African American Studies


Valerie Washington is a lifelong resident of the Bronx, whose parents were both born in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. She grew up on Wells Avenue, then 1098 Simpson Street where her parents were the superintendents of the building. She says there were no other African-American families in the building, and this was common in the area for the superintendents to be African-American with mostly white Jewish tenants. She attended PS 20 where she was placed in the top classes from the very beginning of her education. She then attended Herman Ritter Junior High and then Washington Irving High School in 1953, which she jokes is the only time she ever left the Bronx. After graduating from high school she went on to attend Hunter College which she says only cost $100 back in the 50’s. She majored in science but wound up becoming a teacher because that’s what women did at the time. No one told her what she could do with a degree in science besides teaching because women in science were not encouraged. Black women who did not go to college generally became secretaries of some sort at the time as well.

She first began teaching at PS 93 off of Bruckner Boulevard on Elder Avenue. This is where most of the interview is centered, on her experiences in teaching in the 60’s. The students she taught at PS93 were mostly white, Jewish children. There was also a group of children that were bussed from the Bronx River Projects, which were generally Black and Latino. Washington was the only black teacher in the school when she first started and while she did not notice any racism directed towards herself, she noticed that the other teachers viewed the bussed students as more needy than the other children and they were assumed to be less intelligent because they were from the projects. She says she also does not really recall the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. She was very much affected by the teaching strikes that occurred in 1968 though. Until this time she was not viewed as a person of color, but the strikes changed everything. She was a strike breaker and continued to teach during the strike while other teachers stood outside picketing. Friendships that she had for nearly 8 years fell apart due to the strikes as well. The white teachers were afraid of the community having control of the schools and having the ability to hire and fire teachers. Washington was in favor of community control. She wound up leaving the school in 1970 because things had become very racially tense. She believes the strike hurt the quality of education in the long run. She went on to teach at Lehman College at a time when they were looking to diversify their staff. She became a Professor of Education at Herbert Lehman College.

Throughout the interview while discussing her teaching experiences and the teaching strikes in ‘68 she also discusses the changes she witnessed in the Bronx in education, neighborhood safety, drugs, and gang culture. She feels that there are still many of these issues that still exist today and have yet to be fully dealt with.

Click below to download supplemental content.

Washington, Valerie Part 1.mp3 (25374 kB)
Washington, Valerie Part 2.mp3 (86996 kB)
Washington, Valerie Part 3.mp3 (27156 kB)