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James B. Donovan Subject Files, 1961-1963, Series 321 


The James B. Donovan Subject Files, 1961-1963, document portions of the work of a member and officer of the Board of Education. They comprise Series 321 of the Board of Education Record Group, and are part of the subgroup of records of members of the Board. They have been assigned accession number 04-088.

The records were placed in the custody of Teachers College Library by the Board of Education in 1981. They were transferred to the Municipal Archives in 2003.

The series consists of 1.5 cubic feet of records. They were organized and inventoried by the Municipal Archives in 2005, with support from the New York State Archives under its Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund.

Biographical Note

James B. Donovan was appointed to the Board of Education by Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., in September 1961, as part of a general reform of the Board. A state law enacted in August had removed the entire previous board and required the Mayor to appoint a new board from among persons nominated by a Selection Board of educational and civic leaders.

James B. Donovan was elected Vice President of the Board in 1961 and elected president in 1963 upon the resignation of President Max J. Rubin. Although his term of office was supposed to extend to 1967, Donovan resigned effective June 30, 1965.

The major public policy issue faced by the Board of Education during Donovan’s term as a member was racial desegregation of the schools. Donovan was generally opposed to most of the desegregation proposals offered by civil rights groups and other reformers. Author David Rogers suggests that his rigidity on this issue and his ”consistent capacity to insult civil rights and union leaders” led his colleagues to ask him to resign.

Beyond his service on the Board of Education, James B. Donovan had a distinguished, if sometimes controversial, legal and political career. Born in 1916 he attended Fordham College and Harvard University Law School. During World War II he served as associate general counsel of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, handling legal matters relating to the development of the atom bomb, and also as general counsel to the Office of Strategic Services. At the conclusion of the war
he served as associate prosecutor at the war crimes trials of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.

In the 1950s Donovan’s pursuit of a somewhat less dramatic legal career was punctuated by his assignment as court-appointed defense counsel for Col. Rudolf Abel, a high-level Soviet spy. Abel went to jail and was still conveniently there in 1962 when Donovan negotiated the trade of Abel for Francis Gary Powers the American U2 spy plane pilot. Next, Donovan negotiated the release, in 1962 and 1963, of several thousand Americans and Cubans from Cuban jails where they had been placed after capture during the Bay of Pigs invasion. In the midst of these activities, Donovan was nominated as the Democratic Party candidate for United States Senate, but lost the 1962 election to Jacob Javits.

After his service on the Board of Education, Donovan was appointed President of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He held that position for two years, with some attendant conflict with the faculty, from 1968 until his death in 1970.

Scope and Content

The James B. Donovan Subject Files are a small remnant of the files that presumably once existed. They are organized as a single undivided series, including topical subject files, files relating to specific bureaus or officials, and a few files of general correspondence. Although Donovan served on the Board from September 1961 to June 1965, the files include virtually no materials beyond mid-1963. Thus, they do not include materials from the period when Donovan served as Board president.

Series Descriptions

Series 321. James B. Donovan Subject Files (1961-1963). 1.5 cubic feet.

The series contains correspondence, memoranda, reports, and printed materials. Arranged alphabetically, the series covers the period September 1961 to mid-1963. Notable subjects present include collective bargaining, integration, and local school boards. Within many of the files, correspondence with other board members and school officials gives some indication of Donovan’s role in the decision-making and administrative activities of the school system during the first portion of his tenure on the Board.

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