These papers contain reports, newsletters, newspaper clippings, and statistical
analyses related to Annie Stein's career as an activist for integration in the New York
City public schools.
"The average child in eighty-five percent of the Black and
Puerto Rican schools is functionally illiterate after eight years of schooling in the
richest city in the world. This is a massive accomplishment." These first sentences,
from an essay Annie Stein wrote for the
Harvard Educational Review
in 1971, encapsulate
a lifetime of radical activism, a career in statistical research, and a habit of
For nearly 50 years-- working through labor unions, civil
rights committees, and community groups-- Stein used these energies to combat the
routines and institutions of racism. Her efforts could be structural or personal; she
wrote amicus briefs in crucial legal battles, and she rebuked individual vendors on
Coney Island for selling Confederate flags. She mobilized to defend the Scottsboro Boys
in the 1930s. During the 1940s, she helped lead the movement to integrate restaurants in
Washington, D.C. From the 1950s through the 1970s, she struggled to end segregation in
New York City's public schools. This was her greatest campaign-- involving thousands of
students, parents, teachers, researchers, and administrators-- but it was also her most
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
denied the legality of
"separate but equal" education. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, school districts
around the nation considered how to implement the new laws "with all deliberate speed."
But, in New York this blandishment hardly seemed necessary. The City-- northern,
liberal, wealthy-- was already ahead of schedule. The leaders of its school system had
issued their own statement in 1954, and it was even more ambitious than the federal
mandate. "It is now the clearly reiterated policy and program of the Board of Education
of the City of New York," it read, "to devise and put into operation a plan which will
prevent the further development of such [segregated] schools and would integrate the
existing ones as quickly as practicable."
That year, the City possessed 52 schools where all the
students were either Black or Puerto Rican. Classrooms in neighborhoods such as Harlem
and Bedford-Stuyvesant were overcrowded and dysfunctional, while excellent schools in
nearby white enclaves operated with hundreds of empty seats. For years, activists worked
to fix this imbalance.
Organizing with parents and community groups in the
underserved areas, Stein demanded mass transfers, bussing, open enrollment-- anything to
get children into the high-grade institutions. The School Board refused to offer more
than token concessions. Finding that racist fears were too powerful to allow existing
white schools to be segregated, Stein and others agreed that the Board should construct
new academies in mixed neighborhoods. Marshaling a huge investment, the City built 244
schools, but 57 percent of them were already completely segregated when their doors
first opened for operation. Administrators resorted to every expedient to ensure this.
In some instances, zoning lines ran right down the street where the school had been
built. Black and Puerto Rican students lived on one side-- they would attend classes in
the new building. On the other side of the street, the white side, students were zoned
for a different school, often miles away.
In 1964, Stein joined community leaders and thousands of
parents to plan a one-day boycott. Mobilizing the tactics of the civil rights movement,
the organizers leafleted the city, focusing on "places where women gather-- beauty
shops, Laundromats, small groceries," and demanding strict discipline. "In keeping with
the dignity of our cause, picket lines should be carried out in a quiet and orderly
fashion," their instructions read. "Our appeal to people is a moral one. Under no
circumstances should anyone attempt physically to stop a person from entering a school."
On Freedom Day, Feb. 3, 1964, half a million students stayed home. It was a dramatic
action, but the fundamental problems remained.
Following a decade of policy vacillation, political
confrontations, and the investment of billions of dollars, New York found itself with
201 schools that only served Black and Puerto Rican students-- a fourfold increase over
1954. In 860 schools, there were only four Black principals. Integration had failed. The
City was forced to issue an embarrassing confession: "We must conclude that nothing
undertaken by the New York City Board of Education since 1954 has contributed or will
contribute in any meaningful degree to desegregating the public schools of the city."
The parents and communities in suffering neighborhoods changed
their strategy. Instead of trying to switch their children into white schools, they
attempted to gain autonomy over the segregated institutions that had been foisted on
them. They called the new tactic, "community control." But sovereignty over the schools
required power over hiring and firing. In Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the community board
attempted to terminate several white teachers. The United Federation of Teachers would
not allow this. In 1968, for several weeks, 50,000 union teachers and administrators
went on a series of strikes. The ensuing conflict degenerated in recriminations and
violence. The union played up instances of anti-Semitism and "Black extremist excesses,"
while community members spoke of racism and Apartheid. The conflict revealed fissures
that many liberals had believed were closed. New Yorkers had to choose between their
loyalty to labor or to civil rights. Annie Stein had ties to both movements. She had
never crossed a picket line in her life. But she did so in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and
without hesitation. Her commitment was to the students and parents of the City.
"Let's shake these learned cobwebs from our eyes and look at
the reality," she once wrote. To achieve this, she contributed her energies, research,
and critical analysis to such groups as the Brooklyn NAACP, the Public Education
Association, and Parents Against Racism in Education. In her articles and polemics, she
was apt to cite Kenneth Clark or Franz Fanon, but most of her source material was
provided by her opponents. Jammed filing cabinets encroached from the walls in her
one-bedroom apartment. Over the years, she filled the drawers with clippings from
newspapers and magazines, official school board publications, and research reports.
Using these, she distilled the data into devastating accusations against the school
system. When liberal educators issued their findings, she was able to refute them with
their own evidence. Her rage transferred into columns and rows of pencil-scratched
numbers. But, even as she analyzed the minutiae of double-humped curves and numerical
"flip points," her work always kept focus on the larger issues. Racism in schools was
not a statistical problem. It was not even an educational problem. It was a social
In Stein's opinion, the racial divide in education reflected
basic economic relations. "Blacks and Puerto Ricans are needed to man the restaurant
kitchens, the hospital orderly jobs, the handtrucks and workrooms of the garment
district, the unskilled port jobs, and the draft calls," she wrote. Whites, on the other
hand, were "trained to fill the hundreds of thousands of office jobs in this financial
and commercial capital of the world."
Failure required everyone to contribute. "It took the effort
of 63,000 teachers, thousands more administrators, scholars, and social scientists, and
the expenditure of billions of dollars to achieve," Stein wrote. "Alone, however, the
'professional' educators could not have done it. They needed the active support of all
the forces of business, real estate interests, trade unions, willing politicians, city
officials, the police, and the courts." Teachers expected Black and Puerto Rican
students to fail. Sociologists predicted their families to be pathological.
Neighborhoods knew that integrated schools would not be able to teach effectively.
Stein challenged the City and its citizens to do better.
Educational injustice could only end if prejudice itself was defeated. And this could
only occur if the rising generations were raised together in tolerance. "If racism in
the society at large becomes reflected in school policies," she concluded in one report,
"remedy must be sought through continuing and extending the battle against racism in
society as a whole and by protecting the child from this racism. School policies and
attitudes cannot be permitted to continue to reflect society's racism."
Annie Stein's work remained unfinished when she died in May
1981. She was 68 years old.