Mount Vernon Change and Legacy 1963-2003

           Mount Vernon Change and  Legacy                    1963 through 2003


Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas National Impact

Local Consequences


Talk delivered by Richard J. Garfunkel at

MVHS – March 30, 2004




I was raised in Mount Vernon and lived here from 1945 to 1965. My parents were native New Yorkers who were both born in Manhattan, were married in 1935, moved to Brooklyn shortly after, and moved to Mount Vernon at the end of WWII. They were very typical of the urban American whose forbearers were Europeans, who immigrated to American cities, and eventually migrated to the suburbs to escape the declining cities.


The United States and New York in particular, for our purposes, came out of the great Depression at the victorious close of World War II. Ever since the Crash of 1929 life in the states had changed radically. After the boom period that had lasted from most of the 20th Century from mid-1890s until 1929, the great American dream had come to a screeching halt. Life, as contempory people knew it, had changed dramatically and the change seemed permanent.


When you look around this city, in particular, and you look at buildings like the old AB Davis High School on Gramatan Avenue or the Pennington School, you are seeing the last architectural vestiges of the pre-crash 1920’s era. In fact many of the older apartment buildings and the bigger houses in Mount Vernon were build before the crash. Only some public buildings were built with New Deal- WPA 1930’s money, and all the rest were built after the war. In other words there was little or no housing built generally in America from 1929 to 1945.


Because of the Depression, money and investment dried up, and along with that fact, unemployment rose catastrophically after the crash from a low in 1929 of 3% to over 30% in 1933. As a consequence certain dynamics started to take place.


a)      The farms and farm prices which had been in trouble since the mid 1920’s started to collapse

b)      An internal migration started from the Mid-West farms to both California in the West and to the cities in the East: California for farm work, the East for relief.

c)      African-Americans, who were more concentrated in the South prior to World War II, were the poorest of Americans and were hurt the worst by the Depression.

d)      Without jobs or housing the cities became more crowded as migrants from the rural regions moved to the North and East.

e)      Again without money for housing, all housing deteriorated accept Federal Housing supported by the New Deal.

f)        Almost every family was affected by unemployment or underemployment. Benefits, as we know them today, were either non-existent, or at the whim of one’s employer. Social Security was passed in 1935, but had no impact on the Depression. Almost every other program, including Medicare, Medicaid, and a plethora of others were years away.


But after war broke out in Europe in late 1939, the United States started its large arms build-up in preparation for the potential of involvement. Almost immediately jobs opened up in the industrial North, the farms became solvent in the Mid-West and African-Americans flocked to industrial areas like Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Large war plants needed workers as America eventually entered the war. With the draft boards calling hundreds of thousands of young men into the service, and the need for 24 hour a day –triple shift production, more workers were needed, especially from the rural South.


Even the City of Mount Vernon was caught up in war production as massive plants were built near McQuestern Parkway and old chemical companies on Washington Street were pressed into maximum production. The 100,000 square foot Vernon Electric plant that was located near the Dyer Avenue subway had 50,000 workers on triple 8 hour shifts per day.


As a consequence of all this new employment, new migration, a shortage of workers, and war debt from deficit spending, a new prosperity developed during and immediately following the war. Especially since people had nowhere or no time to spend there earnings, savings increased dramatically.


Certain dynamics started to happen:


a)      Soldiers came home from the war

b)      The great baby boom started

c)       The suburbs grew dramatically as new apartments sprung up in lower Westchester, and whites left the cities by the hundreds of thousands to live in the suburbs.

d)      African-Americans also moved into small Westchester cities like Mount Vernon, New Rochelle and Yonkers, but not in large numbers.

e)      African-Americans moved from the South, where Jim Crow still reigned supreme, to the more liberal Northern cities.


Therefore the scene was set for the great social change that emerged after WWII.

a)      Even though there were always African-Americans in Mount Vernon, the numbers were still small, and they were concentrated on the southwest side of the New Haven RR tracks.

b)      Schools were old in Mount Vernon, like everywhere else and crowded.

c)      The city was divided racially, and ethnically.

d)      African-Americans lived on the Southwest side of town with poor Italians and other whites: the Washington Jr. High/Alexander Hamilton School areas

e)      Lower and middle class Italians and Jews lived in the Graham School district

f)        Middle and upper middle class Protestants, Irish and Jews lived in the Traphagen School district.

g)      Middle class Jews and Italians lived in the Fleetwood or Nichols school district

h)      Also there were always a significant number of Roman Catholics who sent their children to parochial schools.

i)        With the building of the new apartments near Pelham, the new Holmes School was opened in 1954. This school was a stat-of-the-art facility, with small classes and almost a 100% white student population.


When the Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case was decided unanimously by the Supreme Court in 1954, Mount Vernon had legal, or “de jure” integrated schools. But similar to other Westchester cities, the local primary schools were “de facto” segregated due to problems of location created by economics, class and race.


But there were other, more unique to Mount Vernon; problems that started to arise after the conclusion of the war. Mount Vernon High School had been divided into two schools in the early 1930’s, one was AB Davis High, which had an academic based, college preparatory curriculum, and Edison Tech, which had a vocational and trades curriculum. In the years just before the war, and certainly during the conflict, Edison became vitally important to the war effort. Edison’s motor and aviation trades became essential to a modern machine oriented army. Trained mechanics were vitally important if the United States were going to be victorious in this mechanized conflict. But after the war, both Davis and Edison were over-crowded. Edison especially was inadequate, and when the need for mechanics and vocational training subsided, Edison became a type of “dumping ground” for students who were not academically as gifted, or were socially a problem. Therefore, two parallel, but separate dynamics developed. One parallel was the need for a new, bigger, more comprehensive school, and the other, was to keep Davis High more pristine as an academic magnet and beacon. Therefore, the efforts to finance and build a new school, which started to gain momentum in 1948, were defeated five times until 1959. One could say the delays were because of the fear of mixing different economic and social classes, or one could believe that it was racially motivated. But in 1963, the combined senior classes of Davis and Edison were approximately 85% white and 15% non-white.  Not all of those 95 non-white students out of 633 attended Edison. Meanwhile, the referendum to build the new combined high school was finally passed in 1959 after 12 years and five votes, and the work was begun on the Baker Field site on California Road in 1963.


Of course this entire issue had very little impact on my classmates and me. By 1963 in my senior year in high school, nothing had dramatically changed in Mount Vernon, or in the AB Davis High School building. Davis High was now called Mount Vernon High School, and some of the activities involved students from both schools.


There was racial harmony; sports teams were combined between Davis and Edison and the atmosphere in class proceeded in a normal almost passive way. The teams enjoyed new success with the merger, and many of the sports heroes were African-Americans from both the Davis and Edison campuses. In fact, there was a great deal of unity and the transition to the new high school seemed to be on a straight and non-controversial path. The old animosity that had divided the separate racial, religious and ethnic communities of the past 15 years were not apparent to me, my friends, my parents or the city in general. But there were fissures in the community regarding busing, and the Dodson Report in 1964, authored by Dan W. Dodson, Director of the Center for Human Relations and Community Studies at New York University, recommended busing children from one section of Mount Vernon to another. This created dissention and the liberal Jewish community welcomed his suggestions, but other Jews and many Italian-Americans formed a new organization, Parents and Taxpayers (PAT) to voice their opposition. “They said that they were not, they insisted opposed to integration; they only wanted to maintain the quality of the neighborhood schools.” (A)


Malcolm X addressed parishioners at the local AME Church, and his speech radicalized young people in the audience. The Board of Education presented proposal after proposal, intended to soften the edge of segregation, while retaining its substance. At a public meeting in February of 1966, Clifford Brown, a young militant leader of CORE, took the floor and turned a black-white confrontation into a clash between African-Americans and Jews. In response to a challenge from the Jewish president of PAT, he exclaimed, “Hitler made one mistake when he didn’t kill enough of you!” Brown’s retort, published in two consecutive issues of the NY Times, achieved national notoriety. As a result of this, “white flight” ensued. With this rapid decrease in the Jewish population, property values plummeted, and the Italian community complained that Jews had forced desegregation upon Mount Vernon and then fled the consequences. In fact, integration was the inevitable result of the new federal laws and the new migration from NYC and the Bronx started to change the demographics of Mount Vernon significantly. 


Around the country, especially after the situation in Little Rock in 1957, integration was more of an issue in the south, and there was very little local news about it. Also, because of the national fervor created by Little Rock, I can remember vividly protesting the singing of “Dixie” in junior high school during that year. One local story that made the headlines was when New Rochelle was forced to close down Lincoln Junior High, which was located on Lincoln Avenue. Lincoln was totally African-American due to “de facto” segregation, and a court ruling ordered it closed. It sat vacant in that neighborhood for many, many years.


Of course, the Brown ruling had two parts, and though the first ruling had made “de jure” segregation unconstitutional, the second opinion, the next year, included the notorious comment that desegregation should proceed “with all deliberate speed.”  This phrase would later foreshadow the long and drawn out efforts by school districts to delay change in both the obvious cases involving “de jure” segregation and the less obvious, more complicated cases regarding “de facto” segregation. Of course many districts went ahead to modernize their schools, and in these school districts that served many communities, large central high schools and junior high schools were built. The problem still existed on the local level with elementary education. Parents wanted to have their small children walk to the neighborhood school, and, therefore new solutions eventually came forth with “open enrollment” and busing. On the high school level there had never been a real controversy over large comprehensive campuses. But on the neighborhood level, where the real problem of “de facto” segregation existed, the animosity, especially in the North exploded. Fear of racial-mixing at the primary school level started to change attitudes as to where people wanted to live. People felt that educational quality would decline and their property values would soon follow.


Of course, this did not become a real issue until many years after the Brown decision. Other realities started to effect society that would drive the racial divide and the change America. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was a body-blow shock to America that is still felt to this day. Civil rights activities with “Freedom Rides” in the South, the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. as a national force, violence in Selma, Meridian and Birmingham became every day events. Also along with the struggle over accommodation of facilities in the South, the cities were in crisis, the build-up in Vietnam was escalating and the country was experiencing high levels of crime and civil disorder from a racial perspective that had not been witnessed since the Civil War and the race riots in Detroit during WWII. The deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, along with riots, the explosion of crime related to drugs, and the continued killing in Vietnam and the casualties from the massive North Vietnamese-Viet Cong Tet offensive started to change attitudes in many communities about the values of our society and its institutions. Also young veterans arriving back from Vietnam were increasingly unhappy with circumstances that faced them here at home.


As a consequence of all of this activity and turmoil, the era of “good feeling” that the 1950’s portended to be, began to end around 1965 and was finished by 1968. New realities emerged with the continuing social struggles. Racial antipathy sprung up in Boston over the school busing issue and NYC became inflamed over local control of schools as its massive school district was divided into 33 semi-autonomous districts. The upper middle-class whites started to move from the suburban cities to the towns, and lower middle class whites felt abandoned by their richer white neighbors.


But for the vast majority of minority children in many areas of the country, education, which had been a captive of “de facto” segregation, started to change. New opportunities opened up with integrated education, and though it would take many, many years, a vast number of whites and non-whites started to understand each other through the process of education. But today, ironically, there are many communities that once again have “de facto” segregation. Today the 25 largest urban school districts in the United States are minority dominated. The minorities may not be the old minorities of the post WWII era, but now they are a mixture Hispanics, Asians, Africans, Eastern Europeans and Arabs along with African-Americans. The center cities have always been a mixture of rich and poor. The new immigrants have always flocked to the cities where there are jobs. So in other words the cycle continues.


Today new realities affect education and they include, the mixture of new and different cultures, the conflict over value-based teaching, in other words the separation of church and state, the relevancy of curriculum and the under-funding of many school districts. Across the Northeast the constant problem of under-funded districts versus rich districts plagues educators and state officials.


From my own personal perspective, I was as much of a captive of my past as anyone else. My parents were Democrats, socially moderate, but leery of others. Their friends were almost universally Jewish, but my father had more contact with others through business and golf. I had many friends in my Prospect Avenue neighborhood, This section of Mount Vernon, which was south of Lincoln Avenue and west of Pelham, was populated by Jews, Italians, Irish and Protestants. We all freely associated with each other, and Church, G-d, religion, politics, and race were rarely if ever talked about. Many of my friends, in that neighborhood, went to parochial schools, but, all in all, few were very religious. Our common philosophy was of being American and not hyphenated Americans. There was no ethnic languages spoken in the street unlike NYC, Neither of Italian or Yiddish was ever heard and generally speaking there were few if any ethnic jokes. The “N” word or any other racial or religious slur was not heard in our neighborhood. For better or worse, our contact with African-Americans was slight. Our contact with Hispanics was almost non-existent and our contact with Asians was limited to one very smart well off Chinese Taiwanese diplomatic family.


During high school I was involved with athletic teams and came into daily contact with African-Americans from both Davis and Edison and had great relationships and fulfilling experiences. During college I returned to Mount Vernon often, and stayed in contact with the high schools athletic programs through 1967. After college, and until 1977 when my other responsibilities intervened, I stayed active with the Mount Vernon HS sports activities. Recently, over the last ten years, through my work with the Jon Breen Memorial Fund, I have had renewed contact with a Mount Vernon High School, that has changed mightily since the late 1960’s and mid 1970’s.


All in all, the promise of the Brown decision is still unresolved. Integrated education has worked for many millions, but generally speaking the quality of public education has been declining for many years, for more and more Americans, both white and non-white. Is the answer, regarding this decline, reflective of the change in the traditional home, the change in our culture, the women’s movement, the new drug culture, a decline in our core values, the need for curriculum change, the inequity of school funding, and a score of other issues? Ironically there are many more “de facto” segregated schools then one would imagine. We easily see in our region, a Mount Vernon HS with a minority population of 98%, a Bronxville HS with a non-minority school population of probably 98% white. Therefore, what is the answer?








5 thoughts on “Mount Vernon Change and Legacy 1963-2003

  1. This morning I just finished an interview for a newspaper article on Jimmy Lee’s paintings. He spoke highly of Richard Garfunkel and Henry Littlefield. Your presentation added a very interesting level to the interview.

  2. Fascinating. I grew up in Mt Vernon in the Graham School district and graduated from A.B. Davis. At the time, the late fifties, I recall only two African American students in Graham Junior HIgh and only a couple of minority students at Davis. However, we were taught respect for one another. But of course we were not properly aware of the differences in opportunies accorded by race.

  3. I went to Edison High School and I was to graduate from Mt. Vernon High School in 1963. Most of my friends were black and we were very happy at Edison. Once we were transferred over to Mt. Vernon HS a lot of my classmates were not happy. We were given new teachers from Davis and we felt isolated. At Edison we knew all the teachers by name and they knew us. In our final year we were thrown into a large school with teachers we knew nothing about. The vocational classes were state of the art and that was exciting but in the cooking class, we had to learn institutional cooking and feed the teachers during lunch in a cafeteria setting. The boys were on the stoves and the girls were making salads, busing tables, set-up and cleaning. Majority of my classmates were black and we never had an issue, but we were together for three years, like a family. Unfortunately, once we went into the new High School, the girls were treated differently than the boys. In Edison, we all were cooking in the kitchen and there was more rotation as to your duties and what was expected of everyone. I understand why the schools were combined but originally Edison was to get the new school and not Davis, but politics took over and decided to incorporate the schools. I believe it was racially motivated because Edison had a much larger black population and they didn’t want them in their neighborhoods bring the house values down. I lived in Mt. Vernon from 1954 until 2006. I moved there when I was 8 years old until after my son graduated from Mt. Vernon HS and when into the service to serve our Country, got married and moved out of Mt . Vernon. I watched the government change from good to bad and corruption ruin the city.

  4. Great reading. I also grew up in Mt. Vernon and attended Mt. Vernon H.S and graduated in 1966. Do you remember the name of the development of rather upscale homes that were built across from the H.S? If so could you email me that name?
    Thank you so much.

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