Authors: Alisa Solomon
What it didn’t have when it opened on September 9, 1963—just two weeks after the historic civil rights March on Washington—was the diversity it was supposed to ensure. Numerous white families in Canarsie and nearby Flatbush had managed to steer their adolescent children into schools south of their border with Brownsville—some even suing the Board of Education on the grounds that the constitutional rights of white kids had been violated because they were denied admission to their old schools on the basis of race. Consequently, far less than the anticipated one-third of the 1,800 kids entering Eiseman that fall were white. The teaching staff of a hundred, meanwhile, reflected the demographics of the citywide system: more than 90 percent were white (and most, Jewish). Throughout the summer of 1963, civil rights leaders across the city had threatened to boycott all the schools if the Board of Education had not come up with a convincing timetable for integration by September 1. At the eleventh hour, the city managed to stave off the boycott by promising results by December. But on the first day at Eiseman, Rubin opened the doors to the incoming classes surrounded by community protesters.
Under Rubin’s leadership, Eiseman (named after a deceased progressive Brooklyn educator) put out a school newspaper, published a literary magazine, fielded a band, maintained an organized athletics program, and, most splashily, produced first-rate choral concerts and plays directed by Piro and designed by Birnel. Rubin firmly believed that kids needed spheres where they could “taste excellence” and that those confidence-building experiences, in which hard work paid off, would encourage them to strive in their academic subjects, too. That philosophy sold Piro on Eiseman when he applied to the New York City system as a music and drama teacher. Principals from other districts who interviewed him were flabbergasted by his choice. Piro had a degree in music education from Boston University and a few years’ experience at schools in his native Massachusetts and in suburban Westchester, and he performed well on the qualifying exams. “With your scores, you could teach in Queens,” they urged him, not needing to spell out the racial and economic implications of their entreaties. But Piro thrived at Eiseman. “We are not martyrs in Brooklyn,” he told colleagues who labored in middle-class neighborhoods and in the suburbs.
Students loved his inventive approach to music class, where they could bring in their own records to share at the end of the lessons. The classroom rocked with the rhythms of Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and the Marvelettes—after the kids learned the assigned material. A chorus of a hundred children prepared Randall Thompson’s setting of Thomas Jefferson texts,
The Testament of Freedom
, and performed it not only in Brownsville but in an unprecedented weekend field trip to the placid New England town of Somerset, Massachusetts (where Piro had once taught)—and the white kids from Somerset made a return visit to Brownsville later. One strong student, Beverly Cannon, had loved the music experiences so much that when her family moved to Richmond Hill, Queens, after she completed sixth grade, she stayed enrolled at Eiseman the two more years (using an aunt’s address in Brownsville as her residence) and gamely made the hourlong commute to school each day, taking two subway trains and two buses. She did it for one reason: “For Mr. Piro.”
Rubin had not managed to staff an entire school with personnel that dedicated and demanding—it was still Brownsville, after all—and many young teachers were just putting in their time before they could move on. Eiseman kids sensed that some of their teachers regarded them as uneducable, incapable, not worth their time, and that made the contrast of Piro all the greater. For a studious girl named Sheila Haskins, Piro’s music room was “the only place you could feel free” in the whole school; small Stephan Hirsch, one of the few Jewish or white kids in the drama class, found refuge there from the racial tensions that governed so much else around school. For the wiry class cutup, Duane McCullers, Piro was the rare teacher who could have fun with students until it was “time to get down to business, and then we
down to business”; to quiet Maritza Figueroa, who had to scrub floors, do the laundry, cook, and babysit her baby brother while her strict mom folded dresses in a clothing factory, he was “a big brother and father figure all wrapped into one and we wanted him to be proud of us.” They all worked hard for Piro—even Teddy Smith, whose gifts were matched only by his recalcitrance. Often, the students surprised themselves with what they achieved.
What would be their challenge in the upcoming 1968–69 academic year, Piro wondered as the
scenery came down and the costumes were stashed away. Piro chewed over some options in the faculty lunchroom.
King and I
, Rubin suggested. Only if the principal could guarantee $3,000 for sets, Piro replied. “I don’t do assembly-type shows with crepe paper costumes and butcher paper scenery,” he reminded Rubin with a haughtiness that was only half in jest. How about
Sound of Music
? Not enough parts for boys.
Man of La Mancha
? Not enough for girls. Bruce Birnel had just seen the all-Black version of
on Broadway, starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway—such a triumph that the
New York Times
’s Clive Barnes suggested, “Maybe Black Power is what some of the other musicals need”—and whimsically floated
Fiddler on the Roof
. Or what about
? Nah, too risky for immature voices. Piro wanted a show that would give Teddy a chance to shine. And one that would be enjoyable and also meaningful for the children after a difficult school year that had begun after a tense summer of inner-city riots around the country and was coming to an end shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. As summer approached, authorities were bracing for more unrest. (Mayor John Lindsay requested some special performances of Broadway show excerpts in city parks and public housing courtyards to help “calm the city’s ghettos” during the summer; Hal Prince responded by offering to provide transportation and some scenes from
Tension was growing around Eiseman, too. In the five years since it had opened, the meager white student population had dwindled even further, and while the courts had upheld the city’s right to zone school districts with racial diversity in mind, they also reasserted the illegality of denying any student admission to a school on the basis of race, effectively undermining any innovative zoning plans. With the disappointing results at schools like Eiseman as evidence, activists across the city concluded that New York’s public schools would never be desegregated. So they tried a new tactic, taking a cue from the Parents and Taxpayers chapter in Jackson Heights, Queens, that had opened its own elementary school as a way of evading a desegregation plan for their area. In 1966, Black and Puerto Rican parents, reversing their longtime call for integration, began to demand community control of their neighborhood schools and set out to show that they could do a better job of educating their children than a neglectful, bureaucratic white establishment. With funding from the Ford Foundation, the city agreed to an experiment in school decentralization in three “demonstration districts” where residents would elect local governing boards to run the neighborhood schools. Ocean Hill–Brownsville was one of them. Though Eiseman fell just outside the trial district, it was singed by the explosive battles soon to erupt two miles away at the experiment’s epicenter, Ocean Hill’s Junior High 271. The war cry was sounded just as Piro was basking in the success of
and mulling over how to top it with his next musical. That next show would be embroiled in one of the ugliest conflicts New York City has ever known. But the show would go on, sending up a defiant signal of hope through the spreading flames.
* * *
In early May 1968, the new local governing board’s district supervisor, Rhody McCoy, wrote to nineteen Ocean Hill–Brownsville teachers and administrators (most of them Jewish) telling them to report to the Board of Education for reassignment for the coming year; they would no longer be working in the experimental district. To the United Federation of Teachers (UFT)—the union—which had made its emphatic opposition to the experiment in community control well known, McCoy’s action represented an egregious denial of its members’ due process (though McCoy’s defenders insisted that such transfers were routine). The union ordered the ousted teachers to report for work despite McCoy’s instruction, and they were escorted by police past furious community protesters. To retaliate—or to flex its muscle or maybe simply to try cooling things down—the community board closed some schools for a few days. When they reopened, some 350 UFT teachers—of about 500 in the district—stayed home in solidarity with their dismissed colleagues, and they never came back. Their boycott didn’t quite close the schools for the remaining month of the academic year, but two-thirds of the district’s 9,000 students did not answer the morning bell: they stayed home, too. These May clashes merely hinted at the protracted struggle over the limits of the community board’s power that was to come. And playing by the rules was not all that was at stake as far as the union was concerned. “If community control as we see it in Ocean Hill–Brownsville becomes a fact,” UFT president Albert Shanker exhorted his delegate assembly on May 16, “there will be ‘Jew Bastard’ signs and swastikas in all the schools.”
Piro had not attended that meeting—glad as he was to belong to a union, he was not an activist within it—but Shanker’s warning filtered down to the rank and file. The rhetoric on both sides of the policy dispute had begun at an overheated pitch and the temperature was only escalating. Proponents of community control had charged the teachers with “coming into the ghetto to cripple our children’s lives” and of committing “educational genocide,” while Shanker frequently fulminated about the “hoodlum element” and “mob rule” among the people of color in charge of the experimental districts. In lobbying to defeat a comprehensive decentralization bill before the New York State Legislature in those same weeks of May, Shanker distributed union leaflets implying that under the proposed plan school districts would be handed over to Black racists and antisemites.
, that’s it,” Piro began to think as controversy swirled. He imagined how Teddy just might carry off the role of Tevye, picturing the young teen in a paste-on beard and spectacles. Then one day Piro lost his temper with a student ostentatiously disrupting a class and he swept her books off her desk; she blurted an insult in return, calling him “a white motherfucking Jew bastard.” He found the profanity far less shocking than the use of “Jew” as an epithet, especially since the kids well knew that Piro, a trim man with bushy black hair, jaw-skimming sideburns, and a thick mustache, was an Italian American Catholic of Sicilian descent. (He got genial laughs from his students the first day of class when he introduced himself by writing the four letters of his name on the board—P-I-R-O—to show them, emphatically, that it was not SHA-piro.) Piro realized that for his students “Jew” had come to mean any white adult from whom—or toward whom—they felt hostility. He called Rubin right away and told him that next year he would present
Fiddler on the Roof
. He thought that doing the show would give the kids a fuller and more sympathetic understanding of who Jews really were.
“Can’t you do
Guys and Dolls
?” Rubin implored. Eiseman had escaped most of the fever-pitched controversy disrupting Ocean Hill–Brownsville schools and he wanted to keep it that way. He couldn’t shake the hunch that
would mean trouble. He reminded Piro how “unsettled” things were in the neighborhood and urged him to choose something “less prone to controversy.” But Piro—and Birnel, too—kept after him. They had come to learn that if their principal pooh-poohed an idea without issuing an absolute no, he was still open to it. And frightened as Rubin was, he had to admit, at least to himself, that the idea intrigued him. He just didn’t want to offend the community at such a “sensitive time.” Local parents might resent that their children were having Jewish culture jammed down their throats.
Rubin was looking over the wrong shoulder: it was members of his faculty who leapt to complain. Several Jewish teachers charged that the Black and Puerto Rican kids in the cast would use the show to make fun of them, and that couldn’t be allowed. Besides, they didn’t trust Piro. They resented what they saw as his hogging of attention and resources and they begrudged his jeans-and-blazer and pop-music ways of being so hip with the kids. Hadn’t
been proof enough that he disrespected Jews? Never mind that in the musical version of the story Dickens’s Fagin had been softened into a “queer old auntie,” as the
reviewer of the original production had said. Nor did it matter that Piro had cast a teacher in the role, both for the sake of realism and to ensure a mature actor who could be counted on to avoid stereotypes. A few Jewish teachers had complained about
early on, and now they were determined to shut that provocative Piro down for good.
By virtue of their makeup, schools have always been in the business of what came to be known in the 1980s as “nontraditional casting”: they use whom they’ve got, so in all-female schools girls play both Romeo and Juliet; in predominantly Asian schools Chinese Americans play the ranch hands of
And even where there is plenty of diversity among students, the key roles go often to the kids who can best carry them, regardless of race or ethnicity (though gender is seldom discounted except in single-sex schools). Educational drama departments may, in fact, be one of the few places in America where the liberal ideal of race-blind meritocracy is consistently practiced. After all, it’s acting, make-believe, the magic of theater. Nobody blinks. Except when the ethnic or racial identity of the characters is a marked part of the theme, a dicier prospect still if that identity belongs to a beleaguered minority: Joe and Queenie in
(leaving aside the separate argument over stereotypical representations) wouldn’t make sense played by white actors (unless one were deliberately being provocative). These issues were confused and compounded in the conflict over
—and the wider Ocean Hill–Brownsville conflict—in ways that stirred some Jewish anxieties.
Jews display marked, visible differences that a little crepe hair and spirit gum couldn’t address without being as offensive as blackface? Were Jews, in other words, white? To the local community they were part of the power structure, whether teachers, principals, landlords, social workers, or store owners—as James Baldwin had boldly explained in a
New York Times Magazine
article a year earlier—but Jews often experienced themselves as an oppressed minority, especially when antisemitic rhetoric was sloshing around.