Graduate Center, The City University of New York
Offering expert testimony in 1952 in the Briggs v. Elliott case, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark used their famous “doll tests” to demonstrate the negative effects of segregated education on Black children (Markowitz & Rosner, 1999). The Briggs case was one of several predecessor cases that led, two years later, to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. These cases defined the negative impact of separate, segregated public institutions (deemed by the court inherently unequal), and were won in the name of children’s health and well-being (Podair, 2004).
In New York City, in the years following the Brown v. Board decision, white (primarily middle- and working-class) residents vehemently resisted school integration plans, fighting against rezoning and the busing of Black and Puerto Rican students into their neighborhood schools.1 The New York City Board of Education, fearing the looming specter of white flight from the public schools, capitulated to this resistance and largely avoided, for a dozen years after 1954, making the necessary changes called for by integration activists (Podair, 2004).
As integration activists’ efforts were repeatedly blocked, the movement for community control of schools emerged in what has been described as an off-the-cuff insight – “suggested, almost as a joke” – by a parent at I.S. 201 in Harlem, Isaiah Robinson (Podair, 2004, p. 35). For all the resistance and gridlock around attempts to integrate the schools, Robinson argued, “maybe the blacks had better accept segregation and run their own schools” (p. 35). Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood residents–notably in Harlem and in Ocean Hill-Brownsville (OH-B) in Brooklyn–demanded control over schools by local community boards and local parents. For some, this was a “strategy of despair”; for others, it was a strategic response well-aligned with the demands of the nascent Black Nationalist movement (Markowitz & Rosner, 1999, p. 116).
In their initial iteration, the three experimental community controlled school districts—including Ocean Hill-Brownsville—were a managed response by the Board of Education to “ensure that a more radical proposal was not adopted,” according to historian Wendell Pritchett (2003, p. 229). However, when the OH-B governing board (which had been self-designed) ordered the removal of a group of 19 teachers in May 1968, the experiment became a battlefield: first with local walkouts of disgruntled teachers; and then, by fall, with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) striking three times2 and the local OH-B board insisting on its right to control its own schools (p. 229).
The Ocean Hill-Brownsville board waged this fight in the name of children (Pritchett, 228).3 It was a battle for and about young people’s educations–Black and Puerto Rican children’s experiences in the classroom, their wellbeing, their lives. Yet, while children were there the whole time—facing teachers on picket lines, being hit, helped, challenged and conversed with in their classrooms, talking to their parents in the evenings—their voices are not central in past retellings of this story. What did young people experience and how did they perceive these events? What can their voices contribute to our understanding of the struggle: both how it happened, and its impact?
In this paper, I revisit the scholarship on Ocean Hill-Brownsville, seeking out young people’s voices, hoping to recover an understanding of young people as actors and judges of the community control project’s impact. This project finds its theoretical grounding in geographic thought, particularly children’s geographies and the concept of geographic scale.
Children’s geographies are a body of literature that explores not only the spaces through which children physically move, but the ways that children themselves describe and understand the spatial and social processes of which they are part (McKendrick, 2000).4 This work has regularly considered children as subjects with unique and powerful knowledge that is legitimate in relation to “adult” concepts and to broader processes. For example, Kates and Katz (1977) rigorously documented young children’s conceptions of the hydrologic cycle, positioning this knowledge in comparison to “adult” and “scientific” knowledges and validating the study of children’s ways of understanding. Katz’s later work has endeavored to understand globalization by studying children’s daily lives on a local scale (2004). Catling and Martin (2011) explored the ways that children’s geographic understandings related to what they were being taught in school, finding that their conceptualizations of space and place were “powerful learning bases of equivalent authority to subjects” (p. 317). Such approaches inform my understanding of children’s experience and knowledge as useful and informative of their own accord, able to illuminate aspects of broader social processes that we may not otherwise notice.
Geography distinguishes different spatial scales (e.g. described by Smith, 1992a, as the body, home, community/neighborhood, city, region, and nation-state). These categories have been theorized as the spatial level on which processes, contradictions, and conflicts play out –“the arenas around which sociospatial power choreographies are enacted and performed” (Smith, 1992a, Swyngedouw, 2004, p. 133). While we can classify separate scales, Smith has shown them not to be “ontologically given” (Smith, 1992b, p. 73). Smith and Swyngedouw have described scales as nesting, and not hierarchical, with processes playing out on multiple scales at a given time (Smith, 1992b, Swyngedouw, 2004). Smith described, for example, Tiananmen Square as a simultaneously local, regional, national, and international event (1992b) and for him there was an “active social and political connectedness of apparently different scales” (1992a).
Scales indicate types of relationships: the home as the site of interpersonal, gendered struggle; the urban as the space across which one might travel to work in a day, and the site of labor struggles (Smith, 1992a). Scale “provides the technology through which space contains struggle,” until it is “challenged and broken” and space and power rearrange (Smith, 1992b). Whereas the history of OH-B has focused on the impact of the strikes at the urban level – the renegotiations of labor, race, and power within New York City – this paper asks in what ways that which took place in the classroom and in the neighborhood was of historical significance for the children involved.
Children can not only tell us what they know, but they also offer legitimate information about the world itself, enriching what we know, as scholars. In studying Ocean Hill-Brownsville, I believe children’s knowledge can do the same–moving us beyond our existing understanding of the struggle for community control and its structural and political outcomes.
The history of the 1968 UFT strike and the era of community control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville have been the subject of significant contemporary and historical research. Existing scholarship, however, has focused on the conflicts and negotiations between adults: the UFT, the OH-B board, the NYC Board of Education, and the city’s political leaders. Existing literature rarely presents the ways students experienced and interpreted this time period and set of events: what their roles, understandings, actions, and motivations were. Children have appeared primarily as scenery for the action or as its beneficiaries or victims. Occasionally, they have appeared as actors in adversarial positions to UFT teachers and the police.
In The Strike that Changed New York (2004), Jerald Podair offered a detailed history of community control and the UFT strike. He studied the Ocean Hill-Brownsville story for what it said about, and how it changed and shaped, race relations – particularly Black-Jewish relations – in New York City. For Podair, the conflict in OH-B marked the turning point in the shift to race as the defining political and social dividing line in the city (as opposed to former allegiances and identities of class and ethnicity), and, thus, served as a pivotal moment in the shifting identity and allegiances of Jewish residents across the five boroughs. Podair examined the rhetoric around the strikes to show how the dynamic between white teachers/UFT teachers and Black communities/Black teachers illustrated a negotiation of “culture,” particularly contestation of middle class values and their racial assignment (e.g., p. 178).
Podair (2004) addressed the impact of the strikes on students primarily through the claims made by adults. For example, he described Rhody McCoy, the Unit Administrator of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville demonstration district schools being operated under community control, who said that “white middle class values are harmful to Black schoolchildren” (p. 65). Additionally, Podair noted the “hum of cooperative effort” observed by outsiders during the strike, while the school was staffed with non-union, locally-selected teachers. Students also appeared in his work as actors en masse, rampaging through the halls on the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, and attacking Fred Nauman and other white UFT teachers upon their return to the school after the first September strike was settled (p. 117).
Along with the New York Times and the Amsterdam News, Podair’s work has drawn significantly from Martin Mayer’s The Teachers Strike New York, 1968 (1969) and Diane Ravitch’s The Great School Wars (1974). Mayer’s work, written from a journalist’s perspective in the strike’s immediate aftermath, was entirely critical of the community control effort. Ravitch’s book, a large-scale history of public education in New York City, documented the community control struggle emerging out of the failure of desegregation in the city and gaining strength from the emergent Black Power movement. As Ravitch charted the strikes, she followed the conflicts and negotiations between the UFT, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Governing Board and the Board of Education. Though her analysis differed from Podair’s, when students do appear in her chapters on OH-B, there, too, they were depicted, primarily, as the intended beneficiaries of adult actions.
Wendell Pritchett’s Brownsville, Brooklyn (2002) has detailed the history of the neighborhood and offered a chapter on the 1968 teachers’ strike. Brownsville children, after traumatizing experiences of being bussed into white neighborhoods in Brooklyn (where they had been met by violent and racist acts), were described by adults in the community as needing to be rescued (pp. 226, 228). While Pritchett did include a young person’s recollections (Karima Jordan, whom he does not cite by name) to describe what the police presence outside Junior High School (JHS) 271 looked like during the strike, he did not focus on the feelings she described or her experiences inside the school (Hampton, Fayer, & Flynn, 1990, pp. 498-499, as cited in Pritchett). Pritchett identified a gap in the literature where the Brownsville Community Center was concerned, making the filling out of this history his primary intervention into the existing scholarship.
In Knocking at Our Own Door (1997), historian Clarence Taylor has documented the story of Milton Galamison, a Black Brooklyn minister and civil rights leader, and his efforts to integrate the NYC schools in the 1960’s. As elsewhere, Taylor has described student well-being and success at the heart of the adult motivations depicted in the story, but has also told the story as a series of negotiations between adults in the name of children (here focused on Galamison’s role), with very limited information provided about children’s experiences of the events (pp. 185-186).
This prior literature has dealt with the strike and community control from a varied set of perspectives, but children have remained background players in each of these texts. However, the negotiations of power, race, and labor that were enacted during the strike are inseparable from the schools and school system in which, and regarding which, they took place. And schools are full of children. A careful reading of these texts poses the question, where were the children and what role did they play? How did they interpret these events, and contribute to them?
Youth in the Archives
The New York Times and, particularly for Podair, the Amsterdam News, have served as significant sources about the Ocean Hill-Brownsville events. Newspapers of the time covered the strike day-by-day, offering detailed stories of the demonstrations and picket lines, parent and community meetings, and the negotiations between the UFT, the Board of Education, Mayor Lindsay, and the OH-B governing board. Occasionally, journalists ventured into the schools and wrote expository pieces. However, as in the secondary works cited above, where students appeared in the media they appeared as “extras” in the background, beneficiaries of adult actions, or – occasionally – as adversarial actors. Sometimes their voices punctuated news stories with exclamations or, quite rarely, with descriptions of their experiences. These glimpses of student agency and snippets of young people’s voices indicate a gap, their perspective not fully captured by the press.
As “extras” or background scenery, young people appeared as a crowd of “youngsters, books under their arms” (Buder, 1968b, p. 40) or as nameless individuals standing alongside the barricades in photographs. Sometimes they were presented as a subcategory of their parents, an undifferentiated part of “the community.” When the media reported that something “provoked resentment among parents and students” (Schumach, 1968c, p. 42) or that “Parents, Pupils and Others” (Buder, 1968b, p. 40)held a sit-in, these articles did not explore or document student opinions or draw on student voices. In one rare instance, a father from outside the district who chose to send his children to an Ocean Hill-Brownsville school during the strike, conveyed his children’s opinion – saying “his children liked the school” (Johnson, 1968).
In describing the consolidation of bureaucratic power between the UFT and the Board of Education, Mayor Lindsay said “the parents and the children, in a way, were lost sight of,” they were “those who had no power base.” He articulated children’s sub-categorical position when he imagined “a place at the table for parents and therefore the children” (Schumach, 1968b, p. 86) This sub-categorical role for children obscures the unique position they held, their existing and developing understandings of the situation, and their agency in day-to-day encounters within the schools–where there were usually no parents present.
The improved education of Black children was a major impetus for community control, and remained a rallying cry as the strike moved forward. Both the New York Times and the Amsterdam News quoted adults invoking children as the beneficiaries or victims of adult actions. Even a wistful New York Times education reporter, looking for a peaceful compromise, imagined that with a settlement, the “demonstration district could quietly and peacefully show that it provides better education for disadvantaged students” (Hechinger, 1968, p. E8).
In speaking against make-up time for the strikes, a financial benefit to striking UFT teachers, Reverend Herbert Oliver, chair of the OH-B community control board, was quoted in the Times as calling it a “form of ‘penalty’ against the children” (Todd, 1968a, p. 23). Particularly in the Amsterdam News (a Black paper, and more sympathetic to the community control cause), adults were documented describing children as victims of violence and destruction wrought by the UFT teachers and the strike. In October 1968, an article quoted Reverend Oliver saying “…our children are worth more than our jobs right now. We can’t stand by and see our children’s brains destroyed,” and Sonny Carson (director of Brooklyn CORE), using a rape metaphor that positioned children as vulnerable/victims in order to stir adults to action:
Don’t let this rape of your children continue. Don’t sit back and watch. You sat back and let it happen to Herman Ferguson, Les Campbell, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, LeRoi Jones and many, many others. Wake up, it’s your own children this time (Slack, 1968b, p. 1).
In December 1968, a month after the UFT strike finally ended, the story of King Solomon was invoked by an administrator, as nine teachers were transferred out of Intermediate School (IS) 201, a community-controlled school in Harlem: “these nine teachers whom we want transferred from this school would rather have the children sliced up rather than leave the school and cease hurting and hindering them” (Slack, 1968c, p. 1).
Conversely, children occasionally appeared as adversarial actors against the UFT teachers. This perspective was characterized in the words of Albert Shanker, president of the UFT, after a sit-in protesting the December closing of OH-B’s JHS 271: “We must develop guerrilla warfare tactics,” he said. “We must develop some weapons short of a strike.” The article continued: “One such tactic in the event of a student demonstration, he said, might be for teachers to punch their cards and stand by the time clock, refusing to teach until the students “cease and desist” from disruptions” (Buder, 1968b, p. 40).
For the contemporary scholar seeking an understanding of student roles and perspectives during the strikes, Shanker’s description of the students as adversaries highlights their power to disrupt, resist, and engage with the conflict, indicating the agency and the opinions that children held. Similarly, when journalists entered the schools during the strike, and observed “cheerful cooperation” and “harmony” (Hechinger, 1969, p. E11) – even without speaking directly to students – they painted a picture in striking contrast to Shanker’s. This student cooperation can be understood as an active choice to participate in the creation of something different in their community-controlled classrooms.
In early November 1968, an article appeared in the Amsterdam News asking a question similar to the one I pose in this paper:
How do students at Ocean Hill-Brownsville’s JHS 271 feel about having the controversial UFT teachers come back to teach them? That, said one white teacher at the school, is a question that no one seems to have thought about (Anekwe, 1968, p. 27).
Under a headline proclaiming the UFT was “not wanted” by students, the article told the story of a non-union teacher who arrived in a classroom to fill in for another non-union teacher, only to be perceived as a UFT teacher by the students and rejected. Assessing that
. . .he could not conduct class under the circumstances, he brought out his identification papers and let the students see for themselves. The inspection convinced the students that he was not one of the striking teachers and class resumed normally (Anekwe, 1968, p. 27).
In the same article, an adult was quoted as saying “Things are much better now, class rooms [sic], teachers and children, discipline” (Anekwe, 1968, p. 27). And yet, while the above story illuminated the students’ agency and disruptive strength, the article failed to answer the question it posed – and the one posed here – with a direct collection of student opinions.
Authentic student voices did appear occasionally in the newspaper coverage of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Infrequent and usually anonymous, young people’s voices read almost as punctuation to some stories. Student voice was registered by a New York Times journalist who described how a “loud round of cheering broke out in a third-floor schoolroom” when a set of non-union teachers who had been suspended (by a “state trustee overseeing operation of the district”) for harassing union teachers returned to the OH-B schools (“Ocean Hill Clash,” 1968, pp. 1, 37). Similarly, after a conflict in JHS 271 in December 1968, as UFT teachers were escorted by policemen from the school, an unnamed student shouted, “Let’s get him!” and “the other youngsters laughed” (Todd, 1968b, p. 27).
These sorts of reported commentary, as opposed to engaged interviewing, were the norm for press documentation of student voices. On a day when teachers and administrators called in sick to protest Rhody McCoy’s removal as district administrator, the New York Times paid more attention to students than usual (Kaufman, 1968). The reporter, M.T. Kaufman, described students wandering the halls; a 10-year-old teaching a kindergarten class; and “a band of about 20 children assembled. . . outside the principal’s office” – occupied temporarily by a State Education Department official – chanting “We want to go home, we want to go home.” Kaufman described another student watching this activity from the periphery, “with disdain and remark[ing] ‘Only [n_____s] act like that’” (p. 48). This interaction indicates complex negotiations between students, conflicts related to the strike, and the struggle for community control were not cursory but were an integral part of students’ racial and political identity formation. These questions were certainly not addressed in the New York Times story, which moved on to tell of the scrambling and strife among the few adults present in the building. Children’s observed actions and words—as they were depicted in the media—pointed to gaps, to questions unanswered, to more complex unrecorded opinions.
One JHS 271 student was in a position to be more frequently quoted by the press, and his story has been documented in the existing scholarship. When Fred Nauman (UFT chapter chairman at JHS 271 and one of the teachers initially dismissed by the OH-B governing board) returned to teach after one of the strikes, a classroom altercation with Daryl Stewart5 left the seventh-grader with an injured hand. In the New York Times, Stewart indicated
. . . that he had denounced the teacher just before the incident and that when Mr. Nauman asked for questions, he had raised his hand. He said the teacher had grabbed him by the arm and slammed the hand down on the desk, injuring the thumb (Schumach, 1968a, p. 50).
Nauman was first recorded saying Stewart threw a punch (Schumach, 1968a) and, later, having changed his story, he said he thought Stewart was going to throw a punch (“Nauman Relives Disputed Incident,” 1968). Beyond the media’s use of Nauman and Stewart’s differing descriptions of the event (and Nauman’s own changing story) to piece together what happened, the newspapers’ descriptions of the encounter offers a window into the kind of conflicts that took place in the classroom between adults and children, and children’s agency and opinions in those conflicts.
In the Amsterdam News’s coverage of Stewart’s press conference (“DA Refuses to Probe Pupil Assault Charge,” 1968, p. 23), Stewart described telling Nauman that he (Nauman) was the reason the non-union teachers were suspended, and was acting violently “because the police are here.” Stewart said that Nauman replied: “I don’t need any police protection.” The Amsterdam News continued, “Daryl said the other students in the class witnessed the incident, but did not interfere. Asked what the reaction of the other students was, Darryl said: ‘They don’t want Mr. Nauman in the classroom” (p. 23).
Nauman’s own description similarly illustrated student agency and opinion about the strike: “The classes that day were extremely difficult, quite hostile, particularly to U.F.T. teachers. Darrell was one of the most hostile that I ran into that day. He didn’t even want me to talk to him” (“Nauman Relives Disputed Incident,” 1968, p. 37).
Occasional articles on the UFT strike gauged other children’s perspectives from outside Ocean Hill-Brownsville. A blonde high school student was described as being against the walkout because he “want[s] to learn,” and a third-grader was observed seeming “content” to ride the Central Park carousel on a day without school during the strike (Farber, 1968, p. 36). An Amsterdam News poll recorded a student from JHS 80 in the Bronx talking about his return to school after a strike as being “wonderful” (“Reaction to School ‘Peace,’” 1968, p. 1). These gestures toward understanding the opinions of young people outside the district highlight the lack of direct opinions quoted from young people within OH-B.
Beyond the New York Times and the Amsterdam News, local Brooklyn papers offered little else in the way of student perspectives on the strike. A column in a Jewish community paper (The Brooklyn Graphic) mused that “We cannot answer our children, once again, when they turn to us for instruction and ask us, ‘Who was right?’ (Powsner, 1968). The Brooklyn Recorder (a Black community paper) wrote in 1969 that a “community must be aware of the conditions in the schools,” (Thompson, 1969) and an article encouraged parents to: “make a calm appraisal of children’s real or imagined school grievances; participate in school and community activities; and play a role in reviewing curriculum offerings in human relations and the improvement of inter-group relations” (“Parents Hit Bigotry,” 1969).
Children also appeared in the pages of the Recorder, negotiating race and power in youth writing segments sourced city-wide (and beyond) (e.g., “For and By Our Children,” 1969). These poems and reflections were not about community control and the strikes, but showed young people’s clear perspectives on their neighborhoods, thoughts and feelings, and racial identities. As with the Amsterdam News, and not surprisingly, it seems there was more space for Black children’s voices in this paper than in the New York Times, for example. The presence of young people’s writings about other subjects highlights an absence from the media of the time. What more might be illuminated about the struggle for community control if youthful commentary like this were a part of the archive of Ocean Hill-Brownsville?
High School Voices
Ocean Hill-Brownsville teens are quoted occasionally (and more often than younger students) such as when the Amsterdam News quoted 16-year-old Daniel Watkins, a high school student attending a community meeting at JHS 271. Watkins described the gathering as a strategy session, to “get together on ways of keeping those 110 sabotaging, unwanted teachers out.” He was quoted as saying to the large crowd made up of parents, community-control teachers, and local “Black and Puerto Rican organization heads,” “we Blacks from our neighborhoods are united and will follow you in whatever you do. We are militant and we’ll take our stand. We can’t vote and elect people like you adults, but we can stand up and fight beside you when need be” (Slack, 1968b, p. 1).
The New York Times and the Amsterdam News recorded teenagers from within and outside the neighborhood demonstrating in Ocean Hill-Brownsville and participating in large anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and college student struggles soon after the UFT strike was finally settled in November 1968 (“JHS 271 Classes Set,” 1968 and Pileggi, 1969). High school students were documented self-organizing, boycotting their schools and organizing a major demonstration against increased school hours as make-up time for the teachers’ strike, for increased student power, and for representation on the school boards. During a large 1,500-student demonstration at the United Nations in November 1968, high school students were recorded as cheering for JSH 271 social studies teacher Leslie Campbell (later Jitu Weusi) as he told them “students have got to have some voice in the decisions that affect them” (Buder, 1968a, p. 34). At the same demonstration, 18-year-old high school student leader Ellen Shepard shouted to the crowd “Let’s go to Ocean Hill-Brownsville” (Sterba, 1968, p. 41). The community-controlled district was in the high school students’ field of vision, and along with other social forces of the time, the teachers’ strike seemed to play a catalytic role in their politicization, as described by one student:
“The strike really exposed many teachers for what they are,” 17-year-old Elizabeth Owens, a member of the High School Coalition said. “You knew it all the time, especially if you were black and stuck in a crowded school. They’d just sit up there and drink their coffee at their desks. They’d snatch hats off kids’ heads. They’d never say please or thank you. They’d turn black high schools into prisons. When the strike came, and we saw those same white teachers out there cursing at our parents and at black teachers, we knew where it was at” (Pileggi, 1969, 5th and 6th pages of article).
Media coverage was, of course, not without condescension toward these youth activists, with a Times article in January 1969 calling them “so impatient for life’s struggles they are demanding that they be brought right into the schools and made part of the curriculum” (Stern, 1969, p. 79). This assertion was obviously centered on a white mythology of a safe childhood bubble, a concept far from the reality of many children in the city who were firsthand experts on racism. Similarly dismissive of student knowledge and agency, school Superintendent Bernard Donovan was recorded as believing “‘a number of adults with revolutionary tendencies’ were behind the movement in the high schools” (Pileggi, 1969, 6th page of article).
Some of the social tension engendered by radical young people was apparent as the New York Times explained they were “far from constituting a majority in the schools” and yet also mentioned that “Children 11, 12, and 13 years old already have played important roles in peace demonstrations and in the decentralization battles in the city schools” (Stern, 1969, p. 79). Distinctions were drawn between Black and white students: the latter described as engaging in leftist youth struggles; the former as being a part of the Black Power movement:
The city’s black high school radicals are far less suspicious of adult community leaders than their white comrades. . . .[T]he city’s young blacks must generally be counted as part of the larger black power movement, rather than the predominantly white leftist revolution (Pileggi, 1969, p. 119).
During this time, a group of students were the subject of a documentary film, created by a sympathetic adult. Steve Sbarge’s Ira, You’ll Get Into Trouble (1970) followed a group of organizers of the High School Student Union and the New York High School Free Press over the course of 1968 through 1970. These students (a racially mixed group, but largely middle-class white students) were shown building alliances, organizing demonstrations, “rapping” with other students, and analyzing what they saw happening around them. They held a sit in at the UFT’s Manhattan headquarters and confronted Albert Shanker (“If your union can shut down our schools, you know, to stop community control, man, we can come into your offices”). They arranged a meeting with Milton Galamison, at which they told him: “We’re sick of being a tool that gets kicked around back and forth between the community, and Shanker, and you.” (When Galamison stepped out of the room, another student said of him, “I think we’re being too hard on the guy. I mean the dude’s kinda sincere”).
The students described suspensions and confrontations for distributing and having copies of their newspaper; they described their own assertions of agency. One of the organizers, a Black student at the elite Bronx High School of Science, described how the parent association voted to keep his school closed in support of the teachers’ strike, but the students broke a second story window, went in the school and opened it anyway, and we did this two times, and finally we had so many students . . . now, ah, the school’s open every day and we have over 500 students coming in every day. The teens expressed their support for community control. They described how they shared their tactics with students at other schools, but that they also believed organizing should be internally defined by each school community. Robert Newton, one of the students in the film, appeared on television reading a press statement saying: “Such demonstrations will continue to be held until the city realizes there are more important figures involved than the UFT.”
The students in the film watched the Black Panthers carefully, asking themselves how they might “take the example of the Panthers from the film, and talk about ourselves in the high schools?” They were influenced not just by the larger political movements of the time, but also by what they were experiencing in their schools. They debated among themselves and with other high school students, who approached them after they spoke on TV; they were self-assured, at times cocky, at times noting that they “don’t understand everything yet about the schools and about the country.”
Teenage voices – in Ira, You’ll Get into Trouble and in the newspapers – were nuanced, complicated, and reflected the ways that young people were not passive observers, or victims, of the teachers’ strike. Ocean Hill-Brownsville played a catalytic role in stirring youth action and young New Yorkers’ critical reflections about education and schools. If this was so for teens and students outside the district, what was the intellectual and political impact on students within the community-controlled schools themselves? The direct voices of teenagers are compelling, and their substance indicates, again, a gap in what has been documented about Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
Ocean Hill-Brownsville Recollected
One substantial piece of student narrative has been published – a transcription of a video interview with former JHS 271 student Karima Jordon, recorded for the Eyes on the Prize series on the Civil Rights Movement (Jordon, 1989).6 Pairing this transcript with the unpublished interview of another student from JHS 271, Monifa Edwards, and an unpublished memoir by a former mathematics teacher at the school, Charles Isaacs, it becomes even more clear that there is a depth and texture missing from existing accounts of the struggle, and that what young people knew about the community-control struggle in OH-B was (and is) worth uncovering.
As detailed earlier in this paper, Wendell Pritchett used Karima Jordon’s description (Hampton, Fayer, & Flynn, 1991, as cited in Pritchett) of how the JHS 271 “playground was converted into a precinct,” and the “mass confusion” around the school. In the full transcript of her interview for Eyes on the Prize, Jordon (1989) offered details of the strike not depicted elsewhere in the secondary literature. She described how the strike interrupted usual classroom activities, and the ways that her teachers who crossed the UFT picket line engaged students in what was going on, discussing the strike and answering questions, in English class and in shop class. She laid out the terrain of the conflict through a young student’s eyes: “With the white [UFT] teachers,” she said, “you didn’t discuss these things. You didn’t, didn’t bother to even ask. They didn’t volunteer any information either” (Question 14). She saw that “the police were protecting the UFT teachers. . . . They definitely were not protecting me or the community people” (Question 10). She said, “the police, the UFT teachers, the media, how they reported what was going on, they taught us that, not to hate, but they taught us that, ah, we weren’t worth anything” (Question 20). About her Black teachers, she said, “They didn’t teach hate” (Question 20). Through her experience with them, she described learning that “that teachers were human beings, not some abstract, ah, something” (Question 11). She said, “what the Black teachers did do was to broaden us, our perspective of looking at things. . . . ” (Question 20).
Finally, as to the day-to-day patterns in the classroom: “there was just too many. . . interruptions to have school. Your school was [what] . . . was happening in the community. Every single day was a new day, was a new thing. You didn’t know what to expect and that happened every day” (Jordon, 1989, Question 15).
Monifa Edwards, a former student at JHS 271 in 1968-69, offered the same depth of description of her concurrent experiences at the school (2011). Because she spoke many years after the 1968 events, she described her experience in relation to her own subsequent political development. This indicates that what was happening in Ocean Hill-Brownsville included the development of young people’s larger political and social understandings.
Edwards started her narration with the experience of being bussed to a white neighborhood during elementary school when the NYC Board of Education made a half-hearted attempt in the mid-1960’s to integrate schools in white neighborhoods of Brooklyn. She said she was not “privy to” the “greater thing going on politically” but described being met by white adults shouting epithets and shaking the school bus. She described the same sort of distance from the political discussions as the UFT strikes began, not participating in the conversations adults were having on her “political-minded kind of working-class block” (Edwards, 2011).
Of her school in OH-B, JHS 271, she remembered the teachers who were “ousted.” As one of Fred Nauman’s students, she said “you kinda knew Mr. Nauman was gonna be the one that would say ‘If you monkeys don’t learn, I get paid anyway.’” She described young people’s agency and power, in response to this kind of attitude: the “junior high school phenomenon was that ‘Oh, someone said we’re monkeys, you watch the monkeys we’re gonna be . . . . What you thought of us, we were gonna bring that to bear.” Conversely, “if you had love in your heart or any kind of real caring for us or just even loved your profession. . . we would latch onto the truth, and those teachers, we gave everything to” (Edwards, 2011).
Edwards described her politicization and coming to see herself as Black – as opposed to Negro – over the course of the strikes and, afterwards, in a summer program led by her JHS 271 teacher, Jitu Weusi. Her delightfully recounted stories of her own political development demonstrate how much she was affected by her experiences at JHS 271 during this time.
Charles Isaacs, a teacher at JHS 271 from 1968-1970 and one of Monifa Edwards’s teachers, has written a soon-to-be-published memoir of his time in the school, based on journals the author kept at the time (2012). As a white teacher hired to teach in a community-controlled school, Isaacs understood his role to be that of a “welcome guest” (not “Missionary,” “Savior,” or “tourist”) (p. 2). In his detailed memoir he offered stories from his mathematics classroom and Jitu Weusi’s social studies classroom, and about demonstrations and interactions between UFT and non-union teachers. Isaacs has worked to set the historical record straight, pointing out where Ravitch, Podair, and other scholars have relied on vague or inaccurate sources.
Interactions between students and teachers made up a great deal of Isaacs’s memoir. He noted the ways that UFT teachers talked about students: prioritizing quiet over curiosity, seeing their role as to “pound [math] into [the children’s] heads” (2012, pp. 6, 12). He described the student experience at JHS 271 under community control (and with the UFT teachers out on strike):
Among the students, the shared experience of crossing picket lines with their teachers, of enduring with us the verbal abuse of the white union pickets, as well as occasional physical harassment by the police, helped create a sense of solidarity inside the walls of the school. The students’ parents welcomed the spirit and dedication of the new teaching staff, and were more than willing to participate in making the project a success. JHS 271 became a haven, where parents, community volunteers, students and teachers joined forces to work on the business at hand: Education (p. 50).
As in the press, student reactions punctuated Isaacs’s text: They were surprised when he suggested they call him by his first name, and cheered when a teacher told the UFT it was not wanted in the community (2012, pp. 3, 31). Students joined a march through the streets to the other middle school in the OH-B neighborhood, to encourage them to join their protest (p. 31). In Isaacs’s memoir, students’ direct opinions and quotations also entered and gave shape to the story. In one vignette, a UFT teacher, who had returned to the school briefly after the first of the three strikes ended, entered Isaacs’s classroom, belched, and flipped his middle finger. When he left the room, a student exclaimed, “Why did they have to come back? . . . Everything was going so good!” (p. 29).
Student voices continued to shape Isaacs’s understanding of the events: He was given a poem by a student, entitled “Police Go Away” (which used police, please, and peace to great effect) (pp. 50-51). When Isaacs and his students ran to the window and saw a “bloody skirmish” between parents and police outside of the school, one of the students identified his mother among them. Isaacs described children watching and interpreting the struggle between striking teachers and police on one side and adults in their neighborhood on the other. Isaacs identified this as “an important moment in their education, and in mine as well” (p. 19).
Isaacs’s documentation of his JHS 271 students presenting to a graduate education class at Long Island University offered a comparatively significant source of student opinion. Before the event, one student expressed her disinterest in being a “guinea pig,” saying “People always be studyin’ us. They say, ‘Look at those animals. Let’s put ‘em under the microscope.’ I ain’t no animal, and I ain’t gonna be studied” (2012, p. 70). With the event explicitly open to teaching and questioning in both directions, Isaacs’s students decided to attend. During the discussion, their perspectives were loud and clear, even when the future teachers at LIU asked “condescending” or “smug” questions. Comments such as the following offered a depth of student opinion not otherwise found in the extant news coverage of the time, or the existing secondary scholarship:
“I don’t know why they think they walked out. I ask the UFT pickets all the time why they’re walking around in circles in the rain and in the cold, and they never answer me. As far as I’m concerned, they’re on strike because they’re against me, because I’m a kid and because I’m black” (p. 72)
“Before, the kids used to act bad,” explained one of the boys, “because they didn’t respect the teachers. Nothing was being taught and the kids didn’t see any reason to sit still and be bored.”
“Right. Now things are different,” added another. “We have mostly good teachers, so we do what we’re supposed to do. Sure, we kid around with Charlie sometimes, but when he says we should do math, we do it. We’re more relaxed, but we learn more too” (pp. 72-73).
The descriptions given by Jordon and Edwards, and by the unnamed students in Isaacs’s memoir, fill out the records of life in JHS 271 and they illuminate the impact of the strikes and community control on the children in the schools. Beyond the structural changes caused by the struggle (e.g., those described by Podair, 2002), these three sources illuminate the impact that the experience had on the students who were there. The richness and quantity of student voices in these sources was unmatched in the newspapers of the time and in the secondary scholarship derived from them. There are only three of them noted here, however, and they speak only to life at JHS 271.
Perhaps evidenced by the emergent youth movements of the time, the media of 1968-69 did not place young people’s perspectives front and center in their analyses of political issues such as the community control struggle (and such is not usually the case today, either). Even in the Amsterdam News, in which Black adults’ concerns for Black children were evidenced (far more than in the New York Times), children’s voices were still underrepresented. Through the available sound bites and the recollections of Karima Jordon, Monifa Edwards, and Charlie Isaacs, however, it is clear that children were present, engaged, and active during the struggle for community control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Although they were central to this history, up to this point children have not been written about as such. The substance revealed in even the limited record of their voices indicates how much is missing from existing histories of the community-control struggle.
Following from the concept, articulated by children’s geographies, that children’s knowledge is valid and useful to our understanding of larger-scale processes and events, I assert that we would deepen our knowledge of the struggle in OH-B and beyond by studying what young people knew and did, and came to know, through their participation in and observation of the struggle. One model of this type of work can be found in Michelle Fine’s article “The Power of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision: Theorizing Threats to Sustainability” (Fine, 2004). Through interviews with elders and students, Fine observed the ways that Brown v. Board of Education was metabolized nationally, as well as what this metabolization offered toward theorizing the sustainability of social justice gains. Using the stories she collected, Fine described the ways Brown was both a genuine challenge to white supremacy and how it was subverted almost immediately. She posited that the work of “justice theorists” cannot only look at the interruption of oppression, but must also strategize and theorize sustainability. The centrality of student voices in her research offers a contrast to how the story of Ocean Hill-Brownsville has been written by scholars. I believe this type of student-centered study has much to offer.
Student perspectives (some of which may still be unearthed from sources such as television news reports or personal journals, and many more of which would certainly be accessible through a comprehensive oral history project) would help us understand how students negotiated power and authority in the schools on a daily basis – not simply in well-documented altercations such as the one between Daryl Stewart and Fred Nauman.
In the existing literature, the outcome of the struggle has been written in various ways. Ravitch described Black Nationalist separatism as short-sighted and leading to failure, and she described the UFT as having won: by securing a lasting position in New York City, but at the expense of lost support from liberals and people of color (1974, p. 378). Pritchett wrote of the Brownsville community failing to achieve what it desired in this struggle, but picking up the pieces and moving forward with other efforts to improve the neighborhood (2003, p. 237). Taylor wrote of Galamison’s frustration with the 1969 state decentralization bill, his belief that it had “set back the community control effort and the whole school fight, really, about ten years,” along with his later claim that “the integration movement and the community control struggle had run their course” (1997, pp. 205-206).
As described earlier, Podair’s central claim was that the conflict over community control was the catalyst for changed race relations in New York City. In his assessment of the aftermath of the struggle, he also described a series of other impacts: the Decentralization Law and the subsequent corruption of school officials at the local level, and a federal suit “inspired by” critiques coming out of the community control struggle which successfully challenged the teacher examination system and instituted “more equitable hiring practices” (2004, pp. 150-151). Podair noted that the system changed to “accommodate and reward attributes and behaviors offered by the Black community” as educators, employing Black teachers and administrators at a higher rate (p. 151). Additionally, he credited Ocean Hill-Brownsville with the adoption in New York City’s public schools, over the following 20 years, of “multicultural curricula, affective learning techniques, non-competitive instructional environments, community-based educational systems” (p. 151). However, Podair saw the incorporation of these teaching techniques as a pyrrhic victory, writing that “despite the absorption by the system as a whole of much of the philosophical underpinnings of the OH-B experiment, achievement levels for Black public school students. . . declined throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s” (p. 151). For Podair, the efforts at Ocean Hill-Brownsville were part of a high stakes battle over cultural identity, the “spark” of a cultural war between New York City’s Black and white communities that has continued into the present. Although schooling may have changed to incorporate the methods promoted in community-controlled OH-B, this shift did not alleviate the central cultural conflict Podair identified, and the New York City school administration has since regressed to a centralized structure that Superintendent “Bernard Donovan might have recognized in 1966” (p. 152).
Roderick Ferguson, in his 2012 book, The Reorder of Things, presented a useful perspective on this type of absorption. He wrote about the student movements of the 1960s – including the struggle for open admissions at City College and across CUNY in 1969 – as a turning point in “the history of power’s relationship to difference” (p. 29). By responding to demands for the creation of Black studies programs, for example, the university gathered and incorporated dissenting voices to strengthen itself, using “e pluribus unum” as a “technique of power” (p. 29). He described this incorporation as an archival process: dissenting voices are catalogued and contained, and put to use in the service of the institution. Ferguson saw nuances in this struggle and pointed to the “small and seemingly insignificant acts” that are sometimes lost in the shadows of the “grandest structural efforts—the takeover of buildings and the inauguration of schools”—as places to look for “minoritized subjects” as “agents rather than the silent objects of knowledge formations and institutional practices” (pp. 231-232).
Ferguson’s analysis can be seen as building on Podair’s sense of a pyrrhic victory for the Black community, and providing a larger contextual and structural analysis through which to interpret the outcomes of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Furthermore, beyond this dynamic of incorporation and ongoing acts of resistance within public schools,7 beyond solidifying the UFT as a bargaining entity in the New York City school system, I believe further scholarship can trace one more outcome of the struggle.
I theorize that a comprehensive, student-centered history would expand our understanding beyond the structural understanding of the impact of the strike and the community control experiment, illuminating the long-term pedagogical impact of the struggle. By this, I mean not what was taught in the classroom, per se, but how the struggle was instructive to students’ understandings of the world, and their ongoing social and political formation. The public schools remain terrain for negotiation and conflict, but children pass through them. How was the moment of community control – and everything that happened in and during the conflict – not only a negotiation of the structure of schools, but a rupture that was instructive? What did it teach children about the operations of power and resistance? As with the image of the many-headed Hydra who regrows two heads for every one chopped off (a symbol of the resilience of resistance to racism and capitalism, for historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, 2000), I want to know what grew in the place where community control was fought for and lost?
Without understanding how students experienced and understood (then, and into the present) their experiences at Ocean Hill-Brownsville, we can’t fully understand the conflict’s long-term impact. Without looking more closely at what was learned by those who were growing up during the strike, we cannot understand what was carried forward. To understand the ways the moment acted as a pedagogical or instructive rupture, further scholarship needs to look at the knowledge and insights young people gathered from it.
We are not fortunate enough to have a student-centered document like Melvin Urofsky’s Why Teachers Strike (1970), which contains interviews with striking UFT teachers from 1968. Yet, while memories recalled are not the same as young voices recorded at the time – as Monifa Edwards’s and Karima Jordon’s recollections make clear – such memories, if sought out and recorded even now, 45 years after the fact, will offer a depth of understanding missing from the story as it has been told so far.
Anekwe, S. (1968, November 2). UFT not wanted by JHS 271 Pupils. New York Amsterdam News, p. 27.
Buder, L. (1968a, November 30). 35% of students boycott schools: 1,500 at U.N. protest the holding of classes on usual day off. New York Times, pp. 1, 34.
Buder, L. (1968b, December 4). New state aide hopes to reopen J.H.S. 271 Monday. New York Times, p. 1, 40.
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DA Refuses To probe pupil assault charge. (1968, November 30). New York Amsterdam News, p. 23.
Edwards, M. (2011, December 27). Interview by Steve Brier (digital audio recording). CUNY Graduate Center, New York, NY.
Farber, M.A. (1968, September 10). Brownsville has school as usual: Other experimental districts also fare well in walkout. New York Times, pp. 1, 38.
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For and By Our Children. (1969, January 18). New York Recorder.
Hampton, H., Fayer, S., & Flynn, S. (1991). Voices of freedom: An oral history of the civil rights movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. New York, NY: Bantam.
Hampton, H., Vecchione, J., Fayer, S., Bagwell, O., Crossley, C., DeVinney, J. A., Lacy, M. D., .PBS Video. (2006). Eyes on the prize. Alexandria, VA.: PBS Video.
Hechinger, F. M. (1969, March 16). Education: Ocean Hill-Brownsville revisited. New York Times, p. E11.
Hechinger, F.M. (1968, October 6). What now for decentralization? New York Times, The Week in Review section, p. E8.
Isaacs, C.S. (2012). Inside Ocean Hill-Brownsville: A teacher’s education, 1968-69. Citations from excerpted sections of manuscript in preparation. Book forthcoming from SUNY Press, August 2014.
JHS 271 Classes set For Monday. (1968, December 7). New York Amsterdam News, p. 27.
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- See, for example, the history of Parents and Taxpayers (PAT) as recounted in Podair (2004, pp. 23-30).↩
- Although the UFT held three separate strikes during the fall of 1968, in keeping with colloquial convention, I will at times refer to this set of strikes as “the UFT strike” or “the teachers’ strike.”↩
- For this, Pritchett cited: Brownsville Community Council “Total Action Plan for 1967-1968,” Owens Papers; Fantini, Magat, and Gittell, Community Control and the Urban School, pp. 100-140.↩
- The ethical challenges of “representing” children were a foundation or self-reflective aspect of many of these studies.↩
- Spelled alternatively “Darrell,” “Darryl” and “Daryl” in each of the news stories cited.↩
- Segments of the interview appeared in the documentary film Eyes on the Prize (Hampton, et al., 2006), as well as in Voices of Freedom (Hampton, Flayer, & Flynn, 1991). The full transcript of the entire videotaped interview is available online, and this is what I cite here. Despite significant conversation about her name in the recording, Jordon’s name was spelled Jordon in the online transcript, and Jordan in Voices of Freedom. I use Jordon here, as I am citing the online transcript.↩
- For one model of ongoing resistance within public institutions, Weis and Fine wrote of the “rich and fragile” “counterpublics” created by teachers within public schools, despite the fact that the schools are “sites of enormous surveillance and pressure toward reproduction” (2001).↩