April 2002

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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.

Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.

The Mismeasure of Maria Baldwin

Nathaniel Vogel is a student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, and a 2001 Cambridge Peace Award recipient.

It has not quite been a year since I was an eighth-grade student at the Agassiz School in Cambridge, MA, where I began putting much of my time and effort into the hopeful name change of my school.

What, of course, sparked my interest was reading Dr. Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, which contains quotes that illustrate Agassiz' painfully racist extreme views. Here, Agassiz talks of his first contact with blacks: "In seeing their black faces with their thick lips and grimacing teeth, the wool on their head, their bent knees, their elongated hands, their large curved nails and especially the livid color of the palm of their hands, I could not take my eyes off their face in order to tell them to stay far away."

Maria Baldwin
Maria Baldwin. Photo from the Moorland-Springarn Collection, in Black Women in America
But what really furthered the idea of the name change for the school was Maria L. Baldwin--the real heart and soul of our school. In a time where blacks were getting whipped, being treated horribly, and when they barely had access to learn their ABC's, this African American educator was being honored by the president of Harvard, becoming the idol of all her acquaintances, both black and white, and presiding over a predominantly white student body. She was a teacher at the Agassiz until her appointment as principal in 1889. In 1916, when she was made master, she became one of two women masters in the Cambridge school system and was the only African American in New England to hold such a position. Baldwin graced the Agassiz School until her death in 1922, and was greatly mourned.

It was rare for a black woman like herself to be so positively accepted and respected in a white community. My fascination with Maria Baldwin began early on in my Agassiz years. The controlling forces at my school were always pretty good about educating us about what she means to the world and teaching us to love her. The school has one small plaque dedicated to her and an award given out at graduation in her name. But that's about it.

What soon became my problem was that my peers were overlooking Maria Baldwin's accomplishments and displayed obliviousness in regard to the proof of Agassiz' pure hatred and racism. When told about the issue and then asked of their opinions, all the responses I got were either indifferent ("but 'Agassiz' sounds better!") or irrationally and simply opposed to "a change that'll stir up more controversy than it's worth."

Just showing up for a day of studies and social interaction in a place that has held the "Agassiz" name on a sign for 126 years and walking inside to see very little evidence of Maria Baldwin in the school that blossomed under her wing, was inappropriate. You could almost hear a wailing voice crying out to be freed through the face of Maria memorialized in stained glass through the window of my principal's office.

The project began with the formation of a name change committee, which at first included my principal, an Agassiz parent, and myself. My principal, Dr. Sybil Knight, invited a Cambridge Chronicle writer to write an article about this new community goal, and it appeared on the cover of its next issue. I explained the project to some of my classmates, and two of them, Rebecca Richardson and Katy Loutzenhiser, found that they believed in the project strongly, and joined the campaign. Meanwhile, a small documentary briefly outlining the lives of both Baldwin and Agassiz was being produced. The Boston Globe caught wind of this, and to everyone's surprised, the story "Eighth grader finds shame in school name" appeared on the cover of the Boston Globe, including a picture of Katy, Dr. Knight, and myself. The morning that paper was published, the principal's office was receiving notes from local news stations left and right. Before the end of the school day, about five different TV news vans were parked outside the school.

Following this was our largest effort to win over the community's support via an open forum featuring many venerable local figures, where the documentary was presented. All of our parents (Katy's, Rebecca's, and mine) fully supported our efforts and showed up that evening. Many people stood up at the microphone to let their voices be heard. On this evening and on other occasions, I pointed out that we shouldn't so much complain about Agassiz, but celebrate Baldwin. It seems criminal to demote a woman of her stature to a small plaque on the wall. I also said that looking around my eighth-grade class, I saw so many different nationalities and noted that this is the kind of school Ms. Baldwin would stand for, and is exactly what Agassiz would fiercely oppose.

It was apparent that evening that many people missed the whole point, becoming caught up in the anti-Agassiz perspective and mistaking it for an attempt at giving our school a "politically correct" image. Our committee spoke up to oppose this though, stating that this was a necessary cause that would strengthen our community by discontinuing hateful legacies and honoring inspiring ones. Those positive vibes won out that evening, and after that event, our committee finally felt we had gained the majority of our community's support.

Now as a student of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, I still feel very much connected to the project that has, as of yet, not been resolved. The Cambridge City Council has not yet told of us their decision, only that it looks hopeful. Last year, I said that it would be a joy among all joys if, when I graduated, I would graduate from the Maria L. Baldwin School. Now that I am still working on the project in a different school, my sentiment towards Baldwin's incredible legacy still stands, and my passion for the project is still strong. I am happy to say that now, a year later, the prospects look sweet.

Maria Louise Baldwin, 1856-1922

"I dare not fail," said the distinguished educator Maria Louise Baldwin. She did not fail. For four decades she dedicated her mind and her voice to education.

Maria Baldwin was born in 1856, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one year after the Massachusetts legislature passed the 1855 act desegregating all public schools in the state. She graduated from Cambridge High School in 1874, and from the Cambridge Training School for Teachers in 1881.

Several Black citizens of Cambridge who knew of Baldwin's excellent scholastic record and her futile attempts to secure a teaching position in Cambridge formed a committee to urge the school board to appoint her to a teaching position. As a result, Baldwin was appointed in 1887 as an elementary school teacher of all seven grades in the interracial Agassiz Grammar School. A competent scholar and excellent disciplinarian, Baldwin was selected in 1889 as principal of the school.

At the Agassiz School, Baldwin directed the work of a dozen white teachers who taught more than 500 students, most of whom were white and many of whose parents were on the faculty of Harvard University. Her position was elevated to "master" in 1916, a position she held with great distinction and efficiency for the remainder of her life.

Baldwin enjoyed the friendship and wise counsel of numerous Black persons whose views she shared, such as William Monroe Trottor (publisher and editor of the Boston Guardian, and the Honorable Archibald Grimké, Harvard Law School graduate and editor of the Hub newspaper in Boston. She frequently lectured, particularly to her own people. She opposed all forms of racial discrimination and praised the achievements of Black Americans.

Perhaps no teacher has inspired as many or been loved more.

From Black Women in America, An Historical Encyclopedia, Darlene Clark Hine, ed. (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1993)

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