Our Strategic Vision

Gatekeeper No More

1940, BFS Principal Douglas Grafflin’s Address to the
Trustees of the Schools of New York Monthly Meeting 
proposing the enrollment of African American students at BFS. 
Please click to read Grafflin’s entire address

This week, I’m unexpectedly switching gears thanks to a courageous conversation focused on the experiences of students of color in independent schools, a conversation that occurred at the BFS Alumni/ae Facebook group thanks to Bernard Dory ’88, who shared the October, 2012 New York Times article, Admitted, But Left Out.” When it comes to our school’s history, I wind up being a “gatekeeper,” a word I despise and first reluctantly applied to myself in 2007 while attending an Undoing Racism workshop with other BFS employees. All institutions are imperfect and our school is no different. As it did in the past, our school tries, learns and grows today – such is the nature of Quakerism’s continuing revelation. 

Before I begin sharing some of our school’s history of enrolling students of color, I want to give some insight into our school today. BFS is now one of the most diverse independent schools in New York City. Students of color make up approximately 36% of our student body and faculty of color now make up approximately 26% of our teachers. Our 2009 Strategic Plan for Diversity outlined our school’s commitment to diversity in all its forms – racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, sexual orientation, and much more – and that plan helped create a new Diversity Office for BFS.  In 2011, BFS engaged Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr., the founder of the White Privilege Conference as our director of diversity: under Dr. Moore, this work of equity in education at BFS has grown both positively and substantially and he has now been joined by long-time faculty member Orinthia Swindell, our associate director of diversity. Today’s students are admitted to BFS on the basis of their strong academic promise, motivation, and behavioral patterns which are in accord with our school values which are rooted in Quakerism. Much of this information is on the school’s website, of course.

I can’t say everything I share is absolutely correct and comprehensive in my role as BFS historian, but I believe I’m close. When I first began working at BFS as director of alumni and was given full responsibility for the school archives in 2004, I was asked on occasion, “When did BFS integrate and enroll African American students?” The simple answer: 1945 saw the enrollment of BFS’s first African American student in the kindergarten. Of course, the New York City public school system was integrated earlier, though de facto segregation persisted for decades and led to one of the largest protests of the Civil Rights Movement, 1964’s New York School Boycott, when over 450,000 public school students did not attend school for one day, a protest organized by NYC Quaker Bayard Rustin. That question of when integration began at BFS made me uncomfortable: no matter how well-intended BFS has been at any moment in its history, it is imperfect, the school could have little knowledge of how “well” the school truly served our earliest students of color (or those who attended later), and I personally believe people’s stories are their own. 

Over the years, I have been fortunate to meet with countless alumni who have generously shared their life experiences with me with the greatest candor. Those conversations are generally private, but they have informed my views of our school across the ages. One of these was with Anna Bonds Dunwell ’61, yoga instructor and memoirist: Anna was the second African American woman to graduate BFS, and our conversation in 2007 included her description of her BFS education from kindergarten through 12th grade as an “integration experiment,” a phrase I knew to be true as she spoke it. In 2011, our school published the alum profile of our first African American graduate, Class of 1960, Camilla Church Greene ’60, and I recommend reading it, not only for Camilla’s sharing of her BFS experience, but also to learn of her life-time of work for educational equity. For Camilla’s profile, I wrote an accompanying piece, below, based on research in the school’s archives and quoting from the 1940 Address to the Board of Trustees requesting that BFS admit African American students, given by our former Principal Douglas Grafflin

“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.

There is no way that Grafflin’s address to the Trustees could be completely in line with our school’s or society’s thinking today, but it is important on many levels, including that he was a young Quaker and an educator. In 1942, Grafflin became the public school principal of what is now known as Douglas Grafflin Elementary School in Chappaqua, NY, named for him after his death in 1959. 

As an independent school of the 1940s, BFS was typically accessible to students who did well on our entrance exams and IQ tests, and who generally were from families which could afford the school’s tuition. At that moment, Quaker children were typically educated tuition-free at the schools of New York Monthly Meeting, with their tuition funded by a portion of the NYMM endowment: for decades this was basically the extent of financial aid available for BFS students, and this practice was ended perhaps 40 years ago by the Schools Committee of NYMM, around the time the Schools Committee began making financial aid available to all BFS students. All independent schools were highly selective, and they remain so today, but BFS at 116 Schermerhorn could accommodate only about 300 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. As Ron Koven ’53 pointed out in the Facebook conversation, “Somewhere, I still have a BFS promotional leaflet vintage mid-1940s. A sentence from it is engraved in my mind: ‘Brooklyn Friends School admits selected Asians and Hebrews'” – that certainly seems to be a whole different level of “selectivity.” BFS was becoming available to first and second generation Americans during this time, often from countries that were once unfavorably viewed. Since much of my work means examining other independent schools, I know that BFS was different from many of its peers: other independent schools were often far less open to non-whites, non-Christians, and families “new” to the U.S.

Many years ago, I created a rough timeline of events that led to our school’s enrollment of its first African American students. Again, I may be incorrect in what I share and interpret, particularly as we approach the present day, but I feel I’m close:

1916 to 1940: BFS enrolled students of Jewish, Latino and Asian descent, whose families apparently had the means to pay tuition and whose parents may have been considered civic leaders, the earliest known in 1916.  

1940: Principal Douglas Grafflin addressed the Board of Trustees on the subject of admitting African American students to BFS, the earliest known official request, which came in response to an application for admission by an African American family, which had not been the first such application. Grafflin noted that only five independent schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn enrolled African American students: of those five schools, only one was in Brooklyn. 

1941: The Friends Council on Education, of which BFS was and is a member, assembled “Statistics and Attitudes on Enrollment of Negroes” after surveying all U.S. Friends and independent schools. Modification was also made that year of the Queries in the Quaker “handbook” Discipline: Religious Society of Friends, New York Yearly Meeting: The 1930 edition was modified by an insertion, individually pasted, of the 9th Query, “Do Friends endeavor to maintain a spirit of good will to the members of all races, religions and nations, and do they labor for a just and generous policy toward them?”  An asterisk for this pasted query noted this new 9th Query was adopted in 1941. This new query replaced the earlier and seemingly unrelated 9th Query, which then became the 10th Query as of 1941. 

1943: Letter sent from BFS faculty to the Schools Trustees of New York Monthly Meeting, expressing their desire to enroll African American students at BFS. Warren Cochran was now Principal of BFS. The question of enrolling African American children was put to the BFS Parent Teacher Club’s Executive Committee in the spring, there was apparently some protest, which was minimal and expected. 

1944: Principal Warren Cochran’s April report to the Schools Trustees mentioned that the school recently had inquiries from two African American families. The principal’s May report to the Schools Trustees mentioned his attendance at the Friends Council on Education Conference concerning “How Can Friends Schools Develop a Wider Racial Policy?” and that the conference’s focus was primarily on African Americans. Mentioned at this conference was the fact that Oakwood Friends in upstate NY began enrolling African American students in 1933, and that a Quaker school in Media, PA had also enrolled African American students despite some protest and withdrawals. The BFS principal expected similar reaction from some BFS families, mentioned the reaction of PTC Executive Committee a year earlier, but concerns, especially about loss of income to the school, were allayed. 

1945: A single African American girl enrolled in the kindergarten in the fall. Whether white families protested is uncertain, but BFS stood its ground. This student attended BFS for several years, but left before 6th grade.  

1947: A single African American girl was enrolled in the kindergarten that fall. Camilla Church graduates from BFS in 1960 and is our first African American graduate.  

1948 to 1968: African American students are enrolled at BFS, but typically in the manner of one boy and one girl per class, with enrollment beginning in the kindergarten. While the idea was that students would graduate from BFS, many continued their high school educations elsewhere. In or around 1950, an older African American student enrolled in the high school, but did not graduate BFS. Post-1960, African American students seem also to have enrolled in older grades. Note that BFS was a traditional college preparatory school from the founding of our high school program in 1907 to 1968. 

Mid-1960s: BFS participated in the American Friends Service Committee’s Southern Students Project, in which high school students from Southern U.S. states were placed with families in Northern U.S. states, and enrolled in independent schools. Apparently, only 65 students participated in the entire program over the course of its ten years (or so) of existence. BFS enrolled three students as part of the program. To understand the program and some of the challenges faced, please read the BFS alum profile of one such student, Lawrence Madlock ’66

1968 to 1979: The school changed dramatically, from a traditional prep school model to a very progressive model, and greater numbers of students of color were admitted. Moving BFS to 375 Pearl Street further allowed the school to increase its student body which resulted in a mandate, of sorts, from New York Monthly Meeting that the future growth of BFS would include a greater number of students of color in the student body, a decision I believe may have related to the fact that the New York Colored Mission ceased operations after 100 years of service, possibly due to the aging and death of its client base and changing needs in the NYC African American community. NYMM ran the Mission and maintained the related fund in its endowment. NYMM may have decided the remaining fund in its endowment could be used in future for African American students enrolled at the schools of New York Monthly Meeting. BFS also began working with organizations like A Better Chance to identify students of color that BFS might enroll (BFS works with ABC and other similar organizations today). It seems to me that, during this period, the unfortunate and very false idea that students of color are the major recipients of financial aid at independent schools began. Reflections on this era from alumni indicate that students of color experienced difficulty at BFS and Lawrence Madlock ’66 was engaged as what might be considered our first director of diversity. This era was described to me by one person as “we had diversity then,” yet this person may not have understood the challenges students and families of color so often face.  

1979 to the early 1990s: The school enrolled more students of color, especially in the high school. The Baby Boomers had pretty much graduated, so the Baby Busters with their lowered birth rates, combined with the urban flight that afflicted the U.S. from the 1960s to the 1980s, contributed to lowered  enrollment and plummeting numbers of potential students. The school decreased dramatically in size after 1986, to the point that closing the Upper School was considered. It should be noted that 1991 was the smallest BFS graduating class of 11 students, most of whom were born in 1973, which had one of the lowest birth rates in NYC history. Students of color filled the void, particularly in the Upper School, and may have carried the school during that difficult time. My own mother, in her resignation letter to the BFS School Committee in 1991, specifically requested that her “seat” be filled by a person of color (Happy Birthday, Mom, I miss you).  

The Mid-1990s to the Mid-2000s: In the mid-1990s, the BFS Upper School surpassed 50% students of color and it seemed that school had acquired the reputation of being a school for students of color. Seeking to stem this perception, BFS took steps to achieve a degree of better “balance” and not alienate potential white students and families. 
El Club Latino, the most popular student activity in the Upper School in 2013, was founded in 1996 and was open to all Upper School students interested in learning about Latino culture. During this period,BFS seems to have engaged its first director of diversity. Brooklyn began its “revival” in the late 1990s, over 50 years after the economic boom associated with World War II (for an interesting read, try BFS history teacher Ed Herzmann’s piece in Context, the 2009 BFS Faculty Anthology, page 54), and our student body grew further as a result of Brooklyn’s revival. The school was also encouraging professional development conferences and workshops such as the NAIS People of Color Conference (for employees) and Student Diversity Leadership Conference (for students). 

Mid-2000s to the Present: BFS employees, its All-School Diversity Committee and the PAT Committee on Diversity felt that BFS as an institution needed to more officially embrace educational equity. BFS began holding in-house professional development days for employees devoted to the subject of diversity and educational equity. BFS produced its Strategic Plan on Diversity in 2009. BFS once again hired a Director of Diversity in 2011. Such steps continue and are expanded upon today at BFS.  

I hope this has shed some light on an un-simple aspect of BFS history. Again, I know I’m not perfect here or anywhere, and neither is our wonderful school, but we both are trying. There are so many layers and nuances and factors that bear upon the course of our history. Often they were external to the school, but directly influenced decisions within the school, often by its Board of Trustees (or School Committee, depending on the era), and New York Monthly Meeting (now New York Quarterly Meeting). We appreciate everyone and every step in opening this gate.