Education Activism in Parochial Schools in Post-Civil Rights Era Brooklyn

By Dominique Jean-Louis

Editors' Note: This is part of a roundtable series,“New Histories of Education in New York City.” For an introduction and overview, click here.

In our fifth post, Dominique Jean-Louis explores another successful independent school created by activist New Yorkers, the Dwayne Brathwaite School in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Jean-Louis situates this school amid the changing landscape of parochial schooling and Caribbean immigration in Brooklyn, revealing both unlikely alliances and unexpected successes at a moment typified by failure and fracture.

On a chilly evening on May 16th, 1973 a group of black parents and three Catholic nuns gathered in the People's Institutional A.M.E. church on 244 Stuyvesant Street in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The recent decision of the Brooklyn Diocese to close several schools in the neighborhood had prompted the parents to brainstorm new options to secure the educational future of their children. The Diocese's decision was upsetting to these Bed-Stuy parents, who felt that the best place for their children were the pre-existing schools, not in new schools, and not in the public schools. After complaints to the principals, priests, and Bishop Francis Mugavero yielded no results, this group of intrepid parents decided to take matters into their own hands and open their own school. While they must have had high hopes that their gathering this night could have a huge impact for the future of their children, this sadly this became true in more ways than one. While his mother, Virginia Brathwaite discussed ideas for the new school, 9-year-old Dwayne Brathwaite was struck by a car on Bainbridge Road and killed.[1]

Despite these tragic beginnings, this meeting sowed the seeds of the Dwayne Brathwaite School, a five-year experiment in parent-controlled parochial schooling that exists at once as an interesting outlier in the story of education in Brooklyn in the tumultuous 1970s but also, as an example of a growing sentiment of parent -- and community -- centered education policy that took hold in the city's public and parochial schools during the so-called "urban crisis" of the late sixties and 1970s.

Such experiments in school system decentralization, community control, and local school boards in the public school system have sometimes been viewed as a failure of urban policy. But the Dwayne Brathwaite School offers a counter-narrative of 1970’s urban policy for the disadvantaged that challenges the image of consistent decline. It also disrupts the idea that community control as a policy measure was a failure across the board. A neighborhood-level comparison of community control between the public and private school systems offers a more complex story of concomitant victories and losses within the context of massive institutional and demographic upheaval, and suggests that New York City educational experiment failures in the post-civil rights era had as much to do with neighborhood context, timing and scale as they did with "bad policy."

The Dwayne Brathwaite School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn

The Dwayne Brathwaite School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn

Catholic School Education

Like public school education, Catholic education was undergoing its own crisis in Brooklyn in the 1970's. Tightening budgets and dramatic shifts in city parish demographics all set the scene for a time of massive change in Brooklyn Catholic schools in the post-civil rights era. Catholic schools were also pressured by parents to meet the educational needs of their students, promote racial integration, and respond to the needs of individual neighborhoods. Parents also viewed the Catholic schools as an alternative to public school education, an educational space where they might have more say-so in the education of their children.[2]

As we’ve seen, community control and parent-centered school policy fell into favor in America following the civil rights movement. The importance of community control was also shared by the Pope himself during the Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962 to 1965. The council’s summation of the Church’s position in a globalizing, multicultural world would set the tone for all subsequent Church policy. Vatican II placed a strong weight on parents’ centrality in upholding school quality in Catholic schools. “This sacred synod exhorts the faithful to assist to their utmost in finding suitable methods of education and programs of study and in forming teachers who can give youth a true education. Through the associations of parents in particular they should further with their assistance all the work of the school.”[3] But Vatican II’s influence on education was not limited to Catholic schools.

Vatican II’s larger emphasis on dialogue with secularity and social open-ness also informed the Church’s position on public schools; namely, that Catholics should contribute to efforts to promote community control and parental decision-making in public school education. To this point,New York City Catholic school officials were vocal in supporting the decentralization of the public schools in the late sixties, releasing statements of support for local school boards. While their Vatican II-bolstered support for the changing tide of public school policy is noteworthy, it of course should be understood within the context of declining Catholic school enrollments. Internal surveys of the Catholic schools in the Brooklyn Diocese in 1972 reveal losses of 40 or more pupils in over one hundred schools.[4] Diocese officials were keeping close tabs on demographic shifts in their parishes, and especially on the possibility that incoming nonwhite Catholic immigrant communities could replace the longstanding European parishioners, who were achieving social mobility and leaving Brooklyn and Queens for the suburbs of Long Island and Westchester County. “The parish school as it has existed is over,” the Brooklyn Diocese’s Bishop’s pastoral declared in 1973.[5] By increasing their visibility in the realm of city educational policy, Catholic leaders were effectively advertising their schools and their secular approach.

Garnering the favor of incoming immigrant communities stood to play an important role in this new world of Catholic education, as the demographic shifts in Brooklyn, and in its parochial schools, were indeed astonishing. At this point in time, according to Diocese records, more than 40 percent of students in parochial schools in Brooklyn and Queens were members of “minority” communities, and 72 percent of their families earned less than $15,000 per year.[6] Neighborhoods like Crown Heights went from more than seventy percent white in the early 1960’s to seventy percent black by the end of the 1970’s.[7] Much of this racial shift was due to Caribbean immigration to Brooklyn in the years following the 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration Act, which doubled the Caribbean population of New York City in the following decade. Most of these Caribbean immigrants made their homes in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Flatbush.

At the same time, the financial climate of the Catholic Schools was looking dire. Beginning in the late 1960’s, the Diocese went about a program of consolidation and school district centralization in the form of the Pastoral Planning Project, which began around the same time as the experiments in community control in the public schools. Elementary schools, previously organized by parish, would instead be clustered together in order to pool resources and share the responsibility of decision-making, and eventually consolidate several parish schools into fewer and fewer neighborhood schools.[8] Much like the public school experiment in community control, model neighborhoods would serve as a pilot program for such consolidations. Flushing, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Fort Greene, and Crown Heights, Brooklyn were selected as the first neighborhoods to consolidate overall religious services, including the Catholic schools. The success of the PPP was enormously varied, thanks in part to the difference in demographics in these areas. While the incoming immigrants of Crown Heights found consolidation a helpful way to integrate into educational and spiritual life of the neighborhood, other neighborhoods did not fare as well.

The reception of the PPP in Bed-Stuy, for example, was very different. The population here was not comprised of new Caribbean immigrants, but rather of longer-standing impoverished communities of Black and Puerto Rican families. For these established residents of Bed-Stuy, who had a longer relationship with their neighborhood Catholic schools, the pooling of school resources, and resulting closures of some, felt like a betrayal. A coalition of Black and Puerto Rican parents in Bed-Stuy calling themselves “We Want Our Schools” emerged in the spring of 1974. Spokesman Ken Watson issued incendiary rhetoric at a demonstration involving four hundred Bed-Stuy parents at the residence of Bishop Mugavero. “He has NO commitment to the poor” Watson stated. “We demand that the bishop stop closing institutions in the Black community. We, the parents and residents of the Bedford-Stuyvesant community, are willing to pay the price. Let us have our schools.”[9] It is in this moment of opening doors for Caribbean immigrant communities in Crown Heights, and the closed door of Bishop Mugavero to parent protests, that we return to the story at the opening, with the Dwayne Brathwaite School in Bed-Stuy.

The Dwayne Brathwaite School

The Dwayne Brathwaite School emerged from this chaotic starting point of public and Catholic school upheaval. It represents a combination of the parent-centered approach of the New York Board of Education’s dalliances with community control, and the atmosphere of Catholic school activism that emerged in the years prior. The example of the Dwayne Brathwaite School exists both as an anomaly of an arguably successful school in the tumultuous educational climate of New York in the 1970’s, and, on the other hand, a representation of how the same unpopular educational policies in both the public and parochial schools did yield some beneficial outcomes.

The Dwayne Brathwaite School was dedicated on November 6th, 1974 and was housed in the basement of The People’s Institutional African Methodist Episcopal Church on 244 Stuyvesant Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where it paid monthly rent to lease. The school had pupils in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and was taught by Sisters Kathleen Quinn, Catherine Gumlish, and Lenore Guirreri, formerly of the Holy Rosary School in Bed Stuy.


Sisters Lenore, Kathleen and Catherine (in order above) started the Dwayne Brathwaite School in 1974. Photo via ¡Viva! Mercy, Summer 2014.

The school was created without the blessing of the Brooklyn Diocese, who was reluctant to grant permission to the Sisters to leave their posts in order to join a project that opposed Diocesan policy. They relented, however, and the sisters were paid at the same Diocesan rate of $5,500 a year from the parents making up the school’s Board of Trustees. Sister Kathleen Quinn describes it as the best educational experience she ever had. “We developed a relationship with the parents,” she says, “and we couldn’t give up on these people. Everyone else has given up on them. So we stuck with it and got permission.”[10] Even after the death of nine year old Dwayne, and a hesitant Sister Guerriri asked his mother, Virginia Brathwaite, if she wanted to postpone their project, Virginia said no. “We must continue this struggle,” Virginia told her, and her two other daughters were amongst the first pupils of the school.[11]

Meanwhile, the Diocese was incensed at the insubordination of these Sisters and parents, and wrote letters to Bed-Stuy parents urging them not to sign their children up. The school’s trustees countered these tactics by taking ads out in local newspapers, touting their school as “a positive alternative,” and underscoring its nonsectarian approach and flexible plan of study. “We did not have a good relationship [with the Diocese]…we were involved in a defiant act! They could be very caustic,” parent Annette Robinson recalls.[12] In the end, 51 pupils began classes in the school in the fall of 1974. Students were taught in a new, quantifiable method of individualized instruction made popular at the nuns’ former Holy Rosary School. Community newspapers like the Amsterdam News ran stories praising the school’s approach, and parents were immediately pleased with their children’s progress.

Holy Rosary was known for their differentiated curriculum and quantified outcomes of success, both of which were brought to instruction at Dwayne Brathwaite. Photo via ¡Viva! Mercy, Summer 2014.

Holy Rosary was known for their differentiated curriculum and quantified outcomes of success, both of which were brought to instruction at Dwayne Brathwaite. Photo via ¡Viva! Mercy, Summer 2014.

While traditional academic skills were emphasized, parents and teachers placed a high value on keeping faith at the heart of their mission. Parents, students, and teachers all worshipped together on Sundays, which built a shared expression and weekly rhythm of faith, and a reminder that the stakes were not just financial, academic, and personal, but spiritual as well. Robinson’s family had belonged to the Holy Rosary school and parish since her grandparents migrated from Virginia as sharecroppers, and she felt deeply compelled to pass her spiritual home down to her children, which she believed could only be at the Dwayne Brathwaite school, not the newly consolidated Catholic schools nor the distant public school.[13]

As the original cohort of students graduated from the school and entered area high schools, the school population -- and parental involvement -- changed. Children were coming in not because their parents had fought for a viable educational alternative, but because their children were having problems at other schools, and over time, interest waned. Although the school only lasted five years, Sister Quinn insists that it represented a success. When asked by her colleagues how long she thought the school would last, she would answer that she would stay as long as the parents feel a need for it. Sister Guirreri reported that she understood that the school, and her involvement, was just one temporary piece of their larger struggle.[14]

This struggle set the stage for the careers of a number of people involved in the Dwayne Brathwaite School. Parent Albert Vann taught in city public schools, helped to found Medgar Evers Community College, and eventually earned a position on City Council. Parent Annette Robinson served on Public School Community School Board 16 in Bed Stuy, then City Council, and is retiring from her seat in the State Assembly after serving the neighborhood of Bed Stuy for fifteen years. Former pupil Craig Wilder went on from the one-room basement school to a career as a historian of New York City history and public intellectual. Of the school, he remembers “I remember proudly walking into a basement classroom where parent volunteers did everything from serving lunch and cleaning tables to barricading the side street during recreation…none of them were wealthy; some of them were barely stable. But they found ways to give.”[15]

While the Dwayne Brathwaite School itself did not last more than a few years, it indicates that the educational environment of the 1970’s yielded a spirit of activism and approaches to education that contributed to today’s generation of policymakers and activists, and when placed in the context of larger activism in the public schools and Catholic schools, it leads us to three conclusions about race, education, and place.

Firstly, it demonstrates that the demography, history, and specificity of neighborhoods have as much to do with educational outcomes as sound policy does. Giving the community full authority of their local schools was a disaster for the Board of Education in Ocean Hill-Brownsville; teachers and parents couldn’t see eye to eye, racial tensions and difficulty couldn’t be reconciled, and public faith in the ability of communities to make their own decisions all but evaporated. But the community-controlled Dwayne Brathwaite School engendered inspiring amity between teachers and parents, and the community at large. Meanwhile, projects that centralized authority, in the case of the Catholic schools’ Pastoral Planning Project, only saw community-building success in transitioning neighborhoods like Crown Heights, while more established communities like Bed-Stuy saw the approach as a disruptive dismantling of community. These examples give pause to the idea that urban school policy was a unilateral disaster in the late sixties and 1970’s, and instead offer a critique on one-size-fits-all school policy.

Secondly, this history encourages us to think past racial distinctions as being just white-and-black. As we have seen, black parent activists’ identities ranged from Caribbean, Catholic, lifelong residents of their neighborhood, and newly arrived members of the community. Painting the politics of education in this time period with a broad brush as being defined by “racial” tensions not only elides the growing diversity within the black community, but obscures the complex calculus of education reformers, who were all too aware of this diversity and were using it to inform the decisions they made. Casting these decisions along the lines of black and white does a disservice to the history of educational reform in this city.

Finally, this history ties together concurrent histories that are all too often and erroneously treated separately. The religious ideological climate in the years following Vatican II, the Immigration Act of 1965, the racial climate between the civil rights movement and the so-called “urban decline” of the 1970’s, and the move to public school decentralization all had a massive, and interdependent, effect on these communities. By reuniting these strands, Brooklyn education activism in the 1970’s, rather than presenting a narrative of inexorable decline, presents an opportunity to scale down the controversies of community control to a neighborhood level, and reveal the tenuous victories that “failed” urban policy produced.

Dominique Jean-Louis is a Ph.D candidate in U.S. History at NYU, and an Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral History Fellow at the Museum of the City of New York.

[1] “Named after dead boy, Bed-Stuy parents open their own high school,” Amsterdam News, November 16, 1974, 1.

[2] Author interview with Councilwoman Annette Robinson, February 20th, 2015.

[3] Pope Paul VI. “Declaration of Christian Education: Gravissimum Educationis.” (Vatican: the Holy See), Rome, October 28th, 1965.

[4] “Survey of the Decline of Elementary School Enrollment between Years 1971 and 1972,” Brooklyn Catholic Diocese Archives, Superintendent of Schools, Statistics: “Ethnic Enrollment.”

[5] “General Notes: Bishop’s Pastoral,” Brooklyn Catholic Diocese Archives, Superintendent of Schools, Statistics: “Ethnic Enrollment.”

[6] “Notebook remnant, Monsignor Edward Breen,” Brooklyn Catholic Diocese Archives, Superintendent of Schools, Statistics: “Ethnic Enrollment.”

[7] Philip Kasinitz, ed. Caribbean New York: Black Immigrants and the Politics of Race, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 25.

[8] “A Tentative Proposal for Reorganizing Diocesan Schools,” Brooklyn Catholic Diocese Archives, Superintendent of Schools, Statistics: “Ethnic Enrollment”

[9] “Press Release, ‘We Want Our Schools,” Pastoral Planning Project, Crown Heights, Brooklyn Catholic Diocese Archives, Superintendent of Schools, Pastoral Planning Project, 1970-1975.

[10] Author interview with Sister Kathleen Quinn, November 14th, 2014, Whitestone, NY.

[11] Author interview with Sister Leonore Guirreri, November 14th, 2014.Whitestone, NY.

[12] Interview with Annette Robinson.

[13] Interview with Annette Robinson.

[14] Interview with Sister Leonore Guerreri.

[15] “A Risk Worth Taking,” ¡Viva! Mercy, Summer 2014, 11.