The New York Teacher’s Strike and the United Bronx Parents

Madelaine McDonald

As part of the University’s History and American Studies degree, second year students are trained to make use of the rich archival collections held around the city relating to the history of the United States. Students work with collections held at John Rylands Research Institute and Library and the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, and are shown how to request, use, and interpret such sources in the context of the programme’s revamped module, AMER2002: US History Long Essay. This past year students examined documents relating to the United Bronx Parents group, which was set up in the mid-1960s amid the civil rights revolutions, and policing in Chicago following the urban rebellions of the mid- and late-1960s, and their research was the basis of an extended study of these subjects. Their main findings are shared in blog posts.

The New York Teacher’s Strike collection, in the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, includes pamphlets, questionaires, and speeches from the late 1960s and early 1970s regarding the standard of education across the city for Black and Puerto Rican children. The collection highlights the complexity of the New York Teachers’ Strike, which divided the city’s civil rights coalition along lines of ethnicity, class, and religion. At the centre of my study was material relating to the United Bronx Parents group, which aimed to bring about ‘changes to an unequal and segregated school system’, and whose mobilization, in part, led to the 1968 strike. The collection also highlighted the disparities in the careers and earnings of white New Yorkers in comparison to minorities and the foundational role that unequal educational opportunities play in fostering such divisions.

The United Bronx Parents (UBP) was set up in 1965 by New York activist Evelina López Antonetty. It was shaped by the aspirations of Puerto Rican parents keen to give their children the same educational opportunities as white New Yorkers. The interests of the UBP aligned with New York’s Black community which, despite the overturning of the “separate but equal” doctrine in 1954, were experiencing de facto educational segregation, in part as a result of socioeconomic and demographic trends across the city. In 1968, the UBP therefore represented the interests of both Puerto Ricans and Black New Yorkers, especially those resident in the borough of the Bronx.

The UBP was particularly in favour of greater community control around schooling. They were keen to encourage parents and other members of the community to get involved in the education of local children, many of Latino heritage, and to make decisions about issues such as curricula and hiring—which was crucial in a city whose schools had long recorded incidents of racial discrimination. Historian Martha Biondi’s study of postwar New York, for example, describes the case of elementary school teacher May Quinn who, in the late-‘40s ‘reportedly made statements that endorsed racial segregation [and] praised Hitler and Mussolini.’[1] Leading NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall wrote to the New York Board of Education at the time arguing hat ‘the teachings of Miss Quinn […] can add fuel to the dangerous fires already smouldering in our city.’ Yet the Board’s response was to acquit her of such charges.

In 1968, the United Bronx parents were granted a pilot community control scheme. Through the scheme, the children benefitted from a more engaging curriculum as teachers began including a broader range of texts and subjects including Black history and culture on the grounds that ‘there is no harm in Negros having pride about their past.’[2] The UBP also exerted greater control over the selection of teaching and administrative personnel in the district, appointing teachers genuinely keen to see these children thrive. This success was short lived however, as white people protested, the community control measures were abandoned and the white board was restored.

The unfortunate truth is that since the New York Teachers’ Strike there has been little, if any further progress in improving the education of the city’s minority students. An article from February 2022 by journalist Rachel Silberstein entitled, ‘Nearly 70 years after Brown decision, New York schools still separate and unequal’,judges that ‘New York is the most segregated state in the nation for Black students and second-most segregated for Latino students, following only California.’[3] Historical studies of the New York Teachers strike are important in order to understand the complexity of this situation, and for further progress to be made—something which is long overdue.

Graph illustrating inequalities in teacher pay in Black and white schools 1966-7

[1] Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 244.

[2] ThamesTv, 1960s New York, YouTube, first broadcast November 7, 1968 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRTQsFpH7P8&t=118s [accessed April 17, 2022].

[3] https://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Nearly-70-years-after-Brown-decision-New-York-16828901.php