Back to George Washington High School, 1969

Absolutely Beautiful George Washington High School

It all began with a picket line of white and black parents in front of the school demanding the racial integration of George Washington High School.  The principal, whose name I’ve now forgotten, looked out his window, saw the picket line, clutched at his heart, and decided it was time to retire.  Events proved him to be a wise man. 

The school was already integrated.  As a matter of fact, whites now constituted a minority of the student body, the rest being Dominicans who happened to live in the neighborhood and the black kids who came in by subway from Harlem.  How the school was to be more integrated than it already was, was the problem for the demonstrators.

Now among our white students was a girl, a very nice girl, whose mother was a woman who taught a course at the New School for Social Research on how to disrupt a school.  As a matter of fact, she had written a book of the same title, and she now proceeded to create a practicum on school disruption 101.  It involved not only picket lines, but motivating students to do whatever they felt necessary to achieve their aim.  Under her personal leadership life at the Dubs (as it was known among students) became interesting.  At one point, there was a front page photograph in the New York Times, of one of our several principals sitting in the shambles of what remained of his office after students and adult activists had trashed it at the end of an unhappy “negotiation” session.  That unhappy principal was one of the six we had in a rather brief period of several weeks, weeks that at the time seemed endless.  I think he was deemed insufficiently “sensitive” in the language of the period.

The school already being integrated, the “demonstrators” decided that the guidance department was insufficiently so, particularly as the counselors carried out most of their business privately, in their offices.  The demands transmuted into one requiring the establishment of a guidance table in the front lobby of the school, in full sight of all, to which students could go to register complaints and make other demands.  The guidance department, with the support of the rest of the professional staff, resisted this because it felt that privacy was of the essence when advising students not only on courses, college choices and even when dealing with complaints, but also when dealing with more personal issues such as sexual abuse within families, drug dependence and accidental pregnancies, all of which were quite common. 

The Board of Education kept changing the principals.  Each of the principals tried to negotiate; sometimes people were brought in from 110 Livingston Street (Board of Ed headquarters), all to no avail.  The riots, the beatings, the knife fights in the school cafeteria, all continued.  Not much education was taking place, but no one seemed to mind except the teachers, the upheaval in the school being much more interesting than what was being taught in the classrooms, and could later be viewed with relish on TV or read in the following day’s newspaper.  Then the city decided on a firmer approach.

To get an idea of what was happening at George Washington High School (and that I’m not exaggerating), you might want to check out this link:

About AlexLevy

Dr. Alex Levy is a retired English teacher who survived World War II and the "Final Solution" by hiding in a Catholic orphanage for girls in Belgium for several years.
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7 Responses to Back to George Washington High School, 1969

  1. Abby Mandel says:

    I posted earlier under A School Changes on this subject remembering a day in April of 1970 at GW High School when school closed early for the first of several days of “riots”. And now I will comment on a couple of other pieces here.
    Yes, you are right, the beatings did continue in the cafeteria, but also on the staircases. One day, a few weeks later, I was walking downstairs and was on the landing between the first and second floors when a group of girls jumped me. I was white, had long blonde hair and had on a suade cape. To them, I was the epitome of the white middle class girl and so I had to be beaten up, they later told someone. I was small and quite agile and so was able to crawl through their legs and escape, but not before I was hit by something that I later learned was called a karate stick. It was made up of two pieces of wood of a leather belt which was swung at my shoulder which it separated. I ran right to my chemistry teacher Mr Schwartz, who was in the Programming Office at the bottom of those stairs, and he arranged for someone to take me home. I recouperated 2-3 days at home but then was too afraid to return to school. My math teacher, Mr Mechlowitz and the head of the math dept (I think his name was Mr Schneider) actually came to my apt to convince me to return to school. I did the next day. Luckily, I knew a Puerto Rican boy who threatened to hurt those girls if they ever laid a hand of me again. I was now “protected” at school.
    The “white” girls also were the stuck by pins in the crowded subway by this same group of girls and that also stopped after this occurance. Thank goodness there was no HIV then.

    Growing up “white” at GW was very scary, but I felt lucky in other ways. I was in many of the honors classes and to this day still believe that I got a really good education there. I know this was not true for the non-honors classes and that is what was so sad about being in the public school system back then.

    And so in summary, Mr. Levy (as I know him) is NOT exagerating when he talks about what went on that GW High School in that school year 1969-1970.

    • Sara Lurie says:

      “Mr “Levy…..

      I sent you an email, having stumbled upon your blog yesterday. I posted a link to it on facebook, and see that my friend Abby Mandel has already replied to you. I have not heard bac kfrom my email … so am trying a direct comment on this blog….

      I AM THAT “nice girl” mentioned in your GW memories! My mom was Ellen Lurie, and she taught at the new School for Social Research. The course she taught was “How to Fight City hall – The Role of Pressure Groups in the decision Making Process”. Her book, “How to Change the Schools – an action handbook for parents” was published in 1972 and is still used to this day! Sadly, mom died in 1978, having had a tough battle with cancer. Fifteen years ago, a school was built and named after my mom – The Ellen Lurie School, PS5 Manhattan. It is a fabulous community school – amazing, and Icertainly recommend your visiting the school, the gardens and the land surrounding it… in Inwood, and a real treat to visit!

      I live in Edinburgh, Scotland and am the Director of the Fostering Network in Scotland. I would love to be in touch with you. Many of my mom’s works are in the Puerto Rican Studies library, and a man named Rob Snyder is currently writing a book about civil rights/the late 60’s/Washington Heights and has been doing a lot of research about my mom, the street gangs, the protests, and that era in that place!

      I so much enjoyede reading your GW reflections and look forward to reading more of your blog!

      I look forward to hearing from you…

      Best wishes
      Sara Lurie

  2. Lanny Aronoff says:

    Interesting to relive history again. I seem to remember the desk in the entry way being a student/parent grievance table based on some incident or perceived slight. The riots however were legendary and the incidence of black on white violence pretty bad. I personally witnesses a few and on at least two occasions was spared myself because I had black friends. I was in the College Bound program so I recall us going to classes mostly. I also recall the huge number of police and what looked like police sharp shooters on rooftops. The newspaper articles never seemed to get the story correct either. Probably would make a good movie. I came back to GW in the fall of 1970 but left after about a month because being a white student there was no longer a viable option it seemed to me. I am glad to see that the school has changed for the better.

    • AlexLevy says:

      Lanny, your memory is fairly accurate. However, the school never improved, except that the violence stopped once the Black kids realized they were in a Dominican school, in a Dominican neighborhood, and the subway was a couple of blocks away. Once the Dominican kids were established, the school became a baseball powerhouse and produced several major leaguers. However, academically it was dead. It had some fantastic teachers, but they were completely wasted on students who could neither read, write nor read English. And you are correct about the NY Times. As usually they were more intent on blackballing the NY City public schools than in truth. I have copies of all those articles, and they do not reflect what really happened. Good to hear from you.

  3. Bett Grant Taylor says:

    Hey folks. I graduated from G. W. H. S. in 1954. It was integrated even before that. I am African -American.

  4. Miriam (formerly Norma) Reiss says:

    You were my English teacher at one point. I graduated in 1969 and left, never to look back. I was at Cornell that summer taking a class and didn’t even bother going to graduation. What a shit school GW was.

    • AlexLevy says:

      Dear Miriam,
      1969 was my first full year at the Dubs. I arrived just in time to take part in the series of strikes in the fall of ’68. If you had me for English, you were indeed a lucky girl, although I thought some of my colleagues were truly extraordinary teachers, and they produced several extraordinary graduates. 69 should still have been OK, except for the heroin problem. After the early ’70’s, the school truly became a disaster area, and I can well understand your feelings about it. Nevertheless, I am still in touch with several students, and we get together on alternate years in Ft.Tryon Park. If interested in dropping in, let me know. As to your failing to attend your graduation, I missed three (high school and two others, MS and MA); the only one of my graduations I attended was that of my doctorate from Columbia, and that one was fun. Incidentally, if you were at Cornell, you might have sat in one of the classes of a cousin, Professor Richard Polenberg. He taught American history, and his classes were huge (800 +). In any case, good hearing from you.

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