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Wadleigh High School and Junior High School

View Wadleigh yearbook collections and exhibits related to Wadleigh. Hear oral histories from the Wadleigh community

Wadleigh is a microcosm of twentieth-century African American urban and educational transformation. The Wadleigh High School for Girls moved to its Harlem location in 1902. The school first served a range of New York’s white ethnic communities, drawing students from the still-developing residential areas of Harlem and the Upper West Side. Few black girls attended Wadleigh at first, but as black Harlem grew via migration and immigration, Wadleigh’s rolls changed. By 1930, the school represented the diversity of the city’s working and middle-class populations. African American girls whose families hailed from New York and the South attended classes, played in the school orchestra, and graced yearbook pages alongside peers from the Caribbean and those whose families came from various parts of Europe.

By World War II, most of Wadleigh’s white students had abandoned the school. Some sought to take Wadleigh with them, to move it out of Harlem. The Board of Education rejected this 1937 effort, but closed the school in 1954. Wadleigh reopened in 1956 as a coeducational junior high school. It exemplified the post-war struggle for African American educational opportunity inside municipal, state, and national systems that undermined it. The school faced underfunding and saw persistently low test scores, as New York’s divestment from the surrounding neighborhood continued. In this context Wadleigh’s teachers innovated in several ways, picking up on varied strands of contemporary and historic educational activism. They made a space for black history and literature in their curriculum, created a scholarship program to prepare and support select students in elite schools outside of Harlem, and cultivated an ethos of care. 

By the 1990s, Wadleigh became part of an effort to launch new educational institutions under new teacher and principal leadership. The Board of Education reconfigured Wadleigh yet again, dividing the building betwen separate secondary schools. Today Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts operates alongside a new small New York City high school built on a model created by a former Wadleigh teacher (Frederick Douglass Academy II). Those two schools share the building with Success Academy Upper West Middle School, one school in a nationally influential charter school network operating in Harlem. At the Wadleigh building today, students and teachers at three schools navigate the fractured and contentious contemporary landscape of American schooling for black and brown children.