Established in 1982 at LaGuardia Community College/ CUNY with a mission to collect, preserve, and make available primary materials documenting the social and political history of New York City. We hold nearly 5,000 cubic feet of archival records and 3,200 reels of microfilm with almost 100,000 photographs and 2,000,000 documents available on our website.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Sputnik and the Role of Science, Math and Technology in American Education

Here's a link to our work on the history of science, 
technology, engineering and math in America
On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union set a new trajectory for education in America.  Before the launch of Sputnik (the first satellite ever to achieve Earth orbit), American education had been a local matter, focused on community and citizenship.  After Sputnik, the security and future of democracy seemed to hinge instead on winning a global battle with communism for domination of the world. As Marion B. Folsom, Secretary of HEW put it in his speech to the AFL/CIO two months after the Sputnik launch, “Whether we like it or not…[o]ne of the fundamental facts of our times is that America is a leader among the forces of freedom against the forces of tyranny in a contest which extends around the world.  And education will play a crucial role in determining which system triumphs in the end.”

On this anniversary of the Sputnik launch, let’s take a look together at three documents from our collection to examine the historical shift in American education at the Sputnik moment, and perhaps also for how we might think about science, math and technology in American education today. 

(1) A November 11, 1957 press statement announcing therelease of “Education in the USSR,” a study completed by the Department of Health Education and Welfare (HEW) shortly after the Sputnik launch;

(2) “The Challenge in Education,” a speech by Marion B. Folsom, Secretary of HEW, to the AFL/CIO on December 5, 1957; and
(3) “Education and Industry,” a speech to the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce by John A. Perkins, Under-Secretary of HEW on October 10, 1957.

The Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) released “Education in the USSR” a month after the Sputnik launch.  They had been working on it for two years.  The report told Americans that in the Soviet Republic, “more than half of the primary-secondary curriculum is made up of courses in the physical and natural sciences, mathematics through trigonometry, and mechanical drawing.”  High school graduates in Russia had taken 5 years of Physics, 4 years of Chemistry, 5 years of Biology, and 10 years of Math, while less than 1/3 of Americans had taken even one year of Chemistry.  At "Soviet semi-professional and higher educational institutions,” 70 percent of the degrees granted were in “scientific and technological fields.”  On October 6 that might have been interesting to a few policy wonks and interest groups.  Sputnik made it palpably frightening to the American public. Folsom’s solution sounds familiar even today: “We must teach more and better science in our schools and colleges.”
Bronx High School of Science moves into 
its new modern facility in 1959

The fear, and the link between education and global power rooted in the Sputnik moment remains potent today as well, despite the end of the Cold War.  Ever since Sputnik, America has worried about the security of its global leadership. The education system, particularly in science and math, became the focus of national fears of losing the competition for global dominance.  In the 1950s, Folsom put it this way: “It is clear that the enemies of freedom are increasingly using education as a means toward their proclaimed goal of world domination.”  Today, in the 21st century, we talk instead about losing economic competitiveness to Asian powers as the OECD ranks Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan as the leaders in Math and Science education, with the US at 28th.

Today’s debate over the role of the federal government in education stems from the Sputnik moment as well.  Sputnik crystalized education policy as a national issue.  States and localities, the traditional locus of educational policy and operation in America could not counter the USSR alone.  The Federal Government would have to take on a different and greater role, even as officials reiterated the primacy of local control.  Before Sputnik, the federal government had very little involvement in education, limiting its role to arms-length support for agricultural and mechanical schools.  Less than a year after Sputnik, Congress rushed through the National Defense Education Act to meet “the present emergency,” providing funding to support “education in science, mathematics, or modern foreign language” for both college-level students and primary and secondary schools.  The title of the Act both reveals Cold War fears and the constitutionally safe ground of national defense for what was then an unprecedented federal role in education. 

Even in the Sputnik moment however, Secretary Folsom recognized that science and math education was not solely about preserving America's global leadership.  Science and math education matters for an informed citizenry as well.  “No man or group of men lives alone on this earth,” said Folsom.  “Our society increasingly needs a grasp of the scientific and technological aspects of the world, but it ever will require an understanding of the great moral, philosophical, and historical concepts of mankind.”  

This anniversary of Sputnik invites us to reexamine the point of science, math and technology education in America.  Is it to win a global competition for military or economic mastery? Is it about creating an informed citizenry to ensure the future health of our democracy, perhaps even our world? And if it is about both, how do we prioritize?

You might also enjoy our website Inventing the Future, a look at the history of Science Technology, Engineering and Math in America.

And you can feel the excitement about the future of rockets and spaceflight sparked by Sputnik as you listen to the first 12 minutes of this 1957 WNYC radio show, featuring prominent science writer Willy Ley.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pope Francis' Visit in Historical Context

It is truly remarkable that Pope Francis will speak before Congress this week.  Democrats and Republicans alike may hope that the pontiff supports their positions on topics ranging from the environment to Planned Parenthood, but no one fears a papal conspiracy to control America.  

As recently as Pope John Paul II’s visit to the United States in 1979, newscasters focused their analysis on the separation of church and state, and concerns about papal influence over the White House.  Even as the newscaster in this video suggests that concern over these issues were in the past, the fact that they are the sole content of his report suggests otherwise.  John Paul II himself was sensitive to the political implications of his visit.  We have in our collection a 1979 confidential internal State Department memo stating that “The Pope stressed…that his visit would be pastoral and not political.” “If the Pope does not come this year, he will not visit until after 1980, since he wishes to be totally uninvolved in our election process.”

For most of American history, such fears of papal influence were palpable and often at the center of politics.  Samuel F. B. Morse (the inventor of the telegraph) wrote in 1835, “…emigrant Catholics…confine themselves simply and wholly to increasing the number of their sect, and the influence of the Pope in this country.  The American Party (a.k.a. the Know-Nothings) swept to election victories in the 1850s on the fear of Catholic immigrants and papal control.   

It wasn’t until 1928 that any major party even considered a Catholic presidential candidate.  Alfred E. Smith, a popular and progressive governor of New York lost to Herbert Hoover, in large part because he was a Catholic.  Many believed the rumor that he had wired the pope after losing the election with the message, “Unpack!”  

In 1960, John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was a big issue in the presidential campaign.  Pope John XXIII reportedly joked, “do not expect me to run a country with a language as difficult as yours,” when he heard Kennedy might win.  Many Americans sincerely feared that Kennedy would take orders from the pope, undermining American sovereignty.  To establish his independence from the Vatican, Kennedy made it a point to say, “I did not, would not, nor have I accepted that kind of dictation.” He went on to establish definitively that allowing the pope to dictate American policy would be grounds for impeachment of any president.  

No pope even visited the United States until 1965.  That year, President Johnson met with Pope Paul VI at a hotel room in New York, notably avoiding a visit to the White House.  Magazine inserts and commemorative books, like the selected pages from this one, were titled “Fourteen Hours,” highlighting the brevity of the pope’s visit.  And Paul VI’s main reason for coming to the United States in 1965 was to address the United Nations, a clearly international institution.  Had the pope gone to Washington at all on that historic visit, he would have certainly been accused of meddling in American politics.  

It is truly remarkable that Pope Francis will speak before Congress this week.  It will be interesting to hear this first papal speech before the American government, ever.

View some images from our collection of earlier papal visits to New York.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Big Airport Plans Today and Yesterday: Governor Cuomo, Mayor La Guardia and the Shift from City to Metropolitan Scale

Mayor La Guardia Announces the Opening of
Municipal Airport (La Guardia), 1939
(Source: La Guardia and Wagner Archives)

A fortnight ago, Governor Cuomo, flanked by Vice President Biden announced a $4 Billion reconstruction of La Guardia Airport, a project that will be undertaken by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Why the Governor, the Vice President and the Port Authority? Why not the Mayor?

The announcement seemed to beg for some historical context from those of us here at the La Guardia and Wagner Archives.  In the 1940s, Mayor La Guardia too envisioned big airport plans.  But back then, La Guardia’s dream was a grand new airport on Jamaica Bay, and it was the city, not Albany or Washington, who took the lead in planning its own future.  For La Guardia, the new airport at Idlewild (JFK) was an investment to secure New York City’s future dominance in world trade and travel in the emerging aviation era.  Today, in contrast, many New Yorkers think of the airports as a regional enterprise largely divorced from the city rather than one purposed for the city’s benefit.

Our story of the transition of New York’s airports from municipal to regional is set in the 1940s and begins with the early inadequacy of the airport that bears La Guardia’s name.(1)  Then as now, the airports have reflected the tension between New York as a place of aging infrastructure and jostling crowds, and its demand for grand facilities befitting a great metropolis.  

Vice President Biden’s depiction of La Guardia Airport as overcrowded and outdated is a recurring complaint, dating back almost to the Airport’s origins. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

State Assemblyman Mark Weprin and the Mets -- A Highlight from the Weprin Collection

Howard Johnson, Nettie Mayersohn, Saul and Mark Weprin

With the Mets’ season in full swing, the La Guardia and Wagner Archives released a new video this week which features former New York Council Member and State Assembly Member Mark Weprin recounting the championship season of the 1986 New York Mets and his own participation in the team’s Old-Timers Day on July 12, a celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Amazin’ Mets.  The video goes up just as our Archives YouTube channel reaches over 300,000 views.

This latest video oral history is just one treasure among many from the Weprin family as the Archives has collaborated with the Special Collections and Archives at Queens College to digitize a selection from the Saul Weprin Collection, the entire print collection of which is housed in the Queens College Special Collections and Archives.  

The collection documents Saul Weprin’s tenure as both the 24th District Assembly Member and as Speaker of the Assembly and his actions on political, social and cultural issues that impacted the Queens neighborhoods under his jurisdiction.

Two of the many particularly interesting documents include the Bias-Related Violence Act in 1991—legislation that preceded federal hate crime laws by three years, as well as his support of the 1993 Stalking Law.

The addition of this collection, especially in a conveniently accessible digital form, adds another dimension to the study of New York City history and politics for researchers and students.

As always, we invite you to engage with the wonderful wealth of materials in our collections.  Our website offers user friendly finding aids and computerized indexes facilitate rewarding research.  A number of our videos and images can be viewed at our YouTube Channel and Flikr page.  Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.  Or come and see our materials first hand here at the Archives itself.  We’re located at LaGuardia Community College/CUNY, 31-10 Thomson Ave., Room E-238, Long Island City, NY 11101.  Hours for researchers are generally Monday to Friday, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. Those interested in using the collections should call or write the Archivist to make an appointment. We look forward to your use of our materials.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Abraham Lincoln's Birthday

At New York's City Hall, Mayor Robert F. Wagner greets the Little Rock "Nine"
students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in September, 1957 

Tomorrow, February 12th is Abraham Lincoln's birthday, an event that in the past offered leading government figures an opportunity to speak out on the important issues of the day. On February 12, 1957, New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner delivered a speech before the Norwalk Catholic Club in Connecticut to express his own concerns about race relations in America.

"Today, the shrill voice of the demagogue is heard once more in portions of our land, inciting to lawlessness. Mob violence, limited fortunately to a relatively few places, so far, has replaced the democratic processes of law and order.  Southern, and some northern, politicians, fearful for their political future and, in some cases, eager for political profit, cater to the violent passions of the white supremacist.  More than 90 years ago, Lincoln called for a 'practical system, by which the two races could gradually live themselves out of their old relationship to each other, and both come out better prepared for the new.' Surely 90 years is time enough to hesitate on the doorstep of racial equality.  What is needed in this critical hour is a strong voice, an influential and unequivocal voice, a voice undeterred by political opportunism, to espouse, as Lincoln did, the principles of democracy and adherence to the law, in keeping with the particular needs of our time."

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

1969: John Lindsay's Re-election and Getting the Jewish Vote

Steven A. Levine
Coordinator for Educational Programs

The video, John Lindsay's Re-election and Getting the Jewish Vote, documents Mayor Lindsay’s uphill climb in his 1969 reelection campaign after losing the Republican primary to State Senator John Marchi, forcing him to run with the backing of only the Liberal Party. The Democratic Party nominee Comptroller Mario Procaccino failed to attract broad Democratic support because of his conservative views and verbal gaffes, but Lindsay desperately needed support from Jewish voters to win.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir's trip to the U.S. in September proved the right opportunity for Lindsay to regain his standing with the Jewish community in Brooklyn and Queens. In this video, Jay Kriegel, Lindsay Chief of Staff, and Sid Davidoff, Mayoral Assistant, recount how the city came to build a sukkah, a structure of branches and leaves which Jews traditionally eat in during the harvest festival Sukkoth, in the Brooklyn Museum parking lot as the site for a formal dinner in Meir's honor. This event captured the city's attention and helped Lindsay win reelection.

The sukkah and the Meir visit helped Lindsay increase his support among liberal Jews who could not pull the lever for Procaccino. In the general election, Lindsay and Procaccino split the Jewish vote with Lindsay getting support from more liberal, better educated, and affluent Jews and Procaccino doing better among working and lower middle class Jews in the outer boroughs.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Chicago White Sox Win the 1959 AL Pennant

On Sept. 22, 1959, the Chicago White Sox broke a 40-year drought and won the American League pennant by defeating the second-place Cleveland Indians at cavernous Municipal Stadium. Led by the double-play combo of Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio and strong pitching, the Sox broke the Yankees' stranglehold on first place. This video shows the exciting game action and post-game clubhouse celebration.