A Love Letter to Babette Edwards: Harlem’s “Othermother”

By Terri N. Watson

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On February 5, 1971, Babette Edwards and Hannah Brockington submitted a joint letter of resignation from I.S. 201’s Community Education Center to David X. Spencer, chairman of the governing board for the Arthur A. Schomburg I.S. 201 Educational Complex. The three-page letter outlined their frustrations with the teachers and school leaders who worked in the complex and their belief that “schools exist to make teachers and principals happy; not a place where children learn.” In the opening paragraph Edwards explained the challenges faced by the parents of Harlem:

For the last fifteen years we have fought those people who have deliberately crippled our children. Now in 1971 we are still fighting the same fight, only conditions are worse, because the cripplers in the past (largely white) have now been joined by the destructive opportunistic education pimps (largely black), who prey on the Harlem community, sucking it’s life blood, the community’s future, which is embodied in their children.[1]

Edwards led I.S. 201’s Community Education Center and, along with her dear friend and neighbor Hannah Brockington, served on its 21-member governing body. The center was housed in I.S. 201: a windowless structure that contained an intermediate school and nearly a dozen centers and programs created to meet Harlem’s needs.[2] It was also one of the three demonstration school districts established in 1967 after New York City’s Black and Hispanic parents demanded a say in their children’s schooling.[3] The other two districts were located in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn, and in lower Manhattan.[4]

While education historians have written extensively about the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968, which stemmed from a clash between parents and community activists and the United Federation of Teachers in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville demonstration school district, relatively few have considered the efforts of Black women to improve the educational lives of their children. Moreover, little has been written about Babette Edwards, Harlem’s "othermother."[5] This post is an ode to Edwards, an education activist and noted pioneer in the movement for community control.[6] In a letter of recommendation dated March 13, 1975, Preston Wilcox[7] found Edwards' dedication to the children of Harlem to be “persistent, consistent, and insistent.”[8] I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Babette Edwards after reviewing her archives, which are permanently housed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (a division of the New York Public Library), and I echo Wilcox’s findings. Edwards’ belief in the potential of Harlem and its children remains steadfast. She refuses to let Harlem’s children be "miseducated." During our conversation Edwards shared that her lifelong mission is to ‘encourage and promote educational excellence’ in Harlem’s schools.[9]

Like me, Babette Edwards was born and raised in Harlem. And like many Black folks of her era, she initially believed in the promise of the seminal Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision that declared "separate but equal" schools to be inherently unequal. In fact, in 1958, Edwards became involved in efforts to integrate Harlem’s public schools. Unlike its southern counterparts, New York City’s public schools were never officially segregated, yet they were in practice quite segregated, a circumstance that deepened in the years after Brown. Edwards’ 1977 dissertation, "A Review and Analysis of Three Educational Strategies for Positive Change in the Public School System of the City of New York," enumerated how from 1954 to 1965, “the number of segregated Black and Puerto Rican schools in New York City increased 290 percent, from 52 in 1954 to 201 in 1965.”[10] Moreover, Edwards witnessed the impact of Harlem’s segregated public schools first-hand and recalled how her own concerns about her children’s education, coupled with the racist murder of school-age Emmett Till in Mississippi, jarred her into educational advocacy.[11] No longer could she remain silent while other people’s children[12] suffered in Harlem’s separate and unequal schools.

Edwards’ "motherwork" began after the Brown decision when she lived in the Robert F. Wagner Houses in East Harlem and her downtrodden neighbor came to her for help. The neighbor’s son attended a local elementary school and reported that his teachers did not use textbooks in their instruction. This concerned the young mother and when she met with the school’s principal to voice her concerns he was disrespectful and condescending. The very next day Edwards returned to the school with the parent and demanded that the principal show her the books employed by the school’s teachers. Angered by his smug response, Edwards began having “living room meetings” with neighborhood parents where she informed them of their rights regarding their children’s schooling. Edwards’ advocacy for Harlem’s parents, children, and schools embody what scholar Patricia Hill Collins has called "motherwork." This term is used to describe the efficacy of the Black mother. As Collins explains:

African American mothers can draw upon an Afrocentric tradition where motherhood of varying types, whether bloodmother, othermother, or community othermother, can be invoked as a symbol of power. Many African American women receive respect and recognition within their local communities for innovative and practical approaches to mothering not only their own biological children but also the children in their extended family networks and in the community overall. Black women’s involvement in fostering African American community development form the basis of this community-based power.[13]

Importantly, Edwards’ efforts on behalf of Harlem’s children reinforces Black women's inherent value and sense of humanity in spaces that have historically "mis-educated" children of color.[14] My conversations with Dr. Edwards as well as what I’ve learned from her dissertation, archives, and on-going work in Harlem’s public schools affirm this truth.

In the early days of Edwards’ advocacy, she championed integrated schools, but having met with resistance and condescension from school leaders, she encouraged parents to demand qualified Black and Hispanic teachers, culturally relevant curriculum, and equitable educational opportunities for their children. And when parent voices fell on deaf ears, Edwards either taught many of Harlem’s children herself or, if feasible, she arranged for them to attend one of New York City’s test-only high schools or private institutions.[15]

Today, unfortunately, Harlem’s children often remain in separate and unequal schools — and if parents on the Upper West Side had their way — nothing would change. Nevertheless, the life and life work of Dr. Babette Edwards reminds us that Harlem’s children deserve the very best teachers, school leaders, and educational opportunities. As an education researcher and one of Harlem’s daughters,[16] I am grateful for Dr. Edwards’ contributions to Harlem and its public schools. History often reminds us of the lessons we have yet to learn and as Dr. Edwards reminded me, "We have to keep on keeping on!" Thank you for your light, Dr. Edwards, I love you! Harlem loves you!

Terri N. Watson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Leadership and Human Development at The City College of New York. A Harlem native, her research examines the practices of successful school leaders and the impact of education policies on children, specifically Black girls.


Notes

[1] Babette Edwards, “Letter of Resignation from I.S. 201’s Governing Board,” February 5, 1971, Series I, Box 5, Folder 3, Babette Edwards Education Reform in Harlem, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division.

[2] For more on I.S. 201, see Michael Glass’ Gotham post here.

[3] For further exploration of these activism and conflict around schooling in this period, see Community Control and the 1968 Teacher Strikes in New York City at 50: A Roundtable. For information on the efforts of Black women working as paraprofessionals to advocate for students, see Nick Juravich’s Gotham post.

[4] Kenneth R. McGrail, New York City School Decentralization: The Respective Powers of the City Board of Education and the Community School Boards, 5 Fordham Urb. L.J. 239 (1977).

[5] The forthcoming Educating Harlem: A Century of Schooling in a Black Community (Columbia University Press, 2019) features a chapter about the work of Babette Edwards.

[6] Weinberg, M. (1977). Minority students: A research appraisal. U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. National Institute of Education.

[7] Preston Wilcox (1923 – 2006) was a human rights activist, a proponent of community control, and a professor at Columbia University.

[8] Preston Wilcox, “Letter of Reference for Babette Edwards,” March 13, 1975, Series V, Box 39, Folder 3, Babette Edwards Education Reform in Harlem, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division.

[9] Babette Edwards interviewed by Terri N. Watson, March 1, 2019, Harlem, NY.

[10] Babette Edwards, A Review and Analysis of Three Educational Strategies for the Positive Change in the Public School System in the City of New York,unpublished dissertation (Union Graduate School, 1977), Series V, Box 39, Folder 2, Babette Edwards Education Reform in Harlem, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division.

[11] Babette Edwards interviewed by Terri N. Watson, January 29, 2019, Harlem, NY.

[12] Delpit, L. (1988). “The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people’s children.” Harvard Educational Review, 58(3), 280 – 299.

[13] Collins, P.H. (1994). “Shifting the center: race, class, and feminist theorizing about motherhood” in: E.N. Glenn, G. Chang & L.R. Forcey (Eds.) Mothering: ideology, experience, and agency (New York, Routledge).

[14] Woodson, C. G. (1990). The mis-education of the Negro. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. (Original work published in 1933).

[15] The Hecht-Calandra Act of 1971 outlawed any admissions criteria to the city’s four examination schools (Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Technical High School, and the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts) other than a standardized test that emphasized math and science performance.

[16] A Harlem Daughter Gives Back: https://diverseeducation.com/article/118818/