Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Frank Munsey of Maine


Frank Munsey
When the publisher Frank Munsey died in 1925, Americans took notice. Rather than grieving, however, most speculated about the disposition of his fortune. A bachelor with no record of philanthropy, Munsey had accumulated wealth since 1894, having trekked from Maine to New York City with $40 in his pocket twelve years earlier. Eventually, Munsey’s investments in real estate and U. S. Steel, along with his consolidation and sale of newspapers and magazines, begat millions. 

The tributes poured forth, from President Coolidge down the line:

“His purpose was high and his efforts never ungenerous.”

“His fame will grow as time passes and those who now hold small animosities join him
Over There.”

“In his death a dynamic, forceful, and enterprising personality is gone.”

Several colleagues wrote that Munsey’s life was inspirational, dramatic and romantic. A few offered examples of his kindness. But the truth was revealed at the funeral service, attended by hundreds at the Cathedral of St. John Divine. Not a eulogy in sight.  

A Munsey Company vice president sent his boss an
embarrassingly sycophantic thank-you for a
Christmas bonus, 1914. 

Amidst the coverage a theme emerged: the life of Frank Munsey was a Horatio Alger story. Horatio Alger, Jr., a nineteenth-century century writer, penned more than 100 books – most famously The Story of Ragged Dick, or, Street Life in New York With the Boot-blacks – in which the heroes were usually destitute young boys, alone in the city, who achieved financial success through luck and determination.

Somehow, more than his self-made contemporaries such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Munsey embodied the boy with a dream.

Born in rural Maine in 1854, Munsey went to work as soon as he could. At the age of 12, he made his way to Augusta, where he got a job as a telegraph clerk. The state’s forests produced paper as well as lumber, and Augusta had become a publishing and shipping center. Here, Munsey developed a consuming interest in newspapers and magazines. At a time when the nation’s literacy rate was rising, he imagined an adventure magazine for boys called Golden Argosy. He asked friends to fund his venture, including the Maine politician James G. Blaine who thrice ran for president. “You will be swallowed up in New York by the sharks in very little while,” Blaine reportedly said.

The story goes that Frank arrived in New York City on a freezing December night. He rented a room and toiled by candlelight year after year, striking out until the 1890s when he found the right formula by transforming the Golden Argosy into the Argosy. Then he started Munsey’s Magazine, which soon turned a profit.

During the next few decades, Munsey launched more magazines with mixed results. And he bought and sold newspapers in New York, Boston, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, bent on creating a monopoly similar to the railroads.
 
The New Republic often editorialized about Munsey. 

His really was a “rags to riches” tale. No wonder that Editor and Publisher, the preeminent trade journal of the day, ran this rambling headline:


YANKEE LAD’S GRIM CLIMB UP GOLDEN LADDER
Frank Munsey’s Boy Dream of Power and Wealth Came True – Indomitable Will Triumphed over Countless Obstacles – Fortune Estimated at $40,000,000 – His Amazing Adventures with Magazines and Newspapers in Five Cities

Historians have long debated the Alger mythology. Was it propaganda or a narrative that mediated between the agricultural economy and industrialism? Or was it authentic?

However you slice it, the Alger heroes were distinguished by earnestness and sweetness. It doubtful that Frank Munsey, beset with ruthless ambition, ever possessed either characteristic.

 During the last decade of his life,
Frank Munsey lived at the Ritz-Carlton.

In early 1926, the public learned what was in Munsey’s will. The publisher left bequests to several longtime employees. He generously remembered his sister as well as a woman he knew as Annie Downes, who had spurned his marriage proposal years earlier in Maine. And, in a grand gesture, he left the rest of his estate – estimated at $40 million – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Many a head was scratched upon learning that Munsey had become a major benefactor of the art world. Not only had he never evinced an appreciation of paintings, drawings, and sculpture, but in 1921 he had turned down a nomination to become a member of the museum corporation.  That was less than five months before Munsey executed his last will. 
             
It’s hard to figure how Frank Munsey reached the decision to bestow so much money on the Met. One acquaintance believed Munsey’s lawyer had persuaded his client; others thought the publisher admired the business efficiency of the museum trustees. But I believe that the gift constituted the last bid of a very lonely man for acceptance into New York society.  

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1917.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

*Eventually, part 2 will follow.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

We dine at 9 on steak and wine

Helen Ridder, circa 1940
(Screen shot of newspaper photograph)

Just a party girl, said her stepson’s third wife.  Ply Helen with a streak of Orange Blossom cocktails and she’ll laugh all night. 

She buried her past in the drawer where she kept her diaries. Born in St. Louis in 1885, one of seven children, Helen Bush was reared largely by her grandmother. During the Panic of 1893, her father disappeared and her mother went off to work as a teacher.

Helen was fortunate to have an enterprising brother, John, who had climbed the ladder at the Brown Shoe Company. By the time the World’s Fair came to St. Louis in 1904, John’s title was junior executive and he cut a deal that would transform the company.  At the fair, he met the newspaper cartoonist R. F. Outcault, creator of two famous characters: the Yellow Kid and Buster Brown.

John Bush persuaded his company to purchase the rights to the Buster Brown character and Buster’s dog, Tige.  Sketched together, they became the emblem of Brown Shoe’s children’s line.  Eventually John became president of the company.

"Buster Brown" cartoon character before he and his dog,
Tige, became the Brown Shoe Company trademark.

Meanwhile, Helen was just dyin’ out there in St. Louis. Fortunately, through her brother she met a widower with two children: H. Sherman Howes, president of the Howes Leather Company in Boston. They married around 1915.   

Soon enough, Helen became restless.  With the Great War over, she divorced Mr. Howes and sailed off on a cruise ship to Bermuda. On board she met William Leonard Shearer of Boston, also a widower.  Within a year they married. 

As president of a furniture company founded by his father in 1835, Mr. Shearer ran a big showroom and a factory.  He owned a large stone house on Bay State Road, which ran along the Charles River.  He and Helen lolled about on his yacht, The Paprika.  When things got dull, they traveled to Europe.

Passport photographs, William and Helen Shearer, early 1920s
(Ancestry.com)

But the twenties were drawing to a close.  Time to move on.

Helen’s third husband, the newspaper tycoon Bernard H. Ridder, fell in love with her at the Lake Placid Inn in upstate New York while his wife was traveling abroad during the summer of 1929.  As fast as he could, Ridder installed Helen in a Manhattan hotel.  Subsequently, Helen divorced Shearer on grounds of incompatibility and went to Reno to marry Ridder.

In this late nineteenth-century stereopticon card of Manhattan's "Newspaper Row,"
 the offices of the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung, appear at left. The Ridder family purchased
the paper -- one of the nation's first German language weeklies -- in 1900. 
It became the foundation of the Knight-Ridder chain.

Helen stayed nearly a decade with Mr. Ridder, who had been married twice before himself.  But in 1939 she socked him with a divorce suit citing cruelty.  In court, Ridder claimed that he owed Helen nothing because she had carried on an affair with a man named Neil English.  What evidence did Ridder bring forth?  It was Helen’s diary, snuck from her dresser drawer.

 “The diary’s presence in court,” one reporter noted,

once more brings up the dark mystery of why women, especially those who are skating on the thinnest legal ice, persist in setting down the secret archives of the heart, knowing they may be used against them in court.

The diary excerpts that Ridder’s lawyer read in court relate to an automobile journey taken by Helen, Neil English, and a chaperone of some sort named Mary Harris.  As the three headed toward the Adirondacks, Helen wrote:

How cold! Very cold. What is Neil saying about the warmth of Havana? We try to comfort him. The invigorating mountain air will do him good but he is cold and cross and wishing he were in Havana.  That does not sound like a bold Lothario running away with another man’s wife. . .

 The group moved on to Saranac, where a cabin awaited.

What an adorable little cottage with a well-equipped kitchen to mix our beloved orange blossoms.  It is all breaktaking.  We dine at 9 on steak and wine and so grow warmer and a little kinder. . . Later we discover dancing in the casino where Neil and I entertain with a sensational rhumba.

Broadway, the main street in Saranac, 1930s

Back to the trial. . . .

Eventually Neil took the stand dressed in a blue pin-striped suit, blue shirt, and “a tasteful tie of many colors,” according to a reporter.  Turned out he was 20 years younger than Helen Ridder, and a jewelry salesman to boot.  One might guess where the two met.

The judge granted Helen a legal separation and an annual allowance of $6,000. After the trial ended in 1940, Helen lodged briefly at a residential hotel. But she ended up in a Park Avenue apartment, which perhaps was her goal all along.

"Encore les Orange Blossoms!" as Helen liked to say.

Two recipes for Orange Blossom Cocktail,
pre-Prohibition at the top. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

An Object of Terror to All Beholders

Klan costume for "Great Titan"
in Catalogue of Official Robes and Banners 
(published by Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, 1925)

Several years ago while living in Atlanta, I went behind the scenes at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center.  The National Historic Site includes the Ebenezer Baptist Church and King’s boyhood home.  Among various artifacts in the archive: a robe and hood that once belonged to a member of the KKK.  Just glancing at the garments felt chilling.  But the real shock came when I noticed that there were labels attached them. 

During the 19th century, the robes and hoods worn by Klansmen were sewn at home by loving wives and mothers.  But by 1915 when the Klan resurgence started, they would have been manufactured in a factory.  And the people who assembled them surely included black workers.

Around the same time, many Confederate statues were constructed in Northern factories, ironically, because industry below the Mason-Dixon Line remained decimated.  These statues, like the Klan robes, would have embodied the labor of black men.

On one hand, a job is just a job. On the other hand, a job may demand the creation of objects that sear one’s body and soul. 


Klan banner featured in Catalogue of Official Robes and Banners 
(published by Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, 1925)

Historians have identified several reasons for the Klan’s second coming after World War I.  They include the influx of European immigrants, which began even before the Civil War and accelerated during the 1890s; it would soon be stemmed by the 1924 Immigration Act.  Prohibition and its enforcement – which the Klan favored – further united members.  And the fact that black soldiers who fought overseas now demanded respect and equality back home also enraged whites who joined the Klan in droves.

By 1920, the organization reached well beyond the South.  At this time, the garments worn by its members became standardized.  Various colors and insignias reflected a complex hierarchy.  But the point of the costume remained clear. In the words of a Klan enthusiast: the wearer is an object of terror to all beholders.

In 1921, a former KKK member named Henry Peck Fry wrote an expose of the organization which was published as a series in the New York World and picked up by numerous other papers nationwide including, remarkably, the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He wrote:

The organization does not “sell’ robes to members; it merely rents them. The price charged a member for a robe is $6.50, while the Kleagle* must pay $12 as his robe has more trimming. Made in large quantities, there ought to be a profit of at least $5 per garment, although I believe a New York garment maker could show a larger profit than that. . . The present output is about 600 robes per day.

600 KLAN ROBES PER DAY!?

The World articles prompted the U. S. House of Representatives to open hearings on the Ku Klux Klan in October 1921. Unsurprisingly, the hearings led nowhere. This was a year before Southern Democrats defeated an anti-lynching bill that had been proposed repeatedly by Republicans since the early 1900s.


Statement of Honorable Peter F. Tague,
U. S. Representative, Massachusetts;

Hearings on the KKK, 1921

In the meantime, Klan activities continued to roil the American landscape from California to Indiana to Georgia.  While the group achieved power through intimidation and violence, its expansion relied largely on its deft insinuation into the culture of small communities.  The Kiddie Klan and Women of the Ku Klux Klan were important auxiliaries, as the Klan presided over school and church events as well as local celebrations.**  

In 1925 when 30,000 Klansmen marched in Washington, D.C., the group had four million members.   

Waving American flags as they moved along Pennsylvania Avenue, the men cast back their hoods and boldly exposed their faces.

And that’s just about where we are right now.


Imperial Wizard Hiram W. Evans;
Klan March, Washington, D.C., 1925


*Kleagles are Klan officers who focus on recruitment of new members.
**There is an excellent book about this aspect of the KKK: Women of the Klan by Kathleen Blee (1991). 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Prints


The first print of the Stuyvesant Pear Tree
(New-York Historical Society)

In 1867 an old pear tree, planted 200 years earlier by a Dutch settler on a Manhattan street corner, met its demise. The tree had been decaying for some time but a collision between two carriages killed it with one blow. More than a few New Yorkers grieved. The loss of the tree became yet another reminder that vestiges of the nation’s Colonial Era were slipping away.  

The most valuable image of the Stuyvesant tree, a lithograph, had been created for the 1861 edition of a long, boring book called the Manual of the Corporation for the City of New York. These manuals contained statistics, rules, minutes, and endless lists of city officials and buildings, livened slightly with maps and pictures. A clerk named Valentine published the books annually between 1842 and 1866.

About 50 years after the last volume was issued, a Scottish immigrant, Henry Collins Brown, decided to revive the Valentine’s Manuals, as they were known. He would change the formula with lots of color illustrations and folklore. He thought he saw an opening: while guidebooks and memoirs of Old New York were readily available, few combined information with local history in an entertaining way.

Between 1916 and 1928, Brown produced eight new manuals. Alas, while the New York Times took notice, the books did not sell.

First edition of the revived Valentine's Manual,
published by Henry Collins Brown in 1917.

Brown's endeavor remains interesting for one reason: The Prints. These were copperplate engravings and lithographs of the city dating back as far as two centuries.

At the time of World War I, most of these “views” belonged to libraries and collectors. Brown scrambled, pleaded, and occasionally dissembled to gain permission to reproduce the images in his manuals.

In order to copy the lithograph of the pear tree, for example – which after all was commissioned by the clerk, Valentine! – Brown had to beg the librarian of the New-York Historical Society, which owned the original.

Currier & Ives hand-colored lithograph, Central Park in Winter
circa 1873

 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Making things worse for Brown, the prints started to surge in value during the late nineteenth century, so they became even less accessible. This is what happened:

In the 1890s, a greater appreciation of American traditions, lore, and art emerged among the general public. Some historians believe it originated at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where millions of Americans visited an old New England farmhouse and viewed American art and furnishings.

The antiques business evolved quickly. Cabinetmakers who were experienced in fixing older pieces leaped to become dealers. And some of those dealers began to comb the New England countryside, knocking on the doors of farmhouses under false pretenses, hoping to be invited in, buying many a rare item for a song.

Reverse painting on glass, this image tops a late 19th century mirror.
It is based on the Currier & Ives print, Home to Thanksgiving.

Inevitably, the Americana obsession encompassed The Prints. The market became highly competitive. Among the most important collectors, the blue-blooded Isaac Newton Phelps-Stokes occasionally bumped heads with Henry Collins Brown as the latter sought permission to use various images.

Phelps-Stokes, who had an epiphany about early American prints while dining at the home of a friend, once wrote:

Can there be anyone so callous, and so lacking in romance, as not to feel a thrill of emotion before such contemporary pictures as Paul Revere’s Landing of the British Troops at Boston in 1768, the inauguration of Washington in the loggia of the old Federal Hall, or the engagement between the Merrimac and the Monitor? 

As interest surged, one saw these headlines more often: 

PRINT BRINGS $1,450
RARE OLD PRINTS SOLD
 RARE OLD PRINTS ARE BRINGING FANCY PRICES
A COLLECTION OF CURRIER & IVES PRINTS TO BE SOLD BY AUCTION THURSDAY EVENING
PRINT COLLECTION SOLD

While many collections were sold, others were donated. For example, Mr. Phelps-Stokes gave his collection to the New York Public Library during the 1920s. Several other major collections were given to museums around this time.*  

Originally, the New York market for prints was centered in downtown Manhattan. The first print dealers were booksellers who opened shops after the Civil War in the area that is now the Financial District. The stores clustered around Nassau, Pine, and Ann Streets and along lower Broadway. They also sold newspapers and stationery.

Over time, some dealers shifted from books to prints. Such was the case with Joseph Sabin, an English immigrant who arrived in 1848. He became a widely recognized expert in rare books and prints.      

Joseph Sabin, born in England in 1821, immigrated
to the U. S. as a teenager. He died in 1881.
(New York Public Library)

In 1912, the New York Times noted:

Since a few men started gathering old maps and views, over forty years ago, the number of collectors has rapidly increased, and things that could be found in the old shops twenty-five years ago or so for $5 or $10 are now quoted in the hundreds. 

Today, the prints march on. In the words of I. N. Phelps-Stokes,

Such pictures make history more vital, life more real; they engender feelings both of pride and humility, and serve alike as an inspiration and a warning. 

In John Singer Sargent's 1897 portrait,
I.N. Phelps-Stokes stands behind his wife Edith.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

*The Pennsylvania Historical Society and the Chicago Historical Society, among historical organizations in American cities, also acquired print collections that tended to be localized.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mrs. Norr, I Presume?



Some of the newspaper reports stated that she wore her wedding finery; others that she was draped in a black silk shawl. She definitely had new shoes. But what a shock to see one end of a length of rubber tubing in her mouth with the other end attached to a gas jet.

Gas was the means by which many a person took his life during the late 19th century, and the graphic details often appeared in big city newspapers.  Most of the time, the stories were about men: “He had suffered losses. . .” or “Recently he had a reversal of fortune. . .” or, as my friend Mark speculates, many suicides were by gay men who couldn’t go on in the closet or faced unrequited love.

Twenty-one year old Olga Norr killed herself in September 1897 because she could not bear to live without her husband, William, who had died one month earlier.

Newspaper Row, located across from City Hall, around 1900;
from left to right: The World Building, the Tribune Building,
and The Times Building (foreground)

A well-known journalist who wrote for the New York Sun and New York World, specializing in baseball and other sporting news, William Norr’s death from typhoid received a paragraph in the papers. But Olga’s lurid story fit better with the sensationalism of the day.

The family told a convoluted tale.

After William’s death, Olga moved in with his mother on St. Mark’s Place. But she refused to give up the couple’s apartment on East Thirteenth Street, and spent every day there caressing an urn that contained William’s ashes. She intimated to her brother-in-law that she would like to join her husband, which alarmed him. However, she also went shopping with her sister-in-law and appeared to be in a jolly mood, so no one worried too much.

They didn’t realize that Olga’s happy manner was related to her plan to join William.

One day, she secretly bought a cemetery plot, said good-bye to everyone and set off for East Thirteenth Street.

When the police busted the door down, they found Olga on the bed with the urn and a bundle of love letters. Forgive me for doing this and bringing disgrace on you all, but I find it impossible to live without Billy, she wrote in a farewell note.

She left instructions for her own body to be cremated and her ashes mixed with those of William. They were buried in a Beaux-Arts columbarium in Queens. It’s not clear what became of the cemetery plot.

After William and Olga were safely in the columbarium, the mother decided to speak to a reporter from the New York Journal.

It turned out that after William’s death, Olga and her late husband’s family were gathered in the parlor on Thirteenth Street, grieving over his body. The doorbell rang and the mother went to the door. A woman in black stood outside.

“Don’t you know me? I’m Bella, Billy’s wife, and I want to look on his face now that he’s dead.”

The mother shrieked. She wanted only to protect Olga from this horrible woman.

“Oh Bella. Please go away. We thought you were dead. I never harmed you!”

During the encounter, Olga caught sight of Bella in the hallway. “Who is that dreadful creature?” she screamed. “What right has she to look upon his face?”

Olga seized a pistol from her wardrobe and brandished it. The brothers-in-law took it away from her but left it in the apartment. Not too smart.

That afternoon, Olga tried to fling herself off the roof.

So what was the story with Bella? The mother confided that when Billy was younger he took up with Bella, an unsavory person. He wished to bring her home to live with the family. The mother refused, but Billy had a persuasive way about him. Ultimately, Bella lived in her house for about one year. Finally, the mother said they had to go.

Years later, she read that Bella had committed suicide using belladonna. William’s mother assumed finality. After a time, William introduced Olga as his wife, and the family loved her.  
Now here is Bella Norr, knocking at the door. She told a reporter:

I did not know of his whereabouts until I read of his death in the paper. I did not know there was another wife until I read of this person in the paper. I went to the house to make my claim that I am his wife and want any property he may have had.

When the reporter told Bella Norr that her appearance may have been the cause of Olga Norr’s suicide, she laughed and said, ‘Well I’m his wife, and I’m going to let people know it, and if there’s any property it belongs to me.’”

Most assuredly, William Norr left nothing behind.

He had covered baseball at an exciting time. The fans’ interest surged as the Eastern, Western, and National Leagues sparred for dominance.

William Norr also became known for a series of sketches of Chinatown which he wrote for editor Charles Dana of The Sun. Apparently, Dana loved Norr’s stories so much that he urged him to publish a book, Stories of Chinatown: Sketches from Life in the Chinese Colony of Mott, Pell and Doyers Streets.

Pell Street, Chinatown, around 1900

When it appeared in 1892, critics noted that Norr had immersed himself deep in the life of Chinatown in order to write the book. In the introduction, Norr himself suggests that he was a regular opium user.

Bizarrely, one of the stories, “’Round the Opium Lamp,” ends with a woman killing herself with gas after her boyfriend has been sentenced to prison.
  
*For more about Chinatown circa 1890, see these posts: March 8 + January 25, 2017

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Dr. Holmes & the Mt. Vernon Schools

Typical street on Mt. Vernon's North Side;
around 1913 when Dr. Holmes became superintendent

Superintendent Holmes was a serious, intimidating man.  He could appear kindly when he spoke to a circle of children who gathered around him.  However, he preferred to be stern, his gray eyes blinking behind thick spectacles. 

“Come back when you have real experience,” he would tell new graduates of Teachers College when they came knocking on his door.  One applicant recalled a monolithic desk and booming voice.  She scurried away to teach in New Jersey.  Several years later, Holmes hired her.

In 1913, when Dr. Holmes became superintendent of schools in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., he arrived with a newly minted doctorate from Clark University.  He proudly carried his dissertation, The Individual Child, in his back pocket (figuratively speaking).  He had studied under the great G. Stanley Hall, a pioneer in the field of developmental psychology whose research on adolescence inspired education reform movements in the United States.  

And Hall had worked at the University of Leipzig with Wilhelm Wundt, a philosopher and physiologist whose experiments in the social aspects of human thought and behavior launched the field of psychology in 1879.

To say that these men were eminent falls far short of the mark.  More than a century later, all of their ideas have been disputed but their work remains influential.

Dr. Holmes meets with students, 1930s

Given these prestigious connections, the Mt. Vernon board of education considered itself fortunate to have landed Holmes, and he modestly agreed.  But the new superintendent would face twentieth-century challenges for which Colby College and Clark University had not necessarily prepared him.  

Enrollment in the four-square mile city – which had incorporated two decades earlier – was rising rapidly, as was the case in all of the nation’s cities.  Most residents called for more schools but some old-timers did not.  Opposition to high schools had been common during the nineteenth century; those feelings persisted here even as the Mt. Vernon school board commissioned plans to build a new one.    

Further, although Mt. Vernon was technically a suburb, its demographics were more urban than suburban.  Founded and controlled by Protestants, the city had become home to Irish and German immigrants during the 1870s.  Along came enough Jews to support two synagogues.  A small black community, established after the Civil War, grew slowly on the South Side of the city.

Certainly a far cry from the hamlets of Grafton and Upton, Mass., where Holmes had served previously as superintendent.

Finally, there were Italian immigrants, part of the late-nineteenth century wave of European immigration.  They were most detested and exploited by the city’s establishment.  The men found jobs as stone masons, digging the cut for the New York Central Railroad which would bisect the city of Mt. Vernon, much to its detriment later on. 

Italian artisans also created beautiful stone and tile work for the homes of wealthy suburbanites.  And when they got on their feet sufficiently to form their own construction companies, Italian-American contractors always held the winning bids to build new schools.  Among these was Mt. Vernon’s gleaming new academic high school, completed in 1914.

However, when it came time for the children of Italian immigrants to go to high school, most were consigned to Edison Vocational & Technical High School, not the aforementioned college preparatory school. Black students also were directed to Edison.

It was an excellent place to learn a trade but the students were robbed of liberal arts degrees. 

At play: scene in a South Side elementary school, no date

Life would change for Mt. Vernon’s Italian immigrants, however.  Over the course of a generation, the community gained seats on the school board and eventually came to dominate city government.  

Unsurprisingly, the black community remained powerless.  Before the Great Migration, about 1,000 black students attended the public schools.  Yet “the Negro situation” was pronounced enough to draw the attention of the State Commissioner of Education. 

The commissioner and several state senators saw that Holmes had taken his cue from the board of education, which sanctioned inferior facilities in black neighborhoods.  And they wondered why black teachers were employed only in classes where white students constituted a very small minority.

“Many white persons would move from the neighborhood of any Mount Vernon school in which a Negro teacher had a position and realty values would depreciate,” Dr. Holmes told a legislative hearing, according to the New York Times.

“There was a storm of protest from parents when we once assigned a Negro substitute teacher,” said the school board president.

This was the North!

Mt. Vernon never integrated its elementary schools, so how could one have reasonably expected a measure of equity during the twenties and thirties?     

And yet, turning back to Superintendent Holmes, undeniably he gave his best to the schools over which he presided for 27 years.  Nearing retirement in 1940, he decided to write a history of the district. It’s packed with photographs, charts, and self-adulation.

Here are some of the things he accomplished, in line with progressive education initiatives of the time:

              Separated the 7th and 8th grades from elementary school to form what he called the “central grammar school,” a forerunner of the junior high school,

              Introduced the “platoon system,” invented in 1907 by the enterprising superintendent of the Gary, Indiana schools.  Instead of staying in one classroom with one teacher all day long, students moved around for science, art, music, and physical education,

              Established a medical department to check the ears, eyes, chests, and teeth of poor children,



              Created supervised study periods for children who otherwise would do their homework "in poorly lit kitchens" and

              Organized a counseling program to offer students health, educational, social, vocational, and ethical guidance.

Under Holmes, the Mt. Vernon schools gained a fine reputation.  But the superintendent’s heart really lay back in the nineteenth century.  After he retired and returned to his native Maine, he became fixated on a rundown Victorian mansion in Portland.  He and his sister, Clara, bought it and started to restore it.  He died not long after, in 1948.

Today the Victoria Mansion is a flourishing tourist attraction and the Mt. Vernon public schools are in ruins.



*The event occurred at Mt. Vernon's once glorious Memorial Field,. Presently, with its grandstand crumbling and the soil contaminated, there is a raging debate about whether to restore the field.

http://www.throughthehourglass.com/