New Histories of Education in New York City: An Introduction

By Nick Juravich

A 1967 Black Panther Party poster advocating for a school boycott. (Black New Yorkers for Educational Excellence)

A 1967 Black Panther Party poster advocating for a school boycott. (Black New Yorkers for Educational Excellence)

Fifty years ago this fall, struggles over public education rocked New York City. Fed up with overcrowded, under-resourced schools and token integration plans, Black and Puerto Rican parents issued a new kind of demand, calling for "community control" of the newly built –- and newly segregated -- Intermediate School 201 in Harlem. Their demand sparked a citywide uprising. In the years that followed, efforts toward community control generated funding from the Ford Foundation, massive strikes by teachers’ and administrators’ unions, and, by 1970, partial decentralization of the largest school district in the United States. In her seminal account of Gotham’s “great school wars,” historian Diane Ravitch declared the events of 1966 “an end and a beginning,” heralding the collapse of efforts toward integrated schooling and the beginning of a battle that unraveled the educational, political, and social fabric of the city.[1]

For the last fifty years, community control has cast a shadow over education policy and scholarship in New York. Desegregation never reached the five boroughs. Nor did policymakers seriously consider it after 1966. New York, a prominent 2014 study notes, failed to integrate a single school, even as achievement gaps narrowed in desegregated districts around the nation. And while Ravitch described the fight at IS 201 as an “end and a beginning,” it still serves primarily as an end in most historical narratives, auguring the collapse of the school system, interracial civil rights activism, and midcentury liberalism altogether.[2]

Today, activists and journalists are again challenging educational segregation and inequality in New York City, supported by a new generation of historical scholarship that highlights the constitutive role of schools in shaping urban inequality.[3] In light of these developments, the Gotham Center has gathered six graduate students and asked them to reflect on the legacy of the community control movement, the history of education in the five decades since it emerged, and how this history might inform current struggles. Our responses, based on our ongoing dissertation research, are presented in the roundtable beginning today.

The essays range widely across time and space, offering a diversity of new perspectives on the history of education in New York. They trouble the idea that 1966 represents a clean break between the eras of desegregation and community control, revealing the co-existence and interrelation of these demands within long histories of educational activism.[4] As Michael R. Glass writes in the first post, the “twelve years of conflicts that preceded the opening of IS 201” situated desegregation as one of many strategies in service of a “broad, transformative vision of educational equity.” In many respects, the IS 201 fight was a long time coming.

At the same time, a “new” New York was beginning to emerge in the 1960s, a city much like our own: diverse and “global,” yet deeply divided and unequal. The contests over community control were, and are still, cast primarily as battles between black and white. These posts move beyond the racial binary to investigate the educational histories and experiences of Latin, Caribbean, and Asian New Yorkers. [5] Mass migration, first from the American South and Puerto Rico, and then, after 1965, from the rest of the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, reshaped New York neighborhoods and schools. As Lauren Lefty writes, these migrants deployed transnational networks and anti-imperial logics in the fight for self-determination in schools. They also founded independent educational institutions and invested in parochial education, as explored by Barry Goldenberg, Jean Park, and Dominique Jean-Louis in their posts.

While migrants poured into the city, they confronted the vacuum left by an exodus of blue-collar manufacturing jobs which had long supported working-class New York. Deindustrialization made public-sector resources -- including schools -- all the more important to community survival. My own post explores how schools activists, including those at IS 201, envisioned new roles for community members as paid educators who would improve classroom instruction and connect schools with communities while they earned living wages and trained to become teachers.

Individually, these posts tease out lesser-known histories; collectively, they help to reframe the history of community control within the globalizing, post-industrial metropolis. While they do not comprise a new synthesis of the history of education in New York City, two key themes run through all of them. The first is a commitment to taking grassroots activism seriously as a force for reshaping schooling at many levels, particularly the organizing that took place beyond the glare of flashbulbs at contentious moments. We follow the late Stuart Hall, who argued that “social forces which lose out in any particular historical period do not thereby disappear from the terrain of struggle; nor is struggle in such circumstances suspended.” [6] Much of our work is rooted in the 1970s and 1980s, which we study on their own terms and not solely as the aftermath of the late 1960s.[7] Even as the state's commitment to providing equal education waned, wide-ranging, creative efforts at the local level kept the struggle for equity alive across the five boroughs.

While the posts lean hard against declension narratives of both struggle and schooling, they do not do so out of the naïve belief that isolated or localized community action alone can, or should, provide equitable education. The organizers under examination here understood the struggle for school equity as a struggle, in part, for the equal distribution of educational resources. In pursuit of equity, they built multitudinous alliances -- with unions, with corporations, with global movements, with churches, and with sympathetic state actors. The commitment of these activists makes the abdication of the state all the more damning. Despite the recurrence of the “culture of poverty” thesis, laying the blame for educational failure at the feet of parents and students, it is clear that New Yorkers have gone to extraordinary lengths to secure the futures of their children over the past half-century.

Today’s activism is, in many ways, a product of the struggles that have continued from the community control era into our own time. Our roundtable is inspired by this work, and we hope these histories will serve in turn to further inspire and inform the ongoing struggle for educational equity in Gotham.

Nick Juravich is a Ph.D. Candidate at Columbia University. An Associate Editor, he organized the roundtable this post introduces.

[1] Diane Ravitch, The Great School Wars: A History of the New York City Public Schools (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

[2] See, among others, Daniel Perlstein, Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism (New York: Peter Lang, 2004); Jonna Perrillo, Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2012); Jerald E. Podair, The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); Ravitch, The Great School Wars.

[3] Examples include Tamar W. Carroll, Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Matthew F. Delmont, Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016); Ansley T. Erickson, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2016); Andrew R. Highsmith, Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2015).

[4] In doing so, we draw on perspectives like those developed by Russell Rickford in his essay “Integration, Black Nationalism, and Radical Democratic Transformation in African American Philosophies of Education, 1965-1974” in The New Black History: Revisiting the Second Reconstruction, ed. Manning Marable and Elizabeth Hinton (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

[5] In studying a diverse array of New Yorkers, we engage with the theoretical work of Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz in "Latino Landscapes: Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of a New Urban America," Journal of American History 101 (2014), and draw on recent work on New York City including Johanna Fernandez, “The Young Lords and the Social and Structural Roots of Late Sixties Activism” in Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era, ed. Clarence Taylor (New York, 2011): 141-160; Joshua Guild, “You Can’t Go Home Again: Migration, Citizenship, and Black Community in Postwar New York and London” (PhD diss., Yale University, 2007); Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); Sonia Song-Ha Lee, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement : Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2014); Lorrin Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2010).

[6] Stuart Hall, “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 10 (1986). Hall’s essay is essential reading for all those who seek a “dynamic historic analytic framework” for activism in historical periods when retrenchment and backlash are ascendant (including the post-1968 urban United States).

[7] In seeking to study education on its own terms in the 1970s and 1980s, we follow in the footsteps of Heather Lewis, New York City Public Schools from Brownsville to Bloomberg: Community Control and Its Legacy (New York: Teachers College Press, 2013.