Interviewer: Louis Massiah
Production Team: B
Interview Date: October 12, 1988
Camera Rolls: 3003-3008
Sound Rolls: 302-304
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Rhody McCoy, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 12, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
What was the situation for Black teachers, particularly Black males in the New York City School Board in '67, particularly a Black teacher that had an aspiration for a job in the administration of the schools?
The history in that city, I think there were three Principals.
Could you start again, the history in New York City.
The history in New York City School System, there were three appointed Principals, two were women and one was male. Ah, and he was in elementary school, the elementary school appointee. So for many, many years there were no Black Principals and only one Black male, many years. Ah, they could not pass the civil service examination.
Why was that?
Well, in the beginnings, ah, they would knock them out on, ah, grammar. They'd knock them out, if they passed the grammar parts, I think there were five parts to the examination. If they passed the grammar then they would knock them out on the interview, speech patterns, and whatever, whatever is necessary for them to knock them out.
Let's maybe personalize it a little bit. For you as a Black male teaching in the school system, what was it like for you in '67?
I took a different route. Ah, I went into the, first I was not intending to be an educator. So I went into the 600 Schools, which was the schools for the emotionally and socially maladjusted. And, I became a substitute. Ah, I tried to pass the examination I think three times and I wasn't able to make it. The first time I missed it on the short answer. Second time I missed it on the interview. And I think the third time I missed it on the, on the physical. But it didn't discourage me because I was not interested in being a teacher. It was a job that I needed to support a family. But in that process I began to meet a, a, any number of Black males who were interested in, one getting into the system. So you had to be in the elementary school license or a Jr. High School license as a teacher for five years and then you would be eligible to take the Assistant to the Principal's exam. And then after five years you could take the Principal's exam. Or, if it wasn't five, it was three but it was a, a, graduated, ah, years of service before you could take the examination. So, ah, going the 600 School route, ah, they had no Black, ah, males, ah, at the time that I entered the system when the population was predominantly Black. So, it was easy to give me a substitute license. Then, little by little, ah, a couple of people began to encourage me and suggested that I study and take a cram course and they would help me. And so I passed the, ah, the examination, the first exam, ah, in Health Education. And, ah, became a teacher. And then having been in the system for two, I think three years and, and they shifted me from school to school where the need, because of the disruptive Black students were, ah, they began to know me. They recognized that I was a good teacher. I won a number of awards, etc. And I instantly began to move towards being an Assistant Principal. And I was given the Assistant Principalship. Didn't pass anything but was given Assistant Principalship. And then finally, I just took a school.
OK. Let's jump ahead a little bit. When you- how were you chosen to come to Ocean Hill Brownsville, as the administrator and what was your first interaction like with the community groups in Ocean Hill Brownsville, a little bit of the story that you were telling earlier?
Ah, either Father Powis, a name who I did not know and, or a Reverend Oliver or both, a name I did not know, called me and asked me would I be interested in working with, ah, some schools in Bedford Stuyvesant over the summer? At that time I was the Principal. And I would quickly define and say Acting Principal because I didn't have the Principal's license, but I was the Principal of, of the Peter Cooper School at 82nd and West End Avenue. And I went out for an interview. Ah, the interview was conducted in, ah, Junior, Junior High School 271. And, ah, obviously I must have been the last candidate that day. And I was sitting out in the hall and they gave me the proposal to read. And I read it. And, ah, by the time I finished reading it, ah, I saw, ah, one person come out from the interview and then another person came out from the interview. And I made up my mind at that point that, what I read on paper and what I saw coming out as potential, and I made the assumption, ah, Directors of the Summer Program, there was a game being run on the people. So, they called me in. It was my turn for an interview. And, ah, I think, ah, ah, Father Powis, or, or Sam Wright, Assemblyman Wright, introduced me as being a Principal up in upper Manhattan who had had a number of years in the 600 Schools, who had worked with Milton Galamison. They gave me all of the things but said, ah, they had asked Edith Gaines who would they recommend and she told them to talk to me because I was a, a progressive, dedicated individual. And, ah, so the interview started. And I said to the people, let me just say this to you, A game is being run on you. This is a fraud and it's a hoax. It's designed to detour you from what your goal is. And it's a summer program, which is the typical kind of things that they do. And one of the Board members, ah, said to me.
Could we just stop a second. Now what do you mean? You, you saw people coming out, and they looked, and you knew some sort of game was being run, and also explain what you meant by the proposal, ah, so you're sitting in the hall, what are you seeing?
I was reading this, ah, proposal. It was a proposal drafted by the Ford Foundation and the Union for a pilot program, experimental pilot program, with some six or seven schools for the summer. It was designed to see if community people could do something with their schools. Basically, it really was, ah, tantamount to a needs assessment, that these people would be assembled over the summer, and they would sit down in some sort of organizational structure and tell what was wrong with the schools. So, once I read it, you could see that nothing could possibly happen of any consequence from that kind of proposal and over the summer. What was significant is it had some dollars in it, so that's the first thing that alerted me. But while I was sitting there, I watched a number of people leave the interview room, which I knew was going on at that time, and I knew these people. I knew them. I knew what kind of educators they were or were not. And, I knew that they were not serious and they were looking for summer jobs. I mean, I had had the experience with them, I knew them all on a first name basis. So, I decided, at that particular point, that if the community was in fact looking for a director, those guys were not the one. I, I didn't have any intention of being the one at that particular moment until I walked into the room and talked to them, and, ah, Claire Marshall said to me, she said, "Who do you think you are?" and she called me a few choice names and said, "What makes you think you can do this job? And, if we did give you the job, what would you do with it?" And I said, "First thing is, everybody's going to have to follow my directions, I'm the pro. If you hire me, I'm the pro. And, I'm going to put it together for you, but we have to all make a commitment that we going to do it." And that's when it started. And what we did was we organized, each parent representing a school.
OK, stop. Rollout.
OK, start again. You were outside in the hall, and briefly summarize the proposal, the people coming out and Clara Marshall's response when you talked with her.
Ah, I was given the, ah, proposal and asked to be seated, ah, out in the hall and wait for the interview. And I began to read the proposal which was a proposal between the Ford Foundation and the Teacher's Union for a model program for the, in the summer involving community people to assess their schools. Ah, it had no connotation as to, ah, decentralization or anything but it was just really to assess the schools and they would want to give the parents, ah, a few dollars for, for their work effort. And while I was reading the proposal, ah, the door opened and a candidate came out and then another candidate came out later and the third one came out. And I knew all of these people and I said, if these are candidates for this job, and after having read the proposal and then see what it meant, then I knew they had worked a, a hoax on them and that these people were not serious about quote, unquote "doing anything" in terms of education of their children. While I--after I was called inside, ah, I think, I think Assemblyman Wright introduced me and told them all my background, ah, where I had worked and that, ah, Edith Gaines had, ah, recommended me to come out and, and apply for this job because she knew I was, ah, an aggressive and dedicated educator. And, ah, at that point, ah, Clara Marshall, one of the, ah, community people--at that time there was no board, it was just a community group--ah, asked me who did I think I was and she called me a few choice names, like a rhiny[SIC] red, and I'll leave the rest to imagination. Ah, what did I think that I could do, and, and who told me I could do anything. And I told her I was a professional and I could do the job but they'd all have to have a commitment and they'd have to do what the professional said. And I think at that point Mrs., ah, Rooke was, ah, most supportive. She said, "this is the kind of guy, ah, he talked better than the other people and his credentials are just as good as the others." And, then Miss Bishop said, "I'm, I suggest that we ask Mr. McCoy to, to do the hunger program." And I said, "Fine, let me say again, one, I'm already a principal, I don't need this job, but, I know what can be done with this opportunity if everybody's committed to doing it." And they said, "Fine." And we organized right that very day.
OK. In the fall of '67 there was a strike and you knew the strike was coming. Talk a little bit about the discussion to keep the schools open and, um, how that came about, how the community groups decided to keep the schools open.
One of the first things that we did was to organize around the schools. That is to have at least one "governing board member" for each school. And so we designed petitions, election petitions and groups to go around from door to door throughout the entire community to ask, 1) would they support a governing board, and 2) elect a representative from the school and an alternate. And they had to sign a petition and they had to sign a second petition so that, ah, there would be no conflict of interest, there would be no padding the ballot boxes and so forth. So there'd be two independent people with petitions representing each school. So we had the community heavily involved, and it, the question of, of being paid in money was no longer an issue because there wasn't enough money to pay all these people. Now you had both the community involved, you had a proposal on the table with the Ford Foundation, and the, and the teacher's unions supporting a pilot program for the summer. We got into it and we had the elections and a governing board was conceived and that governing board asked me to be the director. Ah, we fumbled around for titles and I still recall Hattie Bishop saying, "Pay him $75,000 a year," and everybody said, "My Lord, we'll sink the program." But with this governing board we now set about what were we going to do in the schools, what would be the program in the schools, what did this professional say would be the program in the schools. And we started organizing for September. The strike was being debated, ah, between, ah, city hall and, and the teacher's union, and in a sense it was peripheral to what we had to do. When it finally came down that it appeared that there was going to be a strike, ah, Mr. Shanker and a couple of his assistants, I think Sandy Feldman and somebody else came to our board to ask them to support the strike and not open the schools. At that point, when they made that request of the school board, I said "I don't want to be in this room if that decision is made, because I'm a hundred percent opposed to it and I think you should be opposed to it." And they were. And their feeling was, "Hey we've gotten an opportunity to run our schools, why would we now postpone it, I mean that's not us running the schools. We are now postponing it because somebody else is asking us to."
So then what happened once the strike was called? What was the next step?
Our schools opened. Our schools opened and we were ready to go to work. Ah, in the interim, we had to appoint some principals and I think that's key. Ah, over the summer, ah, I put out a, a call for, uh--
If you just say in the interim we had to appoint some principals. Just begin that once again.
In the interim we had to appoint some principals so that when school was open we'd have a principal and a staff. Ah, and we, and we did appoint principals. Ah, we appointed, ah, Lou Fuentes to be the first, ah, Puerto Rican principal appointed in a city. Ah, Dave Lee the first Chinese principal in the United States. And, ah, ah, Percy Jenkins to be the high school principals and Mr. Harris to be a junior high school principal. And we also appointed--I'm fumbling for the guys name--a Jewish principal, ah, who Miss Hanson thought was an excellent principal and I concur.
How did you keep the schools open in '67, how, how did you keep the- even though there was a teacher's strike going on?
Ah, at that time, ah, ah, two or three things happened. We didn't lose many teachers out to the strike, ah, for, for whatever reason, some of the teachers who had seen, ah, what was taking place over the summer, I guess felt maybe their jobs might be in jeopardy and so they came back in at the beginning. Ah, and then we manned it by, ah, parents. Parents actually came in and took charge of classrooms. That lasted, I don't know maybe a, a month or so and, ah, teachers began coming back to us.
OK. What was the process for appointing new principals to the school? How did that work? And also the process for appointing new teachers? Can you just describe that?
Well first thing we had to do was agree that it should be the right--
OK, could you just say the process of appointing principals and teachers?
The, the process for appointment teachers and, ah, principals, or, or the administrators was based on the community feeling that it had a right to appoint those who taught their children, and appoint those who would set the educational tone for their children. Ah, since we had opposed the strike, we had then become a public issue, that this district is operating when all the other school districts are closed. And so it became a strike issue. Close 'em down or we'll continue to strike, ah, ah, that kind of thing. So in an effort to deal with that, ah, they allowed, that is the school system, the, the parents' school system, the New York City school system allowed us to appoint these principals, ah, using the state criteria, which is quite different from the city. So it allowed the governing board members to select the principals. Now what they did was they interviewed every candidate as a group first and then the particular board member for the school that we were, or I was making the assignment for that person, would also inter- interview them. And if they concurred, they were selected. When they began to interview for teachers, they set up a gymnasium and put tables around and brought in all of the governing board members and as many parents who were interested in talking to perspective teachers. And they, they did it well. They did it smartly. They knew that you had to have a license, so they knew anybody coming to teach would have a license or could get a license, so that was not a criteria. They wanted to know what they would teach their youngsters, did they like children, were they afraid of Black children, would they come to their homes, could they come to their homes. They, they asked the kind of mundane and important questions to the parents because once the parents had selected them, then they counted on us professionals being able to do the job. And obviously they're going to hold me, as the, at that time then called a unit administrator, responsible for the educational program.
Could you talk more about the role of parents and the community in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and what sort of activities were they carrying out, and were there any unusual community characters now in the schools that normally would not have been in the schools before?
That's, that's a big question. Yes, ah, the, the excitement and the fun and the joy began to blossom when you talk about the parents being involved. What, what did they do? Well first the parents went to schools. Ah, they, they set a tone so you didn't have any such thing as disruptive children, OK. Um, we put up libraries, ah, started libraries--
OK, once again, what was the role of the parents with this new experiment? What was the role in the school, what were some of the activities, and did you see people from the community in the schools who you wouldn't normally see before?
The, ah, the parents when they manned the classrooms during the strike, ah, their eyes opened, their hearts opened, and they began to understand, ah, or believe, or break that myth that there was something mystical about teaching, and that they were qualified, because you had many of these parents who were either high school graduates or college personnel, like Miss Hanson. She went to college, she and, and some of her friends. So you had professional people who were single parents or who were parents in the community who now came into the classrooms to begin teaching wanted to begin to be actively involved in this process. Now that's one level of parents. The governing board members would assemble and I would have to present to them every single program that I wanted to put into the school, give a rationale for, for it, talk about its cost, its, and the personnel involved, what they anticipated of it. It was unbelievable because in my teaching career I had never run into such a situation. I walk into the classroom, I taught what I ple- pleased, etc. Here I have to answer to the community folk What else did they do? They, ah, began to operate the libraries because we didn't have librarians. So we set up libraries and they operated libraries. Then about six or seven of them became involved with, ah, Teacher's College, professors. Ah, Dennis Littky, in particular, was a graduate student. And they designed a test, a reading test, if you will. These are parents, that at one point the board admitted that their test was better. In addition to that they administered the test. They wrote the results on a piece of paper and they wrote the remedies, the solutions, to the problems identified by the test and sent them to the parents with their name on 'em, and did the follow-up. These are parents of a very poor, downtrodden, maligned community. Community folk, other than those who were in the schools. Ah, you heard me talk earlier about Paul Chandler--
Just say, don't refer back just say Paul Chandler.
Paul Chandler, a community, a young man in the community, a student, ah, along with eight or ten other community folk would patrol our community every day. They'd pick up all of the young people who were late coming to school or trying to play the hook, and kept the drugs out, and came into the schools and talked to their youngsters about staying in school, the value of education, and set some role models for 'em, and brought role models in--like Eubie Blake and others. Ah, everybody in that community began to play a role in the schools. The school became the focal point of the community.
Was, was there, you were talking a great deal before about an excitement and a--
Oh, It was a joy to go to a board meeting. Not only were the board members present, but the community folk was sitting around. And they had as much input as the board members. And it was always on a positive note--how do we help the youngsters?** Let me take a quick illustration. Ah, we must have had seven experimental programs or new programs, if you will, in that district. And they only could come in by the parents collectively, or by the board agreeing to it, the school representative would acknowledge the program and take it back to the parents of that school and the parents had to approve the program. So you didn't have anything going on in that school, or those schools, that the parents were 1) not aware of, or not knowledgeable, and 2) didn't support. So you had a, you had a, you know, that usual thing that they say that, ah, you need parents support and if you have a good home and the good parents support, you're going to get good education. Well we got it. We were able to get, ah, an enthusiasm--the entire community came together around the schools.
OK. How were the teachers transformed? How were they interacting with the parents? Were they difficult? What was the feeling? Were they happy? What was going on there?
If, if memory serves me correct--ah, ah, let me talk about that in two or three different ways. Ah, I think at first the teachers were sort of let's watch and see, kind of suspicious, because now you know that with appointment of these principals and new teachers it put their potential promotions in jeopardy, or it put the system that they had previously adhered to in jeopardy. 'Cause if you suddenly now can use the state system rather than this New York City system of appointing teachers, do that examination and appointing principals through the state system, they had to work to show that they were good performers, that they were competent--
Could you just say that again and rather than staying "state" could you explain what that system was opposed to the New York City.
The, the New York State--
The teachers were wary.
The teachers were concerned about--
The teachers were concerned about the promotional system and the appointment process because in the district, we had appointed teachers from the, using the New York State criteria which was simply a degree, so many hours in certain subject matters, and approval by the local entity who was in charge. And in this instance it would be the governing board. So a, a teacher seeing a, a person move from teacher to principal would want to do and perform well because this is the best opportunity in the world for them to get promoted because if you did this civil service, which is New York City, they have a list, and that list had ten years to run. So you saw quick chances of 1) promotion. OK. 2) It, it scared them a little bit because here were parents evaluating teachers and professionals for the first time. They had never been in that situation. They were always judged by another professional. In this instance they were judged by parents. Ah, and again, the two systems were now put in jeopardy. So if you look at, ah, both the promotion of the teachers and their opportunities, they suddenly now saying, "I'm caught between wanting to stay with this program for personal and professional reasons as against having to adhere to the union criteria." And it was on that basis that when the union said, "We will pull you out of the schools," that they went out.
OK. When was the first attack against the experiment from the union? When did the union first, that you felt, sort of verbally or publicly attacked the experiment?
My answer's going to be very jaundiced because the proposal itself, that the union sanctioned was very deliberate to sabotage any effort by a group of community people to do anything about their school, just the proposal itself. And it was very clear in that proposal that they anticipated that the, the present junior high school principal or the principal who was there, the junior high school principal who was there was going to be the director of the program. So, I'm saying already that the union had sharpened its teeth, the strike was incidental. So the strike was just the next step in the process. When we didn't go along with 'em, bingo, they said, "No." Now after the strike was settled and they came back, they wanted, ah, all their teachers back. Ah, teachers[SIC] said, "Sure we'll take 'em back. They'll go through the interview process." Well they weren't going to do that because then you would destroy the union. So that became a, a fight, the issue of protecting the union and what the union had. So they never intended for this pilot program, for whatever it was, to have any meaning. And the way we had designed it and implemented it, it became obvious to them that they had to fight it from beginning to end. But--they say all along, "Hey no, no, no, we, we want to fight it. We'll put our teachers back in the room." Well if you're already admitting that you got a governing board with the parent, New York City school system and the superintendent acknowledge that you have a governing board, and, and the history was that they had said it was an illegal election, and finally they said it was a legal election, to now let the union come in and just place its teachers back in, obviously they were still fighting the process.
OK. Weren't there teachers on the governing board and how did get they get off if they were on the board?
Ah, if memory serves me correct, ah, there were two at-large teachers on the governing board. In the original group I think there were more teachers. Ah, I think the union had assigned several teachers to stay with the program while it was being developed over the summer. But then when they had the governing board elections, I think they, they left a space open for two teachers. Ah, I, I think one was Phyllis Waxman and I can't think of the other person's name, but they stayed with the program. I don't think they had any, ah, anger, or any distrust, or any misgivings about the program. I think they were more conscious of union, because, face it, we didn't have the money to pay them, they were paid by New York City School System. And even though New York School System was saying, "You're legitimate," they still had control over the dollar. They sort of blended in. They were not, not a problem.
OK, what happened around the death of Martin Luther King in, in April?
OK, we need to stop for a second.
OK. Around the death of Martin Luther King, what happened in the schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville and what was your decision as a result of whatever happened within the schools around then?
Ah, if memory serves me correct, the death of Martin Luther King brought two reactions that ultimately ended up in, ah, us closing the schools for the day. The students came to us and asked, ah, to close the schools down and, and because there was a lot of unrest and, ah, nobody wanted to study, they wanted to talk about why and what had happened, ah, to a, a peaceful guy who was trying to do something. And then a, a number of the, ah, governing board members, ah, also, ah, approached and talked about closing the schools down and so with these two bodies coming together, ah, they came and asked that I, you know, pass out a, a word, close the schools down in commemoration for Martin Luther King's death. And which we did.
Stop for one second.
OK, once again, how did the death of Martin Luther King, did that affect the experiment, did that change the mood within the schools and what was your reaction as administrator?
Ah, I think it, the death of Martin Luther King impacted on us in different ways. First of all it was, it was a very sad moment. And then secondly, the students reacted because here we are talking about, ah, obeying the laws and, you know, being good citizens and so forth, and here's a gentleman who's all over the United States is talking about peace and, and, and talking for the benefit of mankind and somebody assassinates him. Ah, that bothered them. And them, ah, when they thought and heard that it was a Caucasian who had assassinated him, it made it even worse because, ah, some of the, ah, subtle, ah, ah, reactions were, you know, ah, Whites had been running the school system and doing the X, Y and Z and we had sort of gotten away from that, we'd gotten into education. So this sort of brought it back up again. Among the adults, ah, it was more discouraging, that, that here we had lost, ah, a spokesman, a, a pathfinder, ah, and I think for a while it put a veil over the, over the experiment. We didn't have for about, I guess, two months any enthusiasm. Ah, as a matter of fact I recall we canceled board meetings. Ah, ah, it, it was just, ah, ah, just a veil, a very sad, ah, time.
Could you talk a little about this student association, this emerging group of African-American student association and what impact and what work they did within the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Schools?
Ah, I think that there were really, ah, three different groups of students but let me stay with the ones that were most active. Ah, in junior high school 271 you had Al Vann who was the president of the Black Teachers Association and Les Campbell and a number of other, ah, Blacks, ah, I, I would like to call them for another set of reasons, Black militants. Those who were committed to educating the youngsters, who were committed to Black youth, ah, those who were committed to Black males. And they spent a lot of time trying to get these youngsters to see the need for an education and to take a place in the society. So, they engaged themselves in a whole host of, of what I would call very worthwhile community activity. As I say, they chaperoned the little youngsters, ah, they, they stayed after school in, in meetings with Les Campbell, and not the recreation of basketballs and, and racing and running up and down, they spent time in their studies, in Black studies, they did a number of things. Ah, they set up a, a food program in the community, and they also took that step forward and met with the Hispanic youngsters and they began to do food programs together in the community. So the, what used to be kids hanging out, not going to school, ah, snatching pocketbooks in the subways, doing all kinds of anti-social things that suddenly materialized into a very healthy community. I can recall White teachers who previously would, would, ah, ah, come for an interview and said they would get mugged in the subway, they were afraid to go to the subway. Well these youngsters would, would escort them to the subways, and not, nobody told 'em, they would just be waiting for the teachers when they came, Black and White teachers. So there was a more positive hope, ah, I'm, I'm going to use the word hope. Ah, let me go back quickly and touch with Martin Luther King. I recall very vividly that, ah, some of the teachers showed up for the after school program and these two young men, one I'd said, one I believe was probably in my judgment one of the finest young men I've ever met in my life, and unfortunately I don't remember his name, but I see him very vividly, ah, accosted these teachers--
Could you just start again and don't say you don't remember his name, just go ahead.
Ah, the incident had to do with Martin Luther King's death and these youngsters came to me, ah, because there were teachers who, ah, showed up for work after school. And, ah, these youngsters asked me to please close the after school program down as well as the day school down because these young--these teachers would be getting paid when they're nobody, no students there and they should be out supporting and having the same kind of feeling about Martin Luther King's death. So these kids were indeed community minded, ah, as well as, ah, having a new look at, ah, themselves in terms of what their educational goals were. It was a pleasure.
OK. Could you talk about the slow pullout of some of the establishment forces? The Ford Foundation's pullout of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, that their decision not to support it at the same level you were expecting. And then finally the school board's pulling out of support.
Well there's, there's so many, ah, dimensions of, of withdrawal of various entities. I don't believe the Ford Foundation ever pulled out. Ah, this is my personal version. Ah, for instance I'm sure that they continued to fund, ah, Dr. Kenneth Clark's organization, I think it was called MARK[SIC]. Ah, and Dr. Clark was instrumental in working with us in Ocean Hill-Brownsville for a long time. Ah, he did not have or enjoy the, the welcome that he should have because the community was suspicious of, of, ah, of, ah, researchers, let's use that word, even though he was Black, ah, ah, and that Ken Clark was a, I guess, an integrationist, for lack of a better word. So, ah, also, ah, Mario Fantini personally worked with Bernie Donovan to help us move, ah, Boys' High into the complex. So even though dollars weren't forthcoming, ah, ah, people, i.e. the Ford Foundation representative Mario Fantini, stayed with the program. So, there's some misconception that people pulled out. Ah, there were two or three laywers groups, legal groups and Morts Davis'[SIC] group that, ah, never came in with, with a price tag on 'em, they just came in and participated and helped us. The school system, ah, that the, Bernie Donovan's group pulled out, ah, and, and I don't want to, I, it's impossible for me to tell you why they pulled out but, ah, I think they pulled out under pressure from the union. They had to see the experiment fold. And what was happening was that they were moving towards this "decentralization."
OK, let's just jump forward. In May of '68 the transfers began of the 19 teachers. How was that decision made to transfer the teachers, what was that process? And, ah, ah, yeah, could you just talk about that process, how that came about?
Ah, it would take a long time to tell the horror stories that when the governing board came on board, suddenly became an issue. For example, there was one instance where a girl was held on a, a hot radiator and burned. Ah, the teacher said of course it was an accident. He, he was trying to restrain the girl. There was an instance where, ah, one teacher was, ah, an insurance agent and he would go lock himself up in a room and take care of his insurance business. There was an absentee principal who'd been absent for seven years. I mean I, the horror stories can keep going. So when the time came for the governing board to begin to look at its teaching staff, it did not want certain people back into the district. And they had to find a reason. These, exp- examples that I gave were legitimate reasons that the parents now had an opportunity to tell 'em, "Hey don't come back." But that was already cushioned by the system and the union. They had a very clear statement in the proposal that if any teacher did not want to participate in the experiment, they could ask to be removed and they would be removed. It was clear, send them and if, if in fact, we did not want a teacher, we could send the teachers down to the Board of Education for reassignment. And there're all kind of horror stories behind that. So when these parents decided that these were the teachers who were still doing the same things that they had done, shouldn't be in the district teaching their children, they brought 'em to me. I think the first, this was about 21 or so names, and we sat down and talked to the governing board members of the school and the principal of the school and we came to the conclusion that these people were not going to work well in the system. And they had also demonstrated that they were opposed to the experiment**, they weren't teaching, ah, and a, a variety of other things. So the governing board made the decision, collectively, based on the recommendation of myself and the individual board member to ask those teachers to go back to the, to the central headquarters for reassignment.
So, the teachers were transferred. Can you just talk us through, very briefly, the strike in May of '68 after the transfers were put, ah, it was recommended that these 19 teachers be transferred. What happened next?
Ah, the teachers, some of the teachers felt that they, they were being, ah, unduly criticized in being asked to leave. And, ah, the union, ah, said that we had not followed due process, and therefore it was not legal or appropriate for us, or professional, for us to remove these teachers. And then I think the, there was another little glitch in here that, ah, when you brought these teachers up, we asked them to go down to the board for reassignment, which was under the regulations and the rules of the, of the proposal. They felt, or at least Dr. Donovan approached and said, "If you let them go one at a time, we can absorb them without any problems." Well, this is not the function of Bernie Donovan any longer, if you acknowledge that it is a legally constituted board under the rules, and it made its decision, who are you to decide? Well, that brought the union down. And the union said, "Either you take these teachers back or we strike." And so we refused, and they pulled all the teachers out. And then they went city-wide again. So here we are back in the limelight again, of being cast as the monsters and doing illegal things, and well, that made everybody afraid at that particular point.
When did the issue of anti-semitism first come into the picture? When was that first brought up, and how was that brought up?
Well, I, ah, I suspect that it, it was, it was, ah, the reason I'm hesitating is because the incident of Les Campbell reading a poem gave, ah, if I take some of the quotations of people like Ken Clark and them, "You ga- you just made Les Campbell the best paid, ah, friend of Al Shanker." "You handed him what he needed, ah, by reading the poem." So, the, the incident of the poem was not important. It just happened to be the thing that was publicized that he could grasp on. I think the question was engendered by the union in tal- in terms of talking to its constituents and meaning to the people, the Jewish people of the city of New York and probably the state of New York, that we were destroying the union, we were destroying, ah, civil service, we were destroying all of this. Because on any number of speaking engagements that I was asked to appear before, ah, the question of, ah, that Jewish people would ask me, "Why are we trying to put them in the ovens?" Because the overwhelming percentage of teachers of that 19 were obviously Jewish. Because that's what you had in New York City. So, they were saying, "Why are you destroying and taking these postures against Jews?" So, I'm saying the subtlety was always there in the White community. We, we weren't paying any attention. And when I say White, I mean the Jewish community. Ah, and so when the incident came with, ah, Les Campbell, it helped Shanker unify the Jewish community behind him, because up to that point, I had more, ah, Jewish kids coming into our school district while the schools were on strike, coming into our district going to school.
Now, could you talk a little bit about the, what the plans, and during the summer of '68, when you knew there was going to be a strike again in the fall of '68. You knew that the teachers were going to walk. What were your plans with, ah, the community board?
Well, we had built up, ah, some very good relationships with, ah, the colleges in the area. And we knew that if the teachers were going to go out, we'd have to have teachers. And so we recruited teachers. And I think we recruited, ah, some 500 teachers that, ah, came in, ah, from Ivy League schools and local colleges, who had heard about the experiment, who had read about it. Ah, some of the college professors who were in charge of student teachers had talked about it and lectured about it. It was in fact a true educational experience for many of them. And so, we set this process up to go and hire replacements. And of course we had to get permission from the school system to pay them. So we figured the best way to do it is to go ahead and hire the people. Remember, we are a legally constituted board. Even though they don't want to admit it, but we were. So we hired the teachers. And put them and processed them so that the system had to pay them. Now the teachers were out. Now that we had all of these new teachers. And you obviously must know that they were all White. There were very few Black teachers, period. So, our question was never- and, by the way the parents interviewed them the same way that they're interviewed previously. So there was a never a question with us of Black versus White. It was, how do we get the best education for our young people.
Was there ever any possibility of a truce with the UFT by the time it got to the fall of '68? Did, would, did you think, was there ever any way the UFT was going to support the experiment by the fall of '68?
Oh, I'm, I'm sure that there were several possibilities. One would be to get rid of me. If, if I would step down, ah, they would support the project. There was no question about it. Ah, if we would take the teachers back and let them have their regular assignments, there would be no problem. If we'd get rid of, ah, Les Campbell and Al Vann there'd be no problem. Ah, if we, if we, ah, ah, did not appoint any more principles, ah, using the state system, and go back. If we administered standardized- there were all kinds of opportunities by the union, or offers from the union, and, and let me add that the, ah, union supervisors were right in bed with the teachers, teachers union. So, yeah, there were all kinds of opportunities for them to support the project if, if we had done any or all of these combinations of things. But then, what would you have had? You wouldn't have had a project. You'd have a shell. You'd have some semblance of a project. So they made offers and overtures religiously. So, the supervisors union as well as the teachers union.
The incident when you marched across the Brooklyn Bridge. How did that come about? Describe that event in the fall of '68.
Ah, ah, Mayor Lindsay had, ah, I believe to this day Mayor Lindsay was in support of, of the experiment. 'Cause I think he saw some good things. And I think some of the people like McGeorge Bundy and them who had been out, ah, ah, ah, Roy Wilkins, the people who had been out and told him we were dead serious about educating, and we'd done some miraculous things. As a matter of fact, after the experiment was over, ah, they tested all these youngsters who we refused to give the standardized tests. But the system tested them, and they tested out, blew, blew the scale. So, they saw good things happening. Ah, and what we were going to do was to go over and, and demonstrate in, in front of Mayor Lindsay's office, the support of the community to continue the process. Because we had gone through the, ah, the, I think at that time we had gone through the trusteeship. Ah, the trusteeship was over. So, ah, then, the other part of that was, ah, they wanted to bring, I know his name now, that Mr. Bloomfeld, that was the ex-principal of 271 back. And, ah, if you recall, they, they
Could we stop, just, just stop film for a sec.
Um, all right, let's just go from city hall across, just, just explain, you know, there was a press conference that Lindsay was having, you can mention Mr. Bloomfeld if that's important, if that's key to it, and then just taking us across the bridge and into the community.
Briefly, could you just describe the event of marching across the Brooklyn Bridge? What started it?
The, the, the community felt that, ah, given the attacks by the union that we had best go over to City Hall and, and demonstrate to, ah, City Hall and the officials that the community was in support of the program, despite all of the headaches. And so that was orchestrated, ah, to walk over the bridge. Actually, we did not walk over the bridge. We went down and met at City Hall. And from that spontaneously, ah, some of the parents, ah, I, I'm thinking of Miss Hanson and, ah, ah, Miss Torres suggested that. And, ah, Reverend Oliver that we, to demonstrate for the city that we walk over the bridge. Then we cross the bridge you'd be right in front of, of Board of Ed headquarters. You just walk over the bridge to Board of Ed headquarters, taking this entire community and show both the mayor and the school system that they were in support of, of the program and didn't want it to change. And then we left the Board of Education and walked back to Bedford Stuyvesant.
What, what mistakes, what mistakes were made by the board, by the community board as far as you can see, and what were some of the mistakes that you as an administrator may have made in, in, in administering the Ocean Hill-Brownsville?
Ah. I, to the best of my recollection I don't think there were any mistakes made by the, the board. You, you've got to understand that these were community people who were disenfranchised with the system, who were nameless and faceless, who had never been incorporated and included, even though their children were mandated to go to school. For them to take on that responsibility was tremendous**. And they did a Herculean job. The problems that I think we made as professionals and me included was that we had been in the system too long. We were, we were imbued with the bureaucratic system. We had to do things according to certain criteria which we'd learned or had been subjected to in our careers. Ah, and we didn't have the resources to do it independently. So we were really in a sense dependent on the school system. We did not have the kind of coalition the standard union would have or that the non-Black community had. We had only our resources and they were just meager.
You know, when you first started talking about the roll of the parents, you said it was a real flowering, ah, and, ah, you were talking about going back to that time, how w-
OK, what I wanted to get a sense of was the difference for the students between school as it was prior to Ocean Hill-Brownsville and then afterwards. And also what difference it was for the parents, what you saw about blossoming that you began to speak very highly of?
Ah, as I see it unfolding in front of me now, teachers, who are now parents, come to school sharp and dressed, committed to--
OK, let's start again, the parents who are now teachers.
The parents who are now teachers came to school beautifully dressed and sharp and ready to take on and assume this professional manner. And now these youngsters who had previously seen 90 percent of their teachers White are now looking at their parents or the parents of their friends who are teaching. So, you already had a change in the learning atmosphere, that these youngsters now are awed by their parents and their parents friends or other adults in the community who they never saw as teachers, now see, not only the, the parents in the school but see them as teachers. And this new role model was just fantastic. Ah, as I said, no more hookie, no more truant-playing, everybody was coming to school. The parents took this seriously because when they were manning the classes at the beginning they began to see and understand that they had something to contribute, that they were just as capable of teaching their youngsters as the teachers were and with some guidance and some help from the professionals, bingo, they could do it. And so they got involved in all dimensions of teaching, the research, the program evaluations, the teacher evaluations. It was a phenomenal situation. Everybody was happy. Everybody was coming to school. And, even though we were in different schools, we came together regularly, not by mandate i.e. board meeting but out of common cause. We wanted to talk about libraries and how we could get libraries done. We'd talk about Black Studies programs. And we'd talk about not having, or the extended classroom, when we'd send youngsters down to the courts, et cetera. So the youngsters now see an entirely different educational arena. They weren't playing hookie. They weren't disruptive in class. Their parents were sitting there. Their parents were making them study. And they wanted to study. Their parents were there in the schools, where heretofore, you'd say, the parents are not in the school, they are now in the schools en mass.
I know that you knew Malcolm X and had visited him on a few occasions. Can you talk about how your philosophy of education, what was your philosophy of education and how that was affected by your meetings with Malcolm X and the responsibilities of education in the Black community.
Well, ah, I had an idea about education and my idea was very simple. The schools were not there to teach the skills, i.e. reading, writing, and arithmetic but to present or prepare a learning environment where youngsters would be educated, that they would be able to read sufficient materials, hear two or three different points of view and be able to think for themselves and make intelligent decisions based on things that were important to them in their lives. When I talked to Malcolm, and had the occasion to talk to Malcolm, as well as Herman Ferguson and, and, ah, Wilton Anderson, we had the same idea. It was not skills we were interested in, because the materials that they were giving our youngsters wasn't worth the time of day, it wasn't going to do anything for their lives. Ah, i.e. alter distortions in the textbooks about Blacks and, and American Indians, all that kind of foolishness. So, what we were looking at is how do we educate our youngsters and, and Malcolm posture, that's what he said from day 1. Wake up. And let's, learn, get, get educated. Not, not so much skills in reading and writing.
How did it feel that day working across the Brooklyn Bridge with all those people?
Well I think I had about two or three emotions at the same time. The first one was probably the proudest moment in my life, that that many people felt, one, that I had done a job or was doing a job and two, were committed to the education of the Black student. It was something. And they were, they had a song they were chanting. I don't remember all of the words but it was a support song. Secondly, ah, we had been told that, ah, there were FBI agents in the crowd and so we began to have some other kinds of apprehensions. C, Not FBI but CIA agents in the crowd and they were going to arrest a few people or do some things to people. And so I had that kind of fear. And then, finally I had the, I guess the happy feeling. Ah, if you look at that picture. There are a lot of students there, a lot of students, boy.
Once again and just say, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, or, you know, that. Just, once again.
Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge was, in my judgment, the greatest moment in my life. That I was amongst the people who felt I was doing a good job and supported it and who were committed to the education of Black kids. And secondly that the, there were just so many youngsters there. I mean a lot of youngsters, cheering and orderly and in support of, of the program and the project and their parents. And then of course we were kind of apprehensive and had some fear because we heard that there were going to be some trouble. There were agents, CIA agents, or whatever they were in there were going to create some problems. And we were sort of, of nude. Because the police refused to escort us across the bridge.