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Isaiah Robinson Files, 1968-1972, Series 378 


The Isaiah Robinson Files, 1968-1972, document portions of the work of a member and officer of the Board of Education, who served, during these years, as the first African-American president of the Board. They comprise Series 378 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 05-037.

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

The series consists of 19.5 cubic feet of records. The series was partially organized at Teachers College Library and a first version of the inventory was prepared there. Additional materials were organized and a revised and expanded inventory was prepared by the Municipal Archives in 2005, with support from the New York State Archives under its Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund.

Biographical Note

Isaiah Edward Robinson, Jr. was born on February 17, 1924, in Birmingham, Alabama. He attended the public schools there and graduated from high school in 1942 with an interest in commercial art. In 1944 he graduated from the Tuskegee Institute Flying School and was commissioned a pilot in the Army Air Force.

He resigned from military service in 1946 and went north to New York City. He married Sylvia Lawson and their son Larry was born in 1949. That same year Robinson graduated from the Art Career School in New York City. He worked as the art director for Delmar Printing from 1958 to 1969.

When his son entered junior high school, Robinson grew active in school affairs. Her served as a consultant on education to the New York City Human Resources Administration, the Urban Coalition, and Manhattan Borough President Percy E. Sutton.

Robinson was a leader in the Afro-American community as well. He served as Associate Director of the Harlem Freedom School, Arrangements Chairman of the 1967 National Conference on Black Power held in Newark, Chairman of the Harlem Parents’ Committee, and President of the Harlem Commonwealth Council for Economic Development.

Robinson participated in school integration efforts in the early 1960s. He was remembered in 1963 for walking out of a school board meeting and denouncing the board’s integration plans as “gradualism and tokenism.” During the 1966 controversy over community control, he accused the Board of Education of standing by while “children are being slaughtered through educational genocide.” By the late 1960s he had become a strong advocate for community control He served as an advisor to the governing board of the Intermediate School 201 complex, a demonstration project in Harlem.

On April 30, 1969 the New York State Legislature passed the school decentralization law. A major change was the creation of community school boards with major responsibility for elementary and intermediate schools. The central Board of Education retained responsibility for policy-making, for the high schools, for allocation of funds, and for the negotiation of contracts. The law mandated an interim board of education to implement its reforms. The new board was to be composed of five members, one appointed from each borough. On May 23, 1969, Manhattan Borough President Percy E. Sutton appointed Robinson, then 45 years old. Both men had previously worked in the Harlem chapter of the NAACP. Sutton described Robinson as a “coolheaded militant.”

Robinson was the first African-American president of the Board of Education. He served as a Board member from 1969 to 1978. He was President of the Board for the school years 1971-1972 and 1975-1976. Robinson chaired the board’s Decentralization Committee from May 1969 to April 1970.

As President of the Board of Education, Robinson held ex-officio posts in state and national organizations. He was a trustee of the Public Education Association, director of the New York State School Boards Association, and New York State delegate to the National School Boards Association. According to Robinson, past presidents had often not attended the meetings, but he made a point of attending them. He used the conferences as opportunities to discuss problems with administrators of other large city school systems. His membership on the Teachers’ Retirement Board was also ex-officio.

After leaving the Board of Education, Robinson served as the New York City Commissioner of Human Rights from 1978 to 1984. From 1984 to 1986 he worked in the Office of University and Corporate Affairs of the Community Trust, an independent foundation. At the end of 1986 he retired from public life. When interviewed in 1990 he and his wife were living in Middletown, New York; he expressed pleasure at the recent mayoral election of his long-time friend, David Dinkins.

Scope and Content

The Isaiah Robinson Files document only a portion of Robinson’s work on the Board of Education. While Robinson’s service on the Board spanned the years 1969 to 1978, the records cover only the period 1969 to 1972 (a few earlier documents were received by Robinson and filed with later materials). The location of the records for the period after 1972 is not known.

During the period 1969 to 1972 a primary focus of the Board was the reorganization of the school system under the decentralization law, which provided for increased citizen participation in governance. Controversies over the rights and authority of the several components of the system, over the allocation of funds, and over the best ways to achieve educational equality, dominated the work of the Board and are reflected in Robinson’s files.

The files are organized into twelve subseries, reflecting the varied record types, the activities which created the records, and Robinson’s own filing system. The most important of the subseries are those relating to Robinson’s interaction with administrators, schools, community leaders, and parents, on the issues and problems arising from the reform of the system. Thus, subseries II includes correspondence and memoranda exchanged with board members, with Chancellor Scribner, and with other key administrative officials, often dealing with significant issues of policy or finance.
Subseries III (corresondence with community school boards), subseries V (decentralization), subseries VI (demonstration districts) deal specifically with aspects of the community control and decentralization experiments.

Several subseries reflect Robinson’s participation, as a representative of the Board of Education, on other boards and associations. These include subseries VIII-X and XII, dealing with the Board of High Education, the New York State School Boards Association, the National School Boards Association, and the New York City Teachers’ Retirement Board. These materials give some indication of how the issues facing the New York City public schools compared with those engaging broader groups of educators.

Series Descriptions

Subseries I: General Correspondence. 1969-1971. 1.0 cu. ft.

Correspondence, memoranda, publications, reports. Arranged alphabetically by correspondent.

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Subseries II: Correspondence with Board Members and Other Officials. 1969-1972. 4.25 cu. ft.

Correspondence, legal documents, pamphlets, referrals, reports. Arranged by category of official (alphabetical within categories) in the following sequence: chancellor, deputy chancellor, board members, board secretary. other administrative officials.

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Subseries III: Community School Boards Correspondence. 1969-1971 1.5 cu. ft.

Correspondence, memoranda, publications, reports. Arranged numerically by community school board., preceded by a few files of correspondence with local school boards (the advisory boards that preceded the decentralization law). Community school boards 1-6 were located in Manhattan, the borough which Robinson represented.

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Subseries IV: Subject files. 1968-1972. 2.0 cu. ft.

Circulars, correspondence, legal documents, memoranda, publications, reports, architectural plans. Arranged alphabetically by topical subject. Included are files on several controversial topics, such as drug abuse education programs, ethnic distribution of school staff, and student suspension policies and practices.

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Subseries V: Decentralization. 1969-1971. 2.25 cu. ft.

Correspondence, legal documents, memoranda, manuals, pamphlets, charts, publications, questionnaires, reports, and clippings. Arranged alphabetically by topical subject. This subseries contains some of the most distinctive materials in Robinson’s files. It focuses on the details of the actual implementation of decentralization, including the drawing of district boundaries; the involvement of citizens, through hearings, petitions, and other means of expression, in the development of the new system; the arrangements for election of community board members; and the efforts to resolve difficulties and controversies arising during these processes.

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Subseries VI: Demonstration Districts. 1968-1971. 1.5 cu. ft.

Correspondence, legal documents, memoranda, newspapers, pamphlets, publications, reports, telegrams. Arranged by district, then chronologically. The Intermediate School 201 demonstration district, in Harlem is represented by the largest quantity of material. This reflects Robinson’s participation in the community efforts surrounding the district in the 1960s. Photocopies were made of two newspapers, The People’s Voice and News from Ocean Hill-Brownsville (folder 20). The oversize originals are retained in Box 41.

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Subseries VII: ESEA Programs. 1969-1971. 1.25 cu. ft.

Correspondence, handbooks, memoranda, minutes, pamphlets, reports, statistics. Arranged by program (Title I and Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act ESEA]) and then chronologically. These materials relate to the implementation of Title I, which provided funding for disadvantaged children, and Title III, which gave aid to bilingual education.

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Subseries VIII: Board of Higher Education. 1970-1972. 1.25 cu. ft.

Correspondence, memoranda, minutes, notebooks, pamphlets. Arranged chronologically. Robinson served on the Board of Higher Education, governing body of the City University of New York.

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Subseries IX: New York State School Board Association. 1969-1971. 1.0 cu. ft.

Bulletins, correspondence, memoranda, minutes, reports of the New York State School Boards Association and its affiliated Conference of Large City Board of Education. The files are grouped by those two organizations, then arranged chronologically.

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Subseries X: National Organizations. 1971-1972. 0.5 cu. ft.

Correspondence, handbooks, newsletters, memoranda of the National School Boards Association and the National School Public Relations Association. Grouped by organization, then arranged alphabetically by subject.

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Subseries XI: Trial Examiners’ Reports. 1969-1972. 0.5 cu. ft.

Legal documents, memoranda, reports. Trial examiners held hearings and issued reports and recommendations in disciplinary cases involving teachers and other school system staff. The Board of Education then was required to make a quasi-judicial determination. Restrictions on access to these files may be required in some cases to protect privacy of individuals.

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Subseries XII. Teachers’ Retirement Board. 1968-1972. 2.5 ft.

Calendars and minutes of board meetings and annual reports. Arranged chronologically. Robinson served on the board ex-officio.

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