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A brief history of the Conflict at Ocean-Hill Brownsville

Marilyn Jacobs Gittell was especially known for her dedication to school decentralization and her role in the 1968 New York City Teacher Strikes. More than a decade after Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the state of school integration in New York City was failing. Beginning with the Intermediate School 201 in Harlem, was a period of community and union protest. Public School 201 was intended to be racially integrated; however, white families refused to send their children to the school (Berube & Gittell). Black families in turn decided that if it were not integrated, it should not be run by only white teachers and staff and boycotted the first day of school. This boycott was an event which Berube and Gittell described as marking, “the end of the school integration movement” (p.13).

At the heart of the protests were debates about community control and representation and divisions within in the civil rights community, “between those who embraced universal colorblindness and those who wanted color-conscious hiring” (Kahlenberg, p. 114) that matched the racial make-up of the student body. After the struggles at PS 201, the idea of refocusing efforts to integrate schools to hiring people of color and handing over control of schools to the community gained momentum. Gittell explained:

An outgrowth of the civil rights movement, the school-reform campaign and plan in New York City embodied the concept of community control. The community organizations that shaped and initiated the school reform were abandoning a failed school-integration agenda. They had been actively engaged in that struggle from the time of the Brown decision in 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, 1954) and were frustrated by the school system's resistance to change (Rogers 1968). (Gittell, Ecology of Local Games, 1994, pg 145)

In 1967, with the support of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), Ocean-Hill Brownsville in Brooklyn, the Two Bridges Model District in Manhattan (the lower east side) and the IS 201 school in Harlem were approved as demonstration districts. 

However, nearly as quickly as it began, the partnership between the community and the UFT began to crumble.  Tensions spiked over funding and staffing, culminating in two teacher strikes that pitted the unions and mostly white teachers interests against the communities they served. The two strikes: one in 1967 and one in 1968, after 19 teachers were fired, were orchestrated by the UFT.  Click here for a timeline of events that led to the strikes at Ocean Hill-Brownsville, published in Confrontation at Ocean-Hill Brownsville.  The controversy of the strikes eventually led to the abandonment of the project.

Public debates around decentralization

To get a sense of the public constructions/ debates regarding decentralization, see Marilyn's newspaper collection

 The school crisis in New York City made front page copy for every major newspaper in the country for over a month…Ocean Hill-Brownsville became a symbol for black people. . .They identified strongly with what they perceived as an assertion of black independence.  Large segments of the white population, on the other hand, identified with the teachers. . . They resented the militancy of a black community which dared to change long-established precedents.  These polarized responses were themselves a reflection of a fundamental conflict in American urban communities elaborately explored in the Kerner Commission report” (Gittell, Chronicle of Conflict, March 15, 1969)