The Brownsville Public School Boycott: 1905

The Jews of Brownsville, Brooklyn, fought back when a principal at a public school taught about sectarian views.


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In 1905, just before the Christmas school recess at Public School 144 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Principal Fred. F. Harding told an assembly of children words very much like the following: “Now, boys and girls, at this time of the year especially, I want you all to have the feeling of Christ in you. Have more pleasure in giving than in taking; be like Christ.” Augusta Herman, a 13-year-old student otherwise lost to history, boldly requested permission to speak. She asked Harding whether he “did not think such teaching more appropriate in a Sunday school or a church?” Harding replied, “Christ loves all but the hypocrites and the hypocrites are those who do not believe in him.” There is no record of the young Ms. Herman’s response, but there is one of the Jewish community’s protests that Harding’s remarks precipitated.

Historian Leonard Bloom notes that, “by the turn of the twentieth century, the separation of church and state in the [public] school setting was well established in law.” This did not stop Harding and other Evangelical Christians from testing the limits that the doctrine imposes. By 1905, Brownsville was a densely populated neighborhood of small shops and factories whose population was at least 80% Jewish. Its mix of impoverished Orthodox and militantly socialist Jews made it in many ways indistinguishable from its more fabled neighbor, Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

When news reached the Jewish leadership of Brownsville of Principal Harding’s exhortation and Augusta Herman’s firm response, it touched a sensitive nerve. Almost 95% of the Jewish children of Brownsville attended public school. While the community supported a handful of cheders, the overwhelming majority of Jewish parents wanted their children to be Americanized through the public schools. Historian Arthur Goren argues that, for Jewish immigrants of this era, the public schools were “the great democratic institution, the bridge to the new society and the key to self-improvement.” Brownsville’s Jewish parents entrusted the public schools to make their children bicultural Americans–Jewish Americans–not American Christians.
School room in Woodbine, New Jersey, ca. 1900. Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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