Catherine Impey and The Black Atlantic

In his book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness historian Paul Gilroy developed the theory of a culture comprised of African, American, Caribbean and British influences blended with European Enlightenment ideals.  His metaphor for this cross cultural exchange of ideas between black-diaspora populations in The British Isles, the Caribbean, The Americas and Africa is the steam ship because that is how far flung activists in these regions were able to connect and communicate. Gilroy identifies one of these activists as Ida Wells, the crusading anti-lynching journalist who gained international attention due to two trips she made to The British Isles in 1893 and 1894. To the roll of names of activists who traveled and corresponded with each other across The Atlantic and around the world, must be added Catherine Impey, a white Victorian Quaker woman who lived on a farm in Street, Somerset England.

Catherine Impey was born into a family of abolitionists who had become active in the Temperance movement after the abolition of slavery had been achieved in Great Britain and The United States. Catherine was an enthusiastic member of The Independent Order of Good Templars (I.O.G.T.), an organization with rituals and social activities similar to The Freemasons but devoted to Temperance. Catherine’s participation on The I.O.G.T. allowed her to take part in meetings, travel throughout the British Isles and to the United States and engage in animated activism and discussion on her two most valued principles: Temperance and anti-racism.

According to Caroline Bressy’s book Empire, Race and Anti-Caste (Bloomsbury, 2013) Askew House,The Impey’s home in Somerset was visited by talented people of African-descent who had maintained ties after the abolition of slavery had been achieved. The poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and feminist teacher Fanny Jackson Coppin visited Askew House during the 1870’s. Ida Wells signed the guest book in 1893 leaving the following notation:

For whatever men say in blindness

and in spite of the fancies of youth

there’s nothing so kingly as kindness

there’s nothing so royal as truth. (Bressy, 8).

Quakerism was the guiding principle of Catherine Impey’s life. Quakers believe that all humans contain an inner light. By realizing the inner light inherent in all people, universal brotherhood may be achieved. The Quakers were a small minority in England by the 19th century but they were politically active in liberal politics, Temperance, and anti-racism. For Catherine Impey, a young single woman in her twenties, Temperance work allowed her to gather with like minded people not just in England but in The United States as well. Temperance activism allowed Catherine to branch out socially and to develop her intellect. Catherine journeyed across the Atlantic to America to take part in Temperance meetings. On these trips Catherine had the opportunity to engage in discussions about society and religion with talented journalists, poets, religious leaders and philosophers, many of whom were of African descent.

Catherine was heartbroken when her beloved organization was divided by controversy over segregation. In 1878 A Good Templar lodge in Kentucky asked to join The I.O.G.T. as a segregated lodge. The Good Templars in Kentucky insisted that there was no way they could accommodate negro members. The controversy raged in England, where I.O.G.T. meeting houses were integrated. The I.O.G.T. of England boasted 200,000 members. When the I.O.G.T. decided to allow segregation, The British I.O.G.T. broke away to form the Right Worthy Grand Lodge (R.W.G.L) which vowed to promote integrated Temperance lodges. Catherine felt pained by the negative influence American racism exerted upon her beloved organization.

In 1878 The. R.W.G.L. appointed Catherine Impey Secretary to the Negro Mission for The United States. In this capacity she traveled to Boston, Massachusetts for the R.W.G.L.’s International Conference at Pythian Hall. Catherine stayed at the home of William Wells Brown, an African-American author who hosted many of the renowned African-American attendees to the R.W.G.L. conference. Catherine observed that upon her first visit to America, she had “established a large circle of colored friends almost before she had any extended knowledge of white Americans.” (Bressy, 33).

When the I.O.G.T. and the R.W.G.L. agreed to unify under the banner of segregation in 1886, Catherine was devastated. She had met too many amazing talented men and women of color during her years of Temperance advocacy. She believed that the Independent Order of Good Templars had initially been founded on the belief that Temperance and Universal Brotherhood went hand in hand. She resolved to start a new organization called Anti-Caste, where writers of diverse racial backgrounds could have a forum to write about their experiences and concerns. During the late 19th Century, segregation would become the law of the land in many U.S. states. Scientific racism was embraced by thinkers on the right and left throughout the western world and Imperialism and Colonialism were practiced by the most powerful European nations. Catherine and her collaborators would be fighting an uphill battle.

Catherine traveled to Saratoga Springs, New York to take part in the conference that would determine the merger of the I.O.G.T.and the R.W.G.L. Her criticism of segregated churches in the United States was taken as a condemnation of The Christian Church. Catherine had been raising the issue of racism in the Temperance Movement for a decade but her fellow Temperance advocates accused her of putting the politics of anti-racism ahead of the organizations’ primary goal of Temperance. Catherine’s vote of dissent against the merger was the only vote opposing the merger of the I.O.G.T and the R.W.G.L. Lodges. Upon her return to England Catherine resigned from R.W.G.L. in order to form an organization that would combat racism. This was how Anti-Caste was born.

Innovations in printing in England made pamphleteers the social media influencers of their day. Pamphlets could be created with words and photographs and drawings which could be used to grab the reader’s attention. Catherine asked Frederic Douglass to come to England to speak about the plight of African-Americans in the United States. Due to her travels in The United States, Catherine knew that the descendants of the slaves were being disenfranchised in the south and that black people throughout the United States were being segregated, mistreated and ostracized. Douglass said he was too old for a transatlantic journey but recommended Ida Wells, the young investigative journalist whose work on the real reasons behind the lynching of blacks in the south had recently made her a permanent refugee from her home in Memphis, Tennessee.

Although rape was always cited as the cause for lynching, Wells’s research demonstrated that men and women of different races often had consensual affairs which were then called rape by disapproving authorities. Wells reported that African-American men and women in the south were being lynched for trying to exercise their basic civil rights: voting, using the sidewalk or speaking out against injustice. Catherine Impey traveled to the United States in 1892 and met with Ida Wells in Philadelphia. For Wells, the meeting was cathartic.

It seemed like an open door in a stone wall. For nearly a year I had been in the North, hoping to spread the truth and get moral support for my demand that those accused of crimes be given a fair trial and punished by law instead of by a mob. Only in one city-Boston-had I been given even a meager hearing, and the press was dumb. I refer of course to the white press, since it was the medium through which I hoped to reach the white people of the country, who alone could mold public sentiment. ( Crusade for Justice, 86)

Catherine Impey’s goal of having an African-American speaker visit England was brought to fruition after a wealthy Scottish benefactor named Isabella Mayo joined Anti-Caste. Mayo was an author who had inherited a sum of money from her husband which she used to finance liberal causes. Ida Wells traveled to England aboard a steamship, suffering from seasickness throughout the ten day crossing from New York to Liverpool. Catherine brought Ida home to Somerset to recover for a few days. Wells had never been treated kindly by white people before. According to her memoirs, Ida appreciated the Impey’s hospitality but found the vegetarianism practiced by Catherine and many of her colleagues to be cult- like.

After speaking on the problem of lynching in the United States in England, Catherine and Ida traveled to Isabella Mayo’s home in Aberdeen Scotland to work on the latest issue of Anti-Caste. Mayo had turned her home into a boarding house for East Indians. Mayo’s confidante Dr.George Ferdinands, a young Sri Lankan Dentist who was of mixed Indian and English descent helped Wells and Impey with the production of a special pamphlet on lynching in the United States.

Catherine Impey returned to Somerset. Isabella Mayo brought Ida Wells to cities in Scotland and then to Liverpool and Manchester England to address audiences about the crisis of lynching in the United States. During her time in The British Isles, Wells was able to speak to over a thousand people to bring attention to the atrocities being committed against African-Americans.

While Ida Wells was making an impression on British audiences, Catherine Impey made a fateful decision from her home in Street, Somerset England. While working at Mayo’s house in close association with Dr.George Ferdinands, Catherine had felt a strong attraction to the young doctor, who was half her age. When she returned home Catherine convinced herself that Ferdinands felt the same way. Catherine wrote a love letter proposing marriage. Realizing her mistake, Catherine penned a second later apologizing to Dr. Ferdinands for her first letter and begging him to tear it up. Ferdinands, apparently feeling threatened by Impey’s love letter brought it to Isabella Mayo.

Isabella Mayo was a sincere activist who communicated with such leading liberal thinkers as Gandhi and Tolstoy. But she was not enlightened when it came to Western attitudes towards women’s’ sexuality. When Catherine traveled to Aberdeen to speak with Mayo about her love letter, Mayo was at first restrained. Ida Wells observed that over the next few days Mayo became increasingly hostile to Impey. Ultimately, Mayo confronted Impey in front of Wells. Mayo told Catherine that she was a “nymphomaniac” and must disassociate herself from Anti-Caste. She then told Wells that she must join her in disavowing Impey’s behavior. Ida Wells states in her autobiography that Mayo’s treatment of Impey was the cruelest interaction she had ever witnessed. Considering the fact that Wells was driven out of Tennessee by a lynch mob, and had once been thrown off a train by angry whites, her observation is telling of the intense hostility Isabella Mayo now bore towards the founder of Anti-Caste.

Ida Wells

I had never heard one woman talk to another as she did, nor the scorn and withering sarcasm with which she characterized her. Poor Miss Impey was no match for her even if she had not been in the wrong. I really think it was the most painful scene in which I ever took part. I had spent such a happy two weeks in the society of two of the best representatives of the white race in an atmosphere of equality, culture, refinement, and devotion to the cause of the oppressed darker races. To see my two ideals of noble womanhood divided in this way was heartrending. When it was demanded that I choose between them it was indeed a staggering blow. (Crusade for Justice, 104).

Ida Wells refused to disavow Catherine Impey. She recognized that what had happened to Impey with regard to her feelings about Dr. Ferdinands was a natural thing that happened to people. Wells was controversial in the United States because she maintained that blacks and whites had consensual relationships that were then classified as rapes when white authorities felt the need to control black people. To Ida, the incident between Impey and Ferdiands was no different than incidents she had observed in Memphis. Ida’s own father was the product of a relationship between his white master and a slave, which made Ida herself a mulatto, which is how she was identified on the ship manifest for the ship that brought her to Liverpool. Ida had never heard the word nymphomaniac before she heard Isabella Mayo use it against Catherine Impey. Ida never spoke to Isabella Mayo again. She and her friend Catherine Impey made a visit to the son of the great British Abolitionist William Wilberforce in Liverpool before Ida had to leave to board her ship for the journey back to the United States.

The crisis between Catherine Impey and Isabella Mayo was devastating for anti-caste. Mayo used her power of the purse to ostracize Catherine Impey from her own creation, insisting that Anti-Caste and Ida Wells speaking tour would lose their funding unless Catherine left the organization. Catherine was later forced to make a humiliating public apology for her behavior in front of her fellow Quakers. Others in the Anti-Caste organization and anti-lynching crusade in England were forced to cut ties with Catherine. Because Ida Wells would not renounce Catherine Impey, Isabella Mayo cut Wells off and refused to pay for her ticket home. Mayo also wrote disparaging letters to Frederick Douglass and other prominent African-Americans in the United States decrying Wells support for Impey. To her credit, Wells stuck by Impey, ultimately proving to Douglass that Mayo was overreacting. Douglass, whose second wife was white and a good deal younger than he, was aware how controversial interracial unions between men and women of any age, let alone vastly different ages, could be.

Ida Wells made a triumphant return to The British Isles in 1894. She steered clear of Isabella Mayo and was saddened that the Quakers seemed to distance themselves from her. Ida regretted that Catherine and her friends did not know she had stood by her when Mayo was on the attack. The relationship between George Ferdinands and Isabella Mayo was also unique. According to The Scottish Index of Female Authors, Ferdinands was “like a son to Isabella Mayo and remained by her side for the rest of her life.” For Ida Wells, her sojourns to the British Isles were important because they taught her not to hate white people. For the first time, Ida Wells, who had been driven from her home by a lynch mob, learned that there were white people who knew that white superiority was evil and they were willing to work with her to help her and those being victimized by it.

Catherine Impey

Catherine Impey died in Street, Somerset England in 1924. Her obituary stated that her religion was her life. For Catherine, this meant working to help humanity find its inner light. Certainly, she was ahead of her time. A woman tripped up by an earthly passion for another person as she struggled to achieve her spiritual passion of civil rights for all. In this way she is reminiscent of Bayard Rustin another Quaker civil right activist, the pacifist advocate of non-violence whose homosexuality always forced him to work in the shadows of the non-violent civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Rustin is the man most responsible for the success of the 1963 March on Washington. Catherine would have enjoyed Dr.King’s I have a Dream Speech because it was about how transformative universal brotherhood could be. That was what Catherine Impey had dreamed of when she started Anti-Caste 75 years earlier.

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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).

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Robert A. Dentler Desegregationist

 

Dr.Robert Dentler

 

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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.

 

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