How Queens became segregated : Code Switch School District 28 in Queens, N.Y., has a Northside and a Southside. To put it simply, the Southside is Black and the farther north you go, the fewer Black people you see. But it wasn't always like this. Once the home to two revolutionary experiments in integrated housing, the Southside of the district served as a beacon of interracial cooperation. So what happened between then and now?

School Colors Episode 2: 'Tales From The Southside'

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SIMONE DORNBACH: Parent after parent after parent - they were complaining, and they were screaming. They were not just talking; they were screaming at them. I had never seen anything like that before. And with every parent, I disappeared (laughter) more and more from my chair. I was, like, in front row (laughter).


In 2019, School District 28 was chosen by the New York City Department of Education to go through a diversity planning process.


District 28 is in Queens, often touted as the most diverse place in the world. But almost anyone in the district will tell you there's a north side and a south side.

FREEDMAN: At the first public meeting about this diversity plan, parents from the north side of the district showed up in force to express their opposition.

DORNBACH: I do know that there were people in the room who were supportive of it. It was just we were a minority - maybe, I don't know, two or three people, five at most.

FREEDMAN: Simone Dornbach was one of those supportive parents. Simone is white and lives on the north side. She's a social worker and a mediator. She once worked on a national reconciliation conference in Uganda to bring people together after a civil war. And still, she was shocked by what she saw that night in District 28.

DORNBACH: And so I didn't speak, and I was so glad because I just felt like I am the only person in here who actually thinks this is a good idea. And that was really, for me, the moment when I got scared.


DORNBACH: I, for the first time, had doubts. I had always thought it's a good thing to integrate schools. I felt like, what is happening? Why am I the only person who thinks this is the right thing to do? Why is everyone around me not feeling that way? - something wrong with me.

GRIFFITH: But the testimony that made Simone feel the most disheartened actually came from one of the few parents who spoke up from the south side of the district. Her name is Lorraine Reid.


LORRAINE REID: Why aren't we - instead of worrying about spreading out all the inequalities, focus on the schools in the south. Build the schools up in the south with the necessary - the basic, necessary tools that the students need.

DORNBACH: I naively thought that no Black parents would like that idea. And then it dawned on me - no, of course not. I mean, it makes sense that they don't necessarily want to be in a school community where parents like that are present.

GRIFFITH: But the behavior of northern parents was not what Lorraine was focused on in the moment. We know because we asked her.

REID: I wasn't offended like some people were offended. I was like, good - they don't want us, and we don't want them.

GRIFFITH: She was against the diversity plan because she doesn't believe the system would ever do right by Black children.

REID: What makes this any different than everything else that you have promised us as a people? That's my question. What makes this diversity plan different? Why should we believe you? You promised us this. We're still waiting. You promised us that. We're still waiting. We're still waiting for all the other stuff that's piled up, gathering dust on the table. So why should I believe it?


GRIFFITH: From NPR's CODE SWITCH and Brooklyn Deep, this is School Colors, a podcast about how race, class and power shape American cities and schools. I'm Mark Winston Griffith.

FREEDMAN: And I'm Max Freedman.

GRIFFITH: When we started going to the south side to report this season, most of the people we talked to either hadn't heard of the diversity plan at all or, like Lorraine, weren't feeling it and for good reason.

FREEDMAN: South Jamaica has a long history of push and pull between the forces of integration and segregation, and not just in the schools.

GRIFFITH: Regular CODE SWITCH listeners will be familiar with something host Gene Demby always says...


GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Housing segregation in everything.


DEMBY: Housing segregation in everything.


DEMBY: Housing segregation in everything.


DEMBY: #HousingSegregationInEverything.


DEMBY: #HousingSegregationInEverything.

GRIFFITH: And he's not wrong. So to really understand what's going on in District 28 today and why they might need a school diversity plan, we're going to get into housing, starting on the south side.

FREEDMAN: For generations, residents of South Jamaica have poured their hopes into this community. Time and time again, they have fought for equitable housing and quality schools. And they have been met with discrimination and fear.

JELANI COBB: If you look at Queens now, you could say there's a long history of inter-ethnic and interracial tolerance.


GLADYS WEAVER: Jamaica used to be a beautiful, beautiful place to live as a family.

CAL JONES: It was a fabulous community. They had an organization for every and anything you could imagine.

COBB: You could also say there's a long history of interracial and inter-ethnic bigotry and hostility. And you'd be equally correct in both of those statements.


WEAVER: The real estate people - I remember, they would go around and stick notices in your door and say to the people, the neighborhood is changing.

PETER EISENSTADT: It just became incredibly nasty and vicious.

JONES: I mean, you learn what real power is.

GRIFFITH: In this episode, how the south side became the south side. Welcome back to School Colors.


GRIFFITH: A lot of people think Jamaica, Queens is connected to Jamaica the island. But actually, Jamaica, Queens got its name from the Native people who lived here before Europeans showed up. As European settlers colonized the area, they brought with them the slave trade, which is how the first Black people got to Queens. Slavery was officially outlawed in New York state in the early 1800s. But even after emancipation, Black children in Jamaica couldn't go to a local public school until a separate Black schoolhouse was established in the 1850s. We went to south Jamaica looking for that schoolhouse.

Right here, on 59th?

FREEDMAN: On 59th and (inaudible).

GRIFFITH: And we don't know which corner.

FREEDMAN: I don't know which corner. So right now we're - this is the South Jamaica Houses. On the other side of the street is - looks like athletic fields for York College, right? The....

GRIFFITH: The tennis courts.

FREEDMAN: ...Tennis courts. But yeah, this is - right around here is where they built a one-room wood-frame schoolhouse for the Black children of South Jamaica.


FREEDMAN: The people who established this school didn't do that out of the kindness of their hearts. It was built by white folks in Jamaica who saw a growing Black community and wanted to protect themselves from those kids. By the early 1890s, the Jamaica Black school had 75 students in seven grades. They were packed into one room with only one teacher.

GRIFFITH: Black parents called bullshit.

OMARI MCCLEARY: (As Samuel B. Cisco) I, my father and mother have paid taxes in Jamaica for 80 years.

GRIFFITH: These are the words of Samuel B. Cisco, a successful Black business owner and father of six.

MCCLEARY: (As Samuel B. Cisco) Yet my children are denied a place in the school near my home while Irishmen, Italian and Dutchmen who have been here only three months can go there, although covered with dirt.

GRIFFITH: In the fall of 1895, Samuel and his wife, Elizabeth, led a group of Black parents from Jamaica up to the white school to try to enroll their kids. They were turned away. So they sued the Jamaica School Board. Thus began what the papers called the Jamaica school war.

MCCLEARY: (As Samuel B. Cisco) The superintendent has brought the war into Africa. And we now propose to carry into Caucasia.

GRIFFITH: For five years, the Ciscos and other Black parents refused to send their children to the overcrowded, understaffed Black school in Jamaica. At the same time, they brought at least 20 different court actions against school officials. They weren't messing around.

FREEDMAN: But there were consequences. These parents were prosecuted for not sending their kids to school as required by law. Samuel and Elizabeth Cisco were arrested six times in five years. Even after Samuel died in 1897, Elizabeth kept fighting - all the way up to the state Supreme Court. In 1900, she lost her final appeal.

GRIFFITH: But that's not how the story ends. If she couldn't get the courts to enforce the law, Elizabeth Cisco was going to change it. She had allies in the state Capitol who got a law passed that made it illegal to operate segregated public schools, not just in Jamaica, but all over the state of New York.

FREEDMAN: Supporters threw a party to celebrate their victory. They made a resolution in praise of Elizabeth Cisco. The resolution said, quote, "to no one person living or dead is the state of New York under greater obligations for the complete obliteration of racial discrimination."

GRIFFITH: Complete obliteration? I don't think so.


FREEDMAN: By the end of the Jamaica school war, it was the turn of the century, and Queens was about to be transformed. Jelani Cobb is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He grew up in Jamaica and has written about its history.

COBB: Around the beginning of the 20th century, as Manhattan was then and, you know, historically absurdly overcrowded, people began to get the idea that it might work for people to commute from Queens.

FREEDMAN: The subway was extended into Queens. Forests were cleared for roads and highways. Farms were sold and subdivided.

COBB: And from there, Jamaica began to expand. Now, these are mostly white immigrants - you know, white ethnics who begin moving out to Queens in, you know, what are almost kind of cookie-cutter communities, which - Queens still retains that quality now. When you look at the architecture, there are these neat, almost postage-stamp kinds of lawns - you know, perfectly symmetrical and, you know, these houses that are designed - that look the same way that, you know, a 5 year old draws a house, with two vertical lines and a triangle on top.

GRIFFITH: It wasn't just white ethnics who went looking for the Queens suburban dream. After World War I, the southern part of Jamaica started to emerge as a rare haven of Black homeownership in New York City. It was reported in 1926 that Black folks could buy a house for as little as $500 to $1,000 down. New York's famed Black newspaper, The Amsterdam News, called South Jamaica the fastest-growing Negro community in the world and the poor colored man's Mecca. One family that was drawn to South Jamaica was Gladys Weaver's.


WEAVER: I hated New York. I didn't like being confined in apartment where I couldn't go outside and run around.

GRIFFITH: Gladys was born in South Carolina in 1923. Her first taste of New York was Harlem, where her family moved into a cramped apartment.


WEAVER: And I would cry many days - stand at the window and cry. I hate this place. But when we moved out in Queens - they started - my parents started looking for home out in Queens - it felt a little better being out in the open space, where they could get a private house - no attached house - private, with a driveway, backyard, garage and a front yard. And that's why my parents came to Queens - because they was not used to being confined in apartment.

GRIFFITH: This recording comes from an oral history at the Queens Public Library.


WEAVER: Jamaica used to be a beautiful, beautiful place to live as a family. It was beautiful stores, real estate, lawyers office, drug stores, bakeries, dressmakers, tailors. Easter time, the boys would go and have their suits made by a tailor on New York Boulevard. Everybody was like family - everybody looked out for each other family. There was no such thing as the word homeless in Queens. There was no such word. If anyone came from any part of the country or wherever, they didn't have anywhere to live, another family would always take them in.

GRIFFITH: Even though South Jamaica had a growing Black community, most of Gladys' neighbors were not Black.


WEAVER: There wasn't many of us in Jamaica at that time. This used to be strictly mostly Italian neighborhood. Your schools - when you went to school, the schools was mostly Italian. You had some Jews. You had some Polish people. You had very few Chinese people. If the Chinese was here, they was your laundry people. They would be in the laundry business only. Even our block - when my parents moved there, we were the third Black family ever to live there. It was all Italians. You played and you socialized with Italians because they would surround it. We was in the middle. We had two Italian families on each side.

FREEDMAN: But it wasn't all sunshine and roses. Jamaica was also home to the most visible New York City chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.


FREEDMAN: The Klan hated Catholics almost as much as they hated Black people. And Jamaica had plenty of both. In 1927, more than a thousand Klansmen and women marched through Jamaica in a Memorial Day parade. When the rally turned into a riot, seven men were arrested. One of them was Fred Trump, Donald's father. The following year on the 4th of July, a 90-foot cross was burned on Rockaway Boulevard.

COBB: And so both of those things coexisted, which is not that atypical of New York - you know, both the embrace and - simultaneous embrace and rejection of diversity.

FREEDMAN: Again, Jelani Cobb.

COBB: So if you look at Queens now, you could say there's a long history of inter-ethnic and interracial tolerance, and you could also say there's a long history of interracial and inter-ethnic bigotry and hostility, and you'd be equally correct in both of those statements.


GRIFFITH: Racial hostility was not the only crack in the facade of the Queens suburban dream. Not everybody who moved to South Jamaica could afford to buy a house, and some of the housing stock was in pretty bad shape.

FREEDMAN: One area in particular was described in the New York Herald Tribune as an infamous jungle of miserable shacks.

GRIFFITH: Squalid, unsanitary and barbaric.

FREEDMAN: Warrens unfit for animals.

GRIFFITH: Real and horrible slums.


FREEDMAN: In the 1930s, residents of South Jamaica appealed to the New York City Housing Authority to clear the slums and build safe, modern public housing.

GRIFFITH: Now, you might have some preconceived notions about public housing. But the public housing that was built starting in the 1930s was utopian - model housing for the working class.

FREEDMAN: Today, it's hard to imagine just how awful so much housing was in New York City at this time. There were still millions of homes and apartments that were built before modern housing standards were created. Public housing was the government's response.


ALOIS HAVRILLA: Public housing, like public schools, improves the quality of large numbers of our citizens, and so serve the general welfare. Public housing demands sunlight for every room, proper ventilation, open spaces - new standards which cost nothing but require new methods of design. Public housing is, therefore, in the best American tradition. Every dedication in the United States of a public low-rent housing project is a rededication of our democracy to the principle that all men are created equal.


GRIFFITH: On the day the cornerstone was laid for the South Jamaica Houses, a local church choir came out to sing "How Did You Feel When You Come Out The wilderness?"


SELAH JUBILEE SINGERS: (Singing) Tell me, how did you feel when you come out the wilderness, come out the wilderness, come out the wilderness? How did you feel when you come out the wilderness leanin' on the lord? Leanin', leanin'. Well, well, well, well, well, well, well.

GRIFFITH: The South Jamaica Houses, better known as the 40 Houses, were not just a boon to the neighborhood. They were also groundbreaking for New York City's public housing. Before this, the Housing Authority had clearly built separate projects for white people and for Black people. South Jamaica was different.

FREEDMAN: When they opened in 1940, the South Jamaica Houses were the first integrated public housing in New York City - 70% Black and 30% white. And the press took notice. Here's a sample of some of the coverage at the time.


GRIFFITH: As a living example of the workings of true democracy, South Jamaica Housing Project daily proves the theory - interracial housing will work. Contrary to many beliefs, there is no friction between the 1,500 tenants of this immense project.

FREEDMAN: In a humble way, and probably without giving it a thought, the people of South Jamaica Houses seem to be proving that people of different races and diverse nationalities can share the intimate life of a small community.

GRIFFITH: South Jamaica is a cross-section of tomorrow's America - the America we would like to see, even in the far reaches of the South.


FREEDMAN: But the 40 Houses wouldn't stay integrated for very long. And when the South Jamaica Houses started to change, so did South Jamaica.


WEAVER: The neighborhood started changing after the Second World's War.


GRIFFITH: Gladys Weaver was in her 20s when the second Great Migration began. Millions of Black people left the South for the North and West, fleeing Jim Crow and looking for jobs.

FREEDMAN: To accommodate all these new New Yorkers, the New York City Housing Authority went on a building spree. When they announced their plans to expand the South Jamaica Houses, it was widely assumed most of the new tenants would be Black or Puerto Rican. And some people saw their chance to make a buck. Gladys watched it happen.


WEAVER: The real estate people - I remember, they would go around and stick notices in your door and say to the people, the neighborhood is changing, and you're going to have a lot of Black people moving in your neighborhood. But we will give you so much for your house - because they will be courting your daughters, your sons, and so - but you want to sell your house, we will give you such and such amount. So they begin to move out.

FREEDMAN: What she's describing has a name. It's called blockbusting.


WEAVER: Then naturally, they're going to go and con the Black people. And you got - naturally, a lot of people came in to buy a house, couldn't afford to buy a house. And not only that, they overcharged the Black people for the house. The house wasn't worth what they paid for it, but they didn't know that. And you got a lot of rundown property, foreclosed and so forth and so on. So that's when the change came.


GRIFFITH: By one estimate, the Black population of South Jamaica more than doubled over the course of the '50s and '60s. This is when South Jamaica went from having a Black community within it to being a Black community. This is when the south side truly became the south side. All over New York, mass migrations into and out of the city were making neighborhoods and schools more and more deeply segregated. There were meager attempts at school integration here and there. But in the face of the scale of population change, it was like trying to put out a forest fire with a water gun.

FREEDMAN: Just to give an example, in 1960, Black parents in South Jamaica fought for a new junior high school to be built in what they called a fringe area, where it would take in Black students from South Jamaica and white students from Jamaica proper. In the end, that school was built deep in the south side. Then the Board of Education tried to pair this new school with a white school. Black and white students would go together to one building for one grade, then the other building for the next. White parents staged a boycott, and this plan was canceled.


GRIFFITH: By this point, white flight out of South Jamaica was basically complete. But thousands of white families were about to move in the opposite direction - into South Jamaica, into the largest racially integrated housing co-op in the United States, Rochdale Village.

JONES: The whole idea of a place like Rochdale - it's impossible to imagine it happening either 10 years before or 10 years after. It was sort of a remarkable thing.

GRIFFITH: After the break.


GRIFFITH: If you want to know what integration in South Jamaica could mean for Black people, have a conversation with Cal Jones.

JONES: What integration was about wasn't just living with other than Blacks, but it was about improving one's environment. That's what integration helped do because we were fully aware, if you lived in an all-Black community - we know 'cause we lived, prior to coming to Rochdale, in an all-Black community. And we knew that the schools weren't as good.

GRIFFITH: Cal Jones is 93 years old. He was born and raised during the Great Depression.

JONES: My father was not a formally educated man, so he had trouble finding a job, especially during the Depression 'cause there were very few jobs anyway. So we were always - I lived all over New York, just one step ahead of dispossess.

GRIFFITH: Living that way, watching his father, he learned a few things.

JONES: When you're poor and Black, in order to make it out the poverty, you have to be aggressive. You have to reach out. You know, you can't afford to sit back, or that's where you'll stay.

GRIFFITH: When Cal got married, he and his wife lived in Harlem.

JONES: And right across the street was, like, a beautiful school, right - literally across the street. Said, hey, got it made. But then as we started checking - and my wife, Delores (ph), used to always check the reading scores in the papers that would come in The Times and you know.

GRIFFITH: Turns out, the reading scores for that beautiful school across the street were low. So they started looking for other options.

JONES: 'Cause I recognized the importance of not having an education through how my father - what he went through in trying to earn a livelihood. So any children of mine - I got a responsibility to see that they get a good education.

GRIFFITH: The city was running small-scale integration programs. Some children got the opportunity to leave their neighborhoods to attend schools that were whiter and better-resourced. The shorthand for this was bussing. But Cal was very aware that certain white communities didn't want Black kids coming in, and they would make that known.

JONES: If you talk about bussing, hey, that may not be just a walk in the park.

GRIFFITH: So the other option was to move to a neighborhood with better schools.

FREEDMAN: Cal worked for the city of New York as an auditor for big construction projects.

JONES: So I knew about housing and what was going on.

FREEDMAN: That's how he heard about a new development in South Jamaica, Queens, called Rochdale Village. Rochdale was going to be the largest housing co-op in the United States at the time - almost 6,000 apartments, roughly 25,000 people. And it was planned to be integrated.

JONES: When Rochdale was being built, I asked my wife, hey, you think you want to go all the way out there? 'Cause that was way out. I mean, that was 15 minutes - I worked in the muni building, OK? I was, like, 15 to 20 minutes from work. Rochdale was an hour and a half each way and two bus fares. But I mean, that's the commitment that we made for a good education for our kids.


EISENSTADT: The whole idea of a place like Rochdale, of thousands of families - white families moving into the middle of a Black neighborhood, which took place in the early '60s - it's impossible to imagine it happening either 10 years before or 10 years after. It was sort of a remarkable thing.

FREEDMAN: Peter Eisenstadt is a professor of urban history and African American history. He also grew up in Rochdale Village and he wrote a book about Rochdale, calling it "New York City's Great Experiment In Integrated Housing."

EISENSTADT: Everything about Rochdale was intentional.

FREEDMAN: Rochdale was built by the United Housing Foundation, led by a man named Abraham Kazan. Both Kazan and his organization were products of the Jewish Labor Movement.

EISENSTADT: He was an anarchist - an anarchist for trying to create a new world right now by building co-operative institutions where it's owned by the people.

FREEDMAN: The United Housing Foundation did not discriminate based on race, religion or ideology, unlike many of the biggest private developers in New York City at the time. But the UHF usually didn't do much advertising to fill their co-ops. They relied on word-of-mouth. So the residents shared a certain profile.

EISENSTADT: The people living there tended to be Jews - often left-wing Jews, Jews associated with the labor movement.

FREEDMAN: Which meant that policy or no policy, the co-ops were mostly white.

GRIFFITH: But by the early '60s, the UHF was sensitive to criticism and eager to prove that their co-ops could be more inclusive. And they were about to get that chance when they acquired a piece of land in one of the Blackest neighborhoods in New York.

EISENSTADT: Rochdale was built on the grounds of the former Jamaica racetrack. It was a 170-acre site. It was in the middle of South Jamaica.

GRIFFITH: Simply because they were building in South Jamaica, the leaders of the UHF assumed most of the initial residents of Rochdale Village would be Black. And they expected it would be difficult to attract white families.

FREEDMAN: In fact, it was the opposite. Working-class Jewish families like Peter's were eager to move to Rochdale.

EISENSTADT: It was cheap. It was an additional bedroom. Because I was the oldest, I got my own bedroom. My two younger brothers had to share a bedroom. They had central air conditioning, which was a luxury for this type of apartment.

GRIFFITH: But a lot of Black families in the area were not feeling it.

EISENSTADT: Their first thought was, it's a housing project, and we don't want a housing project in our neighborhood, that it'll just bring the neighborhood down.


GRIFFITH: Remember, in the 1930s, Black residents of South Jamaica asked for public housing. But by the '50s, the public image of the projects had changed. When more low-rent housing was proposed for the south side, Black homeowners complained and tried to stop it.

FREEDMAN: Rochdale Village was not public housing. Rochdalers were not renters. They were owners. To live there, you had to have enough money to buy into the co-op.

GRIFFITH: But from the outside, Rochdale looked just like any other enormous, anonymous public housing project. In fact, when I was a kid growing up nearby, I thought that's exactly what it was.

FREEDMAN: Rochdale is massive - 20 buildings, 14 stories each. The apartments were nice on the inside, but the outside was utilitarian.

GRIFFITH: So it was a tough sell to Black folks in South Jamaica.

EISENSTADT: There were ads in Black newspapers. There were meetings in Black neighborhoods. They tried to get Blacks to come.

GRIFFITH: Ultimately, when the first residents moved into Rochdale, it was something like 80% white, 20% Black.

EISENSTADT: And that might seem lopsided. But compared to almost any other housing development in the city, they had a remarkable degree of integration.

FREEDMAN: As part of the Rochdale Village development, the city had pledged to build two new elementary schools and a new middle school. When Cal Jones decided to move from Harlem to Rochdale, he had his eye on those schools.

JONES: The United Housing Foundation was building it, and it was going to be 85%, if not more, Jewish. And me being a New Yorker - I'm familiar with the different communities in New York, OK? And most Jewish communities had good schools. So that's the rep that the Jewish community had in the Black community for those who were concerned about education, OK (laughter)? And it was pretty accurate.

FREEDMAN: Just out of curiosity, what did you - or what do you chalk up to - you know, when you say Jewish communities have good schools, why is that?

JONES: Well, you probably could answer that better than I could. But here's my thoughts on it. It's because the Jewish community had far more power in New York than the Black community.

FREEDMAN: And pretty quickly, he was proved right - actually, even before Rochdale opened its doors.


HERB PLEVER: If you think about it, if you think about the people power, it's - you know, in the right circumstances, I don't know that that's ever been done before.

EISENSTADT: (Inaudible).

H PLEVER: You're getting three school buildings and a library within (inaudible) of a couple years when there was nothing.

EISENSTADT: It's amazing.

FREEDMAN: Before moving to Rochdale, Herb Plever had been living with his family in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where the first season of this show was based. In the early '60s, Bed-Stuy was a hub of interracial activism around education. Herb and his wife, Sylvia, were a part of that scene. When they decided to move to Rochdale, they brought their politics with them. This tape comes from an interview that Herb and Sylvia did with Peter Eisenstadt in 2004. The quality's not great. Sorry about that.


SYLVIA PLEVER: It was a new beginning. And it was also, you know, an integrated kind of community...

EISENSTADT: A genesis.

S PLEVER: ...And school system and all that (ph).

EISENSTADT: Is that important, do you think, being in this (ph) community?

S PLEVER: Yes. Yes. It's something we always really wanted.

FREEDMAN: But they wanted to make sure that Rochdale would deliver on its promises, specifically those new schools.


H PLEVER: And then I got very edgy and suspicious because I - 'cause we took a ride out here. And we didn't see any signs that there was going to be any school construction that we could see.

FREEDMAN: Herb checked with the board of ed and the city planning commission and discovered just how far behind the school construction process was.


H PLEVER: That - nevermind the building, but there wasn't even money that was allocated for plans for schools. So in other words, it was, like, not even in the beginning of the school process. And here we were going to be moving in in a fairly short time.

FREEDMAN: Herb and Sylvia Plever organized their new neighbors to get what they were promised. They threatened to go to the press, sent letters to politicians, called the board of ed so often their switchboard was tied up for a couple of days. Finally, the board of ed took action and moved Rochdale's schools to the top of their priority list.

GRIFFITH: For Herb, it was a big win. For some of his neighbors - they felt some type of way.


H PLEVER: There was - you know, among some Blacks who we got to be friends with...

S PLEVER: Oh, yeah. For a while there...

H PLEVER: ...A resentment that, you know, they couldn't get schools to save their life. And we came in here...

S PLEVER: They didn't trust us.

H PLEVER: ...They didn't realize what it took...

S PLEVER: They didn't trust us.

H PLEVER: ...For us to get those schools. It wasn't a matter of our white power. It was a matter of our political muscle that did it.

GRIFFITH: I understand the sentiment, but it's a little naive. What's invisible to Herb is the amount of political muscle that comes with being white and middle class and taking your power for granted.


EISENSTADT: I think there was a lot of pride in Rochdale in the beginning about the sort of community it was. And I think people - both, you know, whites and Blacks - were proud that this was a place where natural integration, as they called it - unforced integration was taking place.

JONES: Rochdale had 132 organizations. Do you hear me? They had an organization for every and anything you could imagine. It was a fabulous community. All of us belonged to everything. So everyone was wearing three and four hats. So anything that you wanted to do or wanted to find out about, you could join. So I jumped in head first.

GRIFFITH: Cal himself was one of the founders of the Rochdale Village Negro Cultural Society, later, the Rochdale Black Society.

JONES: Which, incidentally, was not limited to Blacks, OK? So we had a lot of Jews in our organization. Now, these people were cosmopolitan. You know, they came because of the diversity in the community. They wanted their children to know what real people were like. And nearly everybody had that attitude.

GRIFFITH: But Herb and Sylvia Plever were concerned that many of their fellow white Rochdalers were not actually all that committed to integration, at least when it came to schools.

FREEDMAN: The new schools that were built in Rochdale were not only for kids from Rochdale. They were supposed to serve children from the surrounding neighborhood as well. But the Plevers knew that having all these kids in the same building was not the same as being integrated. The schools would be internally segregated if students were split into different tracks according to their perceived academic ability. And many white parents wanted tracking.


S PLEVER: A lot of them came in with the idea that their kids were bright. They wanted to have the bright classes - you know, the advanced...

H PLEVER: Usual.

S PLEVER: ...Classes, the usual kind of stuff. And we were afraid that immediately, there would be, you know, white classes, Black classes - like, typical...

H PLEVER: So we wanted to try some experimenting. And we actually got a $50,000 grant.

FREEDMAN: This experiment really caught my eye when I first read about it in Peter's book. I was amazed by what Herb and Sylvia and their friends were talking about back in the mid-'60s because it sounds just like what advocates are still calling for today. Some of the language is different, but the ideas are the same - mixed-ability classrooms, culturally responsive education, collaboration between schools and parents. They believed Rochdale could provide an example for the entire city.


H PLEVER: We thought we were going to, you know, start a real - a new schooling experiment.

S PLEVER: Thought (laughter).

H PLEVER: But all of a sudden, the news went around so that the whites in Rochdale were told that they...

S PLEVER: They're a mental asylum (ph).

H PLEVER: ...They're going to ruin, you know, your kids' education. And the Blacks were told that, you know, they're - who knows what they're going to do to your kids, you know? So there was...

S PLEVER: And the teachers - a lot of teachers wouldn't go.

H PLEVER: ...All kinds of terrible rumors. And who was at - at the center of all this were the teachers and the teachers union, who were totally opposed to it because it involved parent involvement in the education process.

FREEDMAN: When they tried to run an institute for teachers, not a single one would attend. So that was that. The experiment died, and the schools were tracked.

EISENSTADT: Blacks and whites had, you know, gotten along fairly well. Well, that may be coming to a deep understanding of what integration meant. Blacks and Jews were sort of nervous about each other. They worked together for a while. There was, I think, a lot of enthusiasm about integration in Rochdale through about '67. And then in '68, it started to fall apart.

GRIFFITH: A citywide teacher strike divides friends and neighbors and changes Rochdale forever - after the break.

JONES: I remember - I think it was in the summer of '68 - reading in The New York Times that the only real new experiment in education is happening in New York in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.


AVERY YOUNG: One, two, three, go. Hey.

GRIFFITH: In the last season of this podcast, we spent two full episodes on this experiment in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn, and the citywide teacher strike which brought that experiment to an end. I encourage you to go back and listen, but here's what you need to know. Black and Puerto Rican parents in Ocean Hill-Brownsville tried to exert community control over their schools.

DOLORES TORRES: The plan for community control was get people on the local school board that represented these kids and would represent us.

RHODY MCCOY: Everybody in that community began to play a role in the schools. The school became the focal point of the community.

GRIFFITH: But this experiment threatened the power of the teachers union. So to stop it, the union went on strike citywide in the fall of 1968, shutting down schools across New York City for seven weeks.

FREEDMAN: To many supporters of community control, the strike looked like an attack on Black and Puerto Rican families by the union. But the union said teachers were the ones under attack, and most of the city's teachers at the time were Jewish.


AL SHANKER: Is this a district that's going to run on the basis of prejudice and discrimination?


IRVING LEVINE: Is it true that the school decentralization fight in New York City is really a fight between Black Power and Jewish power?


WILLIAM BOOTH: Have we come to that point of a race war?

FREEDMAN: So the strike was difficult in every corner of the city, but especially painful in Rochdale because Rochdale was one of the only places where you had Black people living side by side with Jews - Jews who were deeply tied to the labor movement.

GRIFFITH: In Rochdale, some teachers who supported community control worked together with Black parents to keep their schools open in defiance of the strike. Cal Jones was one of those parents. He took off work for a couple of weeks to help run his kids' elementary school. Cal understood why most of his neighbors were standing with the union, but he still felt betrayed.

JONES: We had some pretty down union people. They knew what was going on. That's what made it bad. It was a very enlightened group of people living in Rochdale. Whether they did one thing or another wasn't due to ignorance. Maybe they felt too weak. I know some people said, hey, man, I can't fight it - you know, that was a lot of pressure.

EISENSTADT: But the thing about the strike - it was like, which side are you on? You couldn't be in the middle.


H PLEVER: And we were in a bind.

FREEDMAN: Herb Plever, like a lot of white Rochdalers, was steeped in the world of organized labor.


H PLEVER: We were in a bind about how to handle - where are we with the respect to the Black community, and where are we with respect to the teachers union? It was a problem (ph).

FREEDMAN: Ultimately, Herb and Sylvia chose to stand with their Black neighbors.


H PLEVER: And we opened the schools.

EISENSTADT: And you kept the schools...


EISENSTADT: (Inaudible). Yeah.

H PLEVER: It was terrible.


H PLEVER: It was terrible that you could participate in a - you know, in a - what, at least on the face of it, looked like an anti-union act. There were friends of ours who wouldn't talk to us.

EISENSTADT: It was like a cleaver. It just divided people.


EISENSTADT: You know, neighbors saw neighbors who had been working closely together on different sides of the picket lines.

JONES: The kids were going to school, and the union had gotten the neighbors who were union members - teachers - to line up outside of school. Now, it was a path. You had, like, grass and trees on each side and a path leading to PS 80 from Rochdale. And the picket lines were lined up all along - right in front of the entrance and right where the kids would walk into school. You know, the kids were scared. It's not like they didn't know the kids. The kids - oh, there's Mr. So-and-So, you know? You know, it was ugly. I knew the community was gone. You could never be on a picket line against kids. It's an ugly thing. And it's hard. It still hurts. But I knew after that, no more Rochdale.


EISENSTADT: After the strike, talk about integration just sort of died, you know? Whatever sort of tenuous building of bridges there had been before - they were largely severed because of the strike. And in a place like IS 72, the intermediate school, it completely split the faculty in half. It just became incredibly nasty and vicious.

GRIFFITH: Teachers didn't speak to each other for months. Everybody remembered who was in, who was out, who said what. And that had an effect on the kids. Peter Eisenstadt was in high school by this point, but his younger brothers were at IS 72.

EISENSTADT: The school spun out of control, you know? My brothers would come home and say they were pushed down the stairs, and they were attacked with pins, and everybody learned to hold their bladders from, like, 8:30 in the morning till 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Universally, it was just seen as a dreadful school. And I really do think the deterioration of IS 72 led to white people leaving in large numbers. And Black people left as well. But almost all of the people moving into the apartments were African American.

FREEDMAN: It wasn't just the schools. Crime was going up all over the city.

EISENSTADT: There was crime, you know? I don't remember living my life in fear. But like everybody else, you sort of knew where to go, where not to go and what time to do it. And you became protective and wary.

FREEDMAN: Many of the organizations in Rochdale faded away. The politics of the co-op got ugly and frustrating.

EISENSTADT: And at some point, these things begin to snowball. People who wanted to stay just felt the community was deteriorating with more and more people moving out.

FREEDMAN: Herb and Sylvia Plever never left Rochdale. They liked their apartment. They liked their neighbors. The price was right. They were comfortable. But they were the exception. By 1973, when Peter's family moved out, they were already one of the last white families left in their building.

JONES: Most of the community - old community, original community - was gone in four years, five years, you know?

GRIFFITH: Ten years after opening, Rochdale had already gone from 20% to 50% Black. Five years later, in 1979, it was 85%. Cal didn't know exactly when Rochdale became majority Black, but he could feel the consequences. The pain wasn't just about his friends leaving, but the power that went with them.

JONES: You could tell because of the attitude of the services that were rendered by the city - fire department, police, garbage always picked up.

GRIFFITH: But after almost all the white people moved out, that changed.

JONES: There was a time when if you said Rochdale, you could get - any politician would break his neck to be there. I was the advance man for Bobby Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy - when he got shot, he was supposed to be coming to Rochdale that Sunday. He got shot that Friday. I mean, you learn what real power is.

GRIFFITH: In the '60s, there had been a plan to extend the subway all the way to Rochdale Village. That never happened.

JONES: So it was evidence that you didn't have the clout.

GRIFFITH: Cal Jones and his wife Delores stayed in Rochdale until 1988. But their kids didn't go to school in Rochdale. After one semester at IS 72, Cal pulled every string he could to get his son and daughter into middle school on the north side of District 28 in Forest Hills.


JONES: God bless both of them. God bless all of this. I moved a hour and a half away from the city, but anyway, it was good.


GRIFFITH: It's hard not to mourn the death of the original Rochdale idea. There are so few legit examples of Black people, other people of color and white folks living and working side by side in schools, civic organizations and different arenas of community life - not holding hands in a colorblind fantasy, but sharing power in fair measure, working through their shit day to day. You don't have to be a sucker to want that.

FREEDMAN: But holding up integration as the ideal can implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, devalue Black communities. The moral of this story is not the white people left, and Rochdale suffered because too many Black people in one place is a problem. The problem, as always, is how difficult it is for Black people to access the power and attention and resources that tend to accrue to white people.

GRIFFITH: South Jamaica is still a vibrant place where people live and raise their families and go to school and continue fighting to get what they deserve. It's a place where many Black people actively choose to live among one another - people like Cedric Dew. He gave us a tour of the neighborhood.

CEDRIC DEW: Basically, I thought we would start on the Southern Boulevard side.


DEW: And Southern Boulevard basically takes us through the area where most of what I call the modest middle class live. These are - this is where - like, when you talk about being in the heart of it all, like, this track right here separates the projects from the houses.

GRIFFITH: Cedric is the executive director of the Jamaica YMCA. He moved here in the '80s and set down roots because this is where he wanted to be.

DEW: I saw Black politicians. I saw people of color, you know, living in their homes. And I didn't mind the projects 'cause I come from the projects. So for me, it was like, OK, this is even better 'cause now I get to buy a house and still be connected to my people. That's what I've always wanted. I've always wanted to live and be connected to the people that I grew up around. And I'm very comfortable here. A lot of people move into a home, and they think they're moving away from. You don't move - when you move into southeast Queens, you move into it all.


FREEDMAN: OK. We said we were going to tell you how the south side became the south side. But south of what? There's no south side without a north side. For every South Jamaica, there's a Forest Hills.

GRIFFITH: In this episode, we saw what happened when white people moved into a Black neighborhood. In the next episode, what happens when you try to move Black people into a white neighborhood.

SID DAVIDOFF: It wasn't the most popular thing to say that we're going to come into your neighborhood, and we're going to let people who don't look like you move in.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We are going to oppose anybody from a remote place dictating how we're going to live, just the same as they did in '76 when we revolted against King George.

JERRY BIRBACH: We pay all the taxes, and we're never heard, and it's about time that the middle-income people of America are truly heard.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: This instigates hate and fear. The people are fearful. Yeah. You can see it all on their faces. They're in fear.


GRIFFITH: School Colors is created, reported and written by me, Mark Winston Griffith, and Max Freedman, produced by Max Freedman with Carly Rubin and Ilana Levinson. Additional reporting by Carly Rubin and Abe Levine.

FREEDMAN: Our editor is Soraya Shockley. Our project managers are Soraya Shockley and Lyndsey McKenna - fact-checking by Carly Rubin, engineering by James Willetts, additional Research by Anna Kushner.

GRIFFITH: Original Music by Avery R. Young & De Deacon Board - additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was recorded at Seaplane Armada.

FREEDMAN: The voice of Samuel B. Cisco was played by Omari McCleary. The interview with Gladys Weaver was conducted for the Queen's Memory Project by Barbara DeYoung-Ezell and Marguerite Luizzo. Special thanks to Manny Martinez, Janet and Gary Hawkins, Greg Mays, Fred Mayes and Kenneth Toole (ph). We are indebted to the work of historians Carlton Mabee, Nicholas Dagen Bloom and, of course, Peter Eisenstadt.

GRIFFITH: Thank you to Leah Donnella, Steve Drummond and the entire CODE SWITCH team. Thank you to our executive producer Yolanda Sangweni and NPR's senior vice president of programming, Anya Grundmann.

FREEDMAN: Season 2 of School Colors was made possible by NPR, the Spencer Fellowship in Education Reporting at Columbia University and by the Brooklyn Movement Center.

GRIFFITH: You can listen to the first season of School Colors at or wherever you get your podcasts.

FREEDMAN: Until next time.



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