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An Interview with Historian Ansley Erickson

Interviewed by Dominique Jean-Louis

This week on Gotham we hear from the Harlem Education History Project (HEHP), a multi-platform program at Columbia University that includes a digital collection, exhibits, and the recently published Educating Harlem: A Century of Schooling and Resistance in a Black Community, as well as many other resources for teaching the history of education. Today, Dominique Jean-Louis interviews the Project’s co-director, Ansley T. Erickson, co-editor of the book.

Dominique Jean-Louis: Thanks for talking to us! We’re so excited to get to know more about Educating Harlem and your work on it. My first question is: how did you come to study Harlem? Your first book is on Nashville, Tennessee, so what brought you to this topic?

Ansley Erickson: My interest in Harlem’s history started with me getting a job as a teacher in one of the new small high schools that were popping up in the New York City landscape in the late 90s, early 2000s. I was a teacher in the building that had been JHS 136, on the corner of 135th and Edgecombe, for two years from 2000-2002. I had learned some pieces of Harlem history as a teacher preparing to teach my students, but I didn’t have any systematic study. 

When I came to Teachers College in 2011, I arrived at the same time Ernest Morrell arrived, as the director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education. Ernest asked me what he should read about Harlem’s education history to ground the kind of work he was planning in local schools. I thought it was a great question, and a question that lots of people in education should ask! And then, when I started to tally what books or articles to direct him to, while I could think of several examples of specific studies on community control or integration activism, there was nothing comprehensive. While I’m not claiming that our book is fully comprehensive, there was a sense of absence, and out of that sense of absence came our interest in working together on this project. We knew a good starting point would be to ask scholars who were already working on the history of education in Harlem to come together to contribute to an edited volume. We started talking about submissions for the volume in 2012, and that’s the conversation that ultimately produced the volume.

Looking back on my own experience as a teacher, I was working in a building that was one of three junior high school buildings, which had been the center of a boycott by a group of Harlem mothers. That was called the Harlem Nine Protest, and it produced a really consequential piece of civic action against segregation in the late 1950s. It always struck me that that knowledge, that story, which I did not know when I was teaching there, might have changed what I taught my students, it also might have changed some of how I thought about the community in which I was working, possibly even changed how I thought about connections with parents. I always hoped that this book would be a resource for people who are working with children in Harlem. They should know something about the educational traditions from which those children come, and the rich history of activism, of which they’re a part.

Read entire article at The Gotham Center for New York City History