Home » Volume III, Issue 1 / Fall 2014 » An Integration Plan That Never Was: Looking for Brown v. Board of Education in the New York City Board of Education’s 1954 Commission on Integration

An Integration Plan That Never Was: Looking for Brown v. Board of Education in the New York City Board of Education’s 1954 Commission on Integration

Marie Lily Cerat & Whitney Hollins
Graduate Center, The City University of New York

The year 2014 marked the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ruling. While many took time to remember the momentous decision as a significant milestone in the United States Civil Rights Movement, others pondered upon how much progress has really been made since the Supreme Court acknowledged that segregation was inherently unequal. Two months from Brown’s May 2014 anniversary, a report published by The Civil Rights Project at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) highlighted how ineffective Brown has been at eliminating school segregation. The report focused on New York State, yet the conditions described are not uncommon throughout other areas of the United States. In effect, the focus on New York State helps illustrate the limited effects of Brown. People often expect to hear issues of school segregation connected to places such as Alabama, Mississippi or other states in the South that are often considered more conservative; while New York is viewed as a progressive state, more open and accepting of diversity. To learn that New York has the most segregated schools in the nation (Kucsera & Orfield, 2014), 60 years after Brown shocked many: educators and non-educators alike. Yet, as the proverb says the writing was on the wall. This article discusses New York City’s school integration efforts in the years following the Brown decision. It analyzes how the most “liberal” city in America interpreted Brown, failed to implement the historic legislation and went on to become the most segregated school system in the country today.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas

In a 1939 article, the White sociologist Howard W. Odum attempted to forecast the future social positioning of the “Negro” in America’s social hierarchy for the upcoming decade, and alluded to the conflicted consciousness that arose from the way America treated its Black citizens with disregard. Odum (1939) would argue that the “Negro” is as competent as Whites, using such evidence as Black intellectual achievements and the development of successful Black institutions like Tuskegee University to bolster his case1. Odum further contended that “… equality, opportunity, and justice are already inherent in […] the American democracy…” and thus, inevitable destinations in the “logical processes” of building the American democratic society (pp. 588-9). There was also of an implicit admission in Odum’s paper that the American democratic experiment, along with America’s world positioning as a democratic leader, could not stand if the “Negro question” was ignored or remained unaddressed. The Southern sociologist’s assertion was undeniably inflected by a predictive or prophetic tone that anticipated the forthcoming Brown decision. The post-World War II era in which the Brown decision was rendered was a charged time for the nation, and New York City was no exception.2 Historian Martha Biondi (2003) chronicles the extensive efforts to fight for integration undertaken by White and Black activists in New York City in the postwar years, along with several jarring instances of racial conflict in the city that predated the Brown decision. Biondi observes: “The war against fascism also sparked a fight against anti-Semitism in New York among Jewish Americans, which gave the African-American struggle an ally in several significant legislative and legal battles in postwar New York” (p.15). Blacks and their White allies began demanding an end to segregation in all areas of society, including education, housing and employment (Foner, 2005). A 1956 New York Times article on the Conference of Rabbis highlighted the Jewish community’s support for the integration struggle: “It isn’t the Negro alone who is deprived of the right of citizenship. …We cannot sit idly by when justice is perverted, when laws are broken, when lives are threatened” (New York Times, 1956, p. 84). Alliances between various groups, as exemplified by the above statement by a rabbi, were important in the struggle for integration. Many concerned New York citizens, activists, parents and students, Black and White, ceaselessly marched for equality, decrying the discrimination that Blacks were subjected to and fighting to assure that the rights guaranteed in the Constitution would apply to every citizen in the nation. The now infamous Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas (1954) case began as a series of five cases concerning the issue of segregation in public schools. Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund handled each of these cases. Failing to win in United States district courts, the plaintiffs then appealed to United States Supreme Court in what would ultimately become the first Brown case. Thurgood Marshall personally represented the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case where he argued that school segregation was a violation of the Fourteenth amendment. Chief Justice Earl Warren’s legal astuteness, used to secure unanimity in the Brown decision, is noteworthy. Anchoring his legal interpretation of the Constitution, Warren challenged and engaged his colleagues by making the moral argument that the “separate but equal” doctrine could stand only if they in fact believed that African Americans were inferior to Whites. He himself believed that such a notion violated the Constitution. In rendering the court’s unanimous decision, Chief Justice Warren wrote:

Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does. Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro [sic] group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro [sic] children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system… We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment (NY Times, 1954, p. 15).

The decision declared the segregationist practices of “separate but equal” to be unequal and unconstitutional, and thus illegal in practice. To legally and educationally separate the races, argued the court, was a social process and approach detrimental to the academic and social development of Black children. The U.S. Constitution, especially the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as other social scientific research and evidence (Clark 1965)3 allowed Warren to affirm the inequities faced by Black children caught in the web of the “separate but equal” doctrine. However, the court’s decision made desegregation seem as if it would only be valuable and important for Black children and parents. In doing so, the court failed to address and to engage questions that affected the whole of American society. It fell short of framing desegregation as a benefit for all Americans. The court could have insisted that an inclusive American school system, where students of all races learned together, would make for a stronger and more unified democratic nation. By failing to involve and engage all groups of American society in the legal remedy for the structural inequalities and injustices that defined the public school system, the court removed any sense of responsibility or obligation from the White community. In this sense, the court left the Black community and its White allies to continue to demand integration, while simultaneously leaving the responsibility to implement desegregation to state and local officials and school leaders. There were other limitations inherent in the court’s final opinion. This is evidenced by the need for the second Brown decision, also known as Brown II,in 1955. According to Orfield and Eaton (1996), Brown II attempted to “define how and when school desegregation should be achieved…[while] setting no standard or deadline for desegregation to occur” (p. xxi). Chief Justice Warren’s agreement to insertion of Justice Frankfurter’s ambiguous phrase “all deliberate speed” in the subsequent 1955 decree shows that the first decision was incomplete. However the Brown II revision only heightened the elusiveness and ambiguity in the ruling’s language by not giving or imposing clear and specific instructions on timelines for states to implement and actualize the desegregation of their public schools. This lack of clear guidelines from the court allowed the decision to be misinterpreted, misused, and/or ignored by many states, which felt no pressure to comply with the decision in a rigidly imposed or rapid timeframe. Such an oversight by the court, whether intentional or not, effectively limited the full scope of what Brown could accomplish, had the law been properly executed or enforced. Therefore, it failed to give the decision the power needed to be effective in its proposed remedy. The limitations of the Brown decision aside, it is clear, nonetheless, why the first landmark court decision against segregation was centered on public schools. Brown challenged the nation to create a more equitable and fair society through its educational system. Schools in the United States have been considered one of the key foundations of American democratic society since the inception of the common school in the 1830s (Kaestle 1983; Anderson 1988; Ravitch 2000). United States public schools are supposed to teach ideals of tolerance, respect, and citizenship to children. Schools are touted as a common ground where all races, religions, classes and ethnic groups (at least in principle) come together to study, learn and, acquire the tools for informed American citizenship. However, in the past as well as today, schools often fail to deliver on these promises, especially in the case of minority students. Douglas (2005) highlights the discrepancy between expectation and reality, noting, “For most of our history, African Americans have viewed education as essential to their quest for equality. Yet education has not come easily for African Americans in much of our nation’s history” (pp. 1-2). What is equally significant about Brown was that it also forced the nation to realize that the survival and progress of its democratic experiment demanded and depended on the construction of a more cohesive, unified, and free society. An official policy of segregation would have never permitted the United States to assume the role of democratic leader and exemplar of the Free World in the Cold War era. By the end of World War II, continuing to deny and limit the human and civil rights of its Black population became a litmus test for the American nation’s commitment to be a world leader (Biondi, 2003). In order to be a world leader, especially one who represents the ideals of democracy, the United States had to at least look like it was addressing the issue of discrimination within its own borders. In many ways, Brown was an instrumental and a powerful legal decision that may have been ahead of its time. On the one hand, it pushed the country to start righting the historic wrongs perpetrated against the Black population and, at the same time, allowed the nation to continue constructing its image as a morally progressive nation. The decision helped to remind the nation about its long history of racial inequality—from East to West and from South to North—and to further recognize the deeply flawed or hypocritical “democratic” narrative embedded in its very construction. Brown changed the narrative and encouraged the nation to engage in a direct dialogue about race and democracy, rights and privilege, equity and equality: core ideas for the U.S. democratic experiment and necessary steppingstones toward perfecting the union. However, Brown’s primary agenda, widespread school desegregation, fell to the wayside in the years immediately following the court’s 1954 pronouncement. Segregation remained and worsened in some respects in the years immediately following the decision. Orfield and Eaton (1996) observe, “Northern segregation was virtually untouched…Most Northern districts even refused to provide racial data that could be used to measure segregation” (p.8). Many White Americans actively resisted desegregation by any and all means. De facto school segregation still remains a problem throughout the United States, and is especially prevalent in large cities such as New York. Brown still represents one powerful symbol and reminder of the potential of American democracy; what is debatable is whether the seminal ruling was made to enact genuine change or merely to silence critics who saw the hypocrisy in the grand democratic discourse used to define the nation. We would argue that the latter interpretation seems the more likely answer.

New York City and the Responses to the Issue of School Integration

The implementation of Brown, requiring schools to be desegregated throughout the nation, would prove to be a daunting task. Various communities were pitted against one another in the struggle for integration and New York City was no exception. Podair (2002) states:

… New York effectively had a dual public school system. In its ‘white system’ presided over by a cohort of experienced teachers, students read at or above the national average, and won a disproportionate number of National Merit and Westinghouse Science scholarships. In the ‘black’ system, pupils in crowded classrooms, receiving instruction from teachers who were learning on the job, read an average of two years behind city’s white students, and dropped out of school at a rate double that of the city as a whole (17).

The actions and inactions of the New York City Board of Education (henceforth “the Board”), following the Brown decision would only serve to increase tensions on all sides. As the Board, which set and enforced educational policies for the city’s almost one million students enrolled in K-12 public schools, continuously made promises to address demands for greater integration, communities on both sides of the issue erupted in conflict and violence. Some of the Board’s promises infuriated those white parents who were vehemently opposed to the idea of racial integration of their neighborhoods and schools, while other Board promises raised the hopes of Black and Puerto Rican parents and their white allies, who desperately wanted better schools and educational outcomes children of color. By promising, but failing to deliver acceptable outcomes to either constituency, the Board ignited powerful emotions and responses from both groups. New York City officials and many of its working class white citizens vehemently disputed the fact that segregation existed in various city institutions; but the city’s Black and Puerto Rican communities knew otherwise. Arthur Levitt, president of the Board, made a speech in Harlem in 1954 during which he asserted there was “no segregation in schools deliberately imposed by legislation…we have schools populated 100 percent by Negroes, but that is because…when children live in a homogeneous community, you have segregated schools” (Ravitch, 2002, p.252). To respond to Brown and community urging, the Board initially took a two-step approach. In 1954, following a symposium titled The Supreme Court Decision-New York’s Responsibilities where Dr. Kenneth Clark made the opening remarks, Levitt asked the Public Education Association (P.E.A) to investigate the educational situation of the city’s Black and Puerto Rican population. The 1954 P.E.A. report compared two kinds of schools: “‘X’ schools, defined as elementary schools with a Negro and Puerto Rican population of 90% or more, and junior high schools with a Negro and Puerto Rican population of 85% or more; and ‘Y’ schools, defined as elementary schools and junior high schools with a Negro and Puerto Rican population of less than 10%” (p. 2). The report analyzed conditions in these schools during the 1953-54 school year and found:

  • On average, facilities in Group ‘X’ schools were older and less adequate than those in Group ‘Y’ schools. Group ‘X’ buildings were older (43 years against 31), yet they were not so well maintained. There was less floor and playground space, and there were fewer special rooms.
  • If tenure, probationary and substitute status are measures of competency, Group ‘X’ teachers are not as competent as Group ‘Y’ teachers, since fewer of them were on tenure, and more of them had probationary or substitute status. Also, teacher turnover was more rapid in ‘X’ schools.
  • On average, ‘X’ schools received more services than ‘Y’ schools, and had more classes for retarded children, but fewer for bright children.
  • Reading and arithmetic, was considerably lower in ‘X’ schools than in ‘Y’ schools. The differences in achievement increased with the grade of the children” (pp. 2-3).

The P.E.A. report highlighted problems of inequality within the New York public school system, but stopped short of holding the Board responsible for the current conditions of the schools. According to the report, “The P.E.A. emphasized the fact that many of these conditions were concomitants of factors beyond the control of the Board of Education” (p. 3). On December 23, 1954, while the P.E.A. study was still in progress, the Board, headed by President Arthur Levitt and Superintendent Jansen, passed a resolution to appoint a committee “to study and examine the racial composition of the schools within our city in order to determine and examine whether the conditions therein conform to [proper] standards; and to report the facts with recommendations for such other or further action as may be necessary or advisable to approach more closely the racially integrated school in all localities” (p. 3). The commission was supposed to help the Board prevent further development of segregated schools within the city and also integrate, to the best of the Board’s ability, schools that were currently segregated. The six sub-commissions of the Commission on Integration4 were created to investigate and make recommendations to address and repair issues that contributed to the inequalities that plagued minority schools. The following responsibilities were assigned to the sub-commissions:

  1. Guidance, Educational Stimulation and Placement
  2. Educational Standards and Curriculum
  3. The Physical Plant and Maintenance
  4. Zoning
  5. Teacher Assignment and Personnel
  6. Community Relations and Information (New York Times, 1957, p.22)

Recommendations from the commission were expected to immediately address the problem of segregation and introduce solutions that used integration to achieve an inclusive school system. When the commission presented its recommendations, many considered it to be a giant step forward, particularly people from communities of color in the city, who, after all, had the greatest stake in the outcome. As time went on, the commission’s plans would turn out to be little more than a façade. In retrospect, the city’s plan—which was supposedly crafted to improve the academic conditions of Black and Puerto Rican students, show good faith on the part of New York City, and create an image of the city as a beacon of progressive thought and action—would end up being an empty promise as many of the city’s schools remained segregated and unequal. The Commission on Integration various sub-commissions submitted reports to the Board with recommendations about how to prevent further segregation within the school system and how to integrate currently segregated schools. The Board then voted on whether to approve the reports. However, just because a report was approved did not mean that its recommendations would be implemented. Superintendent Jansen (1957) emphasized this point in the following statement: “The Board must point out that approval of these reports, together with the accompanying supplementary material, does not necessarily mean acceptance in every detail either of the language or of the specific aspects of the recommendations contained therein” (p. 2). According to a press release from the Board of Education, the Sub-Commission on Educational Standards and Curriculum worked on “the assumption that it is the obligation of the professional staff of the Board of Education to increase the educational standards and enrich the curriculum in predominately Negro and Puerto Rican communities.” (Farnol, n.d., p. 1) In order to satisfy this assumption, the sub-commission provided various recommendations designed to raise academic achievement. The committee recommended:

  • The development of “an intensive educational program designed to raise the educational standards and academic achievements of the children attending these schools.”
  • The children are grouped in classes according to intellectual levels, then all such special classes should be made available to children in all communities in the City
  • The establishment of definite limits within which variations in curriculum and syllabus for a given grade in the public schools system can be made so as to assure a minimum content of knowledge for all normal children in that grade, throughout the city
  • Increasing the number of regular and experienced teachers assigned to “difficult” schools. (pp. 2-3)

These recommendations were not integration plans, but rather suggestions to improve the quality of education within public schools, “difficult schools” in particular. As per the Board, “difficult schools” or subject schools as they were also known, were schools in “an underprivileged and culturally deprived area”[4] (NYC BOE, n.d, p. 4) identified by the Board as having difficulties with student behavior and high teacher turnover. The Sub-commission on Physical Plant and Maintenance also recommended progressing towards integration through the improvement of conditions within the school system. A press release from the Board of Education (n.d.) stated: “Physical plant is not only an index of relative equality of educational facilities, but also a positive factor in accelerating: 1) ethnic integration in fringe and transitional areas; 2) stabilizations of integrated neighborhoods and 3) encouragement of higher quality instruction in a given school.” (p. 1) Recommendations submitted by the sub-commission to improve current facilities made the assumption that if the schools were made equitable and kept in good condition, integration may occur naturally in “fringe areas.” The 1954 P.E.A. report had already suggested that the physical school buildings in “X” and “Y” schools were not equal. The recommendations of the sub-commission sought to remedy the situation described in the P.E.A. report, resulting in increased integration. However, updating and maintaining “X” schools to the level of “Y” schools would not end segregation, but rather promote the separate, but equal doctrine. It also required money and resources that the Board was unwilling to devote to minority schools, which is exactly how White school boards and officials in the South had treated separate Black schools. The recommendations of this sub-commission were never implemented and the physical conditions of school buildings in minority communities remained outdated and decrepit. One of the Board’s most controversial sub-commissions was the one dealing with zoning. In the foreword, the sub-commission’s plan already demonstrated the inability of the Board to commit to a definitive plan of action. It stated: Any comprehensive plan for zoning will be the result of a process of growth and, therefore, no doubt will undergo continuous modification. Any plan at present is, therefore, to be regarded as a starting point and, of necessity, be flexible. Since there is an uneven distribution of various ethnic groups in different communities and boroughs, and since there is a constant shift of population within the City, it is impossible to establish any fixed ratio of children of different racial backgrounds for all schools. The ratio will vary among schools and will constantly change as the residential pattern shifts from one majority to another. The homogeneous character of some schools neighborhoods is an effect of segregated residential patterns, a condition which the schools cannot deal with directly (NYC BOE, 1956, p. 1). Despite continuously “passing the buck” or shifting the responsibility to desegregate the city’s schools to such city government entities as the New York City Housing Authority and detailing the impracticality of future integrated schools because of “residential pattern shifts,” the sub-commission still made recommendations for integrating public schools through zoning. The sub-commission defined zoning as: “the process of establishing boundary lines for an area within which all pupils of the same grade attend the same school” (p. 3, emphasis in original). The sub-commission gave a list of basic criteria to be considered when creating zoning boundaries. These criteria included distance from home to school, maximum utilization of school space, transportation, topographical features and continuity of instruction. The sub-commission asserted that promotion of racially integrated schools should be an important consideration when the above criteria are “acceptable.” The report emphasized that the city’s elementary and junior high schools were neighborhood schools and this fact “insures the conditions of relative nearness, safety and convenience which are basic considerations of good school organization” (p. 3). This statement further clarifies the Board’s intention never to offer its support to integration by whatever means necessary. It was unwilling to inconvenience White parents by forcing their elementary or junior high school-aged children to travel to attend integrated schools due to a backlash from white parents. Despite the fact, the report does assert that there are times when it is possible “to draw the zone lines [so] that more pupils of different races will attend schools with inter-racial pupil groups” (p. 3). Based on the report, the Assistant Superintendent had the responsibility for drawing boundary lines and that he should consult all affected parents when determining these boundaries lines. The report also maintains that the Assistant Superintendent should consider gradual implementation of boundary lines as opposed to the wholesale introduction of changes in order to win “over the community to change” (p. 4). It is apparent from the various memos released by the Board denying plans to bus children for the purposes of integration that they anticipated a backlash from White parents over the issue of integration through zoning and were making every attempt to accommodate their concerns. An additional issue considered in the report deals with busing. The report does not support busing for the purposes of integration. It states: “Pupils should not be transported by bus from one school to another solely for the purpose of integration” (p. 4). However, the report does support busing in instances of overcrowding. Busing became a major area of public concern, as evidenced by a press release distributed by the Board. The release contains a statement by then President of the Board, Charles H. Silver, addressing the “wild rumors that are being circulated concerning present or contemplated practices of school bus transportation” (Silver, 1957, p. 1). The statement described how busing would only be used to transport a child who lived far away from the nearest school or to relieve overcrowding. Using very strong language, Silver, urged the public “not to be duped by anyone of ill will or hate mongers attempting to undermine the confidence of the people in the Board of Education and the school administration” (p. 1). Superintendent Jansen supported the same position in his 1957 speech to principals of Queens schools. He stated:

For some unexplained reasons, rumors have been spread, that we are transporting or planning to transport groups of Negro children long distances to schools in which the pupils are predominately white, and vice versa. These rumors are completely false. No responsible person has the right to make such a statement. No such action is planned (p. 7).

It is obvious from the tone of the press release, as well as Jansen’s assertion in his subsequent speech to the public that many people had read the sub-commission’s recommendations regarding zoning and busing as a means to integration and immediately began reacting with strong opposition and resistance. Silver (1957) attempted to assuage these fears, while simultaneously showing public support for integration, as evidenced in the conclusion of the press release: Whether or not the Board of Education approves and adopts the proposals of the Commission on Integration, the school board and school administration will continue to discharge its responsibility by providing the best possible education for all the children of the city, consistent with their health, welfare and safety. This includes the furtherance of school integration where reasonable measures may be used in consonance with the above principle (p. 2). Once more, the Board took a stance that reassured those white parents who opposed integration of their rights while seemingly supporting school integration through zoning. The use of the subjective term “reasonable” left it up to the school board to decide when rezoning and busing were sensible approaches to the integration issue and when they were not. The Sub-Commission on Teacher Assignment and Personnel also made recommendations to improve conditions of segregated schools instead of taking and adopting a clear and explicit approach to fully integrate the school system. As previously mentioned, the P.E.A. report found that “X”5 schools were less likely to have competent teachers and more likely to have inexperienced teachers or substitutes employed in their schools. The report from the Sub-Commission on Educational Standards and Curriculum recommended increasing student achievement by increasing the number of regularly appointed teachers within certain schools. Their recommendations for Teacher Assignment suggested ways and incentives to provide more competent teachers to “difficult schools.” To assess the situation, Thomas B. Dyett, chairman of the sub-commission, sent out a questionnaire to elementary and junior high school principals concerning the current state of teacher assignments in their schools. The questionnaire posed the following questions:

  1. Do you experience any difficulty getting teachers to accept assignments in your school? If so, what are the reasons most frequently given for refusal?
  2. In your opinion is the present method used by the Board of Education in assigning teachers satisfactory? If not, what changes would you suggest?
  3. It is alleged that often principals prefer and request that they be permitted to retain a substitute teacher rather than have a new regular teacher appointed. Have you ever made this request for your school? If so, why?
  4. What method or methods can you suggest to lessen the number of substitute teachers in the school system? Are special methods needed for the difficult area schools?
  5. Do you consider rotation educationally desirable for the (1) teacher, (2) pupil, (3) school, or (4) other reasons? Do you favor any system of rotation of teachers? If not, why?
  6. What incentives other than salaries would you consider important to attract teachers to serve in “difficult” schools?
  7. As far as you know are different ethnic groups represented on the staff of your school?
    • Do you think it desirable to have a racially mixed staff in your school?
    • To your knowledge, have any attempts been made to accomplish this in your school?
    • Aside from rotation, can you suggest any methods by which this may be accomplished? (NYC BOE, 1956, p. 1)

Evidently, the sub-commission was trying to establish a baseline and measure of support for personnel issues such as assignment retention, diversity, competency and incentives within the New York City school system. The Board received several responses from principals throughout the New York City area. One response from F. Everett Henry, an African American and the acting Assistant Principal of Public School 12 in Staten Island, detailed the number of current vacancies at her school. She stated: “At this time, substitutes are in great demand to fill vacancies for which a regular teacher is not available. Out of ten teaching positions, there are four substitutes” (Henry, 1956, p. 1). Henry went on to discuss the ways favoritism in school assignments and positions resulted in the “lowering of morale among teachers and in the community” and how “ethnic integration should be considered favorably in supervisory and administrative positions as well as in those of teaching” (p. 1). Daniel G. Krane, Principal at P.S. 89 located in Harlem, described the difficulty he encountered trying to get White teachers to accept assignments in his school. He related that teachers gave the following reasons for refusing assignments: “The school is too far from my home. My student training was not in a school like yours; so I do not think I can cope with the behavior problems and learning problems of the children. Why don’t they appoint Negro teachers who will understand the children better and know how to deal with them?” (Krane, 1956, p. 1). Krane’s experience shows the prejudice and bias of some White teachers and demonstrates why the number of substitutes utilized at schools with a large population of students of color was so large. In order to combat the problem of vacancies at “difficult schools,” the principal advocated a system of teacher rotation. It is worth noting here that while the 1956 Krane proposition was overlooked or rejected, it would surprisingly return as one of the major issues in the 1968 Ocean-Hill Brownsville community control struggle. The teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, would vehemently fight the Black-led community school board over the decision to seek out and appoint teachers of African-descent to teach the largely Black student body and who would have been better able to culturally connect with those students (Podair 2002; Pritchett 2002; Taylor 2001). Teacher rotation was considered by the Board as a way to ensure “equitable staffing of all schools” (NYC BOE, n.d., p. 3). A supplement to the reports from the Sub-Commission on Zoning and Teacher Assignments from the Executive Committee of the Commission on Integration discussed the rotation of teachers. It highlighted that the Board hoped that its teachers would volunteer to work in “subject schools”; however, “if there are not enough volunteers, it may be necessary for teachers in some schools to be declared in excess and transferred to so called subject schools” (NYC BOE, n.d, p. 3). The supplementary report acknowledged that this would be difficult on the teachers, but maintained that the Board’s primary concern was the children. Despite this plan of action to staff “subject schools” with more experienced teachers to benefit integration, few, if any, teachers were transferred, protected as they were by their powerful and White-controlled union, the United Federation of Teachers. The Board also thought higher salaries would attract teachers to schools that were difficult to staff. In fact, educators who worked in “600” schools, educational sites that were designated to service children who were deemed delinquent, were already being paid a higher salary than those working in regular schools. According to the New York Times, “…violent and disruptive students were removed from New York City’s regular public schools and placed in so-called ‘600 schools,’ where teachers were paid an extra $600 a year for hazardous duty” (1992, p.A20). However, the Board of Education did not support the extension of this idea to “subject schools.” In a supplementary report about teacher assignment, the Board clarified that “A subject school is not a school for delinquents [and] the additional funds required would be better spent improving teaching conditions in these schools” (NYC BOE, n.d, p. 4). Despite the Board’s assertion that these minority schools were not delinquent schools, it is evident from the distributed questionnaire that the Board tried to attract teachers into these schools with incentives. Perhaps the unwillingness to spend extra funds on teachers for these “difficult” schools came from the absence of commitment to the integration movement and the movement’s commitment to the educational improvement and outcomes for minority students. The Board also seemed fearful of the responses of teachers as evidenced by the various memos it released concerning the issue including one in 1956 that asked principals their thoughts about the issue and another that was done in a question and answer format where it denied recruiting teachers to difficult schools and instead sought volunteers. In March 1957, the Sub-Commission on Community Relations and Information submitted its report to the Board. It was the last and arguably the most important of the sub-commissions to submit its recommendations. According to the report, “The Sub-Commission on Community Relations and Information has concerned itself with methods of establishing a community climate that will support the Board of Education’s integration program” (NYC BOE, 1957, p. 1). The sub-commission’s goal was to change community attitudes and form a sense of unity between minority and majority groups. The significance of the report was well known. “Most of the recommendations presented by the other five sub-commissions would be unnecessary if this condition [community relations] were corrected” (p. 1). Several major community problems were discussed in the report. One issue highlighted referred to the housing market and property values. The March 22, 1957 report stated:

Despite evidence to the contrary, there is still the mistaken notion that minority group members moving into a neighborhood automatically depress property values and cause neighborhood standards to fail. The majority group then begins to look elsewhere for a place to live. Losing interest in their present neighborhood, they hasten its deterioration and then point to this as proof of the truth of their strictures against the minority group. Neighborhoods automatically deteriorate if the people living in them lose pride in their neighborhoods (p. 4).

The sub-commission regarded circumstances such as the one described above as part of the reason for perpetuating stereotypes and racial tensions. It suggested that if misconceptions, such as the correlation between declining property values and minority residents, could be addressed, perhaps relations might improve and integration of schools could occur naturally. Highlighting the benefits of integration, it argued that: “Children learning in an integrated setting gain valuable experience in democratic living [because] children who work and learn together learn to live together” (NYC BOE, March 22, 1957, p. 2). The sub-commission asserted that adult attitudes in turn shaped the attitudes of children and, therefore, “[i]t is, then to the adults that we must direct special attention [and] every means should be taken to establish communication among various racial, religious and ethnic groups” (p. 2). In order to accomplish the goal of increased positive community relations, the sub-commission provided two recommendations: the creation of a Centralized Community Relations unit and increased public information. The Centralized Community Relations unit was to be staffed by Board of Education employees and work to increase support for school integration by promoting better community relations among adults. This would be accomplished by providing personnel to train school faculty, assisting in orientation of school staff, helping parent organizations, developing objectives for school community councils and evaluating the effectiveness of community outreach programs. To increase public information about and knowledge of school policies and administration, the sub-commission called for the distribution of information through various media outlets. It also called for a bureau to interpret policy and administration for the public stating that “it is important that the educational system, its programs and achievements be explained to the public” (NYC BOE, March, 22,1957, p.5). The sub-commission believed that effective dissemination of information to the public was important because “people cannot support constructively what they do not understand” (NYC BOE, March 22, 1957, p. 4). The sub-commission argued that through the presence of a Community Relations unit and amplified public information, school integration would become possible because of “better intercultural understanding and…more interracial neighborhoods with active participation on the part of school-personnel, members of local schools boards, parents, non-parents, representative neighborhood leaders and pupils” (NYC BOE, March 22, 1957, p. 18). The Board had already adopted some of these policies prior to the submissions of this report. Information, whether accurate or not, was being disseminated to the public through the use of press releases such as the ones released on February, 25th, 1957 and another two days later.. However, many of these press releases were reactive as opposed to proactive and sought to correct misinformation instead of providing accurate information as it became available. For example, the February 25th, 1957 press release announced the release of a question-answer review that sought to “clarify many of the points in the reports that have been misunderstood” and the Board urged that “this supplement receive widespread publicity through the press” (NYC BOE, February 25, 1957, p.1). In 1960, John J. Theobald, the Superintendent of Schools who followed Jansen, published a progress report addressed to the Board concerning the “Implementation of Recommendations of the Commission on Integration.” At the beginning of the report, Theobald described the challenge of the Brown v. Board decision and the city’s response, yet again, denying that the city’s schools were to be considered segregated: When on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court announced its historic decision outlawing school segregation, most of us in the school system looked upon it as a legal and moral re-affirmation of our fundamental educational principles. This decision did not, of course, apply to us since segregation had been illegal in the public schools of New York State since 1900. There were however, a number of individuals and groups which had been aware for some time of the educational problems resulting from changing residential patterns and housing discrimination (p. 1). Superintendent Theobald’s position was one the Board would maintain for the next two decades. It never acknowledged segregation practices in the city’s schools, de jure or de facto, but agreed that the schools did face problems of inequality and inequity. As to the fact of segregation, school officials like Theobald asserted that if it existed in the schools, it resulted from such ongoing problems as segregated housing and residential patterns over which the Board had no control. The six sub-commissions of the Commission of Integration created intelligent and thoughtful reports that were carefully constructed. Taken as a whole, the recommendations made by each sub-commission, had they been implemented, would have gone a long way toward improving New York City public schools. However, instead of being put into action by the Board, the reports mostly remained only words on paper. While activists, parents and the children of New York City waited for action on school improvement, all they received were more reports. The tension was coming to a head. In a 1957 address to principals of Queens schools and representatives of parent associations, William Jansen, the Superintendent of Schools (1947-1958), stated: “No forms of ‘segregation’ within the meaning of the historical decision of the Supreme Court is practiced or sanctioned in New York City” (Jansen, 1957, p. 4). Just one year later, on May 16th, 1958, which happened to be almost exactly four years after the historic Brown decision, 500 Blacks students stayed home from school in protest of the Board’s “intentional segregation policy” (New York Times, May 17th, 1958, p.40). Jansen tried to placate parents and principals by drawing a distinction between integration and segregation and diverting the integration issue from its linkage to embedded racism and racist practices. He asserted that the definition of integration commonly used, one in which schools became racially mixed, was not applicable to New York City schools. For Jansen, integration did not mean Black and White children attending the same classes. Instead, the type of integration Jansen envisioned implementing in New York City schools was “to provide full educational opportunities to all children” (p. 4), which seemingly implied that each group could receive a quality education while remaining in their own community schools. It is obvious from the protest the following year that not everyone agreed with him. Through the use of commissions, committees, and reports, the Board managed to play on both sides of the integration struggle for a number of years after the Brown v. Board decision. While paying lip service to those who strongly demanded integration, the Board discreetly maintained its allegiance to those white parents and people in power who opposed racial integration. It was a tactic that could not be employed indefinitely, but it served the Board well for many years, as minority students continued to suffer in New York City schools. To conclude, the Brown decision will be remembered forever in U.S. history as an iconic and historic milestone in the struggle for civil rights. The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to acknowledge segregation as inherently unconstitutional and to be a manifestation of racism, and to label discrimination a crime, gave hope to millions of minority Americans and to their White allies. However, the ideal of Brown in regard to school desegregation was far more significant than its actual impact. By and large, U.S. schools remained segregated despite the Supreme Court’s decision. Lack of results was especially evident in Southern states, where many school boards refused to adhere to the decision and schools remained virtually unchanged until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.6 This lack of progress toward racial equality was not limited to the South, however. The Brown decision also failed to induce significant change in the North, as clearly evidenced by the failure of the New York City school system to integrate in the years following 1954, despite exploring myriad plans and propositions. Fighting segregation in New York City seemed to have been more difficult than in the South, perhaps because of the fact that the city never really admitted to or even acknowledged having a segregated school system. Unlike in the South, opponents of segregation in the North were fighting against an invisible system, one that was only evident if you were willing to try to see it. There were no signs that said “Whites Only” or that pointed to the nearest “Colored” facilities. Instead, there were covert racist attitudes hidden behind a Northern air of culture, sophistication, and so-called liberalism. Surely, many thought racism could not exist in New York City, to which millions of migrants and immigrants had ventured to build their lives. Racism would, in fact, remain one of New York City’s darkest secrets. In the end, the New York City Board of Education played a key role in sustaining the hidden racism practiced in the city. It repeatedly pretended to be a champion of integration and an ally to all children while simultaneously failing to take any concrete steps towards desegregation. While continuously asserting that it was equally concerned about the education of every child, the Board proved through its actions or inactions that its primary concern was not to meet the educational needs of students and families of color. Every decision or indecision made by the Board played to the interests of White children and parents. The failure of the Board to respond to the legal mandate to desegregate the city’s schools in the dozen years after the Brown decision had enduring effects. Eventually, civil rights and community activists and parents would tire of the Board’s deceptions concerning integration and set out to improve educational outcomes for minority students through the use of community control and decentralization approaches and organizations. However, despite efforts throughout the 1950s to control and improve the educational destinies of minority children, the New York school system remains segregated, inequitable, and unequal to this day. The historic Brown v. Board decision is still taught in schools throughout the city and the nation as a symbol of progress and of American democratic ideals. However, the hagiographic celebration of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision gives a false sense that a great deal has changed in the education of minority students. In reality, the New York City Board of Education’s myriad committees, commissions and reports were a waste of paper, manpower, time and financial resources, designed to deceive a public hungry for action and change. Today, sixty years later, minority students and parents in New York City still await the educational transformation promised by Brown and an end to inequality and inequity in the city’s public schools.


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  1. Tuskegee was originally established in Alabama in 1881 by former slave, Booker T. Washington, for the education of Southern black youth.
  2. “African Americans turned the war against fascism into a war against white supremacy at home. Over the next decade, Black New Yorkers fought for better jobs, an end to police brutality, access to new housing, representation in government, and college education for their children” (See Biondi, 2005, p. 1).
  3. Kenneth Clark was an African-American sociologist who conducted a study involving dolls of various skin tones to identify the harms of segregation on children. His study and testimony was used as key evidence to support the Court’s decision.
  4. Subject schools were schools in underprivileged communities with students who were deemed to exhibit “culturally deprived” behaviors (NYBBOE, n.d.). “Culturally deprived” is a term used to describe groups that do not subscribe to the dominant culture’s forms of behavior and communication. Historically, in the United States this label has been used to describe African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and other minority groups who do not exhibit or conform to white, middle-class values.
  5. X schools were defined as elementary schools with a Negro and Puerto Rican populations of 90% or more, and Junior High Schools with a Negro and Puerto Rican population of 85% or more (Theobald, 1960).
  6. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, was enacted by the U.S. Congress “to enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes.” (Department of Justice. 1964. The civil rights act of 1964. Retrieved from http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/cor/coord/titlevistat.php)
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