First Annual Report of the City Superintendent of Schools to the Board of Education for the Year Ending July 31, 1899

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In the First Annual Report of the City Superintendent of Schools to the Board of Education for the Year Ending July 31, 1899, it was proposed that the mandatory age for public education expand from the ages of 8 to 12 to the ages 6 to 14. The report went on to say:
No intelligent man can for a moment doubt the benefits that would accrue to

the community and to the individual were all children from six to fourteen

subjected to the beneficent influences of well regulated schools. [It is estimated]

that there are about 40,000 children in the city between six and eight years

of age who are not attending any school. The objection will be raised that there

is not room in the present school buildings for these children and that it is not

wise to place on the statute book a law which cannot be enforced.1
This was one of many problems facing New York City at the turn of the last century – a large and growing population coupled with a lack of facilities to educate its youth. Schools were part of the larger story of how the city dealt with the demands of industrialization and urbanization after the Civil War. The Gilded Age had reshaped the city and brought with it great challenges. The response was progressivism. Reformers thought they could transform society. At the center of that transformation were the needs of children. Child welfare became a cornerstone of the Progressive Era. The American dream has long been tied to the promise of education. Through education individuals would become productive members of society. Education would create an informed citizenry that would serve to safeguard freedom and democracy. In order to fulfill these objectives an unprecedented number of schools needed to be built. The kind of schools that were built shows the importance of education. The architectural designs used helped make New York a world-class city. It was the City Beautiful Movement marked by the Beaux Arts that help re-create the city and its schools. The buildings constructed became the physical embodiment of the progressive reformers desires. A school building is more than a collection of rooms. In the abstract schools are a place of knowledge, aspiration and ambition. The environment in which education is delivered makes a difference. Buildings have the power to enlighten and awaken the mind; their impact can be profound. The schools that were built in New York City represent a transformation in education and the values of civic virtue.

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In July of 1935, Caroline Henderson wrote to Secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace: “since 1931 the record has been one of practically unbroken drought resulting in complete exhaustion of subsoil moisture, the stripping of our fields of all protective covering and the progressive pulverization of the surface soil.1” She was describing the effects of dust storms that were destroying property and lives throughout the Great Plains. The Dust Bowl was the worst environmental disaster in United States’ history. The Dust Bowl along with the Great Depression helped stimulate government intervention. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal coalition worked to reach a political and economic compromise between unrestrained capitalism and socialism. In the process they changed not only the landscape of the American government, but the visual historic record. In its efforts to secure Congressional and public support for its projects, the federal government employed public relations methods. None more significant that the work of the Resettlement Administration and its offshoot the Farm Security Administration. Its artists helped create a visual landscape that has shaped America’s understanding of itself.

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The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn of the twentieth century. The federal government took unprecedented action to provide relief, recovery and reform. No group was harder hit by the Great Depression than African Americans. The New Deal was slow to deal with the unique situation faced by African Americans. The struggles of the Great Depression laid the foundation for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Art would play an important role in influencing the future. Despite its limitations, the New Deal, through the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Arts Program (FAP), was responsible for reshaping the cultural agenda and “marked a significant turning point in the production of black culture.”1 The artists of the Great Depression built upon the work done during the Harlem Renaissance. New Deal art extended and affirmed art that translated “politics into cultural terms.”2 The FAP looked for a “new sense of authentic American culture – one that championed national values and traditions by celebrating regional and racial diversity.”3 As a result, many artists worked to place African Americans in the historical narrative of the United States while combating long held stereotypes. None were less important than Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Dox Trash, and the creators of the Harlem Hospital murals. Throughout the decade, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) continued its struggles to gain social and political equality for African Americans. The NAACP employed many avenues to achieve its goals. An Art Commentary on Lynching and the Marian Anderson concert were two such avenues of artistic protest. Real change does not happen with one big event; it is incremental. The actions of both blacks and whites during the Great Depression helped generate the spark which would produce great change after World War II.

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America is a society strongly vested in the idea of “social citizenship.” Inherent in our founding documents is the belief in rights and responsibilities for all citizens. Despite these ideals of American democracy, “social citizenship” as social policy is limited. The Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century saw a flowering of movements designed to transform American society, but these were private undertakings. Although Americans give generously to charity and believe in second chances, above all else, we believe in individual responsibility. Only briefly, during the Great Depression did our notions of deservedness change. Even though we “like” the notion of a welfare state rooted in “social rights”, we don’t necessarily support it politically. The striving for policies designed to help labor, women, children and the elderly against the risks of an industrial capitalistic society were shaped by this contradiction. The primary factor which accounts for this lack of real change lies in the interaction between American values and American political institutions. Analyzing the development of Civil War pensions, Progressive reforms, and the New Deal will shed light on these forces.

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