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A boycott organized by the Harlem Parents Committee on Feb. 3, 1964 that resulted in a confrontation in front of the Board of Education. (Brooklyn Eagle Newspaper)



Regardless of the type of educational activism that occurred--whether it be advocacy for better school conditions, more government representation, or better employment opportunities--political activism has been a staple of Harlem's history. In relation, of course, much of that activity has been around schools as the literature piecemealed together forms a semi-cohesive narrative showing how local community organizations in Harlem fought for better living conditions and by extension (which has been noted), better schools from the beginning of black Harlem until today. The theme of political activism weaves through all the other themes because on some level, agency must have occurred to spur various movements whether it be in fighting for school desegregation or for the hiring of more black teachers, for example. Yet, the current literature on political activism on Harlem is clear--civil rights efforts and school reform efforts were inherently local and occurred through the organizing of "everyday" residents and leaders in the community.

Brief Historical Background

Unlike many of the other themes in the history of Harlem and its schools which are focused on specific decades, the political activity of Harlemites spans every decade and evolved with the changing demands by community members. It is this point that defines the current understanding of political activism in Harlem; while civil rights is often thought to have primarily taken place in the South and in the 1960s, a select number of authors in recent years have instead argued that civil rights and political activism was apparent way before the 1960s and in northern cities, such as Harlem. Therefore, political activism and community organizing must be understood as a long struggle that only culminated in the Civil Rights Movement and not started (or ended) there. In the literature, Harlem has been used as a prime example proving the validity of this argument.

Specifically in regards to Harlem, early accounts of black Harlemites in the 1910s and 1920s were forming local organizations during the creation of this unique black community. During the 1930s, Cheryl Lynn Greenberg’s seminal work on African Americans in the Great Depression argues for the rise of black politics where Harlem community members organized against discrimination and unjust employment practices. For example, the black community boycotted various stores that did not hire black clerks in the “Don’t Buy Where You Don’t Work Campaign” in the 1930s. Then, in the 1940s and into the 1950s, Martha Biondi’s book To Stand and to Fight details more political activism in New York City, which the narrative often focuses on Harlem; segregation became the largest rallying cry for black Harlemites in these years. Finally, into the 1960s, local control of schools became a central issue of community organizing and political activism.

Therefore, the story of political activism is a consistent one with changing narratives; blacks went from seeking changes within a segregated system to wanting to desegregate and then arguably giving up hope of any tangible integration. Yet, these nuances need to be further researched and so does the explicit link to school activism.


Foundational Questions

1) Where does political activism, specifically in regards to education and schools, fit into the larger civil rights narrative? Does such activity coincide or clash with the changing demands of the Harlem community?

2) What would a “continuation” narrative of the civil rights movement post-1960s look like in comparison to the pre-1960s?

3) Why was the Harlem context for political activity so inherently local as opposed to national?

4) Who were the key players, personalities, and leaders in the political activism of Harlem?


Literature and Resources

McCoy, Carmen A. “The Independent Harlem School System.” Community Mr-Ap (1969).
Senior, Clarence. “The Puerto Ricans in New York: A Progress Note.” International Migration Review 2, no. 2 (April 1, 1968): 73–79.

Biondi, Martha. To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City. Harvard University Press, 2006.
Fernandez, Johanna L. del C. “Radicals in the Late 1960s| A History of the Young Lords Party in New York City, 1969--1974”. Columbia University, 2005.
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.
Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn. "Or Does It Explode?" Black Harlem in the Great Depression. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Harbison, Thomas F. “Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution? Harlem’s Public Schools, 1914--1954”, 2011. [CUNY dissertation]
                 *SEE Ch. 2 - Ch. 5
Hoffnung-Garskof, Jesse. A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York After 1950. Princeton University Press, 2008.
                 *SEE Ch. 5 and Ch. 6
Mattson, Kevin. “The Struggle for an Urban Democratic Public: Harlem in the 1920s.” New York History 76, no. 3 (July 1995): 291–318.
Osofsky, Gilbert. Harlem, the Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890-1930. Harper Torchbooks. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.
Pinkney, Alphonso. Poverty and Politics in Harlem; Report on Project Uplift 1965. New Haven, Conn: College & University Press, 1970.
Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker And The Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
                 *SEE Ch. 3 - 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
Taylor, Monique M. Harlem Between Heaven And Hell. University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
Theoharis, Jeanne, and Komozi Woodard. Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940-1980. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Weiner, Melissa F. Power, Protest, and the Public Schools: Jewish and African American Struggles in New York City. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

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