An anti-racism public school reformer speaks frankly about being BFS’ first African-American K-12 student, and of a lifetime spent bucking tradition.
“I remember being the only person of color. My hair was different. I remember a boy telling me I was dirty. I remember that I hated Dick and Jane. This was before the updated version. I remember the rule that we couldn’t be unkind to each other, and that’s what saved me.”
Surely to the surprise of many in the BFS community today, alumna Camilla Church Greene, Class of 1960, was describing her memories of Brooklyn Friends School. This is how she recalls being a kindergartener in 1947, when she entered as one of the school’s first African-American students.
Today Camilla Church Greene ’60 is an anti-racist leadership trainer for teachers, both as an independent consultant and with the Coalition of Essential Schools through the Center for Equitable and Effective Leadership. “There’s a team of us across the country from diverse backgrounds; white, black, gay, straight, working on our journeys toward equity together.” The group holds four-and-a-half day residential seminars for faculty across the U.S,, coaching educators on how to better provide educational equity in the classroom.
Back in the day, Camilla’s parents and grandparents both owned brownstones in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “They always said we were the first African-American family in the neighborhood but since that time others have made the same claim so I’m not positive.” Still, it remains an oft-repeated family legend.
Why BFS? “My dad always said you get what you pay for, and public education was free…” she said. Her mother was familiar with Quakers and their work as Abolitionists in the 19th century so they enrolled Camilla at Brooklyn Friends. “They always said the only thing parents owe their kids is a good education, so we didn’t take vacations to Europe like some of the other families. They spent their money paying for education.”
Still, the only other person of color she remembers that first year was the custodian, “and I didn’t want to speak to him,” she admitted with a tinge of regret. “And he was so proud that I was there.” Other students of color and with varying nationalities soon entered her class, and African-American students enrolled in younger classes, but no other African-American ever joined her class. “Sushi Goshal was of Indian descent,” she recalled with a smile. “Robert Hagopian was Armenian. So we did have some diversity.” Eloise Crowley, a Quaker, became her best friend. “She didn’t come along until 5th grade. And we’re still good friends.”
Influential BFS teachers included Ms. Fasick and Ms. Person, both of whom taught English. We were reading Winnie the Pooh and I got totally engrossed.” She and her family would often meet with Ms. Person in Manhattan on weekends and go to museums together. Miss Bennett, the PE teacher, held bible study meetings in her apartment before school, and Camilla attended regularly. Mr. Roach, the French teacher, even got Camilla to sing during her years in the Lower School. He made the classic reader A Child’s Garden of Verses into a musical. He even turned Camilla on to Gilbert & Sullivan for a time, a fact which now makes her blush and grin.
Never one to mince words, Camilla also harbors less pleasant memories, like those of her history class. History “just exuded white privilege,” she said. “None of the history had a thing to do with African-American history. It was all white history.” She doesn’t place blame on the teacher but considers it a symptom of the school’s culture as a whole at that time. “They didn’t know how to make me feel proud that I was African-American.”
Thankfully, Camilla’s parents did know how, as one can see in their efforts at BFS and at home. Camilla recalls her mother proudly telling her, “You’re a pioneer. You’re blazing the way” at BFS. When Dick and Jane caused unhappiness, Camilla’s mother gave her Marguerite De Angelis’Bright April: published in 1946, it was the first published children’s book to address racial prejudice against African Americans. Her parents both worked full-time with the Kings County Court System, but they made time to be prominent in the Parent Teacher Club at BFS. Outside of BFS, her parents continued their families’ deep connection to Concord Baptist Church, where her mother was choir director. Camilla was also a charter member of the Brooklyn Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, the oldest and largest African American family organization in the United States.
During her last years in the Upper School Camilla had made up her mind to be a public school teacher. Family friends used to tell her parents that with all that money they’d spent on her education she’d better become a doctor, “but my parents were thrilled that I decided to become a teacher.” Camilla found applying for college to be a challenge. “I wanted to go to a historically black college, and Brooklyn Friends had no brochures for historically black colleges.” At graduation she remained the only African-American student in her class, “but many came after that.”
She attended the now-defunct Upsala College in East Orange, NJ, a small institution where she majored in English and Secondary School Education. “I wanted to bring a Quaker style education to public schools,” she said of her ideals. Why not just teach at a Quaker or other private school? “I think I was tired of the privilege and whiteness,” she said frankly. “I was told by my grandmother that the reason people of color weren’t doing well is that they didn’t know any better.”
Camilla was determined to do something. She went on to earn masters degrees from St. John’s University and Fairfield University in Educational Counseling and Special Education. She taught at J.H.S. 275 in Oceanville-Brownsville, on Linden and Rockaway Boulevards in Brooklyn. After just a year, she married, began a family, and left teaching for 7 years.
Since that time she has taught at nine public high schools in three states. “I saw all the faults because of my Friends education,” she said. “Teachers had a problem with me because I didn’t tow the line.” She wouldn’t write hall passes for her students. Instead, “I crafted communities in the classroom so that your word is your bond. If a student broke his word to me, then we had a problem.” Camilla recalled her own similar BFS experience with the written and unwritten “honor system” at BFS in which students were trusted when teachers left the room: “I used to feel so empowered by that.” She also refused to make boys take their hats off in the classroom, much to her fellow teachers’ and her superiors’ chagrin. “I never saw the correlation between wearing a hat and your intelligence, “she said. “And I’d go into upper middle class white schools and lots of the boys were wearing hats and no one cared.”
Over the years she also worked in the progressive education movement in New York City as part of a reform movement to make high schools smaller. She was struck by the fact that in large schools, “even in the most affluent white high schools, the students were bored out of their gourds.”
In the early 1990s, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, an outgrowth of the Coalition of Essential Schools, was formed at Brown University. Camilla was among the first group of 25 teachers who began the work that crafted what are now known as Critical Friends Groups. To someone in a Quaker school this might seem like a misnomer, as CFGs have no direct connection to Friends schools. They are a professional development tool in which small groups of teachers gather regularly to learn and share in a collaborative environment. “It’s a process by which teachers have courageous conversations with each other,” says Camilla. In groups she has led, teachers would regularly bring in the work of their most engaged students to spark conversation, but she suggests using the work of teachers’ least engaged students. “The point is for teachers to ask themselves, ‘how do I as a white educator engage my Latino boys in learning math?'”
Camilla’s commitment to the work is unwavering, but has transformed since the early CFG years in the mid-1990s. In time, she and other CFG facilitators and trainers began to feel that the real issue at the heart of their work was race, that student achievement was tied to questions like “How do I bring my beliefs or repressed emotions about children who do not look like me into the classroom?” Feeling that the Annenberg Institute for School Reform was “still pretty white” in its aims, they broke away and focused their CFG work on issues of race and “working and trying to build alliances across difference.”
Camilla is retired from the classroom, but not retired from her mission. Camilla and Tom’s son Robert works in marketing in Canada and their daughter Kelli is finance in the pharmaceutical industry. Camilla and Tom now live with their daughter and grandson in Allentown, PA, having moved during the Obama campaign. When Kelli became a single mother by choice at the age of 30, it was a family decision to become an inter-generational household. “My husband and I agreed to be her support system,” explained Camilla, adding, “It’s wonderful.”
Soon Camilla and Kelli were attending public meetings held by a group trying to start a charter school in the area. “My daughter and I both started becoming active, so I started making my voice known,” she said. “I was responsible for their decision to make the school K through 12 instead of just K through 8.” Today she is on the board of trustees. The school, Seven Generations Charter School, is in Emmaus, PA, “which is a white, upper middle class, conservative Republican community,” said Camilla in her usual outspoken way. “It has been met with tremendous animosity.” Still, the fledgling school is thriving and its future looks bright. Camilla introduced Critical Friends Groups to Seven Generations and they have proven an important tool for the school.
In all of her work over the years Camilla also points out that she runs Quaker-inspired, consensus based meetings. What’s so wrong with voting? “Democracy is winner-take-all,” she said. “With consensus we have to let everyone weigh in, and try to tailor our proposals so that everyone has ownership of what moves forward.” She also begins meetings with a few minutes of silence, a tool which she also used in the classroom while she was a high school teachers. “A lot of people have to grow into that,” she conceded. “It’s a space that you create so people can enter in. There is nosilence in a public high school! The kids loved it.”
In her spare time as a retiree of sorts she’s a voracious reader. “Right now I’m reading The Warmth of Other Suns, a new book about the African-American migration,” she said. “It’s bigger than the Gold Rush, bigger than the expansion west, and it’s been mostly ignored.” She was last at BFS for her 50th class reunion earlier this year, and she also attended a regional meeting of BFS alums in Philadelphia. “I really want to stay connected.” She even opened a Facebook account to keep in touch with alums online.
Her advice to the current generation of decidedly more diverse BFS students? “Embrace the humanity, learn to think from multiple perspectives. Take advantage of the diversity around you.” As she’s gotten older, Camilla says she thinks more and more about her days at Brooklyn Friends. She feels “the humanitarian aspect of Quakerism is huge in terms of making learning possible, it is a safe environment.” She remembered learning the Bible quotation once during Quaker meeting, Be still and know that I am God. “My mother was a church organist and there I learned the quote, Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, so I was always conflicted.” Which won out? “For me, the stillness. But then there are times…”
“Let us be courageous…”
The path to enrolling our first African-American students was filled with nuance, both at BFS and in the world around us. Prior to 1940 and as early as 1916, BFS had enrolled other students of color, students who actively experienced discrimination in our country. It was not until 1945,however, that BFS enrolled its first African American student.
In 1940, Douglas G. Grafflin, BFS Principal since 1937, addressed the Board of Trustees, and made the first known request that BFS enroll African American students. Grafflin noted that only five independent schools had any African-American students in Manhattan and Brooklyn. A Quaker, Grafflin was 29 years old when he wrote “the time is ripe for taking another forward step by establishing the general principles of procedure under which the Friendly testimony concerning the brotherhood of men may be expressed through our Friends School.”
Grafflin left BFS in 1942, but he laid important groundwork for our next principal, Warren Cochran. Principal Cochran attended the 1944 Friends Council on Education Conference titled “How Can Friends Schools Develop A Wider Racial Policy?” It took another year, but our first African American student enrolled in the kindergarten in September of 1945. In hindsight, one can sense that BFS stumbled and was imperfect. Treading this new ground could not have been easy for our school or for our African-American students and families.
Grafflin closed his 1940 address with “Finally, if we believe that we are right, let us be courageous – courage is as often rewarded as caution and more often brings with it the satisfactions of real accomplishment.” BFS was learning and, like all institutions, we are still learning and we continue to strive to be courageous today.
— Susan Price ’86