Gish Jen, A Great American Novelist from Scarsdale

Scarsdale can boast of at least one great American Novelist. Gish Jen moved to Scarsdale with her family in time to attend 5th grade at Greenacres Elementary School. She graduated from Scarsdale High School in 1973. Gish has published four novels, a book of short stories and two works of non-fiction. Her most recent short story No More Maybe was published in the New Yorker last month. Ms.Jen’s second novel, Mona, in the promised land was a New York Times Notable Book in 1996. Although Gish makes it clear during interviews that her work is not autobiographical, she does not hide the fact that Scarshill, the fictional town in Mona, in the Promised land, is Scarsdale in all but name. As she explained to Bill Moyers during a 2003 interview for NPR available at her website GishJen.com:

it’s a very, very, very, very different kind of community. For one thing. Scarsdale is predominantly Jewish. I think probably it was really maybe 40 percent Jewish. But there were enough Jews so that it was felt to be quite a Jewish community. And so they were acquainted with what it meant to be a minority. So, this was a place where a minority was sort of the majority. And of course, as a community, it was completely committed to being open and embracing and so on. It was still awkward there too in many ways. But always in well-intentioned ways. People would sort of say, “We’d love to hear more about your traditions.” Maybe I didn’t really want to talk about my traditions. But in any case, it was never mean. Nobody ever threw anything at us.

The fact that there was no violence directed at Gish and her brothers in Scarsdale was a welcome respite from their experiences in their previous Yonkers, N.Y. neighborhood. Gish’s brother was beaten up so often by bullies that their mother had him take Judo lessons. Kids sometimes threw rocks at the Jen children. This welcome change is reflected in the opening chapter of Mona, in the promised land. Gish Jen compares Mona Chang’s Chinese family and Scarsdale’s Jewish population:

For they’re the New Jews after all, a model minority and Great American Success. They know they belong in the promised land. (Jen, Mona, in the promised land 6). 

Here is a quote from Gish Jen’s Harvard University Massey Lecture on Art and Culture  in 2013 that speaks to the author’s actual experience of Scarsdale as a newly arrived fifth grader:

“And whereas the library at my old school, St.Eugene’s in Yonkers, New York, had been a donation library-a windowless one-room affair with dark, sagging shelves and listing, soft-edged discards-the library in Greenacres Elementary School had glass and air, and level, stout shelves packed with new, vertical books, every single one of which I read that first year after our move, including Albert Camus’s The Stranger– the cover of which I can still recall, with that thick-spoked  Algerian sun. (What, I remember wondering, are inexorable cries of hate?).” (Jen Tiger Writing 101).

At Scarsdale High School Lillian Jen was the editor of The Literary Review. She took the name Gish after the silent film star Lillian Gish while taking a film class at Scarsdale High School. Gish attended Harvard University and then Stanford Business School. She temporarily became the black sheep of her family when she dropped out of business school to pursue writing. Her parents did not speak to her for several months. Things improved when Gish was written up in the Chinese language newspaper The World News. Gish is married to David O’Connor. They have 2 children. She has lived in Cambridge, MA for many years. Gish credits her time in Scarsdale with helping her to become a writer:

Certainly, there were a lot of views about what a nice Chinese girl did and that did not include becoming an author, I hardly need to point out. There was a way that, if I had not grown up in Scarsdale, New York, in a culture where writing was this great thing, I don’t know that I ever would have thought to pick up a pen. So, in that way, I’m deeply grateful to the mainstream culture. (Gish Jen.com Interview with Bill Moyers).

Screen Shot 2019-04-18 at 7.26.42 PM

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil Rights in Scarsdale-Westchester County- New York

Screen Shot 2018-03-16 at 11.02.03 AMAmerican History Redux: Parallels Between President Donald Trump and President Andrew Jackson

Leave a comment

Filed under Pre-Civil War America

Sharp Knife: The War of 1812 and The Rise of Andrew Jackson

Sharp Knife: The War of 1812 and the Rise of Andrew Jackson

Leave a comment

Filed under Pre-Civil War America

Admiral George Cockburn:Destroyer of Washington D.C./ Emancipator of Slaves

_George Cockburn_ Destroyer of Washington D.C.Emancipator of Slaves

Leave a comment

Filed under Pre-Civil War America

Robert Dentler’s Trial by Fire: The Magowan Lawsuit

        Dr.Robert Dentler recalls in his autobiography The Looking Glass Self that when he agreed to work on desegregating The White Plains Public School system in 1964, Dr.Kenneth Clark, who had performed the famous doll test that was instrumental in convincing the Supreme Court to rule against segregation in public education in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision,  warned him that he would end up working on desegregation for the rest of his career to the exclusion of all other sociological endeavors. He was correct. The integration of The White Plains Public Schools served as a trial by fire for Dr.Dentler due to a 60 million dollar lawsuit brought against him, his employer Columbia University and The White Plains Public School District by Malcolm and Claire Cathleen Magowan. The Magowans were angry that White Plains Schools’ Superintendent Carroll F.Johnson had allowed Dr.Dentler and his associates to give their 11 year old daughter Claire and her classmates  a Racial Attitudes Test without their permission.

Superintendent Carroll F.Johnson declared  the integration of The White Plains Schools a success in 1968[1] and credited Robert Dentler and his team from The Center for Urban Studies for helping to make the transition smoothly. The Magowan’s lawsuit proved to be a trial by fire for both men. The conservative John Birch Society funded the lawsuit, which allowed it to drag on for three years. Dentler was prevented from using his racial attitudes test, a tool that would have provided valuable insight into how integration impacted the attitudes of students in The White Plains Public Schools.

According to his biography, The Looking Glass Self, Dentler took a position as Professor of Sociology at Columbia University in New York because it paid $2400 more per year than his position at Dartmouth college did[2]. His associate at Columbia, Dr.Bernard Mackler, believes that Robert Dentler needed to be in New York City because he had a passion for improving Urban Education. “Robert was born and raised in Chicago, he and I met at The University of Kansas where he was getting his Doctorate in Sociology. Robert hated Kansas. He needed to be in the city. Dartmouth was too isolated for him.”

Dentler founded The Center for Urban Studies which later became known as The Center for Urban Education (CUE). The primary focus of Dentler’s work for CUE  would be the desegregation of urban school districts. He worked for New York State Education Secretary Dr.James Allen’s taskforce to advice how to desegregate The New York City Public Schools. Dr.Kenneth Clark also served on the taskforce. Although their recommendations were not implemented Dentler was recommended by Dr.Allen to Carroll F.Johnson the Superintendent of The White Plains Public Schools, who was determined to integrate his school system.[3] 

Johnson and Dentler were like minded when it came to the issue of school integration. Johnson was born in Georgia and had witnessed first hand how segregated schools resulted in inferior education for minority students. Both Dentler and Johnson felt that it was high time to honor the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education deciscion which by 1964 was a decade old.

Dr.Dentler believed that a racial attitudes survey test was an important desegregation tool. Studies had shown that children ages 6-12 had not internalized racial prejudices of their own but did reflect attitudes learned at home. Dentler gave his own children Deborah and Eric the test. Deborah Dentler recalls feeling guilty for saying that she would not want Hungarians for neighbors because they were Communists. The question had listed ethnic groups and asked if there were any that you wouldn’t want for a neighbor. The plan was to track student answers to test questions for a five year period. The goal was to develop quantifiable data that could demonstrate the positive impact of school integration on racial attitudes of the students who were integrated.[4] One of the more alarming statistics from the data Dentler had already collected was that segregated Black and Latino students had more negative views of themselves than the white students who were surveyed did. These results, for students in the metropolitan New York area, were for students in predominantly Black and Latino schools ten years after the Brown Decision. Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll tests had found similar results and helped to sway the Warren Court to issue their ruling against segregated public education in 1954 .

On June 15,1964 Dr.Dentler and his associates from CUE gave the Racial Attitudes Test to a group of 6th graders at The Post Road School in White Plains. Young Claire Cathleen Magowan told her parents about it after school. That same evening there was a PTA meeting which Dr.Dentler attended to explain the tests. The Magowans and some other parents were very upset that the tests had been given without their knowledge or consent. Concerns about how the information gathered from the tests would be used were expressed. Dentler insisted that confidentiality would be maintained but that the tests would continue. One parent was so upset that she fainted and had to be carried out on a stretcher.[5] 

Parents later explained to reporter Mary Flynn that they were bothered by the questions on the test.[6] :

Given a Negro, a Russian, a German, a Japanese and an Irishman, Who would you like as a friend? Who would you like to have in your club? Who would you have over for dinner?

Given a Negro boy and girl and a white boy and girl, who would you sit next to on the bus?  Which one gets into trouble? Which one concentrates on Math? Which one would you play with? Which one wouldn’t you like as a friend?

Agree or Disagree

Negro children are dumber than white children.

Negro boys use more bad words than white boys.

Negro children are as smart as white children.

The parents were upset by their childrens’ reactions. Some kids felt the questions were not very nice. One child said he knew the test was about the busing. One child told his mother that one question had a picture of “two Negro kids and two regular kids.”

         

The White Plains chapter of the  NAACP was opposed to Dr.Dentler’s Racial Attitudes Test. In a newspaper article listed as exhibit 13 in the Magowan v Johnson, Dentler, White Plains Board of Education case states that they asked  school superintendent Dr.Caroll Johnson to destroy the tests and not use them in the future. Albert Corum, President of the NAACP Chapter for White Plains, stated that their request to see Dentler’s test was rejected. The NAACP issued this statement regarding the Racial Attitudes Test

 “ The thoughts of citizens, whatever they may be, must remain inviolate… certain questions posed to young children tended to raise doubts and give the impression of seeds of truth and formed an atmosphere of prejudice in minds that had not been conscious formerly of false stereotypes.”

Superintendent Johnson decided that the tests had to be destroyed. A Notary was hired to watch Robert Dentler burn each test on July 3, 1964. Dentler lamented the loss of valuable information. He tried to look over the tests but there was not enough time. The Magowans were not satisfied. They demanded to see the original test. Dentler refused. In May 1965 The Magowans sued him and The White Plains Public School System for 60 million dollars claiming that Dentler had planned to profit from the tests, that the tests were given without permission and violated their young daughter’s Constitutional rights.

Malcolm and Claire Magowan were not happy with Johnson’s decision to destroy the tests. They still wanted to see what the actual test looked like. Dentler notes in his autobiography that his old enemy The John Birch Society paid for the Magowan’s lawsuit. “Turning over the test would be tantamount to publishing an upcoming exam in the school newspaper,” he explained.[7]

Providing legal support for the Magowan’s lawsuit fit neatly into The John Birch Society’s playbook. This secret group of far right anti-Communists was created in 1958 by a Massachusetts candy manufacturer named Robert Welch. Renowned conservative William F.Buckley Jr. described the organization for Commentary Magazine:

Welch refused to divulge the size of the society’s membership, though he suggested it was as high as 100,000 and could reach a million. His method of organization caused general alarm. The society comprised a series of cells, no more than 20 people per cell. It was said that its members were directed to run in secret for local offices and to harass school boards and librarians on the matter of the Communist nature of the textbooks and other materials they used.[8]

Certainly Dentler’s Racial Attitudes Test qualified as “other materials”.

        The case dragged on for three years. The Magowans lost their first lawsuit but the judge allowed them to have it retried. As they waited for their case to be heard by The New York Supreme Court, Claire Magowan was quoted in The Amsterdam Recorder Sept.16, 1967:

 “All we wanted to find out was who gave the test, and we still can’t. They keep saying,’Trust us. We know what’s best for your child.’ We will find out who gave that test if we have to go all the way to the Supreme Court. They just won’t talk to us. that is all. It is sad when you have to hire an attorney to talk to the superintendent of schools. We’ve gone through all the channels. It costs a lot of money to protest. But we will see it through, regardless of what it costs.” Justice Joseph P. Hawkins presided over the Magowan’s appeal. He was sympathetic to them. Quoted in the same article for The New Amsterdam Record as Mrs.Magowan he “chided the defendants for their ‘patronizing’ approach.”[9] 

According to Dentler’s autobiography, Hawkins initially ruled in The Magowan’s favor. Dentler’s  lawyers found out that the clerk who drafted the decision, was a friend and neighbor of the Magowans. The judge ruled for the defendants. They would not be liable for the 60 million dollars demanded by the plaintiffs.

        Superintendent Johnson noted in an article he wrote about The  White Plains Public School’s Integration success that there was a small group of vocal parents who strongly opposed integration. They complained that resources that could have been allocated elsewhere were being drained by the cost of busing Negro students throughout the White Plains School District.

        The idea that the Civil Rights Movement was a Communist Conspiracy was  a fundamental tenant of the John Birch Society during the 1960’s. The year the Magowan’s filed their lawsuit, The John Birch Society set up an office in White Plains and claimed to have doubled their membership in the New York suburbs[10]. In his opposition to the plaintiffs motion to dismiss the case dated 12/27/1968, The Magowan’s attorney  Robert A. Clark asserted that there were links between Dr.Dentler’s testing plan in White Plains and Communism. He targeted the fact that Dentler’s Institute of Urban Studies received a $7800 grant from THE NEW WORLD FOUNDATION (Clark capitalized all the letters of the foundation). He found the New World Foundation’s mission statement to be concerning:

The right education for children; The relationship to life and the ethics, of industry and commerce etc… as is set forth according to its articles of incorporation which is set forth in Exhibit 2.

Clark maintained that the grant meant that Dentler had received monetary compensation for his work with the White Plains School District.  He went on to cite the reading list provided by The Institute for Urban Studies for curriculum consultation  arguing that known communists were on the list. Herbert Aptheker Secretary of the Communist Party U.S.A. was listed as the author of a book on The History of the Negro in America. W.E.B. Dubois presence on the list for his famous work The Souls of Black Folk also drew Clark’s ire. “The list ends up with W.E.B. Dubois whose ideas and beliefs need no introduction.”

        Clark entered Dr.Dentler’s 1960  doctoral dissertation Attitude Change in Volunteer Service Groups: Group Composition, Solidarity and Environment as Correlates of Change. Clark notes that the authors Dentler cites in his paper state that the best years to achieve social change are from the third through the sixth grades. This was not a secret. Dr.Dentler wanted to study children who were too young to form their own racist attitudes but were old enough to articulate racial attitudes they may have picked up from their parents.

        Attorney Clark’s concerns that integration efforts manifested by men like Caroll Johnson and Robert Dentler were a form of Communism is reflective of the great shift in Americans’ views about race and bigotry. During the early 1960’s conservative commentators openly expressed concerns that mixing people of different races or religions would hurt families because bigoted family members would not tolerate it.[11] By 1968 no one was claiming the right to be a bigot or worried about protecting those who were bigoted. Instead arch conservatives expressed the concern that external forces were forcing people to change their personal beliefs against their will. Attorney Clark interprets this as Communist in his formal complaint. The John Birch Society’s official attitude towards the civil rights movement was that it was working to create a Negro Soviet Republic in The United States.[12] 

        Ultimately, the 60 million dollar lawsuit was not about protecting young Claire Cathleen Magowan’s civil rights. It was aimed at making life difficult for those who were trying to implement the Brown v Board of Education decision ten years after it had been made.

        


[1] Johnson, Carroll F.  Achieving Racial Balance- -The White Plains Story. A Comprehensive Report. Jan 68.Journal Cit- School Management; v12 n1 Jan 1968.

[2] Dentler, Robert A. The Looking-Glass Self: A Memoir. Technical Publications Inc. Waltham, MA. 2002. P. 166.

[3] Dentler, p. 176.

[4] Dentler, Robert A., Elkins, Constance Intergroup Attitudes, Academic Performance, and Racial Composition, The Urban R’s: Race Relations as the Problem in Urban Education, Dentler, Robert A., Mackler, Bernard and Warhauer, Mary Ellen. Published for The Center for Urban Education by Frederick A.Praeger New York, 1967.

[5] Dentler, Robert The Looking Glass Self.

[6] Flynn, Mary, Destruction of Tests Honored, Parents Told. The Reporter Dispatch, 17 June 1964.

[7] Reporter Dispatch, Destruction of Tests… 17 June 1967

[8] Buckley, William F. Goldwater, The John Birch Society and Me. March 1, 2008. Commentary Magazine.

https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/goldwater-the-john-birch-society-and-me/. Viewed 12/4/2016.

[9] Parents File Two Suits Over Racial Test Given Pupils,Amsterdam Recorder,  16 September, 1967. P. 18.

FultonCountyHistory.com. Viewed December 4th, 2016.

[10] Birch Society Begins Big Membership Push.Knickerbocker News. P 18. Albany, New York. Fulton History.com. Viewed December 8, 2016.

[11] Sokolosky, George. “The Scarsdale Case.” Editorial. Ironwood Daily Globe [Ironwood, MI] 20 Jan. 1961: 4. NewspaperArchive.com. Web. 30 June 2011

[12] Tabachnik, Rachel The John Birch Society’s Anti-Civil Rights Campaign of the 1960s, and Its Relevance Today. Political Research.Org. viewed December 4th, 2016.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil Rights in Scarsdale-Westchester County- New York

Robert A. Dentler Desegregationist

 

Dr.Robert Dentler

 

unnamed.jpg

 

 

Memories of desegregation in Boston during the 1970’s are still raw. People forget what Boston’s public schools were like before desegregation or that Boston’s insular neighborhoods could be very dangerous to outsiders. It is fair to surmise that despite the hardships and the violence wrought by desegregation, the process enabled Boston to enter the 21st century as a more cosmopolitan city that is more inclusive and less hostile to outsiders than it was before the 1970’s.

Boston University Sociologists Dr. Robert A.Dentler and Dr.Marvin A. Scott were the  experts hired by Judge Arthur Garrity  to implement  Boston’s desegregation plan.  Dr.Scott states that Robert Dentler was comparable to the radical abolitionist John Brown with regard to Dentler’s passion for the cause of ending segregation in The United States.

In 1972 Robert Dentler had relocated to Boston University after ten years at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. Three years later Dentler was tapped by Judge Arthur Garrity to plan for the desegregation of Boston’s public school system, something the city’s leaders had avoided doing for many years. A group of parents had successfully sued the school system to force change, and the judge asked Dentler to devise a new approach to public education which would be imposed on the city by the federal court in the “remedy phase” of the lawsuit. It would prove to be a  painful process for the city but for Dentler it was the culminating experience of his professional life. He was never subjected to threats, hate mail or violence (unlike Judge Garrity and his family, who were the targets of relentless threats and bomb scares and Dr.Scott who was chased by a mob in South Boston). He was secure enough with his own life experiences and strong moral sense  that he was able to persevere with the desegregation of the Boston Public Schools despite The Boston School Committee’s intense hostility towards it and their relentless efforts to undermine it.

Robert Dentler was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1918. His father Arnold Dentler was a German immigrant and his mother Jennie was of Norweigan descent. Dentler’s parents instilled in him a  sense of moral rectitude and  a strong work ethic. Concerned that his children not experience discrimination as German-Americans, Dentler’s father banished all traces of German language and culture from their home.

After his father sent him to military school Dentler attended Northwestern University. He attended college with returning veterans from World War II, several of whom became his close friends and roommates and some of whom suffered from what would later become known as P.T.S.D.- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Although he had been to young to go to war, his beloved older brother had served in Europe. The experience of World War II and the revelations of the horrors of the death camps had changed him. He states on page 59 of his memoir:  “The end of World War II created a vacuum for some of us. A million deaths later, we were not going to be the people we were expected to be.” In Dentler’s case this meant becoming a Sociologist who devoted his life to desegregating and improving public education.

Dentler had become alienated from his father and the strict dogma of his Lutheran upbringing. He became dissatisfied with the athletic fraternity he had joined and unsure if he could continue with his studies. He wrote reams of poetry and dreamt of becoming a writer. He was fortunate to meet  a woman named Helen Hosmer during his freshman year. She encouraged his love of poetry and introduced him to more liberal religious and political views. He was able to forge a strong bond with her that enabled him to do what he did best, writing and research. After earning his undergraduate degree in Political Science, he went on to earn his Master’s Degree in Literature.

The Dentler’s were expecting their first child when Dentler learned he was about to be conscripted. The Korean War was highly unpopular and not going well. On the day of the Dentler’s wedding the U.N. forces in Korea suffered their greatest defeat of the war. Given the choice of serving on the ground in Korea or serving a new organization in Northern Virginia called The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Dentler chose the CIA. He heard lectures from both John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen Dulles about how scholars were going to help provide information to be stored in a large computer, information that would serve the noble goal of defeating Communism and ensuring world peace.  Instead, Dentler spent most of his time typing up reports from field offices in The Middle East. It turned out that he was working on the plot to overthrow Prime Minister Mossadegh, the democratically elected leader of Iran.When Robert and one other operative expressed their opinions that Mossadegh was not a threat, they were reassigned. After Mossadegh was overthrown, the Dentler’s decided Robert should not remain with the CIA because it was contrary to their values.

Robert resolved to become a teacher. He began his studies at American University, where he earned a second master’s degree, and eventually earned his Doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1960. He worked three jobs to put himself through graduate school and support his growing family. By 1962 the Dentler’s had a daughter and two sons. The family moved frequently as Robert sought a tenured faculty position in Sociology. He taught at the University of Kansas and then Dartmouth. Robert was hired by Columbia University Teacher’s College  and moved his family to New York.

Helen and Robert had to find a home in the New York area but finding an affordable rental that could house a family of 5 in a good school district proved difficult. They were surprised to find an affordable home near the Hartsdale Train Station in Scarsdale, New York. Robert was pleased to find that the town did not live up to its W.A.S.P stereotype. He found that Scarsdale had become a religiously diverse community that was ⅓ Protestant, ⅓ Jewish and ⅓ Catholic.

Twenty years later, in a 1986 critique of Common Ground, J.Anthony Lukas’s book about Boston’s Busing Crisis,  Dentler speculated that some of the hostility expressed towards desegregation by whites of Irish descent in the neighborhoods of Charlestown, South Boston and West Roxbury could be explained by the fact that they were losing the political hegonomy that they had enjoyed in the past. This was certainly the case with Scarsdale’s W.A.S.P’s, who had a reputation for great hostitlity towards Jews before this attitude was exposed by a local Episcopal Rector named George French Kempsell, Jr. a year before the Dentlers arrived in town.The Reverend Kempsell Jr. was featured on page 1 of The New York Times after he preached a sermon condemning parishioners who belonged to the Scarsdale Golf Club because a fellow parishioner had been barred from a dance there because he had a Jewish father.

Although Robert did not notice any problems between religious groups in Scarsdale, his middle son Eric recalled “that lovely town was very divided.” In fact Scarsdale was transitioning from being a W.A.S.P enclave to a more religiously diverse enclave. But Reverend Kempsell had received hate mail and death threats as well as accolades for his stand against anti-Semitism. In 1963 Kempsell was forced to leave his post as Rector of Scarsdale’s oldest Episcopal church.

During his time in Scarsdale, Robert Dentler became active in The First Unitarian Church of Yonkers. Robert had adopted Helen’s Unitarian childhood faith when they married, and they raised their children is a succession of Unitarian Universalist churches around the country. The Unitarians believed in social activism and were active in the civil rights movement.

At Columbia, Robert Dentler was recruited to run the Center for Urban Development (CUE). Dentler was proud of his mixed race staff of men and women.  CUE had been tasked to create a report on how to desegregate New York’s Public School System. Dentler also worked on desegregation efforts in nearby White Plains, New York. In 1964  he was alarmed to see one White Plains parent foam at the mouth at a school board meeting after he and his colleagues had caused a stir by distributing questionnaires to  White Plains Public Schools’ students on their racial and ethnic prejudices. Although CUE had promised to keep the questionnaires confidential, a group of White Plains parents complained that their children’s rights to privacy had been violated because they had been told to sign their names on the questionairres. Dentler and his staff had to destroy the responses of any student whose parents did not approve of the questions.

One family, The Magowans, were not satisfied with how CUE’s racial survey test had been handled. According to The Tarrytown Daily News,  They sued The New York State Board of Education, The White Plains Board of Education, The Superintendant of the White Plains Public Schools, The University of Columbia Board of Trustees and Robert Dentler for $49.2 million dollars( a separate suit for $70,000 was filed against The White Plains Public School System and Dr.Dentler) The case went to the New York Supreme Court three years later.

The Tarrytown Daily News reported that New York Supreme  Court Justice Justice Joseph F. Hawkins dismissed a motion brought by Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm G. Magowan, who wanted to see a copy of the test and have the right to examine the drafter of the test, Dr. Robert Dentler of Scarsdale. Although the lawsuit would go on for 4 years, Dentler never turned over the questionnaire.He maintained that it was the property of Columbia University Teacher’s college.  The Magowans and their financial backers The John Birch Society,  wanted the preliminary examination to help to frame a complaint.

Although Justice Hawkins held their motion as legally insufficient, he had some sharp words for the White Plains school authorities and Dr. Dentler and his organization, the Institute of Urban Studies of Columbia University. He said that Dr.Dentler and the university “have been less than candid” with either Magowans or the court and added that he is not entirely convinced that the tests and the resulting data derived from them “have not been used for the pecuniary advantage for either or both of said defendants.” Justice Hawkins went on to state that  it was the courts, not academics who had laid the groundwork for desegregation.

The Amsterdam Record quoted Mrs.Magowan in an 18 September article about the case: “All we wanted to find out was who gave the test, and we still can’t. They keep saying, ‘Trust us. We know what’s best for your child.’ We will find out who gave that test if we have to go all the way to the Supreme Court. They just won’t talk to us. that is all. It is sad when you have to hire an attorney to talk to the superintendent of schools. We’ve gone through all the channels. It costs us  a lot of money to protest. But we will see it through, regardless of what it costs.” The Magowans lost their lawsuit against Robert Dentler but it would not be the last time that angry parents questioned his academic approach to desegregation.

When Dentler became the expert in Boston Public Schools’ Desegregation during the 1970’s, he would be aligned with a federal judge who was determined to implement Dentler’s recommendations. Dr.Marvin Scott, Dentler’s Boston Associate in the desegregation case, recalls that Robert Dentler enjoyed staying up late and pouring over cases and court documents involving segregation and desegregation. In their book Schools on Trial, Dentler and Scott make a point of stating the difference between integration and court ordered desegregation, noting that the later is far from perfect.

Dr.Dentler often recommended curricula that allowed for discussion of racial and socio-economic differences among students. He was usually rebuffed by school administrators who believed that such discussions were contrary to a “color blind curriculum.”. Unfortunately, a color blind curriculum often ignored the fact that segregation existed in the north and not all people experienced equal rights.

During the 1960’s as the leader of Columbia University’s Center for Urban Development, Robert Dentler was involved with desegregation cases throughout the United States. In his spare time he spoke on the issue of desegregation closer to home in Westchester County, New York. Joan Intrator reported in  The Greenburgh Independent reported 10 October, 1966  on Dentler’s  lecture to The Ardsley Fair Housing and Human Relations Committee for the local PTA titled “Integrated Education in The White Ghetto.”  The goal of the lecture was to give suburban parents an idea of how to raise their children without teaching them anti-minority prejudices. Dentler stated that children who grew up in affluent white suburbs would not be prepared for the socially inclusive  world they would live in as adults.

“Public education,” said Dr. Dentler, “fosters a larger degree of social acceptance and friendliness; it can affect the general attitudes of our children In ways where they are not reached by trie homes and churches of the white suburban community.” For ‘this reason, he continued, many sociologist and educators are strongly advocating that the white suburban public schools consciously seek ways better to reflect the real, rather than the false, picture of our world and of our society. The public school is the best way to teach children about the socially inculsive world they will have to function in. Dr.Dentler said to sociologists it appeared that Integrated housing is the last way in which children of the suburban white ghetto  meet children of  minority groups; it is in the final analysis the public school which can do the most to foster intergroup acceptance.’

Dentler never did convince parents in his home of Scarsdale, New York to desegregate their renowned public school system. He would be given the authority to try out his beliefs in Boston but only the city and not its outlying suburbs during the 1970’s.  Dentler believed that this factor greatly inhibited the success of Boston’s desegregation policy.

The 1960’s proved to be a very happy time for Robert and Helen Dentler. They were pleased with the changes taking place in society. They were unhappy with the Vietnam War and protested against atomic weapons but the fact that the government was committed to civil rights and a war on poverty gave them hope. They worked on Robert Kennedy’s senate campaign, Helen ran  RFK’s local campaign headquarters and Robert served as Kennedy’s education advisor. Kennedy’s staff hinted that Robert might be tapped for a position in education if RFK took the White House. The couple was devastated by Kennedy’s assassination during the primary, and Robert attended the huge funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

When Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 his administration systematically defunded Johnson’s War on Poverty programs, Dentler’s work at CUE was in jeopardy. He remained at Columbia for three more years before taking a job as Dean of the Teacher’s College at Boston University. Dentler was hired by BU President John Silber.

The Dentlers assumed that they were moving to a liberal city when they moved to Boston. He notes in his memoir that they were in for “a rude awakening.” They bought a home in Lexington, the site of the first battle of the American Revolution. In 1974 Dentler was asked to advise the Federal Court in Boston about the desegregation of Boston Public Schools. In 1975 he and his associate Professor Dr. Marvin B.Scott  were hired by Judge Arthur Garrity to be  primary advisors on implementing court ordered busing to end the segregation of Boston’s school system. Despite the widespread protests and violence that ensued, Dentler considered his work for Judge Garrity to be the pinnacle of his career as a sociologist.He also enjoyed working away from university politics.

In an interview with Boston Globe journalist Manli He, Dr. Dentler stated “Solutions come out of developing the collective will of the community… Dr.Scott and I have access to needed data and some experiences with what people have tried in other communities and that’s all ‘experts’means.”  He explained that the reason for Judge Garrity’s take over of the Boston School system was representative of the “determination of the courts to move on (21 years after the Brown v. Board of Ed).” For Dentler, desegregating Boston’s Public Schools was a matter of Social Justice. When the Boston School Committee filed a lawsuit to remove Dr.Dentler as a desegregation expert due to the fact that he had been a dues paying member of the NAACP, Dentler stated that he was not an active member but hoped he paid his dues. Judge Garrity kept Dentler as his expert.

Central to his vision for the city’s schools was the idea that desegregation planning should be a vehicle for improving and strengthening the quality of education delivered in all the schools of the city, and thus the plan he helped design not only integrated classrooms but shuttered or repaired decrepit school buildings and revitalized the entire system by tying integration to program improvement and the creation of magnet schools that focussed curriculum around specific subject areas and career paths. Critics of desegregation in Boston’s Public Schools often pointed out that Judge Garrity and his experts Dr.Dentler and Dr.Scott all lived in the western suburbs which were not impacted by Judge Garrity’s desegregation orders.  Robert Dentler was bitterly disappointed that outlying suburbs successfully resisted the region-wide integration plan he and Judge Garrity proposed, leaving the schools of the greater metropolitan area largely divided by race, class and ethnicity.

Dr. Dentler had some qualms about the way  the so-called Boston Busing Crisis was portrayed in the media and in what he referred to as “local legends”, the stories the people of Boston tell to explain what happened to cause the riots and attacks on blacks and politicians who supported busing. As someone who had worked on the desegregation of public school systems throughout the country during the 1960’s and 1970’s and would continue to work on them as late as 1994, in Dentler’s experience most if not all school boards had members as resistant to busing as Louise Day Hicks was in Boston. Dentler was more concerned that black citizens were being denied their most basic rights. He felt that the white communities of Charlestown and South Boston and the political leaders who supported their hostility to busing sought to exculpate themselves from the violence that was perpetrated by blaming specific Boston’s leaders: Louise Day Hicks, Arthur Garrity, Mayor Kevin White and Cardinal Medieros.

In his and Marvin B. Scott’s book Schools On Trial: An Inside Account of the Boston Desegregation Case, the authors make a strong case that Judge Garrity had to take over the Boston Schools because The Boston School Committee not only refused to honor a court order to desegregate, but because the Boston Schools were in terrible shape. School buildings were antiquated and often dilapitated, school employees were given positions based on political patronage instead of  their academic qualifications and there was one man who had all the power with regard to doing maintance on school buildings. In this environment none of the schools was very good. Schools in black and white neighborhoods were in appalling condition. Black citizens had no representation on the school committee.

Dr.Marvin A. Scott worked side by side with Robert Dentler for a decade.During a recent telephone interview Dr. Scott recalled that he and Dentler carpooled each day  from Lexington to the BU campus. One week “Bob” would drive his car, the next week Marvin would drive his car.The most difficult thing about this arrangement was that Dentler was a chain smoker.  Scott recalls that his friend Bob Dentler was a fierce defender of his colleagues. Once you had earned Bob Dentler’s trust it could not be broken. Dr.Scott and his wife were good friends with Robert and Helen Dentler. Dr.Scott recalls that Helen was “the perfect companion for Bob, his guiding linchpin. Bob was not distracted by outside things. He was task oriented and never slacked.”

Although B.U. President John Silber shared many of Dentler’s views on the importance of desegregation. He and Dentler developed a strong dislike for each other. Silber believed that education should be a field that demands the best and brightest without exception. Dentler believed that exceptions should be made for the socio-economic and discriminatory conditions a person had experienced.Dentler made a point of telling  journalist Nina McCain in a Boston Globe article dated  30 October 1976 that the elitism championed by Silber in a recent speech at Fanieul Hall was a destructive force in higher education because an elite based on grades and  test scores had little to do with one’s capacity to learn.

Silber believed in academic testing and became the grandfather of the Massachusetts Competency Assesment Standardized Tests (MCAS) which became mandatory for all high school students to pass in order to earn their high school diplomas. Dentler believed that teaching and learning were far more important than standardized tests. Marvin Scott worked for both men. He believed that ultimately the two men simply could not stand each other. When Dentler led a no confidence vote against Silber during the 1980’s, Dr.Scott witnessed two trustees offer Dentler the Presidency of Boston University if Silber was to leave. Dentler turned the trustees down, much to Dr.Scott’s surprise and dismay. In hindsight, Marvin Scott believes this was who Robert Dentler was, a man with strong principles who could not and would not waver from them.

Although Boston is known as the Cradle of Liberty the fact is that for almost 100 years it had been failing to live up to its reputation by denying 20% of its citizens their right to equal education. One reason Boston’s future is bright is that it is now able to portray itself as a diverse, cosmopolitan city, the Athens of America. It is a city of many neighborhoods but it is becoming one community. According to his daughter Deborah, Robert Dentler’s vision of American Society was one in which we were all in the same boat. He ended his memoir with this Unitarian Universalist Hymn:

We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken

We’ll build a land where captives go free

where the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning

and  we’ll build a promised land that can be.

 

 

 

Author’s note: Information for this article is primarily based on Robert Dentler’s memoir: The Looking Glass Self, which I was able to see at the University of Massachusetts Boston Archives located on the 5th floor of The Healy Library. Two boxes containing Robert Dentler’s academic papers, family photographs and articles and minutes from CUE meetings are also available for public view. Robert Dentler’s daughter  Deborah provided additional insight and information for which I am eternally grateful. Dr.Marvin A. Scott also provided many memories of Dr.Dentler during a telephone interview. Newspaper articles concerning Dr.Dentler’s time in New York were obtained from the excellent website FultonHistory.com., which contains a huge archive of New York newspapers.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil Rights in Scarsdale-Westchester County- New York

Ida

 

 

 

Ida Wells-courtesy Library of Congress

idawell2.jpg  Ida Wells

 

 

Ida Wells was born a slave in 1862. Her earliest memory was of walking to Pine Bluff, Arkansas with her parents after the end of the civil war so that her father, a skilled carpenter, could find work. Throughout Reconstruction Ida’s family lived a middle-class existence. Her father had plenty of work. Ida’s mother had five more children.  Ida recalled in her autobiography Crusade for Justice that her family had contact with her grandfather, her father’s former owner, who treated his mixed-race son more like a son than a slave because he did not have any other children. That all changed when Ida’s father voted Republican against his father’s wishes. Ida’s life changed when her parents died of yellow fever. She became the head of the household for her five brothers and sisters. She trained to be a teacher and took a job in Memphis at a segregated school. While traveling aboard a train to attend a teacher’s conference, Ida was forcibly removed from the first-class car while white passengers cheered. She successfully sued the railroad and won in a lower court, but the case went to the Tenessee Supreme Court after Reconstruction was over, so she was found to have been using the case for“harassment” and forced to pay court costs of $200.

Wells found that she loved newspaper work once she started writing for her church newspaper. Eventually, She became editor of The Free Speech newspaper in Memphis. During the early 1890’s  Ida’s friends Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Lee Stewart opened a grocery store in Memphis at a place called The Curve, where the new electric light rail line curved. They called their business The People’s Grocery Store. The men were in direct competition with a white grocery store owner. The neighborhood around the curve was a Negro neighborhood so the white store owner lost business. One day a fight broke out after some white boys and some black boys got into an argument over a game of marbles. The black boys beat the white boys. That night a white mob attacked the Negro grocery store and took its three owners out of town where they were tortured, shot and lynched.

Ida had found her calling as a journalist. For the next twenty-five years, she would tirelessly advocate for an end to lynching. In her newspaper, Ida challenged the white authorities of Memphis to arrest the men who murdered her friends. Since the authorities did nothing, she encouraged black families to move west. Many of them did. The city’s railroad operators relied on Negro labor. As a result of Ida’s encouraging black families to move the railroad company developed a labor shortage. The railroad managers met with Ida to beg her to stop encouraging blacks to leave town. Ida refused. In her autobiography she explains her reasoning:

 

This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse

to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus

keep the race terrorized and “keep the nigger down.”

 

She refused to stop writing about the lynching of Moss, McDowell, and Stewart and soon began investigating every lynching she heard of. To her surprise, every single lynching that had occurred during the past three months had started as something else but was then told to the public as having to do with rape. Ida, whose own father was the product of a union between a white slave owner and his slave, printed an editorial about what she knew to be the truth: that white women sometimes had affairs with black men, just as white men sometimes had affairs with black women. This was too much for the white people of Memphis to bear. Her newspaper office was attacked and her printing press was destroyed by an angry white mob. A price was put on her head. She left Memphis for New York.

In New York, Ida wrote about the south for The New York Age newspaper. She was given the opportunity to speak at some newly created women’s’ clubs. These were important organizations created by and for women so that they could hear lectures and act upon the important issues of the day. Ida would later be influential in helping to found the first African-American women’s clubs.

Frederick Douglass came to see her. They formed a friendship that would last the remainder of the great man’s life. He was particularly touched that the young woman from Memphis did not mistreat his second wife Helen Pitts Douglass, a white woman who was often scorned by black women who visited him at his home in Rochester, New York.

In 1893 Wells journeyed to England upon a steamship. She was terribly seasick throughout the voyage. After 9 days the ship arrived in Liverpool, England. She was taken in by Mrs.Isabella Mayo, the publisher Anti-Caste, a pamphlet that sought to combat racial prejudice as it existed in the British Empire. Wells gave speeches about lynching and the south’s treatment of Negroes throughout the British Isles. She was amazed that she was able to dine publicly with whites for the first time in her life. For the first time, Ida realized that there were white people she could trust. Ida traveled throughout the British Isles to speak about the evils of lynching in the United States.  Despite the positive reception her speeches received,  the trip ended on a sour note. One of Mrs.Mayo’s colleagues, Mrs.Impey had written a love letter to a man named Dr.Ferdinands, a man of Indian descent who worked for Anti-Caste. Mrs.Moody, a stern Calvinist, demanded that Ms.Impey be ostracised. Ida refused to do so, pointing out that Mrs.Impey had merely expressed her feelings for the man. Mrs.Mayo called Mrs.Impey a nymphomaniac, a word Ida had never heard before. Then she cut Ida off too. It would be one of many times that Ida’s honesty and outspokenness got her into trouble and kept her from ever being part of a larger organization for long.

Upon returning to the United States Ida struggled with deciding where to live. She was effectively banished from her native south because several men had sworn to shoot her on sight, a sort of southern Infitada for her outspokenness on lynching, which was viewed as an attack on white womanhood due to Ida’s insistence that rape was a pretense for the lynching of black men and that blacks and whites often had consensual affairs.

She traveled to Chicago, Illinois to work with Frederick Douglass on the World’s Fair. Negroes had been excluded from the planning of the event. Mr.Douglass, the leading African-American of his time, had to settle for space to speak at the Haitian exhibit (he had been the U.S. ambassador to Haiti). For Wells, the great irony was that wherever she saw Douglass go at the fair, she observed him being mobbed by white people who wanted to shake his hand.

In 1894 a civil rights minded newspaper called The Inter Ocean arranged for Wells to return to England to drum up support for her anti-lynching campaign. In Liverpool, Ida met the Reverend C.F. Aked who had committed himself to furthering the cause of brotherhood between the races after learning of a lynching while attending the Chicago World’s Fair. She lived with Aked and his wife for six months. For her, the most amazing part of living in Liverpool was how fair-minded and welcoming it was to people of color.

 

To a colored person who has been reared in the peculiar atmosphere which obtains only in free (?) America, it is like being born into another world, to be welcomed among persons of the highest order of intellectual and social culture as if one were one of themselves.

Here a “colored” person can ride in any sort of conveyance in any part of the country without being insulted; stop in any hotel or be accommodated in any restaurant one wishes without being refused with contempt….The privilege of being once in a country where “A man’s a man for a’that,” is one which can best be appreciated by those Americans whose black skins are a bar to their receiving genuine kindness and courtesy at home.

 

The fact that she could experience such freedom in Liverpool, the former capital of the British slave trade, gave Wells hope for her own country. A hope that would not be reciprocated in her own lifetime.

Wells had a successful stay in England. She witnessed many British society people sign up for the anti-lynching campaign in the United States. They promised to pressure The Episcopal Church of the United States to get more involved in the issue of civil rights for Negroes. But again Wells faced controversy. The prohibition advocate Miss. Francis Willard was in England at the same time as Ida. Willard had stated that southern women she knew were afraid to go out at night and that lynching may have been a tragic necessity. Wells would have none of this. She battled Willard in the press, which had the effect of alienating some of her white benefactors who were Willard’s personal friends. Wells accused Willard of segregating her Temperance organization (it was segregated in the south- as was everything else). Willard played down her comments and the fact that her organization was segregated.

Wells returned to the United States in November 1894. She lived in Rochester, New York with Susan B.Anthony, the renowned women’s’ suffragist. Anthony was clear-eyed about the racist sentiment that existed throughout the United States. She recalled that she had allowed women’s suffrage groups to segregate as a matter of political expedience. Wells expressed her opinion that Anthony had been mistaken. Anthony accepted Wells’ opinion. Anthony maintained the world would be better when women got the vote. Wells questioned this, remarking that women had a tendency to have “a petty outlook on life.” Despite their differences, the two women remained friends. Both were saddened when Frederick Douglass passed away in 1895. Anthony because Douglass had been the only man to attend her first women’s suffrage convention in 1848. Wells because she believed Douglass to be “the greatest man the Negro Race has ever produced.”

Ida toured the United States throughout 1895 in an effort to gain support for her anti-lynching campaign. She had published a documentary of all the lynchings committed in the United States for 1892,1893 and 1894. At the end of the year, she was broke and exhausted.

She happily decided to accept the hand of Attorney Ferdinand.L.Barnett of Chicago, which had been offered to her before she had gone to England. Ida and Ferdinand had four children, one of whom they gave the middle name Aked after Ida’s favorite minister. Despite the fact that she was the mother of young children Ida remained involved in civil rights causes. Her work would be doubly difficult in the face of the United States Government’s acquiescence to the racism of its white population when  The 1896  Supreme Court Decision in Plessy V. Ferguson found segregation to be legal. For the next 58 years, the federal government of the United States would more often be in support of the rights of white bigots than of the rights of its citizens of color.

 

5 Comments

Filed under Radical Civil Rights Leaders of the late 19th and early 20th Century: Ida Wells and William Monroe Trotter