Digital Summer School: Harlem Education History Project

All good things must come to an end, and this is especially true of summer school. Whether talking about the 1980s Mark Harmon feature or the classroom, digital and analog, it’s come time to shutter our doors for a couple weeks as The Metropole takes some time off. We’ll re-open after Labor Day with a month dedicated to our grad student blog contest, “Striking Gold.” However, before we depart, we have one more lesson: this time from one of the most famous black enclaves in America, the Harlem Education History Project (hit them up on “the twitter” at @EduHarlem).

From curating online exhibitions to enlisting youth historians to highlighting the work of local Harlem educational institutions and more, the project organizers, Teacher’s College Professor Ansley Erickson tells us, hope to convey “the multiplicity and importance of stories about education in Harlem schools across the twentieth century, including in periods in which this complexity is often reduced to labels of ‘crisis’ or ‘failure.'”

Why did you establish the Harlem Education History Project and who do you see as its audience?

My colleague Ernest Morrell and I started talking about what is now the Harlem Education History Project in the fall of 2012. We shared an interest in generating new scholarship on the history of education in Harlem – for Ernest, as a way to ensure that ongoing work of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College, which he then headed, was historically informed; and, for both of us, as a way to address the surprising lack of scholarly attention to education in this storied black urban community. We also wanted to bring the robust intersectional and critical scholarship in recent African American history to bear on this important educational case. Both of us were motivated, as well, by the sense that much contemporary education discourse about city schools, about schooling in black communities, is markedly ahistorical, trading in reductive notions of failure that obscure a reality of continued, creative, and varied struggles to secure quality education in an African American tradition.

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Harlem mass meeting re Hillburn [case] raised enough to buy school books, between 1945 and 1950, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
As we imagined embarking on this new scholarly enterprise, we shared commitments about how we wanted the work to develop. We sought a multi-generational community of knowledge production, by which we meant a space that included not only scholars at different career stages (who joined us as contributors to an edited volume that is now completed and under review at a university press), graduate students at Teachers College and in the field, and local high school students (who we connect to through an after-school program called Youth Historians in Harlem, initiated by graduate student Barry Goldenberg and sustained with our support). It became clear that digital work would be central to these multigenerational connections. We first conceptualized the digital iteration of the project as a meeting place and a site for collaboration and sharing for those connected to the project.[1]

We were also interested in how working digitally could allow us to work in public in ways that traditional publishing structures and timelines and traditional archive spaces prevented. This interest was motivated in part by the broad values of access and engagement that run through many public digital humanities efforts, but it was informed as well by the particular institutional and community context in which we were working. Urban historians know well the troubled history of Columbia in relation to Harlem, the most striking moment being the 1968 attempt by the university to build a private gymnasium in the public Morningside Park; questions about appropriation of land and colonial dynamics in relationship to the surrounding community continue in many ways today, including around the university’s expansion into a new area of West Harlem. In this context, committing university resources to new scholarship on Harlem was at once deeply necessary and very fraught. We hoped that working in public, emphasizing access not only to completed scholarship (as in the edited volume, which will be fully accessible online) but to the materials of our inquiry and our work in progress, would be one small part of trying to do this work well. Others, including various kinds of collaboration with community members, are discussed below.

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Three African American boys playing checkers in summer playschool, Harlem, New York, N.Y, between 1940 and 1960, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As the project has developed – with our Omeka-based site now presenting a few collections of digitized primary source material, clips and complete oral histories, and digital exhibits – we’ve seen ways in which the site has supported the multigenerational engagement we were hoping for. A few chapters in our forthcoming edited volume cite oral history interviews conducted by students in my classes and housed on the site. A digital exhibit (in the pipeline, not yet published) created by a high school student links poetry as social critique across three generations: in the works of the Harlem Renaissance, in the writing of alumni from her school (as published in school yearbooks on our site), and in her own poetry. All of these connections are possible without a digital collection – but they have been facilitated by it.

The site’s audience has grown beyond those already connected to the project in two ways. First, our digital exhibits seem to draw the most traffic. This is in part via digital-only outreach, but also through the times they have been resources for authors’ and others’ presentations in various workshops, teacher professional development sessions, and the like. And second, as we’ve focused more intensively on “featured schools,” we’ve seen more use of the site by members of specific school communities, from people interested in accessing the material we’re sharing (much of it digitized at community members’ request) that is part of their own histories.

How did the Harlem Education History Project come into being? What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome to make it a reality?

This project has grown slowly, organically, based on relationships and based on pursuing new opportunities as they arose. And it is still in progress in every respect. In addition to the ideas and partnerships mentioned above, three key developments have made this work possible in our context.

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African American woman showing a sign for an outdoor rally to a boy in Harlem, New York; “Today is NAACP Day” is on a marquee near them, photography by Ed Bagwell, 1961, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

First, I was able to build the Harlem Education History Project into my teaching work. Doing so provided a structured space to explore this history and the challenges and opportunities of working digitally. I teach two courses that have a topical focus on the history of education in Harlem with different methodological angles – one on oral history, one on archival sources. (Starting in 2016, these classes became connected to the Harlem Semester initative at Barnard College, which cultivates a set of community-engaged and Harlem-focused classes). Students’ final projects in these classes take the form of digital exhibits. From this pool of student work, my graduate fellows and I invite some students to refine their exhibits and move them through our peer review and publication process. (We would welcome exhibits proposed and created by scholars elsewhere, as well).

Second, the idea of “featured schools” gave us a scale at which to work that made many things – from collaboration to cultivating audience – more possible. In 2013 we started working with current and alumni community members at Harlem’s Wadleigh school building (it has been at various times a high school, junior high school, and secondary school, and now houses three schools.) Our work started with oral history interviewing, expanded to digitization of material of value to the school community – particularly, the rich sources that are the schools’ yearbooks. Increasingly, via a continuing set of meetings and conversations over the last year, this partnership is evolving toward more collaboratively-constructed oral history.

Third, graduate student leadership has been crucial in this work. Teachers College’s doctoral fellowships require a research assistantship commitment, and I have asked my students to focus their work on this project. Esther Cyna has been a fellow on the project for three years, and she has taken the lead in several ways – including researching, designing, and implementing our digital peer review process for digital exhibits. Cyna has also presented on our work at OAH, AHA, and other conferences. Rachel Klepper and Cyna have been key facilitators in our growing collaboration with Wadleigh community members as well, especially this year when I was away on leave and unable to attend community meetings and workshops in person. Youth Historians has been led over the past year by Matthew Kautz, Yanella Blanco, and Rhonesha Blache, whose work was funded by institutional fellowships that link TC students to work with local schools and students.

It’s crucial also to recognize obstacles we did not have to overcome. From this project’s inception, we’ve benefited from a stable, high-quality, sustainability-focused partnership with the digital humanities team at Columbia Libraries from this project’s inception. Rebecca Kennison, Barbara Rockenbach, Mark Newton, Alex Gil, and many others have been willing to talk about our ideas, the tools that exist (and don’t exist) to realize them, and in some cases to ask their skilled developers to help modify these when we needed. They have also made the quotidian issues of working online – in terms of updates, security, and more – things that we did not have to worry about. Having this support available to us without external fundraising has been crucial in beginning the work. Thai Jones and colleagues at the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library have been supportive partners as well.

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Attorney General Robert Kennedy surrounded by African American children at the Morningside Community Center in Harlem, 1963, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What do you hope people take away from the Harlem Education History Project?

As the site continues to evolve, we hope it conveys the multiplicity and importance of stories about education in Harlem schools across the twentieth century, including in periods in which this complexity is often reduced to labels of “crisis” or “failure.” We hope that the potential of the digital – from listening to oral history clips to reading a digital exhibit organized around a map to moving back and forth between a chapter in a scholarly volume to related or divergent primary sources – make these stories more apparent and more engaging. And we hope that our exhibits (a small number now, but growing) attest to the range of analytical and interpretive approaches that these sources merit.

Although we continue to add to the project documentation on the site, I also hope that it conveys a sense of collaborations working to construct themselves, and reflects a humility about our work in this context. Looking back at our first conversations about the project, there are many things that we can imagine having done differently. We got started on this project via collaborative relationships within the university, building collaborative relationships with community members gradually along the way. At times this meant we needed to circle back to previous decisions and revise them, as in the case of our project name.

Each of the different collaborations on which this project depends has its own rhythm, character, and pressures – with Youth Historians and the schools and programs they attend, with the alumni and/or current communities at our featured schools, with scholars and community leaders who have been formal and informal advisors. Each is necessary as we seek not only to bring community knowledge to bear on university-based knowledge production, but to see university resources in the service of community knowledge-production.

What other projects or ideas most influenced this work?

Many projects and ideas circulating in digital humanities networks have been important provocations and, in some cases guides, for our work in progress. (This is not to claim that our work matches the aspirations or standards of these projects – but to recognize that we are learning from and thinking about their examples for our work, as others might want to as well).

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Bookstore in Harlem, New York, exterior, photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

These projects illustrate approaches to collaborative digital work in relationship both to the specific history involved and the contemporary landscape; some address the fundamental question that all digital historical work should consider: beyond what legally can be shared online as a matter of copyright law, what should be shared online and who decides?

Additionally, our approach to work in public around recent social history, especially with the stories of people who were not public figures, is informed by oral history practice and ethics. (For example, students creating digital exhibits around recent oral histories have contributed to a developing practice that ensures that oral history narrators have opportunities for feedback and response to exhibits that center on their lives).

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Stokely Carmichael, LeRoi Jones, and H. Rap Brown in Michaux’s Bookstore, Harlem, New York, photograph by James E. Hinton, 1967, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Where do you hope the project goes in the future?

There are a few clear next steps, and other possibilities that may or may not come to fruition. First, once it is published, the full text of our edited volume will appear online as part of our site. We need next to decide what form this will take, but we have permission from the press that is now sending the volume for review to make the text fully available online with unfettered public access). We need to work especially to make the site not only include the book but have it feel a synergistic part of the work overall, connected to the primary source material and digital exhibits in the site.

Another next step is to build out the digital presence of our second featured school, The Modern School – which was an independent black progressive school that operated in Harlem from the 1930s through the 1990s. We partnered with a local history organization While We Are Still Here and The Modern School alumni community to host an event at which we collected several oral histories, and will continue to collect more. As these materials are processed, we look forward to building a collaboration that will determine how The Modern School’s history appears on our site.

Presenting any history digitally involves so many decisions – inclusion or exclusion, metadata, aesthetics, hierarchy – all of which involve choices. Who makes these choices, in a university-based and community-engaged project? In our earliest stages, university-based participants made many of these choices, in consultation with a few key community partners. Deeper collaboration going forward means navigating and recognizing the distinct positions that various participants occupy – people deeply invested in this history but less engaged in the digital; people for whom this is paid work, or those for whom it is volunteer work; volunteers who are retired, or are working full-time but still want to be involved, as a few examples among others.

Although connecting with local teachers has long been an ambition of ours, it is one that we haven’t yet seen realized. In the coming year, especially as one of our featured schools is undergoing a major regeneration and improvement, we are looking forward to connecting more with local teachers.

As a former teacher in a Harlem public high school, this is particularly important to me. I’ve been haunted by a bit of history that I had learned well after leaving high school teaching. I taught in the building that had been Junior High School 136. As Adina Back taught us in her work on the Harlem Nine, this very school was one of the hubs of mothers’ organizing against segregation in 1958. This concrete, geographically specific story raised questions for me that I should have thought more about as a teacher: was I connecting with my students’ parents as fierce advocates for their children? What would it have meant for my students to learn civil rights movement history with this example from their own school building, perhaps the same classroom where activists’ children attended and then boycotted? Whatever knowledge this project creates, it must be readily accessible to today’s teachers in Harlem.

Finally, in the next phase of this project we may return to a question we explored early on but then were pulled away from as other opportunities opened. What are the particular opportunities created for spatial thinking, analysis, representation in an intensively local digital project? What can you see, or what questions are raised, when various primary sources – from oral histories to archival documents – can be seen spatially, with metadata and an interface that allows for mapping as an exploratory process? Since we were asking this question in 2012, other projects have taken up this direction. We’ll be learning from their example.

EricksonAuthorPicAnsley T. Erickson, Associate Professor of History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; Affiliated faculty, Teachers College Institute for Urban and Minority Education; Affiliated faculty, Columbia University Department of History 

Ansley Erickson is a U.S. historian who focuses on educational inequality, segregation, and the interactions between schooling, urban and metropolitan space, and the economy. Her first book, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2016 and won the History of Education Society’s Outstanding Book Award in 2017. Her work has also been awarded the History of Education Society Prize (2016), the Bancroft Dissertation Prize (2010), and the Claude A. Eggertsen Dissertation Prize (2011). Her research has been supported by an NAE/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, an Eisenhower Institute fellowship, and a Spencer Dissertation Fellowship. 

Erickson co-directs the Harlem Education History Project with Ernest Morrell, Coyle Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Notre Dame. In 2017-18, she was a Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library.

[1] Initially we worked across various platforms – a WordPress blog for conference information and other events, a CommentPress site for contributors to our edited volume to share and comment on one anothers’ drafts, as well as an Omeka instance for digital versions of primary source materials. Gradually, we reconfigured our Omeka site to do the work the blog had been doing as well.

Featured image (at top): New York, New York. Phillipe Schuyler, child prodigy pianist, leading a group of children in the Harlem Center for Children in singing her arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner at the children’s benefit for a nursery in Harlem, Roger Smith, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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