Interviewer: Louis Massiah
Production Team: C
Interview Date: April 18, 1989
Camera Rolls: 3096-3099
Sound Rolls: 344-345A
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Fred Nauman, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on April 18, 1989, 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.
I'm trying to get an historical sense, that is before the experiment was even proposed, what expectations did teachers have for involvement in the administration of their schools you were teaching?
Ah, back in those days, I don't think we thought about it a great deal. Certainly I didn't and I don't think teachers in my school did.
OK, could you just rephrase it, saying the teachers. Once again. And look at me.
I don't think the teachers, ah, thought a great deal about, ah, involvement in administration of the schools that many of them wanted to become administrators but not, ah, from the point of view, not being involved in administering the schools as teachers.
OK, this is prior to the experiment. What expectations did teachers have about involvement in the administration of their schools in New York at that time?
I think the involvement of teachers, ah, from that period, was really quite minimal and, and they don't know that they expected much more. We just had a union for about six or seven years and bargaining rights, ah, in addition to that, teachers were very insular. Ah, each school was an entity on, into its, onto itself. Into? Wrong word.
OK, why don't you start that again. What expectations did teachers have for involvement?
Ah, they didn't have, the teachers didn't have a great deal of, ah, expectation for involvement, ah, the union had just been there for about five or six years, ah, they did expect some, ah, relationships with the administration regarding, ah, ah, number of preparations, teaching time, ah, in the individual school but between schools there was almost no connection. Ah, each, each school operated, more or less, as a unit.
OK, who were the children that you taught in Ocean Hill-Brownsville? What were their backgrounds? What kind of kids where they?
Well, I started teaching there in 1959 and, ah, in the period that I was there, it was changing somewhat. Ah, but consistent throughout that period, there were really two groups coming to the school. Ah, from the northern end of the area, the Bedford-Stuyvesant end, ah, they were mostly working class, ah, middle class, ah, children of civil servants, ah, ah. From the south were, ah, Brownsville area, ah, this was a more poverty stricken area and much greater representation from welfare families.
Could you talk a little bit about the race and ethnicity of the students.
Ah, the, ah, racial make-up of the school, ah, probably in 1959 when I started there, there may have been as much as 10 percent, ah, White, ah, by late, ah, '60s, ah, that was probably down to 1 or 2 percent. The majority of the students were Black, ah, with a significant, ah, minority of Hispanic students.
Who were the teachers of Junior High School 271? I mean, what was their background?
Ah, most of the teachers of 271, ah, were White, ah, a good many were Jewish. Most of them products of the New York City School System. Ah, there probably, ah, 25 to 30 percent were Black, ah, no other major ethnic group I think was represented at all.
How did teachers, Junior High School 271, did they look forward to teaching in that school? Was it a prestige school or not so prestigious school?
271 was not a prestigious school. It was a ghetto school but as a ghetto school it was probably one of the best, ah, at least that's how most of us felt about it. It was a school that, that had its share of successes and, ah, I know a good many of us felt good about going to work every day.
Why was there some, we're going to change.
When the experiment began in the fall of '67 why was there some reluctance on the part of some teachers to go along with the experiment?
Well, the reluctance developed, ah, really over the summer because we had been told one thing in the spring and that is that, ah, we would be a part of this, ah, full-partner in this experiment. And in the summer those, those of us who were involved during the summer found that that just wasn't true. And, ah, any suggestions that were made by the teachers were, ah, either disregarded or, or, or actually, ah, they were insulted about making them. Ah, in addition to which the, the one thing that was very clear from the beginning, ah, Father Powis who had explained the entire proposal to us at a staff meeting in June, had told us that, ah, every school would have a chance to vote, ah, in the fall as to its involvement in the, in the program and the demonstration. When we came back in September we were told, "Well that's tough. It's, ah, we voted it. It's here and you'll cooperate."
OK, was that true? Was there that same sort of reluctance once the year began and really '67-'68 year, that same distrust?
Ah, well it never went, the distrust never went away. Ah, it, it reduced some, things calmed down, ah, but for a period of weeks even months, ah, there was pressure on the teachers to elect someone to sit on the Governing Board and the, ah, the teachers felt that they, they didn't think it was right. We didn't feel it was right for us to participate in that way, ah, since we had no choice about the set up of the program. And, ah, there were a number of, ah, steps by the administration including, ah, that they selected who would be on the Governing Board and they selected from those who, ah, obviously agreed with what was going on. Ah, so the tension continued.
OK, um, at one point the State Supreme Court ruled that the hiring of principals at Ocean Hill-Brownsville was illegal. What was your reaction, your being the teacher, what was your reaction and action when the Supreme Court nullified the appointment of the four principals?
Ah, we had some, initially had some mixed feelings about.
And if you could rephrase it a little bit.
Sorry. Ah, the, when the, ah, community principals were appointed, principals appointed from outside the, ah, city's regular lists, ah, we had some reluctance about it and some unhappiness with it, ah, with the idea. However, when the individuals arrived at least at 271 and I believe in a number of the other schools, we were quite pleased. Ah, Bill Harris was a good principal. He, ah, while we had been very happy with our previous principal and they were two entirely different individuals, ah, Bill Harris got the school much more under control, ah, and we were able to work with him quite positively. So when the Supreme Court decision came out stating that they were not properly appointed, ah, I started a petition in the school which was signed by, interestingly enough, almost all of the, ah, teachers who had, we had been, we had become somewhat divided at this point, and all the ones who were on our side, ah, signed the petition asking that these principals be retained. Ah, some of the teachers who were at that point on the other side, suspected what we were doing and, and refused to sign the petition. We sent that petition to the, ah, president of the Board of Education, ah, got a nice response for him, ah, from him, we asked him to appeal that decision and to keep the principals on.
Could you talk about that division between teachers.
Ah, the division between teachers really happened more as a result of the, ah, '67 strike than anything else. Ah, most of us saw the strike as a regular, ah, labor union strike against the employer, ah, it had no particular significance in Ocean Hill. It was strike that was going on city wide, ah, it was a strike initially for, ah, monetary gain but then primarily, ah, for one other thing. The district was supposed to have been created for and that was the more effective schools, the increase of the more effective schools. Ah, we thought it was a good strike with a good cause. Some of the teachers, some of the people we had, ah, worked closely with crossed the picket line, ah, and mostly, mostly they were Black teachers that were also involved and some White teachers. Ah, and, they did so, ah, many of them, because they had been pressured by the community. Ah, a few of them, as a matter of fact, ah, left the district because of the pressure at that point. But that started the division really, the division between, ah, our terminology would have been the, the unionists and the scabs.
OK, Could you describe the events around the death of Martin Luther King and the role of these new Black teachers, the teachers from the African American Teachers Association that were coming into Ocean Hill-Brownsville?
Ah, in February, ah, I believe it was, of 1968, ah, Leslie Campbell a teacher from, ah, ah, I he came from Junior High School 35, a nearby junior high school, who had gotten into some difficulty over there and had been, ah, brought up on charges, and as a penalty was transferred out of it, that school. Ah, he came into 271, along with a number of other people, ah, he immediately, he was a vice-president of the Afro American Teachers Association, ah, which was a small, relatively local group of, of Black teachers, ah, who had set themselves up really, in opposition to the UFT. Ah, he organized a group called the Afro American Students Organization in the school, ah, the group that was composed largely of the students with whom we had the most difficulty. Ah, as a matter of fact they, ah, sort of got a license, ah, to, to be out of classrooms, if they were part of this organization. Ah, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, ah, it was a shock to everyone, ah, but it was a double shock when we came to school that next morning and saw signs all over the walls, all over the bulletin boards, obviously had been prepared and put up early in the morning, accusing, ah, the language was something like, ah, "Our, our, ah, leader Martin Luther King has been killed by the vicious White man," ah, something to the extent that, ah, get even, ah. We were terribly disturbed. The students were terribly disturbed and I'm sure those signs had a great deal to do with it. Ah, students, ah, usually, they're, they're affected by things but things happen all the time.
Right, then what happened?
Ah, the principal, ah, Bill Harris, called a special assembly, ah, and all the students were brought in, into the assembly, all those that could be corralled, ah, and at the beginning of the meeting, ah, the, ah, principal asked, these, he made the offer that the White teachers who wanted to leave could leave. Ah, some of us left, ah, we were very disturbed by the fact that we had been segregated, ah, that this was something, ah, that, ah, seemed to be saying to the students, ah, these people should not be here for this. Ah, those of us who left went, ah, I believe to the library and, and met and discussed what was going on. Some others stayed and then came and reported to us, ah, that what happened was an incitement to, to violence really, ah, by a number of people, governing board members and particularly, Leslie Campbell, ah, who had made some very insightful statement to, to these youngsters. When that assembly was over, ah, the youngsters left the auditorium. Ah, I believe school was, the principal said everybody was to go home. Ah, the students left the auditorium and rampaged throughout the building. Ah, they tore up a lot of things that were around the building and they attacked a number of people. Ah, one young lady, a young Jewish teacher, ah, was, ah, actually, she, apparently, the reason that was given later was that she had torn down some of these signs, ah, and which she may very well had done. I know I took some down. Ah, she was mobbed by a bunch of youngsters, thrown down, her dress was torn, her, hands full of hair, ah, were pulled from her head. Ah, she was badly bruised and badly shaken up. Another teacher was knocked unconscious and sent to the hospital. Ah, someone else who tried to leave was, ah, had beer cans thrown at him and he had to run back into the building.
Just really briefly, can you just describe what happened in the auditorium and being told to leave or asked if White teachers wanted to leave, once again.
Ah, when, ah, when the assembly was called, ah, Bill Harris the principal, ah, said, "The White teachers might not be comfortable with what's going on here. If you want to leave, you may." And many of us left. Ah, those who stayed reported that what went on was really inciting, ah, the youngsters to, ah, to negative impressions about the Whites.
Once again, could you describe that assembly with Bill Harris after the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Well the morning after the assassination of Martin Luther King, ah, the school was in turmoil. Ah, the principal called an assembly of all the students and teachers and once we were all in there, he invited the White teachers to leave the room. Many of us did. Some didn't. Ah, and what, those who remained reported to the rest of us afterwards is that what went on in there, ah, was really an incitement of the students against the White teachers.
Can you describe the reason and what happened when Rhody McCoy and Bill Harris came to visit you and Peter Zifnet[SIC]?
Ah, as a result of, of the wild situation in the school, the school was closed for one or two days. Ah, the teachers met, ah, and the leadership of the teachers in the district met, ah, and were very, ah, upset. Many, many of the teachers did not want return for they were afraid literally for their lives. Ah, we called, and I don't remember the order of the phone calls, it was a long time ago, but we called, ah, Bill Harris and I believe he called Rhody McCoy. We invited him to a meeting at my house, ah, so that the leadership, ah, of these teachers in the district, ah, could meet with, ah, the administration and try and get them to do something to defuse this very volatile situation. Ah, they came to my house, ah, we had a meeting. I think there were about 20 teachers there, ah, and, ah, Harris and McCoy, we had made up a several items that we wanted done. As I recall, ah, we had said that we wanted some sort of an assembly called that the students were to be informed by legitimate leaders, McCoy, Harris, ah, that we were not their enemies. Ah, there were a number of items that, that had to do with pacifying things. Ah, we were shocked that instead of saying yes to something, we thought was quite reasonable and obvious, something that should have been done without our even asking it, ah, McCoy's response was that he couldn't make that decision, ah, the Governing Board would have to make that decision. We asked to meet the Governing Board, ah, and McCoy said he'd arrange it. I called him several times during the next week. He never arranged it. He obviously never took it up with anyone.
How did you learn about the supposed the transfers in May of '68? Do you remember the letter that you received? I know at first you may have gotten a call from Sandy Feldman. Can you just talk us through that?
Ah, on the evening of May 8, 1968 I received a call at home from Sandy Feldman, the union representative in the district. And she told me that she had heard that something was about to happen. She did not know precisely what. The next morning, ah, I was called, I believe I was called to the principal's office to receive a registered letter. Ah, some of the teachers had, had the registered letters delivered to them in their classes. Ah, and, ah, the letters basically, ah, said that, ah, the governing board had voted, ah, to terminate their employment in the district. That was, that was the specific language, ah, that part of the letter.
And what was your reaction?
Ah, well, I, I'm not sure that I can say my reaction was anything more than I was totally numb. Ah, that was the last thing in the world I expected. Ah, I had been meeting monthly with McCoy, as, as part of a group in the union who were trying to work out problems. And, ah, At no time had anybody mentioned that they there was a problem with the service or, or for that matter, with any of the people who were named, or, or certainly the majority of them. I didn't know them all. Ah, but, ah, here was this letter that, ah, ordered me out. Ah, so all I can tell you is I was dumbfounded.**
What, when you tr- what did you feel was going on in the Black community at that time in terms of an increased militancy? How would you describe what was going on?
Ah, I think, to, to talk about the Black community, ah, you almost have to divide, you have to define what community means. The community of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the, the parents of youngsters we had been teaching, did not change a great deal. Ah, I think they were friendly to us before and for the most part friendly to us during and after. Ah, what did happen is that a number of people, ah, some of whom had come from outside, some of whom never were part of the local community, ah, had begun to incite, ah, some, they incited students. They incited some of the neighborhood toughs, ah, and there this, this one. So, which community we're talking about will determine the answer to that question.
Can you describe the scene after you received the letter of transfer or, you know, end of employment, when you tried to reenter 271 and you're met by Mrs. Rooke and Walter had mentioned some other people?
I'm not sure I can describe that scene adequately because there were a half dozen such scenes.
Give me one, in May of '68.
Ah, the, we were on some days physically blocked at the door by mobs, mostly of students, standing in the doorway. Among the students would be a number of members of the Governing Board. Mrs. Rooke was there on many occasions. Mrs. Marshall, a member of the Governing Board, was there. Ah, Walter Lynch who was the community liaison, ah, usually Sonny Carson was there, Father Powis was there, ah, and they would physically block us from entering. Ah, some days we were able to enter, ah, by going through a a phalanx of, of, ah, taunts. On other days, we just were physically unable to enter.
And again, sort of sort it out. Where did you assemble and how did you plot your strategy about going in?
Ah, we, a number of us, ah, from each school usually, one, two, or three people who were, who were sort of in the leadership, ah, and of course the, ah, thirteen who had been fired most often. Ah, would meet almost daily, in, in the neighborhood cafeteria and talk about what's going to happen next or we'd talk on the phone. Usually, Sandy Feldman, ah, met with us, ah, and we would, if we were supposed to go back to school, we would agree to meet usually a block or two away from the school and go there together since alone it would have been a terribly frightening thing. That, that was the most usual way that it was done.
What happened to your friendships with Black teachers during that time, particularly teachers who decided to go in? If you could be specific.
The relationship with, with the Black teachers with whom I had been friendly, ah, deteriorated, ah, rather rapidly. I, we were polarized, ah, even before this point, ah, a good deal of polarization had taken place. Ah, there was a young Black science teacher, ah, who I had been very, ah, friendly with, Dorothy Hopkins was an excellent, excellent science teacher. Ah, and, ah, we had been very friendly. Ah, she became very militant, became a part of the leadership of the opposing group. And, ah, I don't think we had two words together after that. Ah, others that I recall, such as Ann Richardson, who was a counselor, ah, it was just a strained relationship. I, I knew that, ah, she was in some pain about what was happening, ah, but, ah, the closest friendships that many of us had had, the social relationships that many of us had had deteriorated completely.
Could you talk to us about the incident about the anti-Semitic leaflet. What was that about? When did, what happened?
Ah, well actually there was more than one, but, ah, the, the one that I think got the most publicity was one written by, ah.
And if you could rephrase the question a little.
The leaflet, ah, the anti-Semitic leaflets, ah, mostly came from an individual who, ah, ah, I think was making this a particular cause, ah, and this leaflet appeared in the letter boxes of teachers and I'm not sure at this point whether it was in all the schools or in just some of the schools, but it was obviously distributed with some help and it was, ah, I don't remember the specifics but it was, ah, an anti-Semitic leaflet that got wide circulation, ah, and, ah, made the anti-Semitic situation worse than I thought it was. I did not, at any time, even after this, see this as very much of an anti-Semitic, ah, problem. It was a Black, White problem clearly. Ah, and the anti-semitism, I felt, was over, overdrawn.
Who was this individual? You don't have to say his name but--
OK, could you talk again about the incident of the anti-Semitic leaflet that was stuck in people's boxes and how much of anti-semitism might have been part of what was going on in Ocean Hill-Brownsville?
Ah, the press made a great deal about the, about the anti-semitism in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Ah, I never thought it was that much a part of the situation. Ah, there was obviously a Black-White confrontation but the, ah, fact that many of the teachers are, or all those who were fired were Jewish, I think was incidental. Ah, the, ah, thing that brought it really to a fore was, ah, one or a number of leaflets that were produced by someone, ah, who was not in the district at all, but, ah.
Once again, could you talk about how important anti-semitism was or was not in Ocean Hill-Brownsville and any specific incidents that you can remember.
Ah, I didn't feel then and I don't feel now that anti-semitism was a major part of, of that situation. Ah, it was a Black-White confrontation, a lot of the teachers involved were Jewish, ah, so some people drew that conclusion from the start.** Ah, it became more serious when, ah, the, ah, gentleman who was not a part of the district. He was a teacher from somewhere outside, who usually came where there was troubles, ah, produced a leaflet and somehow got it distributed in everybody's mailboxes in, ah, many of the schools. I'm not sure if it was all, ah, which, ah, was a, a virulent anti-Semitic piece. That, of course, was picked up by the press and became a cause celebre.
Great. Again, we're going to go back to when you got the letter ending your service. How did you react officially when you met together? What was the official reaction to being told that you were no longer being hired in the district? What did you do?
Ah, my recollection of, ah, our first meetings af- after we had been notified that we were fired, ah, we got together with our union representative, ah, and who told us that what had been done was totally illegal, that this could, couldn't possibly say, ah, and that it would be taken up with the Central Board of Education and I, as I recall that day, we just went home assuming that, ah, that this would end.
And then your decision to go into the school as an official reaction?
Well, ah, we, we were then ordered by the Superintendent of Schools, Bernard Donovan, ah, to return to our assignments. He told us, you, you're not, you're not fired, you're, you're assignment is there. You go there. Ah, that, ah, unfortunately though the Central Board was, ah, vacillated a great deal during that time and, and on one day they told us to come down to the Central Board and the next day they told us to report back to the schools. Ah, we, we went where we were told.
How did you feel, we're jumping ahead to '68, when your back in the schools. How did you feel as an educator when you were reinstated into the schools but, but you weren't allowed to teach when you were made to review texts? Just sort of describe that.
I, I think, ah, our feelings when we, ah, when we did get back into the schools, after, several times after, after the various strikes. Ah, in each case we felt that we had been somewhat, ah, led down the garden path because in each, each case we had been promised we would be teaching again. And in each case, ah, we were not. Ah, something was done to keep us from teaching. Either we were ordered to go to the District Office or, ah, to meet in an auditorium, ah, or, ah, we were given classrooms with no students in them, and, ah, or were sent to classrooms where there was already a teacher who, ah, one of the so-called loyal teachers, ah, who ordered us out. It was very frustrating situation.
Cut for a second.
You had made a commitment to teaching and you were suspended or kicked out and then had been reinstated but not allowed to teach. How did you feel as an educator being in that position when you were sent back into the schools?
Well, ah, being in the school and not being allowed to teach, ah, was terribly frustrating. Ah, I, we were in effect being asked, ah, we were being paid to sit there and do nothing, and, and, that's a terrible feeling, ah, for anyone, particularly difficult when you know that you, you can do some good for people who need a great deal of, of things done for them. And instead you're being wasted. So I would say frustration was big.
In terms of the union, how did you feel? Did you feel that the union leadership was always, always had, was asking more of you, in terms of personal sacrifice, than was reasonable to expect, that is in terms of staying in there and fighting.
Ah, actually it wasn't the union leadership that asked us to stay and fight. The union leadership, ah, said that they would support us if we made that choice. Ah, the decision to stay and fight was made by the teachers shortly after May 9th by all of the teachers in the district. Ah, they came to a meeting, about 350 of them, ah, and asked us to, to make a stand, not to allow ourselves to be removed. Ah, I, I think it was the correct step to take at that time and the union supported us in it, but it was, but it was the teachers who decided that.
Could you describe what happened what, what you meant, what situation you experienced when you were back into the classroom, that fall of '68?
Ah, the students, ah, who we finally got to face in the classroom had been thoroughly coached, ah, that they were not allowed, to allow us to communicate with them. Ah, they, ah, would chant whenever one of us would start to say something to them. Ah, making any form of communication impossible. It was, ah, just a terrible situation, trying to, to get a class to sit still to open their notebooks when, when they couldn't hear you because a group of them would be doing this. At one point, ah, during one of the first days back, ah, in one of the classes, a youngster, ah, who as I was trying to quiet the class down, ah, uttered some profanity and wouldn't listen, he was told not to listen to me and he threw a chair, ah, and he then picked up another chair to throw. I took, grabbed the chair out of his hand, ah, he ran out of the room. Later on there were all kinds of reports that he had a broken hand, it was a cut hand. He appeared on television that evening with a hand in a cast, all kinds of accusations. I would say that, ah, the accusations started because nothing ever happened, but, ah, there were threats against my life and the State overseer of the schools at that point, ah, removed me from the school, they said, for my own safety.
Could you talk about a growing awareness of a racial divide between a predominantly Black community that had once been supportive to teachers that were predominantly White?
Ah, I don't think that the, that we ever lost the support of the Black community, ah, I think we lost, ah, I think that, that an artificial battle was set up by some people who, who were taking the Civil Rights Movement and using it for personal power, personal aggrandizement. Ah, I think that, it can be, can be demonstrated clearly by, ah, just a year later there was an election for representation, union representation in New York City for the paraprofessionals almost all Black. They voted overwhelmingly for the UFT to represent them.
Could you stay in the time period. That's OK, but go ahead.
Ah, the, the people with whom the, the, split developed, were really a group of militant, ah, they, they were not the Martin Luther Kings of, of the, ah, of the Civil Rights Movement. Ah, they were closely to, closer to, ah, the, Stokely Carmichael, to Malcolm X, ah, and, and, in many cases to people who were just interested in personal aggrandizement. Ah, I don't think they, they were with the movement as much as many of us in, in the White community were.
How did your personal feelings about the Civil Rights Movement or analyzing Black/White issues, change during that time?
I, I had been a, a strong supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, ah, strong supporter of, of, ah, Martin Luther King and, ah, obvious, not of the militant Black movements. I didn't support the Black Panthers but, but I supported the Civil Rights Movement and I was for, every time there was a confrontation of some type, between Black and White, I, I tended to side with the Black. This was the first time, ah, because I was personally involved that, that I discovered, ah, ah, this revelation that it was possible to be Black and to be wrong. Ah, that, that this naive attitude I had previously was just that, it was naive. And, ah, I think I'm better for it, that I can judge things today, ah, based on the individuals rather than on the skin color.
Cut. I think that's it.