Matlin Remembers the Classroom
I remember teaching a fifth grade class with a textbook written by the
same Mr. Jansen who questioned me before he tried to get me fired (for
my political affiliations).
There was a picture of slaves dancing in front of their cabins with
the notation below stating that you could see that the slaves were
very well off. "Look how happy they are. They are dancing."
I had a box of scissors, Board of Education scissors, and I gave them
to every child in the room ...
I figured that other teachers might not explain it and have
a discussion like I had with my class when that picture appeared in
their text books. So, to avoid the whole thing, I had the kids cut
the page out. I have to admit to that crime, but it angered me. It
really angered me to stand in front of 48 black kids and teach them
that slavery was good. You know, … how could you stand that?
Gender - Based Teaching Assignments
Ann Matlin, a Teachers Union member, taught at P.S. 184 in Harlem from 1937 to 1953. She was
raised in a working class neighborhood in the Bronx, NY, and, after
high school, attended the New York Training School for Teachers.
Although she passed her teaching exam in 1929, she had to wait
until 1937 to receive a permanent teaching assignment. At that time, the Board of Education
maintained gender-specific waiting lists for new teacher appointments, with men given priority
over women. In the intervening years, she played the piano for the Denishawn School of
Dancing founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, modern dance innovators whose students
included Martha Graham and Louise Brooks.
When she finally got to P.S. 184 in Harlem, Ann found children who were hungry,
a school that was crumbling, and teachers who had been transferred there as punishment
for hitting white children in wealthier school districts. She joined the Teachers Union,
whose members were speaking out against decrepit conditions in the Harlem schools and working
together with parents and community residents to change them. They joined with the Harlem
Committee for Better Schools, a community coalition comprised of local churches, parents,
community activists, and Teachers Union members that formed after African-American children
were battered by a local principal. They organized rallies, lobbied administrators, and
demanded that the school system do better for Harlem kids and families. Together, during
the war years when New York City declared that no more schools would be built and no
repairs would be made anywhere, the Committee and the teachers succeeded in getting four new
schools built in Harlem.
Community Action in Harlem for Equal Education
In her interview with Dreamers and Fighters, Ann speaks about her close friend and colleague
Alice Citron, a fellow P.S. 184 teacher, TU member, and a driving force behind the union’s
activism in the Harlem community. Along with Norman London and Morris Seltzer, who were also teachers at
P.S. 184, Alice spent countless nights and weekends meeting with parents to identify pressing
needs in the schools and in the neighborhood and creating plans of action that would ensure they
were being addressed.
Superintendent Investigates the Organizers
By the late 1940s, the NYC Board of Education, under the leadership of Superintendent William
Jansen, began looking into the backgrounds of NYC teachers for activities that might paint
them as Communist, Socialist, or in general left and politically active and bring those
who were considered “suspect” in for interrogation. In 1950, Ann recalled in her
interview, two men in trench coats came into the P.S. 184 school yard looking for Alice Citron
and carrying a note instructing Alice to report to the Board offices “forthwith.”
Rather than going to the Board office “forthwith,” Alice spent the evening going door
to door, visiting parents and asking them to come accompany her to the Board of Education the
next day. When Alice arrived at the subway at 116th St. and Lenox Ave. The next morning,
Ann said, “Somewhere between 40 and 50 parents arrived. This is what they thought of Alice
and what she had done for them. The situation, bad as it was, would have been worse without her.
They were quite willing to get on the stand if necessary and give their opinions
of Alice.” Despite an outpouring of support from the parents of her students, Alice
was fired soon after her hearing.
In 1952, Ann herself was called in to testify before Superintendent William Jansen’s
interrogation committee. She agreed to answer questions on the condition that they only
be about her. When Board attorney Saul Moskoff began asking Ann what she knew about other union
members, she told them they had broken their promise and walked out of the room. Upon returning
for another round of questioning, it became clear to Ann that her refusal to “name
names,” combined with her history of political activity, could mean the end of her
teaching career. The committee informed Ann shortly thereafter that she had a choice: accept
a forced disability retirement, as she had been sick, or be fired.
A Legacy of Work for Peace and Racial Justice
After leaving her teaching position, Ann remained an active Teachers Union member and Chair of
the union’s Educational Policies Committee. Through their work fighting racism and
economic injustice in the public schools, the committee helped to institute what was then
called Negro History Week in the schools, which later became Negro History, and then Black
History, Month. In the 1960s, Ann went on to work for the Teachers Committee Against the War
in Viet Nam. Around that time, she joined the Teachers Action Caucus, and, in 1970, began
working exclusively for them.