Desegregation, without question, is a loaded term in the context of education and African American children. Efforts to desegregate schools following Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 are (in)famous in civil rights history. Yet, when thinking about desegregation efforts in Harlem schools and prior to 1954, surprisingly, integrating schools was not at the forefront of Harlem activists. While many activists did of course seek desegregation policies--appropriately deemed integrationists--by and large, early efforts for school reform were simply to improve school conditions within the context of a "separate but equal system." Following Brown, while desegregation remained an option for parts of the community, failing efforts nationwide led to a shift in Harlem activists to pursue community control. However, research on education in Harlem cannot be conducted without further analyzing desegregation efforts, why Harlem as a community (thinking about the unique physical and demographic characteristics) was especially difficult to desegregate, and how it clashed with those who sought locally controlled schools. It remains important to note, however, to not look at either community control or desegregation as completely separate, but instead, as an evolution of a movement toward black urban school reform.

Prominent civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph who fought for desegregation. (Library of Congress)

Brief Historical Background

Much of the historical literature on desegregation in Harlem has a different scope than that of community control literature, as these two central themes of Harlem school reform have differed in historical representation. Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, leaders in the Harlem community, such as A. Phillip Randolph (pictured right) were integrationists who emphasized that "separate but equal" was unjust. Yet, while protests and activism at large took place in Harlem, in regards to school reform, desegregation efforts were not the story of early Harlem. As is further explained in other sections, early activists generally pushed for better quality (segregated) schools.

Like community control protests, it was not until later in the 1950s following Brown that efforts to specifically desegregate--and not just improve schools at large--took hold. For example, the story of the "Harlem Nine" in the late 1950s illustrates how the Harlem community protested schools that were obviously inferior to neighboring white schools, and felt that desegregation needed to occur. The so-called "Harlem Nine" were given the name because they were a group of nine Harlem mothers who kept their children  out of school in protest of the children's lack of a quality education (that was due to school segregation). The parents (miraculously) took their case to court and won, and are an example of how the Harlem community was aware that because of Brown, black children were entitled to desegregated schools. Of course, however, these victories were few and far between as the literature on desegregation in Harlem mainly refers to Harlem to illustrate the "Northern struggle" of the civil rights movement.


Foundational Questions

1) In what ways did desegregation efforts and community efforts differ? (I.E. national versus local context) Were integrationists and nationalists (generally those arguing for community control) both trying to solve the same problem?

2) Is the historical portrayal of desegregation in Harlem as less influential than movements seeking community control accurate? Why or why not?

3) How does the story of school (de)segregration in Harlem relate and differ than the national narrative?


Literature and Resources

Clark, Kenneth B. “Segregated Schools in New York City.” Journal of Educational Sociology 36, no. 6 (February 1, 1963): 245–250.
Decter, Midge. “The Negro and the New York Schools.” Commentary 38, no. 3 (1964:Sept) (1964): 25.
Solomon, Victor. “An Independent Board of Education for Harlem.” Urban Affairs Review 4, no. 1 (1968): 39 –43.


Biondi, Martha. To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City. Harvard University Press, 2006.
Forest, Jennifer. “The 1958 Harlem School Boycott: Parental Activism and the Struggle for Educational Equity in New York City.” Urban Review 40, no. 1

      (March 2008): 21–41.
Gutman, Marta. “Race, Place, and Play: Robert Moses and the WPA Swimming Pools in New York City.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 

       67, no. 4 (December 1, 2008): 532–561.
Harbison, Thomas F. “Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution? Harlem’s Public Schools, 1914--1954”, 2011. [ CUNY dissertation]
                  *SEE Ch. 4
Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker And The Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
                  *SEE Ch. 5
Sugrue, Thomas J. Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009.
                  *SEE Ch. 6
Theoharis, Jeanne, and Komozi Woodard. Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940-1980. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
                   *SEE Ch. 3