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Wadleigh High School and the Depression
Founded in 1897 and located on West 114th Street in Harlem since 1902, Wadleigh was the first high school for girls in Manhattan. Over the 1930s, the student population at Wadleigh grew. The proportion of African American and Afro-Caribbean students at the school increased greatly, while the population of white students declined rapidly. Wadleigh experienced firsthand the local and global tensions produced by the Great Depression and World War II.
Mayor LaGuardia's Commission report found that Harlem schools were overcrowded and in poor shape. “One needs only to enter one of these schools” the report said “to be made aware of its age which is reflected in its shabbiness, its unsanitary condition, and its antiquated architecture” (1). Many Harlem families and educators understood these inequalities to be the result of racial discrimination, which was evident in the curriculum and opportunities for students as well. After the report publicly exposed these issues, the Teachers Union established a Harlem Committee to face them. The Committee - led by Alice Citron and Lucile Spence - was the basis for the Permanent Committee for Better Schools in Harlem (2). The Permanent Committee was led by Reverend John W. Robinson as chairman, and Lucile Spence as secretary, and had several successes in the following years, like making the city to build two new schools in Harlem (3).
Lucile Spence was a biology teacher at Wadleigh since 1926. She was one of the first African Americans hired at this high school and had an important role in the New York's Teachers Union (4). Through her, Wadleigh became part of the struggle to improve education in Harlem. But Wadleigh illustrated the problem, too. The LaGuardia Commission's report explicitly denounced racial discrimination at Wadleigh, where Spence remained one of only a very few black teachers. The school's physical conditions were not ideal either. Wadleigh's building - praised by The New York Times in 1903 as "the finest high school building in the world" - was 35 years later denounced by the Permanent Committee for Better Schools in Harlem as a poorly equipped forty-year old structure. A campaign to raise funds for the school was organized in the context of the school 40th anniversary but without major success.
A historical institution in New York City, Wadleigh High School got attention from some important newspapers, like The New York Times or The Amsterdam News. In them one can read part of its history and realize how Wadleigh could not avoid the tensions and challenges Harlem was facing in those days.
The challenges their community was facing were not unknow to Wadleigh students. In “Harlem’s Neighbors” – a piece published in the January 1938 issue of Wadleigh's yearbook, The Owl –three students denounced that poverty was dominant in lower Harlem but it was fought by neighbors who shared what they had with each other. The text also ended on a hopeful note:
"'Good fences make good neighbors,' but the proof of true neighborliness and humanity would be no fences at all. Harlem neighbors, people from all parts of the world who have taken root here, have within them the seeds of brotherliness, love of liberty, joy in the beautiful. These seeds are sprouting and the trees which spring from them will some day offer shade and comfort to thousand".
The text gives a more nuanced and complex picture of what life in Harlem was, adding to other perspectives about this community. The ending probably was nodding to the context of international conflict the world was already experiencing, as well as the diversity of Wadelgh's enrollment in the 1930s. Indeed, The Owl was an important component of life in Wadleigh and window into how conflicts experienced by the community and the country were visible at the school.
|1. Mayor LaGuardia's Commission on the Harlem Riot , The Complete Report of Mayor LaGuardia's Commission on the Harlem Riot of March 19, 1935 (New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1969), 78-79.|
|2. Tom Harbison, "'A Serious Pedagogical Situation': Diverging School Reforms priorities in Depression-Era Harlem" (unpublished draft), 23-24.|
|3. Andrew Hartman, Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School (Basignstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 36.|
|4. Lauri Johnson, "A generation of women activists: African American female educators in Harlem, 1930-1950", The Journal of African American History 89(3), 226-227.|