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Support comes from better help online counseling, better help offers licensed counselors who specialize in issues including depression, stress and self-esteem, you can connect privately with a counselor through text chat, phone or video calls for a special offer visit. Better help dotcom parents. Nice white parents is brought to you by several productions, a New York Times company. The New York City Board of Education has an archive of all of its records, everything that goes into making thousands of schools run for years and years is sitting in boxes in the municipal building.
I love the Bowie archive. Good morning.
First of all, to look through it, you have to go to a century old municipal building downtown. Arched doorways, lots of marble and echo vaulted ceilings really makes a person feel like she's up to something important. You sit at a table and the librarian rolls your boxes up to you on a cart. Inside the boxes are all the dramas of a school system. Big ones, tiny ones, bureaucratic, personal. It's all in there. There's a union contract and then a zoning plan and special reports on teacher credentialing.
A weird personal note from a bureaucrat to his assistant, a three page, single spaced plea from Cindy's grandmother, who would please like for her not to be held back in the second grade. And historian friend once pulled a folder out of the archive and a note fell out, something a teacher clearly made a kid right in the 1950s that read, quote, I am a lazy boy. Miss Fitzgerald says when I go in the army, I will be expendable.
Expendable means that the country doesn't care whether I get killed or not. I do not like to be expendable. I'm going to do my work and improve. I came to the board of Ed archive after I attended the gala thrown by the French embassy, the fundraiser for S.A.S., organized by the new upper class white families coming into the school.
I felt like I just watched an unveiling ceremony for a brand new school, but I didn't really know what it was replacing. Everyone was talking as if this was the first time white parents were taking an interest in the School for International Studies.
But at the archive, I found out it wasn't the first time white parents had invested in the school before, way before, at the very beginning of the school, before the beginning. I found a folder labeled is 293 Intermediate School to 93, the original name for SS, and this folder was filled with personal letters to the president of the New York City Board of Education, a man named Max Rubin, pleading with him to please make it to 93, an integrated school.
Dear Mr. Reuben, my husband and I were educated in public schools, and we very much want for our children to have this experience. However, we also want them to attend a school which will give them a good education, and today that is synonymous with an integrated school. Dear Mr. Rubin, as a resident of Kabul Hill, a teacher and a parent, I want my child to attend schools which are desegregated. I do not want her to be in a situation in which you will be a member of a small, white, middle income klick.
These are letters from parents, largely white parents, as far as I could tell, written in 1963, just a few years before as to 93 was built. At issue was where the school was going to be built. The Board of Education was proposing to build the school right next to some housing projects. The school would be almost entirely black and Puerto Rican. These parents, white parents came in and said, no, no, no, don't build it there.
Put it closer to the white neighborhood. That way all our kids can go to school together. These parents wanted the school built in what was known as a fringe zone. This was a popular idea at the time. Fringe schools to promote school integration comes up in the letters.
Dear Mr. Rubin, this neighborhood is changing with the influx of a middle class group which is very interested in public education for their children. Dear Mr. Rubin, if there is a possibility of achieving some degree of integration, it is more likely if the Board of Education's Theory of Fringe Schools is applied.
And from another letter, it is apparent from the opinion of the neighborhood groups involved that the situation is not at all hopeless.
This lobbying effort was so successful that the Board of Education did move the site of the school. This is why ISIS is located where it is today on the fringe, closer to the white side of town so that it would be integrated.
I tried to imagine who these people were, young, idealistic white parents living in Brooklyn in the 1960s, feeling good about the future, they would have had their children around the time the Supreme Court ruled on Brown vs. Board of Education, they probably followed the news of the civil rights movement unfolding down south. Maybe they were supporters or active in the movement themselves. These were white parents saying, we understand we're at a turning point and we have a choice to make right now and we choose integration.
One of my favorite letters was from a couple who left the suburbs to come to New York City for integration, the opposite of white flight.
Dear Mr. Rubin, we have recently moved into the home we purchased at the above address in Kabul Hill, it was our hope in moving into the neighborhood that our children would enjoy the advantages of mixing freely with children of other classes and races, which we were not able to provide to them when we lived in a Westchester suburb. So this is the letter. This is the letter that I wrote, I can't believe it. OK, this is Carol Netzer.
Most of the letter writers were not that hard to find.
We had moved to Scarsdale for the children because Scarsdale has the best and probably still does the best school system in the country. But we hated it. We found that we were bored to death with it.
It was bland. It was just homogenous. But living. I don't know if you've ever lived in it. So it's just boring, tedious. You know, there's nothing going on.
She didn't like the suburbs, so they moved to Brooklyn and wrote that letter, which I showed her, her 37 year old self, writing about her hopes for her young children, the choices she made back then.
But it sounds as I was fairly impassioned about it, you know, that it meant something. But I actually I can't think what it meant.
I went through this box of letters and called as many parents as I could, most of them didn't remember writing these letters, which isn't surprising more than 50 years ago and all. What I did find surprising is that by the time 293 opened five years later, none of them, not a one, actually sent their kids to eschew 93. From Serial Productions, I'm a fan of Joffe Walt, this is Nice White Parents, a series about the 60 year relationship between white parents and the public school down the block, a relationship that began with a commitment to integration in the 1960s.
Much like today, white people were surrounded by a movement for the civil rights of black Americans. White people were forced to contend with systemic racism.
And here was a group of white parents who supported the movement for school integration, threw their weight behind it.
What happened in those five years between 1963, when these white parents planted an impassioned pro integration flag on the school in 1968, when it came time to enroll their children?
Why didn't they show up? These weigh parents who wanted an integrated is two ninety three. They didn't come to that idea on their own, they were part of a bigger story unfolding around them. I want to zoom out to that dramatic story, because it takes us right up to the moment these parents wrote their letters and then made the decision not to send their kids to the school.
To begin, I'd like to introduce you to our main character in this historical tale. The recipient of the parents letters, the New York City Board of Education. Back in the 1950s, the New York City board of Ed was not one of those boring bureaucracies that chugs along in the background, keeping its head down. It had personality. It invested in self-image. For instance, in 1954, when the Supreme Court found school segregation unconstitutional, New York City didn't just say we support that ruling.
It's celebrated the Brown v. Board decision, and notably it celebrated itself, calling Brown, quote, a moral reaffirmation of our fundamental educational principles. That same year, 1954, the New York City board of Ed made a film honoring multiculturalism in its schools.
The film opens with a multiracial choir of schoolchildren singing Let US Break Bread together. Like I said, the board of Ed went the extra mile.
The president of the board was a 66 year old man named Dr. William Jansen, a man the newspapers described as slow and steady. And he definitely delivers on that promise here.
The film you're about to see tells the story of how the schools and community are working together to build brotherhood.
A teacher addresses her classroom filled with children of all races and ethnicities.
Who among you can give some of the reasons why people left their native land to come to the United States of America?
The camera cuts to a white boy, maybe nine or 10. Some came because they wanted to get away from the tyranny and cruelty of kings than a black girl around the same age.
My people are free now. They are proud to be American. But the Negro were brought here by wicked men who traded enslaved.
This keeps going kid to kid. We came a little while ago from Puerto Rico. My father wanted one. He wants to give me and my brother a good education. Japan is very overcrowded. The people have little land. So many Japanese came to this country because they wanted to find New York City was the biggest city in America with the largest black population in America.
And it was seeing in films, press releases, public speeches, Brown v. Board, we agree separate but equal, has no place in the field of public education. No problem here.
It was also saying, you know, who does have a problem, the south New York City loved comparing itself to the backwards south. There are plenty of examples of this in the board archives, New Yorkers bragging about their superiority to places like Georgia or Virginia or Louisiana. This was the story the board of Ed was telling the South was ignorant and racist, New York City was enlightened and integrated. But here is what it was actually like to walk into a New York City school in a black neighborhood at this time.
The school had an awful smell. It was this oh, it smelled like this county abattoir.
This is an archival recording of a woman named Mae Mallory in the 1950s. Mallory's two black children were students in Harlem. And when Mallory walked into their school, she did not see children building brotherhood in interracial classrooms.
She saw an all black and Puerto Rican school with terrible facilities in disrepair.
So my kids told me, well, mommy, this is what we've been trying to tell you all along, that this place is so dirty. And this is why we ran out to the bathroom every night. So I went to the bathroom. And then in 1957 in New York City, they had toilets that were worse than the toilets in the schools that I went to in Macon, Georgia, in the heart of the south. The toilet was a thing that looked like hostels and then it had one long board with holes cut in it.
And then you'd have to go and use the toilet, but you couldn't flush it. The water would come down periodically and flush, you know, whatever. Now, imagine what this is like, you know, dumping waste on top of waste that's sitting there waiting, you know, accumulating to the water. This was why this place smells so bad.
Mallory says the school had two bathrooms for 6500 children.
Mallory's family fled racial violence in the south like millions of other black Americans who headed to places like New York City, where everyone was supposed to be equal. Instead of welcoming these new students and spreading them out, creating interracial classrooms, the Board of Education kept black and Puerto Rican students segregated in what were sometimes referred to as ghetto schools, schools that were often just blocks away from white schools.
White schools in New York City had toilets that flushed white children, had classrooms with experienced teachers and principals, people who lived in their communities and looked like them in black and Puerto Rican schools. Half the teachers were not certified to teach by the Board of Education. The buildings were in disrepair and packed, sometimes more than a thousand kids in a single hallway. The overcrowding got so bad the Board of Education decided to send kids to school in shifts. And mind you, this was not in the middle of a global pandemic.
This was normal non crisis school for black and Puerto Rican kids. One group of children would go to school in the morning until noon. The next group of kids would come in at noon and stay until three. The board was literally giving black kids half an education in some schools in Harlem, they had triple shifts. This made it harder to learn elementary skills reading, for instance. But parents complained that the schools were not teaching their kids basic literacy, that their white teachers didn't care, that the summer reading programs were only in white communities, that their children were two years behind white children.
In reading this at exactly the same time, the Board of Education was making a film promoting the virtues of integration. It was effectively running a dual segregated and unequal school system. For many black families, the Board of Education was not to be trusted. It did not care for black children and it didn't respect the voices and concerns of black parents. May Mallory says she visited her kids school that day because they'd come home the day before and told her a child had died at school, he was playing in the street at recess.
Mallory hardly believed it, but she says when she visited the school, she learned, yes, indeed, this child was playing in the street because the schoolyard was closed. He was hit by a beer truck and she learned the school yard was closed because pieces of steel from the side of the building had fallen into the yard.
So when I found out that this was true, I went to the principal. So this principal told me that, well, Mrs. Mallory, you really don't have anything to worry about. You see, our son Shankly went to see the mother and we took her a bag of canned goods. So actually, she's better off because she had so many children to feed. And I couldn't believe that a white man is going to tell a black woman in Harlem that a can of peaches is better than your child.
I just didn't know what to do, where to go. But I know you're supposed to do something.
It was 1957, three years after the Supreme Court declared segregation by law unconstitutional.
New York City didn't have Jim Crow laws on the books, but Mallory would ask, the schools are segregated. What's the difference?
She didn't care whether that segregation was codified by law or by convention. The harm was just as dire and she wanted it addressed.
It was nothing to do with wanting to sit next to white folks, but it was obvious that the whole pattern of black retardation was the program of the Board of Education. So I filed suit against the Board of Education and I just felt that integration may, Mallory would say, was about, quote, demanding a fair share of the pie. She said, our children want to learn and they certainly have the ability to learn. What they need is the opportunity.
The Board of Education had defined integration as a multiracial choir. It was a virtue in and of itself. May Mallery saw integration as a remedy, a way to get the same stuff everyone else had functioning toilets, books, certified teachers, a full school day. Integration was a means to an end. May Mallory won her lawsuit, she and a few other parents were allowed to transfer their kids out of segregated schools. As for the segregation in the entire system, the judge in the lawsuit turned to the board of Ed and said this segregation, it's your responsibility.
Now, on the question of responsibility, the board of Education was cagey and that caginess set the stage for the 293 parents when it came time to send their kids to the school. Here's what happened. The board superintendent, William Jansen, decided school segregation was not his problem. In fact, he rejected the idea that New York City had segregated schools in the first place. After all, New York City was not barring black children from entering white schools. This wasn't the South.
Segregation, Jensen said, is such an unfortunate word.
He preferred the phrase racial imbalance or racial separation, the way he saw it, racial imbalance in the schools was just a matter of housing. Neighborhoods were segregated again. Unfortunate, but that had nothing to do with the schools. To make this argument, William Jensen had to ignore the many powerful tools available to the Board of Education. The Board of Education was responsible for where kids went to school. It decided where to build new schools. It drew zoning lines.
It decided where experienced teachers teach. There were many ways the board could have made schools less segregated. I know this because of the board's own reports.
Janssen did very little to break up school segregation, but man, did he study it. He organized commissions that led to reports that led to further study. You see a pattern emerge starting in the late 1950s that looks something like this. Black parents and civil rights groups would pressure the board to act on segregation. The board would invite its critics to join a commission to investigate the problem. The commission would study the schools, discover extreme segregation, lay out solutions.
The board of Ed would then take a tiny step toward implementing some of the recommendations until white parents started to complain about the changes, at which point the board would back off and say it needed more evidence. Another commission. Another report.
For instance, there's the report on the Committee on Integration, a plan for integration, the city's children and the challenge of racial discrimination, redoubling efforts on integration, the board commission on Integration, the status of the public school, education of Negro and Puerto Rican children in New York City. And my favorite Abound Little Red Book from 1960 called Toward Greater Opportunity, which summarizes the previous investigations with this groundbreaking conclusion, quote, We must integrate as much and as quickly as we can.
I want to pause for one second and step out of the past back into the world we all live in. Just to point out that over the last few years in New York City, we've been reliving this chapter of history. It's eerie. New York City schools are segregated. There's a growing movement to do something about that. And for the first five years of his administration, the city's mayor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, responded in the following way. He refused to say the word segregation, commissioned a number of reports on school diversity.
He's pointed a finger at housing problems as a way to say this isn't our fault. And he's studying the problem deeply, which, again, is not segregation. No matter how many times reporters would ask the mayor at press conferences, why don't you use that word?
I don't get lost in terminology. I think the notion of saying we have to diversify our schools is the best way to say it. I heard a live Call-In show on WNYC, the public radio station.
A young integration advocate, an 11th grader named Tiffany Torez, asked the mayor how much longer until you do something and how much more time do you need to study the issue?
So as to repeat my question, how much longer will it take? Tiffany, with all due respect, I really think you're not hearing what we're saying to you. So I'll repeat it. There is a task force, an extraordinary task force, which I've met with. They are coming forward with their next report in a matter of weeks. So when that diversity task force comes out of the report, I think they're amazing. I think they've done fantastic work.
And so far, there's a high level.
Mayor de Blasio likes to point out that this was a problem created by people long before him, which is exactly what people long before him said to.
In the late 1950s, when black parents and civil rights activists also asked the board of Ed, why is it taking so long, board members complained about the, quote, extremists who wanted instant integration.
Board President Johnson said, some people want us to build Rome in one day.
While the Board of Education was building room in 1956, 57 59, and in 1960, 1962, 63 black parents found each other on pitas and civil rights organizations, pro integration groups.
They formed new groups, organize sit ins boycotts, demanded the board provide a timetable for citywide integration.
They joined forces with Puerto Rican parents and their numbers grew.
These were volunteers, mothers mostly, who left their jobs at the end of a workday and headed directly to a meeting about how to get the board to give their kids the education white children were already receiving. Finally, in 1964, 10 years after Brown vs. Board, black and Puerto Rican parents said enough they were sick of waiting, sick of lawsuits, sick of asking for a remedy, sick of being ignored. So they went big, spectacularly big, they shut down the schools, they organized a civil rights demonstration that was the largest in U.S. history, larger than the march on Washington.
It was called Freedom Day, a massive school boycott.
Now, on February 3rd, 1964, parents headed out to schools in the morning before sunrise to spread. The word about the boycott was freezing cold. That day was a brief TV news clip of a group of mothers picketing outside their kids school at the start of the school day. They're holding up signs that say we demand a real integration timetable now and integration means better schools for all. They're handing out leaflets to other parents about Freedom Day. Looking spirited and cold.
Await wait. NBC News reporter and a fedora walks up to one of the women laments a little after eight o'clock.
Now, how successful is the boycott? And so far very effective. How many of our children have gone in and they would be ordinary to around 40 children. It's kind of gone into the morning session, which begins at eight o'clock. But you think you've already seen the results? Yes, we think so. The school is just empty. Does it surprise you? No, because we knew how effective we knew. We talk with the parents to distribute leaflets.
We've been working very hard and we prayed that it would be effective. There were maps and charts and instructions with picket times and picket captains for hundreds of schools. There were volunteer shifts to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to hand out thousands of leaflets and stenciled posters. The boycott wasn't just effective, it was extraordinarily effective. Half a million kids stayed home from school that day, half a million, close to half the school system. But the press barely covered it after searching every major TV network, I found only one kid who was interviewed, teenage boy, maybe around 16 on the street with some friends protesting.
A white ABC News reporter doesn't ask him why he's there. The only thing he asks them about is violence. The kid responds.
We're coming down here today for a peaceful, peaceful protest. No, we're not. We're not going to be violence. We're just teenagers and kids. And do you expect violence there today? No, sir, not not. If you look at look at blue uniforms, you actually do expect violence, violence. He gestures to the police on horseback. None of us have any weapons, horses. And all we want is equal education. That's all equal education.
You get all that. Is that right?
Yeah, that was it.
Every once in a while, I'll hear a politician or friend or school administrator say, yeah, integration was a good idea, but there was no political will to make it happen.
Four hundred and sixty thousand kids, half the school system, the will was there. The majority wanted integration.
After Freedom Day, the Board of Education introduced some small scale integration plans and white parents protested.
Well, with their own marches, they put on their own school boycott the flipside of Freedom Day, a white boycott, the way parents were far fewer in number. But as far as I can tell, they got a thousand times more press coverage. Mrs. Kucharski. Are you going to send Johnny back to school now? No, I'm saying how he belongs here. I want to tell my child here that's not my son. Tell me where to send my kid.
This protest worked, the board of Ed backed off, and in the decades since the Board of Education has never proposed a citywide integration plan, the schools have never been integrated. I think the fact of white moms in Queens in the 1960s yelling about zoning changes and busing, it's not surprising they played a role in killing school integration efforts.
But there was another group of white parents who played a quieter, but I'd argue more forceful role in killing integration. The white parents who said they supported it. Parents like the ones who wrote letters asking for an integrated is 93. How did their vocal support for integration turn lethal? That's after the break. Support comes from better help online counseling, better help offers licensed counselors who specialize in issues including depression and anxiety, as well as relationships, trauma, anger and more, you can connect privately with a counselor through text chat, phone or video calls, and you'll get help on your own time, at your own pace and at an affordable rate for a special offer.
Visit better help dotcom parents. That's better help dotcom parents.
This is John Legat. I'm a national correspondent with The New York Times. And I cover issues of race. What I'm trying to do is help people understand how race is lived in America. I'm writing about people whose experiences, whose voices are often pushed aside and ignored because I truly believe that you won't really have all the context you need to understand our country and our world unless you hear from these people and you see what they see and you feel what they feel like.
I do every time I'm out in the field, I want to make sure that we tell the stories of the marginalized, of the oppressed with the same respect and dignity that we tell the story of politicians, business people and other people in power. And if this kind of work is important to that, I would ask you to support us by subscribing to The New York Times. You can do that at NY Times dot com slash subscribe. In the American South, schools were desegregated with court orders, cities and counties mandated desegregation and the schools desegregated.
By the early 1970s, the South was the most integrated region in the country. But New York City did not want to do it that way, no mandates. The New York City Board of Education wanted to appeal to hearts and minds.
They wanted to sell white people on the virtues of integration, have it all happen, quote, Naturally, some white people were sold.
The white parents who wrote letters about is ninety 293. They believed in integration.
So I made a lot of calls to ask my Jubayl. They had a lot of different reasons. One couple got divorced and moved. Another guy told me he had political ambitions that pulled him out of the city.
We loved our brownstone, but I was involved in a political race and we needed some money for that.
So he sold the house and moved the family to the suburbs where he thought he'd have a better chance running against Republicans. Many white people moved to the suburbs for jobs, for newly paved roads and subsidized mortgages, leaving Brooklyn behind. I understood what happened there, but some explanations made less sense. Like one guy I called, he did stay in Brooklyn on the phone. He was telling me why he believed it was important, that is to be integrated.
But then he said his own kids went to Brooklyn friends, a Quaker private school. I said, oh, they didn't go to east to ninety three know.
As I said, I'm a Quaker and B, you were a Quaker when you wrote this letter asking for an integrated.
I believe then I believed in it, but.
But you weren't playing into your kid there. No, no, no. What to make of that when you get what you say you want and then given the opportunity, don't take it. Maybe you never really wanted it in the first place. Then I spoke to Elaine Henchy, of all the people I spoke with, everything about Elaine indicated someone who did believe in integration, someone who would send her kids to 93, and yet she didn't.
Elaine was a public school teacher. She taught in an integrated elementary school. So she had her own kids. She was looking forward to sending them to an integrated to 93.
When her daughter was old enough for junior high school. Elaine visited the school. She was the only letter writer I spoke with who actually went into the building. If this was going to work with anyone, it was going to be Elaine. I didn't I didn't know quite what to make of it because the school had a nice plan to physically. It was a nice school, but it just seemed chaotic and noisy and kids were disruptive and kids and kids were doing the wrong things, you know, and kids could do.
I mean, it wasn't that they were nifty kids or, you know, doing it was were not drugs. It was not drugs. It was just it just seemed too chaotic to me at the time.
Eileen and I talked for a long time. I pushed her not to make her feel bad, but to get to what felt like a more real answers. At the time that you were visiting, was it majority black and Hispanic kids? Yes, I'm sure it was. And did that have anything to do with the way that you saw the classroom is disruptive and chaotic. I would hope not. I'm not I'm not sure you know how well. Educated they were or, you know, I don't know I don't know why I'm going into this.
I mean, did you have reason to think that they weren't well educated before before 293 low reading levels were way down? No. I'm just what I mean when you say chaos and disruptive, I'm trusting that what you saw was chaotic and disruptive. But I also know that those are words, you know, white people use we use to express our racial fears to express real racial fears.
Do you think that's what was happening with you? I don't think I would admit to that. I don't think that was true. But what I may have thought was that. These kids are not expected to do so well in school all the way from the beginning of school, and here they are really unprepared in some way for junior high school or I mean, the reading levels were low.
Allen told me when she wrote that letter to the Board of Education, she pictured her children becoming friends with black kids, learning side by side, learning that all children are equal. That's what motivated her to write that letter. She wanted the picture of integration. The board of Ed was promoting the picture of harmonious integration. But when she visited, I asked 293 that didn't seem possible, the reading levels were low, the kids were not entering the school on equal grounds.
Her white children had received years of high quality teaching at well resourced schools.
The kids coming from segregated elementary schools had not had that experience.
I mean, one of the one of the problems is that many of the white kids had had higher sort of academic skills or skills. They could read better. I think I mean, if the white kids knew how to read in first grade and. And I guess there were black kids who also could, but it just seemed as if most of the black kids, you know, didn't really learn, learn to read, but.
But part of I mean, part of the vocal complaints of black parents at this period of time was that their kids were not learning how to read because schools were segregated and their kids were kept in schools that were inferior. And that was part of the argument for integration. Yes, yes, that their kids were not going to get the resources and quality teaching and good facilities unless they were in the same buildings with kids like yours. Right. I don't know what to say to that.
I just I guess I just. Began to feel that things are really difficult for these kids. Schools were not made for them if the schools were made for them. With their background, what would they be like? I think there was and that's another whole thing I don't know about it. I think there was sort of anger in the black community, at the white community. A lot of the teachers were white. Mm hmm. Although more white teachers, I suppose.
People said that that was racism and of course, it was racism, but maybe the kids were little angry at the school. I wouldn't I couldn't fault them for that. But on the other hand, then they don't get as much from the school. I don't know, I thought the problems were kind of enormous. And. And I guess I just at one point, I decided that my kids should go on to Brooklyn friends and I mean, we could afford to pay for it.
It wasn't easy, you know. But did your feelings about integration change?
Did you believe in it less? Maybe. I think I would have said no theoretically, but maybe they would and they did that, I guess I saw it as a more difficult. Project then sort of I did back off from it, I just. Yeah, it felt when you guys wrote these letters like this is integration, is this exciting ideal and we can be part of it and it's going to be a meaningful project that's also going to be kind of easy.
I certainly didn't think it would be so difficult, but I but I was I was innocent, you know, I don't know. I still believe in it. I do. I think what Elaine actually meant was not that she was innocent, but that she was naive, she was naive about the reality of segregation, the harm of it, and naive about what it would take to undo it.
She did not know and I think she didn't want to know. When Allen said the word innocent, I felt a jolt of recognition. I felt like Elaine had watched me right up to the truth about her and about me. When my own kids were old enough, I sent them to our zoned public school, it was racially mixed and economically mixed. I was excited about that. And it was nice walking to school with neighbors, people likely never would have gotten to know otherwise.
My kids first day of school was another boy's first week in the country. He just moved from China and his mom asked a neighbor where the school was when she said goodbye that first morning. I think he thought I was a teacher and he crawled into my lap. We had no words in common. So I just held him while he screamed and cried. By the holiday show, three months later, I watched that same boy belt out this pretty planet on a stage with his classmates, he was a star.
He nailed the hand motions. Every other kid up on stage was just following his lead, just trying to keep up. It was such a sweet picture. All of them up there, black kids and Mexican kids and Colombian and Asian and white kids and all of us adults supporting all of them. It's moving to me, this picture of integration. It is also I'm realizing right now writing these words down the very same picture the Board of Education put forth in 1954, a multiracial choir singing together, building brotherhood.
And it's dangerous. I think this picture of integration, it seems perfectly designed to preserve my innocence, to make me comfortable, not to remedy inequality, but a way to bypass it entirely. I can sit in that assembly and feel good about the gazy display of integration without ever being asked to think about the fact that much of the time white kids in the school building are having a different educational experience than kids of color. A large share of the white students at the school are clustered in a gifted program.
They have separate classrooms and separate teachers. We all blithely call these white children gifted and talented. G.A. Starting at four years old, white children are performing better at the school than black children and Latino children. White families are the loudest and most powerful voices in the building. The advantages white kids had back in the 1950s. They're still in place. When Jolene said she was innocent, I thought about the things we say. Nice way parents to each other, about why we won't send our kids to segregated schools because they're too strict or too chaotic or too disruptive, because the test scores are bad, because we want more play.
We want fewer worksheets because we don't want to ride a bus. We don't want uniforms. We don't want tests. We want innocence.
We need it to protect us from the reality that we are the ones creating the segregation and we're not sure we're ready to give it up. Elaine was not for segregation, but in the end, she wasn't really for integration either. All the choices she made, choices she had the luxury of making were meant to advantage her own kids. And I understand that that's what parents do.
I remember thinking very clearly that, OK, I believe in this, but I don't sort of want to sacrifice my children to it. I have to look at what they will learn and you know, what they will do. And for people who send their kids to 293, it seemed to work out well. So that made me think, well, maybe I made a mistake. Maybe they should have gone there. I know at one point it was very clear to me that I had beliefs that I.
That I thought was kind of contrary to my own children's best interests, and I decided that I wasn't. Going to use them to. You know, to sort of extend my own beliefs, but then I regretted that because that wasn't really true. You regretted what?
Well, I kind of wish I had something to 293 because Joan's kids had a good experience there.
Ellen's friend, Joan, another white mom who did send her kids to, is 293. Elian still feels bad about her choice. But not everyone felt bad. We were not a pious kind of, oh, the kids have to go to public school, not at all. I went to public schools. There's nothing to write about.
Carol is the woman who wrote the letter about how she'd come to New York City from the suburbs for integration when you had a hard time reconciling her lack of piety with her letter, which I read back to her about wanting her kids to mix freely with children of other classes and races, which we were not able to provide for them when we lived in Westchester.
So true. Yeah. Yeah, you remember. You remember feeling that way? Well, I don't really remember feeling that way. And I think that we say a lot of things that are politically correct without even realizing that we are not telling exactly how we feel. So I can't really guarantee that it was 100 percent the way I felt. I don't really remember probably close to it. But I mean, I'm a liberal, you know, as a parent.
Did you do you remember feeling like I hope my kid has experiences outside of just people like like them?
Not especially. I mean, we we rushed right away to send them to private school. Yeah. So what's most important to us was that they get the best education.
But one of the things that changed it was St Ann's school, sort of progressive school with this mad headmaster who was brilliant, opened up St. Dan's. And if you keep working on this, you'll hear a lot about St Ann's.
I'm not going to tell you a lot about St Ann's except to say this. It's one of the most prominent private schools in Brooklyn, upscale neighborhood, prime real estate. Lots of heavy hitters send their kids to St Ann's. I had heard of it.
What I didn't know is that St Ann's opened at the very same time that black parents were waging their strongest fight for integration in New York City in 1965.
Right when a lot of the letter writers would have been looking for schools. And it wasn't just St Ann's new progressive. Private schools were opening and expanding all over the city.
Brooklyn Friends School expanded into a new building and would double its enrollment.
They're opening private schools in the south, too, but down there it was all very explicit. They became known as, quote unquote, segregation academies, schools for white people who were wholeheartedly committed to avoiding integration.
In the North, private schools opened as if they were completely disconnected from everything else that was happening.
At that very moment, Ann's marketed itself as a pioneer, a community of like minded, gifted kids, no grades, lots of talk about progressive, child centered education, the whole child.
At one point in my conversation with Carol Netzer, I was talking about how integration is happening around this time. And she surprised me by saying, no, not at that time.
I think the I think that you may be off on the timing for me, because it was too early. They didn't start really any kind of crusade about integrating to. Well, after I had left the neighborhood.
No, there were integrating the schools in the 60s, though. Oh, it didn't make much of a splash. You know, we weren't against it. It wasn't a big item.
That's how easy it was to walk away from integration in New York City. You could do it without even knowing you'd thrown a bomb over your shoulder on the way out.
Here is what I think happened over those five years between the writing of the letters in 1963 and not sending their kids to the school in 1968. Those five years were a battle between the Board of Education's definition of integration and the actual integration that black parents wanted. For black parents, integration was about safe schools for their children, with qualified teachers and functioning toilets, a full day of school. For them, integration was a remedy for injustice. The board of Ed, though, took that definition and retooled it.
Integration wasn't a means to an end. It was about racial harmony and diversity. The board spun integration into a virtue that white parents could feel good about, and their side triumphed. That's the definition of integration that's stuck. That's still with us today.
It's the version of integration that was being celebrated 50 years later at the French Cultural Services Building at the gala for S.A.S..
In some of my calls with the white letter writers, a few people mentioned that, yes, they wanted integration, but also they wanted the school closer to them. They weren't comfortable sending their kids over to the other side of the neighborhood. Which brings me to one final letter from the other side of the neighborhood when I haven't told you about from the 293 folder in the archives, it's one of the only letters, as far as I can tell, that is not from a white parent.
It's from the Tenants Association for the Gowanus Houses, a housing project home to mostly black and Puerto Rican families. They also wanted a school closer to them, the letter from the tenants association is formal and straightforward. It says, Please build the school on the original site you proposed right next to the projects. That way, they explain, our kids won't have to cross many streets. We'll get recreational facilities, which we desperately need, and it'll be close to the people who will actually use it.
The letter says they represent over a thousand families, the way families, they numbered a couple of dozen. Still in the name of integration, the white letter writers got what they wanted, a new building close to where they lived that they did not attend. Note the black and Puerto Rican families were not asking to share a school with white people. They were not seeking integration. That's not what their letter was about. They were asking for a school period.
The school they got was three blocks further than they wanted. And from the moment it opened, I asked three was de facto segregated and overwhelmingly black and Puerto Rican school. What were those years like? Once the white parents pushing their priorities went away, once there were no more efforts at feel good integration and the community was finally left alone. Was that better? That's next time a nice white parents. Nice appearance is produced by Julie Snyder and me with editing on this episode from Sarah Koenig.
Nancy Updike and IRA Glass. Neil Drumming is our managing editor, Eve Ewing. And Rachel Lissi, our editorial consultants, fact checking and research by Ben Phalen with additional research from Louis Sullivan, archival research by Rebecca Cain't, music supervision and mixing by St. Nelsen. Our director of operations is Seth Lind.
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Original music for Nice White Parents is by the Bad Plus with the additional music written and performed by Matt McGinley, a thank you to all the people and organizations who help provide archival sound for this episode, including the Mallen, Springer and Research Center, Andy Lancet at WNYC Bruta A Bolen's and the Walter J.
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