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


by Ansley T. Erickson and Ernest Morrell

The speakers’ corner at 135th and Lenox Avenue in Harlem drew radicals and revolutionaries, tellers of tales and teachers of the public. In a white stone-fronted building only yards away, a noted novelist worked as a librarian, fostering a refuge for children and adult readers. A few long avenues to the west on Edgecombe Avenue, and a few decades later, mothers risked jail to press for better facilities and qualified educators for their children at Junior High School 136. At the same junior high school and others not far away, teenagers gathered to ride buses downtown to City Hall to press the city to fund new youth programs. From the first signs of their concerted migration in 1899 through the end of the twentieth century, people of African descent labored, organized, imagined, and built Harlem.1

But they did not build from scratch, nor in a landscape entirely under their own control. In 1811, the Commissioner’s Plan for New York City carved most of Manhattan into a regimented grid of north–south avenues plotted 920 feet apart, crossed by east–west streets spaced 200 feet apart. Designed by a politician, a surveyor, and a lawyer, the street grid facilitated the sale and development of land, the conversion of soil into cash.2 These wealthy and powerful white men drew the grid that helped parcel out Harlem, an area that had been farmland tilled in part by enslaved Africans, into a new and profitable residential district. The first sales targets were middle-class white New Yorkers, often of Jewish and European heritage. But not long after, Black residents began to arrive from farther south in Manhattan, where hostile neighbors pushed them out, or from southern states, where Jim Crow sought to hold them in place, or from the West Indies. In Harlem, African American migrants and West Indian immigrants found a landscape of new opportunities. But they also found well-worn pathways of racism, economic exploitation, and political oppression. Like the street grid, these realities formed Harlem’s sightlines and rhythms. Street speakers and librarians and youth organizers imagined their Harlem, striving to build a place that would recognize their full humanity, a place to learn and teach and thrive. But to do so, they had to confront a world very much not of their own making.

Harlem has long been an idea as much as a place, both for its residents and for those looking on from outside.3 The creative efflorescence of the Harlem Renaissance made the place a synonym for literature, music, and art, and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association based there stood for pan-African nationalism and autonomous development.4 In 1935, amid the Depression’s strong grip on Harlem, and again in 1943, with Black soldiers seeing the contradictions between oppression at home and the fight for liberation abroad, Harlem stood also for a place of protest against racism in its northern, urban form.5 The need for that protest only intensified as the era of mass white suburbanization drew resources away from Harlem, and barriers to justice—in education, employment, housing, and political representation—remained high. From a base in Harlem, James Baldwin wrote powerfully in 1963 of the “fire next time,” and Malcolm X addressed street crowds and galvanized a new phase of Black protest.6 By the early 1990s, signs of economic revitalization appeared, and quickly Harlem stood for the reclaiming of the U.S. city by (often white) capital, the radical transformations of gentrification.7

Harlem was a nationally powerful symbol or totem, but at the same time it remained the terrain of families’ and individuals’ intimate lives. Not only did quotidian life often challenge the iconic representations of Harlem, but it proved the falsehood of any idea of a single Harlem story or unification of Harlem voices into a single community. The years of Harlem Renaissance artists and Jazz Age nightlife were also years of steady tenant and labor organizing.8 Images of Harlem as an all-Black space missed the presence and the power of white people who moved through the neighborhood daily as teachers, police officers, or drivers who traversed Harlem streets en route downtown.9 Vibrant protests for Black and Latinx community control of schools gained national attention in the 1960s and 1970s, but these did not wholly displace integrationist efforts, which at times contained their own commitments to democratic governance.10 And even if Harlem seemed constant in one respect—it remained a center of Black life and Black residence—Harlem residents diverged in the ways they constructed their ideas of Blackness, their thinking about race in relationship to gender and class and culture and nation.11 Despite the power of Harlem Renaissance or protest or urban-crisis Harlem, no monolithic Harlem existed. Many experiences of difference, identity, politics, and expression divided Harlem into many stories and many communities.

Harlem schools sat at the juncture of Harlem as a symbol and Harlem as a daily reality. The quest for educational opportunity denied in the South helped propel Black migrants northward. From their arrival, residents pursued a range of innovating educational visions. To do so they worked against overcrowding and understaffing caused by systematic neglect by the city system; school resources and curricula that paid little heed to the stories and perspectives of people of African descent; policies that subtly or overtly encouraged segregation; and teaching methods that denied students’ and community members’ humanity rather than celebrating it.12 Educational activists in Harlem took up a variety of strategies, from leading youth to become educators about African and African American history to organizing parent boycotts to opening pathways for Black and Puerto Rican mothers to become licensed teachers.13

This book is the first volume wholly dedicated to documenting primary and secondary education in Harlem as it evolved across the twentieth century. Across thirteen chapters that narrate Harlem’s educational history from the 1920s through the 2010s, two key themes emerge. First, educational struggle was an ever-present reality in Harlem. Most accounts of urban school systems have emphasized a rise-and-fall trajectory that celebrated early twentieth-century accomplishment as contrasted with a post–World War II decline. But the narrative looks different from the perspective of an African American neighborhood. Black urban dwellers did not enjoy a “rise” in which city schools expanded access and excelled in creating new mobility. And although city schools, like many other aspects of urban infrastructure, faced new challenges in the post–World War II decades, their fall was never so great as to end community investment and striving via education. The variety and endurance of this struggle reveal themselves best when, as this volume does, the work of women, children and youth, and activists across a variety of ideological positions receives the historical attention it merits.

Second, the diversity of Harlem’s community—political, ideological, economical, and cultural—was matched by the diversity of Harlem’s educational visions and strategies for securing them. Just as no single label or image—of literary renaissance or urban crisis, nationalist politics or integrationist protest—could capture the range of experiences of Harlem life and politics, no single educational approach ever did.14 Like the diversity of political approaches that flowered in Harlem, from Garveyite pan-African nationalism to interracial communism to pressures for middle-class respectability, educational approaches ranged from moderate reformism to profound reinvention. To speak again in terms of the street grid, some educational leaders wanted to create safe passage through Harlem’s rectilinear streets; others wanted to excavate the grid and put something new and organic in its place. Harlem’s educational visions were not only varied, but often became national exemplars. The field of Black history had its roots in Harlem’s Schomburg Collection library.15 Kenneth and Mamie Clark pioneered educational practices that informed later “compensatory education.”16 In East Harlem Deborah Meier conceptualized a small-school approach that spread nationally, and Geoffrey Canada imagined community-wide educational transformation through Promise Zones, a model later adopted by federal policy makers under President Obama, to cite only a few examples among many.17 Harlem proved key terrain in which to define what it meant to go to school as a Black person in twentieth-century urban America.

One of the benefits of an edited volume is the opportunity to draw together scholars with a range of disciplinary and methodological angles to consider a common topic. The chapters that follow are written by scholars with expertise in political science, sociology, and film studies, as well as many historians. And among the historians, the range of methodological approaches and source material is wide. The architectural historian Marta Gutman reads the Intermediate School (IS) 201 building itself, and its architectural drawings, as a source, and Daniel Perlstein sees literature as a window into educational thought. Oral-history interviews inform multiple chapters as well. This is far from all that could be done, and we hope this range of sources will remind readers and scholars of the breadth of the historical record and the multiplicity of angles from which historians can explore the educational past.

Although the volume enjoys this interdisciplinary and methodological breadth, it also has some limitations that are important to recognize. Harlem’s geographic as well as conceptual boundaries have shifted over time. The chapters that follow focus most intensively on what, by the mid-1960s, was known as Central Harlem—the streets north of 110th and south of 155th, on the flats that stretched east of Morningside, St. Nicholas, and Colonial (later Jackie Robinson) Parks to Fifth Avenue. From the 1930s through the remainder of the twentieth century, the overwhelming majority of residents in this area were African American or West Indian. Many Harlemites who identified as Black also had Latinx roots, with connections especially to Puerto Rico. And by the 1950s Puerto Rican New Yorkers made up a majority of East Harlem’s population, the area north of Ninety-Sixth Street and east of Fifth Avenue to the Harlem River. This volume gives its most intense attention to Black Americans who were long-term New Yorkers, recent arrivals from the U.S. South, or immigrants from the Anglophone Caribbean. These are certainly not the only Harlem stories to be told, but they merit the sustained focus and investigation we undertake here.

Education at times became the terrain of shared struggle for Harlem’s African American and Puerto Rican communities. We follow African American individuals and organizations into their interaction with sites and struggles in East Harlem, including at Benjamin Franklin High School and IS 201, with many Puerto Rican New Yorkers. However, the volume does not offer a comprehensive view of Harlem’s Latinx educational history. Fortunately, in addition to the existing contributions of scholars Lorrin Thomas, Vanessa Valdez, Sonia Song-ha Lee, and Adina Back, new work in this field is under way.18

Harlem residents participated in and made their mark on higher education—as professors, students, and activists.19 This volume, however, prioritizes public education at the primary and secondary levels. Perhaps some readers will perceive this absence as somewhat ironic, given the editors’ current or recent affiliations with Columbia University and this volume’s placement at Columbia University Press. Columbia has not only been a figure in Harlem’s history, but at times an active agent of oppression.20 In the conclusion we consider the meaning of trying to produce new knowledge about Harlem’s schools in light of this history.

Not Rise-and-Fall but Persistent Struggle

Perhaps the most familiar way to tell the story of urban education in the United States over the twentieth century is to speak of a rise and a fall. U.S. urban school districts rose in the first three or four or six decades of the century, the narrative goes. They became relatively highly resourced and bureaucratically elaborate systems that contributed to significant economic and social mobility for poor and working-class European immigrants streaming into cities. Relative to the educational opportunities available in the rural South, they marked an improvement—if much less than full equality—for Black migrants to northern cities. But then they fell. Exactly when their fates shifted varies by location and interpretation: deindustrialization increased poverty, which in turn generated greater student need while shrinking available resources; supportive political coalitions fractured; educators sought “life adjustment” for students rather than challenging academics.21 (A sloppy and at times racist shadow assumption blames the “fall” on the arrival of majority-Black student populations and fails to identify the actions of neglect and divestment by white-dominated state power that accompanied this transition.22

Like all historical accounts, the rise-and-fall narrative is a creature of the time in which it was crafted as much as it is a depiction of a time in the past. The rise-and-fall story developed amid the intellectual trends and pressures of the Cold War. Much sociology of the late 1950s and early 1960s looked at U.S. cities and communities and saw “the ghetto,” a location of “social disorganization” and a “culture of poverty.” The “urban crisis” was born, and many historians’ energy shifted to understanding the forces of racism and capitalism that constrained and undermined U.S. cities. Less attention went to how African American urbanites defined their own lives and communities. The U.S. metropolitan landscape saw major changes—from the shrinking and suburbanization of industrial work to the boom in white homeownership and wealth accumulation alongside the concentration of poor renters of color in cities.23 Dominant white social scientists of the period paid less attention to broad economic shifts and political choices and focused instead on the culture and predilections of poor people residing in cities, whose children brought this “cultural deprivation” into school.24 Schools “fell” as cities “fell” in the crisis years.

The rise-and-fall framework adopted by many historians in the 1980s and 1990s allowed them to interrogate what political alliances dissolved, what community conditions grew in ways that created new challenges for educators. It also allowed them to move beyond earlier narratives that either celebrated schools as engines of mobility or condemned them as mechanisms of class reproduction. At various moments, elements of each of those interpretations was true.25

The rise-and-fall narrative fits best at the scale of a whole city—Detroit, New York City, Atlanta, or San Francisco. In the early twentieth century, urban municipalities like New York invested in education by building schools to serve student populations that were expanding rapidly both in number and in the extent of schooling that students achieved. Attending high school at the turn of the century marked a person as part of an educational elite; by midcentury, doing so was a normative experience for U.S. adolescents. In this context of growing educational demand, city school systems also supported an increasingly professionalized teaching and administrative workforce, and an extensive educational bureaucracy.26

But a neighborhood’s story can diverge from a city’s story. By focusing not on a city or school district as a whole, but on a single Black neighborhood, this volume explores the trajectory of urban education from a new angle.27 Resources in expanding urban school systems flowed unequally. Even during the “rise,” some areas of the city lacked new facilities, new programs, and newly trained and credentialed teachers as others took these features for granted across the twentieth century. Harlem—alongside growing Black neighborhoods in Brooklyn—experienced segregation that exacerbated overcrowding, and district choices led to fewer trained and experienced teachers and fewer new educational facilities than in other city neighborhoods.28 There was no early twentieth-century “rise,” no time when investment matched what students needed or deserved, in Harlem.

Moving away from the rise-and-fall framework helps illuminate the forces that constrained Harlem schooling in the early part of the twentieth century, but also makes space for those efforts to support and improve it. Whereas early historical works on Harlem, most notably Gilbert Osofsky’s Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto (1966), devoted much of their energy to the disinvestment and abandonment of the area by white residents, new scholarship on Harlem identifies the persistent efforts to build and sustain Black community despite structural and political obstacles.29 Later scholarship recognized the severity of privation in Harlem and the forms of resistance that Harlem residents deployed. Cheryl Greenberg’s “Or Does It Explode?” links a careful analysis of Great Depression–era unemployment to the political organizing that Harlemites depended on to survive those especially hard years. More recently, Shannon King’s Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway? reinterprets the earliest decades of Black Harlem by tracing the way working-class Harlem men and women forged alliances around labor, housing, policing, and safety in search of “community rights.” Kevin McGruder complements this view by tracing the way Harlem residents made physical spaces for the learning and leisure of local children. Through McGruder’s and King’s work, we see that Harlem never existed without organized community-focused Black activism reflecting a variety of strategic and ideological orientations.30

Education was a major focus of organizing, imagining, and building in Harlem. Just as the lack of sufficient or equitably provided educational facilities and resources undermines the idea of a “rise,” Harlem defies the idea of a “fall” as well. Surely, high and rising levels of poverty in the community in the 1960s, and resource cuts that accompanied the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, all within the intensifying drug economy of these decades, sharpened Harlem’s educational challenges. Yet even as economic changes in the neighborhood and the city brought straitened times, educational activism continued apace, in varied voices and with varied targets. And in some contexts, educational innovation and even striking success developed. The forces of “ghettoization,” disinvestment, and decline shaped Harlem—but so did persistent struggle and constant contestation. Just as we reject the notion of a rise because of its message of generalized prosperity and investment when Harlem saw no such thing, we refute the idea of a fall. Such a framing obscures the continued existence of educational success alongside educational challenge and minimizes persistent educational striving.31 This volume works toward the unsilencing of these narratives.32

Many Voices in Harlem’s Black Freedom Struggle for Education

The most often told element of Harlem’s educational history is the IS 201 struggle.33 Black and Puerto Rican parents, long frustrated at overcrowded and aged facilities, pressed for a new intermediate (or middle-grades) school. In keeping with the long tradition of activism against segregation in Harlem, they wanted it to serve Black, white, and Puerto Rican students. The school system provided a new building that opened in 1966, but it displayed old patterns of segregation. IS 201 represented the city’s deep resistance to desegregation, and for many advocates the experience became a turning point. If desegregation was impossible, more assertive local democratic control—or “community control” of education was even more necessary. IS 201 became one focal point in a national effort for community control of urban schools.

The IS 201 story neatly aligned with earlier and popular views of civil rights movement history: a nonviolent integrationist movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. gave way to a more militant and separatist Black Power struggle with Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael leading. And when community control in practice faced struggles and challenges, those difficulties only seemed to reinforce the view that the “Martin to Malcolm X” narrative was not a story only of change, but of decline. But as Heather Lewis has shown, community control opened opportunities for educational innovation as well. What mattered at IS 201 and other sites in the New York City community control experiment was not only what political figureheads said, but what teachers, mothers, and community members imagined and achieved.34 Russell Rickford also reinterprets the community-control struggle by shifting away from a binary view of integrationism versus community control to recognize that, again with attention to a wider range of actors than the movement’s more famous voices, strains of integrationism and striving for local democratic power over schooling ran inseparably through decades of Black educational activism.35

As have Rickford and Lewis, this volume consciously pursues the variety of educational visions that were shaped in Harlem, not only in the years of the IS 201 struggle but earlier and later. Earlier scholarship on Harlem pushed civil rights history to recognize the presence of women and grassroots activists, alongside celebrated male leaders in courtroom fights and national marches.36 We contribute to this effort with a particular focus on education, seeking out the work and visions of parents, young people, aspiring teachers, artists, and many others.

Out of this effort comes the second major theme of this book: that Harlem’s educational visions were as diverse, as varied, at times as contradictory as Harlem residents. Integrationist efforts coexisted and were in conversation with communist organizing, efforts at participatory democracy and liberatory pedagogy. The sweeping range of Harlem political visions—from pan-Africanism to middle-class striving to interracial communism to capitalist entrepreneurism to Black Arts nationalism—all had educational implications, and often explicitly pursued educational visions. And all operated inseparably from the ongoing effort to define Black identity and gender identity in the context of broader structures of racism and sexism.

In Harlem’s history overall, scholars have found new interpretations by consciously broadening their scope of inquiry—to seek new voices and to credit the ideas that these new voices offered. Continuing to do so here helps offer a robust sense of the dynamic, varied, and consequential range of educational imagining under way over the course of twentieth-century Harlem. We seek not only to recognize this variety, to make the important if often strikingly absent point that a range of Harlem residents cared about and acted on their schools. We seek also to follow the best of recent scholarship not only in acknowledging this range of actors but also in honoring them with the respect that is full historical analysis. Advocates’ work in Harlem, as everywhere, was at once bold, principled, compromised, and flawed. It was a historical force of its own and a window into the shape and limits of contemporary thought.37

The story of Harlem schools aligns with neither an image of an educational “rise” in the first decades of the twentieth century nor an educational decline in the latter decades. At no point in the twentieth century did a majority of Black Harlem residents enjoy confidence that their children would receive decent, sufficient, and equitable schooling. But many Harlem community members from diverse identity and ideological positions labored, theorized, imagined, organized, and built toward this goal. Their efforts, alongside local, citywide, and national networks of allies, were constant and varied in both strategy and imagined outcome. And they were highly consequential even if not fully successful.38 Recognizing their work and the contexts against which they labored offers scholars of Black life and education a new view of education in the urban United States.

Before Our Story Begins: Schools and the Making of a Black Mecca, 1890 to 1915

The thirteen chapters in this volume explore the past one hundred years—roughly 1919 to the present. Harlem’s history as an African American community began a few decades earlier, and so we offer a summary of that historical preface to our work.

With its only partially developed street grid, open lots sitting beside strings of three or four brownstones, Harlem in 1905 looked very little like the densely populated and renowned center of Black life in the United States that it would soon become. But in the early years, the basic contours of later struggles over decent housing, decent jobs, and just education were evident—and so were the sources of power from which Harlem residents would draw: collective organizing, political engagement, and cultural expression to understand and transform their community.

When real estate developers remade Harlem from farmland to New York’s next subway-linked residential neighborhood, beginning in the 1890s, they drew middle-class families, with children in tow. Demand for schooling followed, and twenty-five New York City public schools served the blocks between 110th and 155th Streets, from the Hudson River to the East River, as of 1910. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Black residents composed roughly 5 percent of Harlem’s population and were scattered broadly but thinly across the neighborhood as in the city overall. The majority of the initial population consisted of middle-class white residents. They came to Harlem, but in numbers lower than developers anticipated, in part because they had their choice of many portions of the expanding city and its nascent suburbs.39

By 1910, Harlem had a small but growing center of Black settlement. New York’s residential geography pressed Black residents seeking to escape cramped and substandard housing and hostile neighbors in other Manhattan neighborhoods toward Harlem as apartments became available there. The Great Migration brought streams of African American southerners northward as they ran from Jim Crow violence and privation and toward jobs made available when white workers headed to World War I and toward schoolrooms that were overcrowded and underresourced, but more accessible and extensive than what Black communities and educators had eked out in the hostile South. Railroad lines carried former sharecroppers and laborers, alongside teachers and doctors straining against the confines of segregation and oppression, north to Detroit or Chicago, Philadelphia or New York City.40 Coming from the West Indies, as did nearly 40,000 Harlem residents between 1900 and 1930, some Harlem residents drew on generations-long experience with formal education; many southern migrants, by contrast, had experienced only limited formal schooling in a public school system that had been systematically underfunded by local white officials and was often hard to reach in a dispersed rural landscape.41

Whether coming from inside the city, up from the South, or out of the Caribbean, migrants to Harlem carried the hope that Harlem would be the soil in which dreams for themselves, their families, and their communities would flourish. It was at times rocky and resistant soil, as the story of housing in Harlem well attests. Migrants to Harlem often found better housing stock but still-strong lines of segregation. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Black individuals and families took up residence near 135th Street and Lenox Avenue and then expanded block by block outward, via home purchases and renting. Areas of Black settlement at times opened via negotiation, as white landlords were desperate for tenants as supply temporarily exceeded demand. Black landlords saw a profitable new market as well. White resistance came alongside demand for Black residents’ dollars, though. There was some physical violence, but more frequently white homeowners used paper weapons. They banded together in restrictive covenant agreements (even though New York State court ruled these illegal) that prevented ownership or rental to Black families. These mechanisms proved less strong than did the combination of profit seeking and white racist fear: more and more white residents left Harlem, and landlords rented apartments in tenement buildings on side streets, larger apartments on the avenues, and subdivided or let out whole brownstones to Black tenants who had few options in the broader New York City housing market. In Harlem, as in city neighborhoods around the United States, segregation inflated demand, allowing landlords to press rents ever higher. Working-class families responded by taking in boarders and doubling up within apartments, turning Harlem into one of the most densely populated areas of Manhattan.42

New York City stopped formally segregating students along color lines in 1883, but school zone lines reinforced housing patterns that concentrated Black families in some of Harlem’s schools and away from other parts of the city. By 1913, Black students constituted more than a third of the student populations at three Harlem elementary schools; another four Harlem schools served between 12 percent and 15 percent African American students. For the very small number of Black teachers who found employment in New York’s public schools, most found positions in Harlem schools—as at Public School (PS) 89, where 21 percent of the faculty was Black.43

Jacob Theobald became principal of PS 89 in 1906, as a growing number of Black students attended the school. It sat closest to Harlem’s initial Black residential core around Lenox Avenue and 135th Street. Theobald celebrated the great effort that Harlem families made to encourage schooling: “There is not another [part of the city] where so much is sacrificed and even want is endured . . . to keep the boy in school.” Theobald connected his school to the lives of Harlem adults as well as children. Opening the Lenox Community Center in the 1910s enabled public lectures, like those offered by the Harlem orator and socialist Hubert Harrison, as well as clubs, classes, and other community events. Theobald’s efforts added to those already undertaken by networks of Harlem men and women, and youth, who created spaces for recreation and learning when Black Harlem residents were still denied access to Manhattan’s equivalent spaces for white teens and children. PS 89 was a center of community activity and an overcrowded and underfunded institution.44 This duality of limitations and persistent ambition continued through the next century.

Overview of the Book

This volume traces the story of schooling in Harlem through thirteen chronologically organized chapters, as follows.

Part I: Debating What and How Harlem Students Learn in the Renaissance Years and Beyond

The literature and art and sparkling jazz-club nightlife that emerged in the Harlem Renaissance long drew historians’ attention, but a steady, quiet movement pressed forward among lesser known Harlem residents as well. Harlem’s tenants and laborers campaigned against the material oppressions that at times informed and at times diverged from the images Harlem artists offered up. Harlem residents’ efforts to create educational spaces, both formal and informal, for their children aligned with the activism and organizing under way simultaneously in other aspects of Harlem life, in housing, labor, and political participation.45 Educational efforts broadly defined—from creating a space for boys to play basketball to forming study circles on African and African American history—represented one way in which Harlemites pursued ideas of self and community advancement.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, well before James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, and other celebrated voices of the Black intellectual elite declared Harlem the “Mecca of the New Negro,” Black men and women showed through their collective efforts and their individual commitments that they placed great value on the safety and education of their children.46 They pushed to make good use of the resources the city offered, but did not hesitate to point out the ways these were strained and insufficient. There was no universal agreement on what education should mean for Harlem’s children, nor was there easy access to what was needed. But a range of Harlem actors made it clear that schooling would be a central concern in the making of their communities as well as in how they understood themselves as Black Americans. This section explores that concern from three vantage points: the work of Harlem Renaissance writers, community leaders’ debates about the curriculum in Harlem schools, and the trajectory of Harlem’s Wadleigh High School for Girls.

The most publicly celebrated representations of Harlem life in the early twentieth century came from Harlem Renaissance artists, who crafted new U.S. art—in jazz and poetry and literature and visual art—out of an interracial network of creativity. They were criticized by some as naive about the political power of their medium or as insufficiently engaged with the daily lives of their Harlem neighbors.47 But they saw in the oppressions and opportunities of New York and Harlem grist for work that expressed Black humanity with fullness and complexity, and broadcast this vision to the world.

As Daniel Perlstein shows in chapter 1, New Negro and Renaissance writers and thinkers of the early 1920s were education thinkers. Drawing on New Negro thought from the 1920s as well as (primarily white) progressive education discourse in the same years, Harlem writers made schools, schooling, and teaching central in their writing. They incorporated progressive educational ideas to critique dehumanizing schooling practices and craft a view of education for Black students that would foster their own sense of humanity amid the oppressive U.S. racial, political, and economic order. Daniel Perlstein uncovers a Renaissance educational discourse that was not previously appreciated by historians or literary scholars. The writers Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen (the latter a Harlem branch librarian for the New York Public Library) have written about how Black humanity and oppressive southern Jim Crow schooling were irreconcilable.48

Against this literary backdrop, innovating Black women educators working in both public and private schools in Harlem in the 1930s sought to create spaces for Black children’s self-directed activity while fostering alternatives to the identities a racist world had assigned them. Perlstein shows how, at Gertrude Ayer’s PS 24 just south of Mount Morris Park and at The Modern School led by James Weldon Johnson’s niece Mildred Johnson Edwards, Harlem educators worked to bring these ideas explored in literature into the school lives of children and teachers.

Harlem school administrators took up another strain of progressivism, one focused more on sorting and categorizing students in the name of aid and efficiency. As Thomas Harbison details in chapter 2, the schools’ leadership in the 1910s and 1920s responded to the growing presence of Black southern and West Indian students by encouraging separate educational experiences for them. In doing so, white Harlem school leaders, like many New York City educators before them in earlier waves of student population growth and immigration, judged that the existing curriculum was inappropriate for the needs of new arrivals and emphasized separate, specialized approaches. Established Black leaders in Harlem, many of them middle-class men who thought migrants needed to assimilate to new cultural and class norms and to use vocational education to prepare entry into low-skilled but available work, saw schools’ emphasis on adjustment as congruent with their own philosophy.

As the Great Depression tightened its grip on Harlem, a street uprising was triggered in 1935 by perceived mistreatment of a youngster by a storeowner. The subsequent local investigations of the Harlem uprising of 1935 and the conditions that helped feed it provided an opportunity for Harlem residents, teachers, and leaders to name the conditions they faced in their schools. The Board of Education’s earlier emphasis on character education and vocational education, especially for Black students recently arrived from the South, seemed to many in Harlem like just another mode of educational neglect, an attempt to “segregate the Negro educationally.” Parent leaders, civic leaders, and some teachers spoke against the Board of Education’s continued assertions that “adjustment” to the unequal world was enough educational ambition. As Harlem residents organized “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” protests against racist hiring and mobilized against Met Life’s construction of segregated housing in Manhattan, an education that accommodated itself to inequality appeared especially insufficient.49 In 1930, roughly a third of a million people of African descent lived in Harlem, where an area of roughly six square miles or four hundred city blocks formed one of the largest and most recognized Black urban settlements in the United States, and one of its densest residential areas anywhere. By the 1930s, thirteen of Harlem’s fourteen elementary schools enrolled almost exclusively Black students. The cumulative effect of overcrowding and underinvestment in the 1920s meant that even before poverty rates rose and realities such as worsening child hunger and housing insecurity made their mark on classrooms, Harlem schools were struggling. Harlem came to symbolize urban educational neglect for African Americans, and debate about how to contest this neglect and refashion schools revealed the diversity of thought within Harlem’s many communities.

In chapter 3, Kimberley Johnson explores how individual white resistance, demographic changes in Harlem, and segregationist school zoning policy produced the closure of Harlem’s Wadleigh High School for Girls. Opened in Harlem in 1902 as a flagship academic school for a predominantly white population, Wadleigh’s Black population grew gradually over the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the educators and community leaders who knew the school well faced two competing realities: they recognized the racist tracking that consigned many Black students to the school’s underresourced vocational courses, but they also hoped that the school could continue serving a diverse population of girls of European, Caribbean, and African descent. Their hope for an integrated school faced resistance from white parents who withdrew their daughters.

By 1945, there were almost no white students at Wadleigh. The Board of Education agreed to sustain Wadleigh after plans for closure generated organized protest from teachers and leaders at the school. The school remained open, but as Johnson writes, “The New York City Board of Education proved unwilling to support a well-resourced majority-Black school or to desegregate the school.” In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, as in later phases of Harlem’s educational history, advocates struggled to choose the most effective routes to navigate the narrow straits left by official neglect and white resistance to strong Black schools in Harlem.

Part II: Organizing, Writing, and Teaching for Reform in the 1930s Through the 1950s

By the 1930s Harlem coalesced as a leading center of Black life in the United States, one that demonstrated powerfully the multiple forms of oppression that Black urban communities faced. Simultaneously, though, Harlem’s educational landscape illustrated the breadth of responses to this oppression. Not only did Harlem residents take varied strategic or philosophical approaches but they also worked in varied networks and groups—from working-class consumers to elite ministers, interracial teachers’ networks to students in junior high school classes—in the search for equal and just schooling.

Some Harlem educational advocates pursued their work with a focus on the curriculum—some rooted in the interracialism of the 1930s and 1940s, others like Langston Hughes interested in addressing the absence of African American history in many New York classrooms. These efforts at times depended on interracial networks of teacher labor activists, often with organizational ties to the Communist Party. The Teachers Union, a citywide organization also tied to the Communist Party, fostered an interracial network of activist teachers in Harlem. They spoke out in the 1935 postriot investigations and worked inside their schools and beyond for more just education for Harlem students.50

Chapter 4, by Lisa Rabin and Craig Kridel, examines the work of the Teachers Union’s Harlem Committee and its effort to use film to encourage classroom conversation about racism and injustice. In East Harlem’s Benjamin Franklin High School, and later in Central Harlem’s James Fenimore Cooper Junior High School, teachers used clips of Hollywood films of the era to launch critical discussions of racism in the United States. Their intervention in the curriculum was more modest than that of The Modern School educators described in chapter 1, but they sought to ensure that school spaces in Harlem linked to nationally pressing issues including lynching. In the process, Black students voiced their developing awareness of the politics of representation in mass media.

The Harlem Committee did not speak for all New York City or all Harlem teachers, the vast majority of whom were white and lived well outside of Harlem’s neighborhoods.51 The divide between local educational leadership—including Board of Education officials, local principals, and some teachers—and community leaders, parents, and activists was on sharpest display in a 1937 mock trial of a principal. Illustrating the importance of Harlem’s churches as civic and political infrastructure, Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s Abyssinian Baptist Church hosted the two-thousand-person event in which PS 5 principal Gustav Shoenchen was “tried,” in absentia, for the alleged beating of a fourteen-year-old student. With the Board of Education refusing to act, Harlem religious, civic, and political leaders united in their condemnation of Shoenchen and his seeming indifference to the needs and humanity of Black students and parents. The Teachers Union stood with Harlem leaders and firmly condemned Shoenchen, but the more recently formed Teachers Guild aligned itself with the Board of Education, signaling its acquiescence in an educational system that persistently underserved Black students.

Not all Harlem educators were school teachers, however. As Jonna Perillo shows in chapter 5, the poet Langston Hughes decided to address the persistent absence of African and African American history in school curricula. Hughes drew on his skill as a writer to create a textbook, The First Book of Negroes, and then visited schools in Harlem and beyond to read for students and encourage classroom use. Despite his fame, Hughes was motivated by more than a desire to intervene favorably in the lives of Harlem youngsters. He also needed the income that book sales offered.

Over the immediate post–World War II years, Harlem suffered the same systematic disinvestment, via shifts in public expenditure and private markets, as did cities around the country. Although industrial production was never the prime source of employment for Harlem workers, the decline in shipping and light manufacturing, from Brooklyn to the Bronx as well as closer to home, made finding work harder and stripped away the possibility of picking up additional shifts or work to fill employment gaps on the docks.

The public policy incentives of mass white suburbanization continued to make their mark on Harlem in the 1940s and beyond, even though “white flight” had been visible from the 1910s. Few white families resided in the core central Harlem blocks from 110th through 155th Streets in the 1950s, but white outmigration from other parts of the city created new kinds of movement in Harlem. Many aspiring middle-class Harlemites looked outside of Manhattan, to Queens or Bronx neighborhoods that had previously been segregated white but that now opened to Black people as white residents sought to move farther out, beyond the city line to the County suburbs. This movement created two distinctly postwar U.S. residential forms—the expansive new and almost exclusively white developments of the Levittowns and beyond, and the consciously middle-class Black developments of St. Albans and Hollis or East Elmhurst in Queens and similar areas in the Bronx. Moving out of Harlem became a part of the story for Black residents as it had been for white residents earlier.

Opportunities for land ownership and homeownership pulled Black families to Queens, but so did concern about the ways Harlem was changing. By the late 1950s, the heroin trade made an increasingly profound mark on Harlem. Harlem was New York City’s heroin marketplace, a geographically concentrated distribution center that felt the impact of the trade far out of proportion to its size. Harlem was doing New York City’s drug work. For many Harlem families with the option to do so, rising concern about drug-related violence and nuisances proved a push to leave the area. The combined effects of deindustrialization, growing poverty, and middle-class outmigration made Harlem a more solidly poor and working-class community by the 1960s. It was by no means economically homogeneous, but many of the middle-class Black families who had lived close by and sent their children to some, if not all, of Harlem’s public schools were shifting away.

The post–World War II years were also times of transition for New York City’s teachers. Cold War pressures and targeting of teachers with communist affiliations weakened the Teachers Union, which had been a consistent voice in favor of better curricula and resources for Harlem students. The Teachers Guild, rising in influence in the same years, made less effort to connect itself to local school and community issues and emphasized teacher job security and compensation. The transition from the Teachers Union to the Teachers Guild left Harlem parents and students feeling more divided from teachers than united with them in their educational struggles. This division only reinforced the sharpening class divisions between increasingly poor Harlemites and middle-class (and predominantly white) New York City teachers living farther and farther from Harlem. The new United Federation of Teachers, recognized with collective bargaining rights in 1961, followed the Teachers Guild’s model. As Clarence Taylor details in chapter 6, transitions in Harlem teachers union politics helped set the stage for later fissures between teachers unions and community members in New York and beyond.

In the 1950s and 1960s Harlem moved from being a community segregated by race to one increasingly segregated by both race and class. This transition was fueled in part by growing opportunities for middle- and working-class Black people in other areas of the city previously closed to them. In 1970, Harlem tracts had between 21 percent and 40 percent of individuals living in poverty; by 1980, those living in poverty now represented 36–50 percent of those tracts’ population. By contrast, the national poverty rate hovered between 11 percent and 15 percent.52 Private and government investment declined as community need increased, and the ripples of Cold War politics narrowed the ways in which Black activists could contest these conditions.

Part III: Divergent Educational Visions in the Activist 1960s and 1970s

Recollecting his Harlem childhood, Walter Dean Myers wrote about the magic of its streets and his affection for them. By the early 1960s, fewer Harlemites spoke so confidently, with more expressing worry over the corrosive influence of the heroin trade and continually neglected housing in a community that had lost much of its economic diversity.53 Harlem’s school buildings showed the wear of decades with little new construction. Citywide policies that reinforced segregation (through school zoning) and inequality (as in high rates of unlicensed or temporary teachers in Harlem) worsened the conditions that Harlem students found in classrooms each morning.54

The essays in this section reinterpret educational activism in 1960s Harlem from new angles. They illustrate the tremendous strategic and imaginative range of Harlem educational activists, and the regenerative energy that created novel educational spaces and transformed existing ones with new meanings.

In early 1960s Harlem, a network of social scientists and social work professionals decided to make youth perspectives and youth leadership central to their effort to understand Harlem’s needs and propose a youth program for the neighborhood. As Ansley T. Erickson shows in chapter 7, HARYOU (or Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited), developed by Kenneth Clark and colleagues, became a space where Harlem youth from fourteen to twenty-one years of age debated and investigated their Harlem and tried to imagine its future. Represented in other scholarship as an illustration of the vulnerabilities of the War on Poverty Community Action programs it helped inspire, HARYOU’s work reveals a commitment to young people as experts on their own lives and communities. HARYOU countered the language of cultural deficit and pathology then taking hold—including in the work of Clark. HARYOU students worked as researchers, teachers, community organizers, and artists whose words spoke to the world they knew.

HARYOU shared some ideas about local knowledge and self-determination with the community control activism taking form in the same years in East Harlem. East Harlem and Central Harlem residents worked to shape one of the Ford Foundation–supported “demonstration districts” around the planned Intermediate School 201 on 128th Street and Madison Avenue.

In chapter 8, Marta Gutman uses the tools of architectural history to yield a new interpretation of IS 201’s creation and operation. Gutman recognizes the building’s contemporary impact as a symbol of continued segregation after official promises that it would be otherwise. Gutman sees in its design not only a problematic separation from the local landscape—as many contemporary observers noted—but an effort to compensate for segregation with fine finishes and modern design. In this way the school’s opening in 1966 Harlem harked back to the 1940s and 1950s “equalization” efforts in which segregationist southerners tried to weaken calls for desegregation by building new facilities.

Gutman’s analysis continues into the years after the opening and initial protests, when IS 201 functioned as a local middle school. Working in the tradition of Henri Lefebvre and his understanding of the multiple processes through which spaces come to have social meanings, Gutman explores the ways teachers and community members in the school redefined its classrooms, hallways, and auditoriums with opportunities for community building and learning in the tradition of the African diaspora.

Russell Rickford’s chapter 9 shows that the search for autonomous Black educational spaces extended well beyond IS 201. As Daniel Perlstein demonstrated with an earlier generation of Renaissance art in Harlem, Rickford shows that “Black Power in Harlem was in many respects a renaissance of educational thought and practice.” Tracing small organizations—some fleeting, some more enduring—in the 1960s and 1970s shows that Harlem was the home of myriad ways of translating Black Power thought into educational practice. Some new educational spaces aligned with contemporary efforts to improve public schools—as in the West Harlem Liberation School that operated during a 1968 teachers’ strike, the Congress of Racial Equality’s proposal for a Harlem-only public school district, or organizing for a new high school rather than the state office building slated for the storied corner of 125th Street and Seventh Avenue. Others created intentionally autonomous, consciously oppositional educational institutions—such as the Nation of Islam’s primary and secondary schools. And yet others, such as the summer program imagined by Queen Mother Audley Moore, sought to carry Black children away from Harlem, if briefly, to a farm in Upstate New York.

Both the volume and the range of these educational visions and the institutions they generated matter. In their number, they attest again to the ways Harlem residents persistently marshaled resources to the education of their children. And in their variation, they show the centrality of educational theory and practice to all political endeavors to reimagine Black life. Even as many Harlem residents decried their local schools as oppressive engines of control and neglect, they found hope and power in schooling and school-building.

Many of the important examples of 1960s and 1970s educational imagining in Harlem proved ephemeral. Freedom schools lasted a few weeks, and HARYOU programs foundered in political controversy. But as Nick Juravich shows in chapter 10, Harlem birthed enduring educational innovations as well. Now a common feature of U.S. schools, paraprofessional jobs in schools were the invention of the 1960s. The paraprofessional educator sat at the nexus of 1960s job-creation programs and school-improvement efforts focused on closing the cultural divide between a predominantly white and middle-class teaching force and local Black and Latinx students. Black and Puerto Rican women, many of them mothers of children who attended the schools in which they worked, gained employment and access to college courses through the first forms of the paraprofessional program. They filled a wide range of roles as classroom and student aides, translators and curriculum developers, and through their presence, they linked the local community with the inside of the school building.

In the midst of intense conflict for community control between a majority-white teachers union and majority–Black and Latinx communities, which produced the massive and long 1968 teachers’ strike, the United Federation of Teachers won the support of paraprofessionals in its search for labor representation. Once unionized, paraprofessionals saw their compensation improve, but earlier efforts to create a pathway for working-class women of color into the teaching profession diminished in the context of austerity and shifting educational priorities.

Harlem faced several fundamental challenges in the 1960s and 1970s—products of the reorganization of metropolitan space occurring across the United States and of the particular dynamics of divestment and segregation in New York City. Those conditions never squelched the varied, persistent work of Harlem educators, community organizers, parents, and youth to understand their community’s challenges and develop ideas and institutions to pursue empowering education. Some of those ideas, like paraprofessionals, took hold across the nation and continue to do so at present; others, like freedom schools or youth research programs, still echo in work with children today. Whether permanent or ephemeral, the educational visions described in these chapters show that even in the hard years of the 1960s and 1970s, Harlem was far from a place of crisis or despair alone. It was also a space of intensive educational imagining, of reconceptualizing what schooling and learning could mean in Black America.

Part IV: Post–Civil Rights Setbacks and Structural Alternatives

Continuing the historical inquiry of the previous sections, each chapter in part 4 also offers a look at the past that can shed light on questions of the present.

In 1975, New York City faced a massive financial crisis that sent city leaders to Washington seeking, unsuccessfully, a federal bailout. In chapter 11, Kim Phillips-Fein and Esther Cyna show that the consequences of the crisis were especially visible in Harlem—with cutbacks in school facilities and programs occurring more there than in other areas of the city. As at each phase of Harlem’s educational history, however, Harlem community members contested this unfairness and the results not of the fiscal crisis but of the city’s decision to respond to it with austerity.

Like many U.S. urban school systems in the early twenty-first century, New York has experimented over the past few decades with new forms of school design, organization, and governance. Harlem has been a particularly intense locus of these changes, with a large concentration of charter schools operating in the neighborhood today. As Brittney Lewer shows in chapter 12, charter school policy in Harlem has roots that reach back to the 1960s community-control effort. By tracing the work of the education activist Babette Edwards over decades, Lewer recognizes the how multiple phases of Harlem parent- and community-led school-improvement efforts flowed together and diverged.

Edwards pushed hard for community control of schools in the mid-1960s, and served as a member of the IS 201 governing board until 1971. She became frustrated with the limits of local democratic control under New York City’s decentralization structure and the constraints on school change created, in her view, by teachers union power. She turned to new approaches that she felt would place more power directly in the hands of Harlem parents directly. Her support for public school improvement continued, but she also became one of the early Black advocates for vouchers and, later, the head of a team seeking to build a community-focused charter school in Harlem. Through her own intellectual and political trajectory, Edwards bridges what are sometimes conceived of as separate or even conflicting educational efforts in Harlem.

The composition of Harlem’s teaching force has also undergone dramatic changes over the past few decades. As the historian Bethany L. Rogers and the sociologist Terrenda C. White show in chapter 13, the gradual increase in the presence of Black and Latinx teachers in Harlem over the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s reversed in the twenty-first century. Proportionally fewer teachers of color teach in Harlem’s District 5 today than did previously. In their preliminary analysis, Rogers and White see multiple causal factors for this increase and then subsequent decline—from a confluence of policies in teacher assignment as well as preparation and evaluation alongside high turnover and the emergence of school choice in Harlem. Rogers and White recognize both the immediate and historical significance of the presence of Black teachers for their students as well as communities.

Through these thirteen chapters, this volume demonstrates the persistence of educational commitment and imagining on the part of Harlem children, parents, and educators. These visions faced steep obstacles woven from a variety of sources on the common warp of racism and white supremacy.

Consciously or otherwise, ideas of the past inform approaches to the present. Today, Harlem residents continue to face massive challenges in securing just and powerful education for their children. We hope that this focused, nuanced, and humane attention to the area and its schools, recognizing interconnections with as well as distinctions from the broader New York City story, offers one source of support for their efforts.

Next: Chapter 1

  1. Manning Marable. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (New York: Viking, 2011); Jeffrey Perry, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883–1918 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008); Adina Back, “Exposing the ‘Whole Segregation Myth’: The Harlem Nine and New York City’s School Desegregation Battles,” in Freedom North : Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940–1980, ed. Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 65–91; “Memo to the Thousands of Supporters of Harlem Youth Day,” April 9, 1963, Library of Congress, Kenneth Clark Papers, box 50, file 2, attached to Minutes of the Meeting of the Board of Directors, April 11, 1963; and Shannon King, Whose Harlem Is This Anyway? Community Politics and Grassroots Activism During the New Negro Era (New York: New York University Press, 2015). ↩︎

  2. Edward K. Spann, “Grid Plan,” in Encyclopedia of New York City, ed. Kenneth Jackson (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010), 558. ↩︎

  3. Corbould, Becoming African American; Martha Biondi, Black Revolution on Campus. (Oakland: University of California Press, 2012); and chapter 10 in this volume. ↩︎

  4. On urban space as both idea and reality, see Robert A. Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street : Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985), and Fearney and Matlin, Race Capital? On the Renaissance, see David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Penguin Books, 1997); and Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty : Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996). ↩︎

  5. Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, “Or Does It Explode?”: Black Harlem in the Great Depression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); and Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight : The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003). ↩︎

  6. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1992 [1963]); Marable, Malcolm X↩︎

  7. Brian Goldstein, The Roots of Urban Renaissance (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016); Sharon Zukin, The Naked City: The Death of Authentic Urban Places (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); and Lance Freeman, There Goes the ’Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006). ↩︎

  8. King, Whose Harlem Is This?; Greenberg, “Or Does It Explode?” ↩︎

  9. Stephen Roberston, Shane White, and Stephen Garton, “Harlem in Black and White: Mapping Race and Place in the 1920s,” Journal of Urban History 39, no. 5 (March 2013): 864–80. ↩︎

  10. Russell Rickford, “Integration, Black Nationalism, and Radical Democratic Transformation in African American Philosophies of Education, 1965–1974,” in The New Black History : Revisiting the Second Reconstruction, ed. Manning Marable and Elizabeth Kai Hinton (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 287–317. ↩︎

  11. Clare Corbould, Becoming African Americans: Black Public Life in Harlem, 1919–1939 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009); Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); and Ransby, Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2014); Farah Jasmine Griffin, Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II (New York: Basic Civitas, 2013); and Nikhil Pal Singh, Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005); Ashley Farmer, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017). ↩︎

  12. Jonna Perrillo, Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Back, “Exposing ‘the Whole Segregation Myth’”; Matthew Delmont, Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016); Heather Lewis, New York City Public Schools from Brownsville to Bloomberg: Community Control and Its Legacy (New York: Teachers College Press, 2013); James Haskins, Diary of a Harlem Schoolteacher (New York: New Press, 2008 [1969]); and Clarence Taylor, Knocking at Our Own Door: Milton A. Galamison and the Struggle for School Integration in New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997). ↩︎

  13. Corbould, Becoming African American; Martha Biondi, Black Revolution on Campus. (Oakland: University of California Press, 2012); and chapter 10 in this volume. ↩︎

  14. Biondi, To Stand and Fight; Singh, Black Is a Country; King, Whose Harlem Is This?; and Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression, new ed. (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004). ↩︎

  15. Corbould, Becoming African American; Biondi, Black Revolution↩︎

  16. Gerald E. Markowitz and David Rosner, Children, Race, and Power: Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s Northside Center (New York: Routledge, 2000). ↩︎

  17. Seymour Fliegel, Miracle in East Harlem: The Fight for Choice in Public Education (New York: Random House, 1993); Deborah Meier, The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995); and Paul Tough, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America (New York: Mariner Books, 2009). ↩︎

  18. Lorrin Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York and Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Sonia Song-Ha Lee, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Adina Back, “‘Parent Power’: Evelina López Antonetty, the United Bronx Parents, and the War on Poverty,” in The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964–1980, ed. Annelise Orleck and Lisa Hizirjian (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010), 184–208; and Lauren Lefty, “Seize the Schools, Que Viva Puerto Rico Libre: Cold War Education Politics in New York and San Juan, 1948–1975” (PhD diss., New York University, 2019). ↩︎

  19. Biondi, Black Revolution, chap. 4; Stefan Bradley, “‘Gym Crow Must Go!’ Black Student Activism at Columbia University, 1967–1968,” Journal of African American History 88, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 163–81 and Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009). ↩︎

  20. Bradley, “‘Gym Crow Must Go!’”; Michael Carriere, “Fighting the War Against Blight: Columbia University, Morningside Heights, Inc., and Counterinsurgent Urban Renewal,” Journal of Planning History 10, no. 1 (2011): 5–29; and LaDale Winling, Building the Ivory Tower: Universities and Metropolitan Development in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). ↩︎

  21. Jean Anyon, Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997); Jeffrey Mirel, The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1907–1981 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993); and Diane Ravitch, The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945–1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1983). ↩︎

  22. For an overview of the historiography of urban education, see Ansley T. Erickson, “Schools in U.S. Cities,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, October 2018. Accessed June 10, 2019. ↩︎

  23. Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890–1930, 1st ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1966); Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940–1960 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983); and Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996). ↩︎

  24. Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016); and Alice O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002). ↩︎

  25. Thanks to Daniel Amsterdam for remarks that helped refine this point. ↩︎

  26. David B. Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974). ↩︎

  27. Examples of other urban histories that operate at the neighborhood level: George J. Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Orsi, Madonna of 115th Street; Michael Woodsworth, The Battle for Bed-Stuy: The Long War on Poverty in New York City (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016); Wendell E. Pritchett, Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); and Erica Kitzmiller, “The Roots of Educational Inequality: Germantown High School, 1907–1968” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2012). ↩︎

  28. The difference between city-level and neighborhood-level stories is highlighted as well by Jack Dougherty, More than One Struggle: The Evolution of Black School Reform in Milwaukee (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004) and V. P. Franklin, The Education of Black Philadelphia: The Social and Educational History of a Minority Community, 1900–1950 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979). ↩︎

  29. Osofsky, Harlem: Making of a Ghetto. Joe Trotter, Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915–1945, 2nd ed. (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2007) launched the critique of the “ghettoization” books and helped point later scholars to accounts of Black urban communities that recognized the constraints of structure and Black agency. ↩︎

  30. King, Whose Harlem Is This?; Kevin McGruder, Race and Real Estate: Conflict and Cooperation in Harlem, 1890–1920 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); Greenberg, “Or Does It Explode?”’ ↩︎

  31. In insisting on attention to these narratives we share the perspective of Ira Katznelson and Margaret Weir, Schooling for All: Class, Race, and the Decline of the Democratic Ideal (New York: Basic Books, 1985). ↩︎

  32. This term is inspired by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995). ↩︎

  33. Diane Ravitch, The Great School Wars, New York City, 1805–1973: A History of the Public Schools as Battlefield of Social Change (New York: Basic Books, 1974). ↩︎

  34. Lewis, New York City Public Schools↩︎

  35. Rickford, “Integration, Black Nationalism.” ↩︎

  36. Back, “Exposing ‘the Whole Segregation Myth.’” Kindred efforts in educational history include Lee, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement and Dougherty, More Than One Struggle, as well as Elizabeth Todd-Breland, A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), which recognizes the need to redefine the term “education reformer” to credit the ideas, labor, and impact of local Black women organizers. ↩︎

  37. Russell Rickford, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) is an inspiring model. ↩︎

  38. On “freedom dreams” achieved or not, see Robin Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003). ↩︎

  39. McGruder, Race and Real Estate↩︎

  40. McGruder, Race and Real Estate; King, Whose Harlem Is This? On the Great Migration, see James N. Gregory, The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); and Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Vintage, 2011). ↩︎

  41. Irma Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations: Caribbean Immigrants and the Harlem Community, 1900–1930 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996); and James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1865–1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988). ↩︎

  42. McGruder, Race and Real Estate; and King, Whose Harlem Is This? ↩︎

  43. McGruder, Race and Real Estate, chap. 5. ↩︎

  44. McGruder, Race and Real Estate, chap. 5. ↩︎

  45. King, Whose Harlem Is This?; and McGruder, Race and Real Estate↩︎

  46. “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro.” Survey Graphic, March 1925. ↩︎

  47. Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue↩︎

  48. Jean Toomer, Cane (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923); Nella Larsen, Quicksand (New York: Knopf, 1928). ↩︎

  49. Greenberg, “Or Does It Explode?”; and Biondi, To Stand and Fight↩︎

  50. Lauri Johnson, “A Generation of Women Activists: African American Female Educators in Harlem, 1930–1950,” Journal of African American History 89, no. 3 (July 2004): 223–40. ↩︎

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

  52. U.S. Census Bureau, Poverty Status of Unrelated Individuals 14 Years Old and Older (1970), and Poverty Status, 1979 (1980), prepared by Social Explorer,, accessed June 8, 2019. ↩︎

  53. Walter Dean Myers, Bad Boy: A Memoir (New York: Amistad, 2001). ↩︎

  54. HARYOU, Youth in the Ghetto: A Study of the Consequences of Powerlessness and a Blueprint for Change (New York: HARYOU, 1964). ↩︎