46. ↩︎

  35. Charles Cogen, “Integration YES! Forced Rotation No!” Guild Bulletin, February 1957, UFT, box 2, folder 46, Tamiment. ↩︎

  36. Cogen, “Integration Yes! Forced Rotation No!” ↩︎

  37. Benjamin Fine, “Teachers Oppose Integration Plan, New York Times, January 18, 1957, p. 13. ↩︎

  38. “26 School Groups Urge Integration,” New York Times, January 1, 1957, p. 33 ↩︎

  39. Murray Illson, “Race Bias is Laid to City Teachers,” New York Times, November 17, 1957, p. 68. ↩︎

  40. “Teachers Reject Bias Accusation,” New York Times, November 18, 1957. ↩︎

  41. Russell to Editor of the New York Times, February 7, 1957, TU Press Release, February 7, 1957, box 44, folder 9, Teachers Union of the City of New York Records, Kheel Center for Labor Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library (hereafter TUCNYR) ↩︎

  42. Russell to Editor of the New York Times, February 7, 1957; and Minutes of Special Executive Board Meeting, February 20, 1957, box 44, folder 14, TUCNYR. ↩︎

  43. TU Press Release, February 26, 1957, box 44, folder 14; and Resolution (n.d)., box 44, folder 14, TUCNYR. ↩︎

  44. TU Press Release, March 2, 1957, box 45, folder 3, TUCNYR. ↩︎

  45. Urban League of Greater New York Press Release, November 20, 1957, box 45, folder 3, TUCNYR. ↩︎

  46. Ann Matlin: Matlin Remembers the Classroom, Dreamers & Fighters: The NYC Teacher Purges, accessed August 2, 2016. For the Harlem Committee, see Taylor, Reds at the Blackboard, 287–291. ↩︎