Welcome to Educating Harlem


Educating Harlem is a collaborative investigation into the history of education in 20th century Harlem. All of the forces that shaped education in the 20th century U.S. ran through Harlem, often in amplified form because of the particular confluence of people, ideas, and institutions in this community. Nonetheless, Harlem remains understudied in the history of education. By investigating the historical forms and meanings of education — in schools and beyond — in Harlem, we hope to offer a rich vision of the place of education in communities and the reciprocal relationships between communities and schools.

Harlem Stories meet QGIS: Some thoughts on new teaching possibiities

I am closing the books on this semester of teaching with a greater-than-average desire to organize, reflect, and tidy up the files. I will be on sabbatical next year, and part of clearing the decks for thinking research and writing full-time is getting my teaching life in order for when I return. A recent two-week-long institute on “Mapping in the Urban Humanities,” offered via Columbia’s Center for Spatial Research, provided a rich opportunity to think about ways to reinvigorate a few courses I teach.

The institute introduced our group of 10 or so faculty and graduate students to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and the spatial analysis that they make possible. Having worked only at the edges of these tools for a while (making maps of school construction and closure in Making the Unequal Metropolis, for example, or guiding students in mapping in Neatline in Educating Harlem-related courses), I had a passing familiarity with GIS. But I lacked a systematic understanding. I especially wanted to think about whether open-source and Mac-friendly QGIS (rather than other less powerful web-mapping tools) would help me and my students move from mapping for illustrative or exploratory purposes to mapping for analysis and argument.

The institute has helped spark a set of ideas about how I can incorporate QGIS into a year-long series of classes I teach called Harlem Stories. These classes bring students in history, social studies, curriculum, and other fields at Teachers College into a collaborative and archival- or oral-history-based investigation of the history of education in Harlem.  I will continue the course’s focus on Harlem’s Wadleigh High School (and subsequently Wadleigh Junior High School) as rich spaces for understanding African American and urban educational history, but emphasize those places where GIS can enhance students’ capacities to raise, explore, and in some cases answer historical questions.

Making and Mapping Data: Numbers from the Archives

One of my goals as a teacher is to help cultivate in my students a critical skepticism about categories – about where they come from, about how they are deployed, about what purposes they serve in various historical moments.

The mapping institute was divided into various sections – Mapping Data (as in putting historical data about population growth and railroad line expansion on a map together, and asking how they relate), and Making Data – as in gathering spatial information from historical maps. My working group partners were willing kindly to explore “making data” that aligns with my course focus on Wadleigh. They helped me think about how my students could work with and learn from the one existing school-level source of data about Wadleigh High School: enrollment figures that the New York Board of Education collected for the 1930s through the 1940s. What work is involved in making this data digital and ready for use in GIS. And how does this work present students with unavoidable challenges in thinking about categories, their origins, and deployment in historical context?

Over a five-week unit in my Harlem Stories course, students will use historical data to answer important questions about Wadleigh’s history. The work will also, I hope foster critical questioning and historical consciousness about “data,” a set of habits crucial in many fields today.

The Board of Education created “nationality cards” for each of its schools from 1931 to 1947. Today these are housed at New York’s Municipal Archives, in the Board of Education Collection. The cards, which claim to represent students by national origin, would quickly disabuse anyone of the idea that “data” is somehow objective because of it comes in numbers. They also challenge any view that categories of identity as natural rather than constantly and variably socially constructed. Depending on which year you are looking at, some nationalities are recognized with fine-grained precision (“Esthonia” or Lithuania), while other large and diverse areas are agglomerated (“Central America,” “West Indies”). The cards divide US-born students into categories of “Negro” or “Colored” and “White.” And with echoes of the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation’s tallying of “infiltration” of black residents, the cards count up various nationalities, but also assign a percentage to the school’s black population. No other group is called out for this special counting that characterized black students, as W.E.B. DuBois would put it, as a problem.

Looking at these cards as a class, we could discuss such issues. But preparing these cards as digital data for use in GIS means making decisions, more fully wrestling with the logic (or illogic) of the numbers as they were gathered. And it means deciding whether to reproduce or challenge that logic in how the data is worked with now as an historical source.

My partners and I built the following learning trajectory for the unit on Making and Mapping Data. First, students will work in small groups to digitize selections of the nationality cards. This means transferring the data from copies of the cards into a tabular form. Students will have to decide seemingly small, but conceptually complex, questions like what to call columns, how to make regular and comparable groups from data that shifts over time. With the data from the nationality cards prepared, we will then think about how the composition of the school relates as documented on the nationality cards relates to the populations at various other local geographic scales: the census tract, the area from which students came to the school, Manhattan as a whole. Doing so requires applying the same critical questions about social and national categories raised by the nationality cards to data that comes from the U.S. Census. (In 1940, for example, the US Census counted “foreign born white family heads.” The many Harlemites and Wadleigh students whose “family head” were “foreign born” – from the Caribbean, predominantly, did not carry the designation of “white.” In these Census tables, they are invisible.

Finally, we will use QGIS to explore the geography of meaning attached to Wadleigh in the midst of a changes in the residential population in upper Manhattan. In 1937, white parents protested for Wadleigh’s closure on is 114th St. location, in a neighborhood “where gentlewomen do not like to pass,” in favor of a new proposed location in (then much whiter) Washington Heights about two and a half miles to the north. Theirs was the most well-publicized of various directly and less directly racialized statements about Wadleigh and its purported suitability for white students. What was the imagined boundary of Wadleigh’s “neighborhood,” and for whom? How does the residential composition of this area compare to other geographies? How does being able to define our own geographic units for analysis help our thinking? QGIS’s various selection and processing tools allow us to work with a geographic area of our definition, to further explore this question and others.

Making and Mapping Data: Oral History

The nationality cards mapping project fits nicely within the fall version of my Harlem Stories course, where we focus intensively on archival research in a selected archival collections.

But our work in Educating Harlem has produced other kinds of data that are also ripe for exploration with the tools of GIS. Students in two semesters of my Harlem Stories classes have completed oral history interviews with former students and former teachers at what was, when they attended, Wadleigh Junior High. We have roughly 25 completed interviews. Space has, inevitably, been a part of our thinking about these interviews. We’ve talked about how our interviewees experiences not only take place in but are shaped by and help define particular spaces in Harlem. Some interviewees have described their pathways through the neighborhood, for example, or their perceptions of how various sections of Harlem related to others. Some interviewers chose to bring maps along to their interviews, and these became important referents in the interview.

Creating digital exhibits about the interviews has provided another opportunity for students to explore the relationship between oral histories and space. Students like Nina Wasserman (completed) and Brittney Lewer (in progress) felt the most effective interface to convey their interviewee’s story was through a map that highlighted the various locations in Harlem that were central in the interview. These efforts are similar to other web-mapping projects focused on oral history (like the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project). 

But it seems that there is much more to do in thinking about oral histories and space. What does it mean to think of an oral history interview as a source of spatial data? What are the various ways we could map an interview – or multiple interviews? What questions can we better answer by using GIS in connection with oral history?

These are the questions I’m starting to think about exploring future iteration of the Harlem Stories courses. Having collected a robust number of oral history interviews, we’re going to focus our energy as a class not on gathering more, but on close interpretation and sense-making for those interviews we have. And GIS can be a part of that.

Tentatively, I plan to spend the first half of the class working with students to listen to, contextualize, and interpret our interviews to date. We’ll then produce indexes for these interviews within the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) plug-in that will be soon available for our Educating Harlem Digital Collection site, as it runs on Omeka. (Janneken Smucker and colleagues have provided a powerful example of the pedagogical benefit of this work).

Once interviews are divided into segments and indexed, we’ll be ready to think about the interviews spatially. Like the unit on the nationality cards above, we’ll spend a lot of time talking about what it means to look for structured data – of multiple types – in an oral history interview. We’ll have to wrestle together to create a systematic approach to the group of interviews we have. How do we structure the spatial data? How do we note the difference, for example, between a recollection that has a highly specified geographic location (in a particular classroom in a particular school, for example) vs. one that is just as spatially resonant but defined with less precision (the edge of the Harlem River). Several important questions about spatial analysis – and how the complexities of human experience are simplified and represented in data – will have to be wrestled with here.

And what does it mean to put this data on a map? An oral history could be imagined, in terms of GIS, as an irregular line, moving from various location to various location over time. But it the order of movement along that line the order in which time passed and the interviewee’s life unfolded? Or is it the order in which that life is recounted in the interview? What do we learn by thinking about (and seeing on a map) these different orders?

And what might we learn by seeing the spatial representations of a bundle of twenty-five interviews on a single map? What do we see about the places that are dense with stories from our interviews, and what do we notice about the geographic distribution of these places? Do we perceive any patterns in the differences between how people structure their stories and how those stories unfolded in time? How does the definition of Wadleigh’s neighborhood that emerges from oral histories with people who were students in the 1960s and 1970s compare to the definition conveyed in other sources, or that emerges in the nationality cards of the 1930s and 1940s?

Working with students will involve drawing on our reading about Harlem’s educational history from secondary literature to inform our selection of research questions, and these will then guide the work with GIS.


I’m old enough to remember the earliest days of personal computing, and the first exploratory introduction of programming into schools. The mantra then, in these early coding spaces, was that the machine could only be as only as smart as the person operating it. This may no longer be true, but it’s a useful maxim to keep in mind as I try to introduce students to GIS – or as we explore any new medium for doing or sharing historical research. Tools like QGIS is powerful, daunting, and full of barriers that might awe students out of their critical faculties. The work will only be as good as the questions we’re asking.

Here, it’s clear to me that the nationality cards lead to questions about how New York City educators and community members perceived their city’s schools, and how these perceptions related to and influenced the social categories they applied to descriptions of students. Oral histories always provoke questions about how people narrate and make sense of their own experience; my hope is that using spatial analysis tools alongside a body of oral histories will help us explore what meanings Harlem residents attached to particular school and non-school spaces. I expect that my students will have yet better questions to bring to these sources and tools.

Do you have experience with or ideas about working with oral histories spatially, or teaching with GIS? Please send me an email [educatingharlem [at] tc.columbia.edu]l. I’d love to learn from other examples.

Many thanks to the team that led the Mapping the Urban Humanities institute: Dare Brawley, Eric Glass, Leah Meisterlin, Grant Wythoff, and to my fellow historian thought-partners at the institue, Adrien Zakar and Jordan Katz.

The Modern School: Hosting a Multigenerational Reunion

Educating Harlem is proud to be sponsoring a day-long event dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of Harlem’s Modern School, in cooperation with the Sugar Hill history organization While We Are Still Here and Barnard’s Harlem Semester.

The day-long event brings together many of the strands of Educating Harlem’s work over the last four years: hearing and documenting the stories of Harlem residents past and present, in conversation with scholarship on the history of education in Harlem, and supported by developing historians and history educators in the Program in History and Education and Harlem Stories classes.


Sharing our work, v1: “Case Study as Common Text”

Early 2016 brought several new opportunities to reflect on and share the work we’ve been doing in Educating Harlem. At conferences large and small, and in print, I’ve enjoyed the chance to set down on paper the ideas that have been developing through more than three years of work on this project. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post artifacts from these presentations.

First, I contributed to a History of Education Quarterly forum on teaching the history of education – more specifically, on how historians of education use case studies in their teaching. This proved a great prompt to take stock of the two Teachers College graduate courses I offer in connection with Educating Harlem (Harlem Stories: Archives and Digital Tools, and Harlem Stories: Oral History and Digital Tools). These are research practica that bring beginner and advanced historians together into a collaborative research endeavor around a common case – the history of education in Harlem.

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 10.19.15 PMWhat is a case study? Isn’t all history a case study of one form or another? What strategies make for effective engagement with case studies in the classroom, for future historians, teachers, and for students in other fields? The nine authors take up these questions from an interesting variety of angles that helped me refine my own thinking about what the Harlem Stories classes are about. You can read all of the pieces here (behind a paywall); mine is here in pre-print format: “Case Study as Common Text: Collaborating In and Broadening the Reach of History of Education.”  (See also Jack Dougherty’s reflection on open review in this forum).

Thanks to HEQ editors Nancy Beadie and Joy Williamson-Lott for the invitation to join the forum.

Call for Papers



We seek to establish a scholarly community focused on investigating the history of education, broadly defined, in 20th century Harlem. We invite proposals for papers to be presented at two conferences at Teachers College. The first conference, October 10-11, 2013, will offer authors an opportunity to present works-in-progress for discussion with fellow contributors and selected senior scholars participating as discussants. Revised and completed papers will be presented at a larger public conference in October 2014.  Most or all of the finalized papers will be published as an edited volume or journal special issue. We welcome submissions from graduate students as well as junior and senior scholars, and from historians as well as those undertaking historical analysis in other social science and humanities fields.