Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

A Generation of Women Activists: African American Female Educators in Harlem, 1930-1950

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

A Generation of Women Activists: African American Female Educators in Harlem, 1930-1950

Article excerpt

We find the Negro woman, figuratively, struck in the face daily by
contempt from the world about her.... Through it all, she is
courageously standing erect, developing within herself the moral
strength to rise above and conquer false attitudes. She is maintaining
her natural beauty and charm and improving her mind and opportunity. She
is measuring up to the needs and demands of her family, community, and
race, and radiating from Harlem a hope that is cherished by her sisters
in less propitious circumstances throughout the land. The wind of the
race's destiny stirs more briskly because of her striving.
(Gertrude) Elise Johnson McDougald, 1925 (1)

The lives of African American women activists who taught in New York City during the first half of the 20th century have been "conspicuous by their absence" from the historical accounts of teachers and teaching, labor organizing, and social reform movements. Biographies of New York City's progressive era educators, social reformers, and union organizers depict a "generation of women" who were white and largely privileged. (2) In turn, historiographies of African American teachers, while they increasingly represent the lived experiences and perspectives of the teachers themselves, have largely focused on education in the South. (3) The lives and experiences of New York City's African American women educators who assumed leadership and worked for social change before 1950 warrant further attention.

This essay profiles a different "generation of women," the relatively unknown stories of three African American female educators and community leaders who lived and worked in Harlem from the 1920s through the 1950s. The collective careers of Lucile Spence, Gertrude Elise McDougald Ayer, and Layle Lane spanned forty years and encompassed progressive era social reforms, teacher union organizing, and civil rights work. Socially conscious and militant, these women seamlessly incorporated their work as educators as part of a larger project for racial and economic justice and community uplift. In this essay I situate their educational philosophies, writings, and political activities in light of key events in Harlem during the 1930s and 1940s.


By 1930 Harlem had become the largest and most diverse urban black community in the United States. From 1920 to 1930 the black population of Harlem increased by over 158 percent to 186,000. By 1940 it would reach 267,000, with 33,000 school-age children. (4) While the majority migrated from the South, one quarter of Harlem's residents were foreign born, immigrating from over fourteen Caribbean nations. As prominent religious leader Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. noted, "Harlem became the symbol of liberty and the Promised Land to Negroes everywhere." (5) In the landmark 1925 issue of Survey Graphic that officially launched a new phase in the "New Negro" literary movement, philosopher and literary critic Alain Locke described Harlem as "another statue of liberty on the landward side of New York." (6) While acknowledging the distortions of Harlem life found in the white press, Locke concluded that, "Harlem is neither slum, ghetto, resort, or colony, though it is in part all of them. It is--or promises at least to be--a race capital." (7)

Part myth and part reality, this uptown neighborhood in New York City represented the best and worst of what the United States had to offer her citizens of African descent. (8) It was a mecca for African American writers, intellectuals, and musicians, such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Duke Ellington, Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Fauset, Augusta Savage, Jacob Lawrence, Paul Robeson and scores of lesser known artists who arrived in the 1920s and participated in Harlem's New Negro Renaissance. (9) Political activists James Weldon Johnson and Walter White, socialists and labor organizers A. Philip Randolph and Frank Crosswaith, and intellectuals L. …

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