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Page Title:  Documentary

Ann Matlin

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.

Ann Matlin - Retired School Teacher 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.

 

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