Friday, April 8, 2022

Justin Murphy's "Your Children Are Very Greatly in Danger"

Justin Murphy is the education reporter at the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, New York.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Your Children Are Very Greatly in Danger: School Segregation in Rochester, New York, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book happens to be the first page of a chapter, focusing on a pair of near-simultaneous events at the local and state level that ended up being very important to the story of desegregation in Rochester in different ways.
In late May 1963, the Rochester City School District superintendent, Robert Springer, flew to Dallas for his brother in-law’s funeral. While staying at his sister’s home, the fifty-one-year-old suffered a heart attack in his sleep and was rushed to the Baylor University Hospital. He died on June 19, a gallstone apparently having blocked his bile ducts and caused an infection. Herman Goldberg, the district’s special education director, was appointed as interim superintendent after the school board’s first choice turned down the assignment.

The day before Springer’s death, the state education commissioner, James Allen, had issued a directive that would come to define Herman Goldberg’s legacy in Rochester. Specifically addressing Malverne, a small, segregated Long Island school district, Allen said that the district needed to redraw the attendance boundaries to create some approximate racial balance among its three schools. More generally, he wrote in an open letter to New York school leaders:

The position of the department . . . is that the racial imbalance existing in a school in which the enrollment is wholly or predominantly Negro interferes with the achievement of equality of educational opportunity and therefore must be eliminated from the schools of New York State.
Does this page give a good sense of the entire premise of the book? One could do worse, I suppose. It captures the way that local and state or national factors have combined, for good or for ill.

In this case, both Herman Goldberg, the Rochester superintendent, and James Allen, the state education commissioner, were considered admirable white liberals who staked their careers on desegregating schools. Both could make a case that they did everything within their power to make that vision reality - and yet their vision did not, in fact, become reality. One can point to crucial moments where each of these white liberal leaders failed to intervene due to political or pragmatic calculations. Could they have made a difference if they’d acted differently? It’s hard to say. I think they could have.

What I’d really like to do is turn to the next page of the book and share a little about Herman Goldberg’s remarkable background. He was born in Brooklyn in 1915 and played baseball at Brooklyn College. From there he was chosen for the baseball demonstration team for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, making him one of the very few Jewish athletes to participate in the games in Nazi Germany. He later recalled sitting just a few feet away from Adolf Hitler in the stands watching swimming or wrestling matches.

I tried but did not succeed in contacting some of Goldberg’s descendants as I was writing the book. Remarkably, just a few weeks before publication, his son emailed me from out of state on an entirely different topic. I was able to direct him to the book and was gratified that he found it to be a fair assessment of his father and the work he did in very trying circumstances.
Visit Justin Murphy's website.

--Marshal Zeringue