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Desegregating Brooklyn’s Classrooms

By Nalleli Guillen

Posted on February 12, 2020

Group portrait of boys in a classroom, circa 1905, photographic print, v1972.1.739; Brooklyn Historical Society.
Group portrait of boys in a classroom, circa 1905, photographic print, v1972.1.739; Brooklyn Historical Society.

This class portrait was taken in about 1905 at Brooklyn’s P.S. 134. Of the thirty-two young faces captured in the image, one is African American (visible just left of center). During Black History Month, this unnamed young man’s matriculation at P.S. 134 in the early twentieth century is a reminder of the long struggle to desegregate Brooklyn’s public schools, one that continues into the present day.

In the 1800s, Brooklyn’s public school system was strictly segregated. It was standard practice for school districts in heavily African American neighborhoods to build separate “Colored Schools.” One surviving structure of this kind is Williamsburg’s former “Colored School No. 3” at 270 Union Avenue, which dates to the late 1870s. Check out this 2012 “Building of the Day” article from our friends at Brownstoner to learn more about the building!

In the 1880s, the appointment of Brooklyn’s first African American member to the city’s Board of Education wrought swift changes to local school segregation policies. In 1883, the Board mandated that Brooklyn’s public schools were barred from excluding African American students, a move that became formalized at the state level in 1901 through initiatives supported by Governor Theodore Roosevelt. P.S. 134 opened in late 1901, just the right moment for the state’s new desegregation initiatives to open the school’s doors to the young African American student in this photo.

Of course, banning legalized (or “de jure”) segregation did little to minimize the impact of “de facto” segregation, the latter nurtured by Brooklyn’s Jim Crow-era systemic racism and the social inequality that shaped Brooklyn’s neighborhoods into the twentieth century. As a result, desegregating public schools remained a key battleground issue for Civil Rights activists in Brooklyn into the 1960s.

This battle continues today, led by student activists in grassroots groups like IntegrateNYC and Teens Take Charge. In recent months, this youth advocacy has kept pressure on city leaders to address issues in New York City schools, particularly, admission screening policies that they argue have influenced the continued segregation of local schools.

This image comes from the Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection (V1972.1). For more information please see our finding aid here and for more photographs from this collection please visit our image gallery here.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections; visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. [email protected]

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