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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