Five women huddle around an apartment table on January 18, 1923. Some balance babies on their laps. Older children look on. One boy in a knitted cap stares at the camera, more interested by the photographer than by what the ladies are doing. They seem to be copying in notebooks the exemplars from a portable chalkboard pinned to the wall: “I went to the grocery this morning. I took my basket. I bought 2 pounds of potatoes.” One woman, standing, leans in to make a point. With her crisp white blouse and necktie, she must be their teacher. But her pupils are not children, and her classroom is outside a school.
We are witnessing in this photograph and the others here the work of the Education Committee for Non-English Speaking Women, a program sponsored by the New York State Department of Education with funding from the Russell Sage Foundation and other philanthropies. Eventually renamed the Neighborhood Teachers’ Association, the program sent itinerant instructors into homes, settlement houses, health centers, and even backyard playgrounds to offer language and citizenship classes to immigrant women in areas overlooked by the New York City Board of Education.
A 1922-23 report on the nationality of pupils enrolled in the program records their origins as Jewish, Polish, Greek, Spanish, Hungarian, Russian, Armenian, and Finnish, with the majority–over 65 percent–of Italian birth. Most of them had charge of large families. While their husbands went out regularly to work and there became familiar with American ways, the women, by cultural tradition, remained at home to cook and sew and mother their children, who were fast learning to speak and read and write English at school. Elizabeth A. Woodward, director of the program, saw the language as “a tool for adjustment to new conditions” for these women, many of whom, for the lack of English, could not be coaxed inside a schoolroom to discuss with a teacher their child’s progress.
Some instruction by the Education Committee did take place in classrooms, when they were empty of younger students, and when the women could spare time from their household chores. Classes also met in libraries, as two of the photographs here show, with the same group of women posed twice around a table, once with their books, and once with their lacework. (It is unclear if the curriculum included needlework.) The teacher appears to be the same woman from the first photograph. She may well be Edith Garretson, who worked with Italian women of Greenwich Village at the New York Public Library’s Hudson Park branch, home to a collection of Italian-language books selected by the pastor of Our Lady of Pompeii, a nearby Roman Catholic church.
Beyond their copybook grammar lessons, some of the women (supported by their children) appeared in productions drawn from Emily M. Gibson’s English-Class Plays for New Americans (1927). These were short tableaux with less-than subtle themes of acculturation like “New Worlds,” presumably a retelling of the Columbus discovery saga, and “The New Flag,” complete with actors in Native American and colonial dress flanking Betsy Ross and her star-spangled creation.
Whether or not Gibson’s plays turned the women into “instant Americans” we cannot know. But the immigrants who earned certificates of literacy from the Education Committee for Non-English Speaking Women must have gained fluency to converse with the wider world and with their rapidly assimilating families.
This post is by Joseph Ditta, Processing Archivist.