Wednesday, June 28, 2017

William H. Holmes & the Mt. Vernon Schools

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

Superintendent Holmes was an 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 G. Stanley Hall, a pioneer in the field of developmental psychology whose research on adolescence inspired education reform in the U. S.   

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 Hall and Wundt 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 immodestly agreed.  But the new superintendent would face twentieth-century challenges for which his mentor had not 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 been 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 state 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.

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 have seen far better days.  

See posts November 2, 2015; November 23, 2015; December 21 2015; May 18. 2016.


  1. I love the detail of worrying that the kitchens of working-class children would be "poorly-lit." And the Italian stone masons.
    Are the schools really in shambles now? We were lucky, weren't we? I always thought I got a great education.

  2. Some of Mount Vernon's schools have fallen in disrepair due to financial issues. In a 2011 article by The Journal News, writers Cathey O'Donnell and Gary Stern noted:

    "In Mount Vernon, meanwhile, where a high school wall collapsed last year, inspectors flagged buildings for insufficient smoke detectors, poor air quality, evidence of rodents and vermin, halls without emergency lighting and junction boxes with exposed live wires."[3]
    The school district also came under fire in 2011 when then-superintendent, W. L. Sawyer, blocked charter schools from receiving funding, citing a lack of funds due to budget cuts and a new 2 percent cap on local property-tax increases.


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