Ninth-grade English Language Arts Teacher Fired for Central Park Five: Jeena Lee-Walker

Meet the face of our newest alum pin, Jeena Lee-Walker ‘00. To pick up a pin, stop by the Barnard Library!

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Former English Teacher, Jeena Lee-Walker is notorious for being fired from teaching at the High School for Arts for composing a curriculum with lessons about the Central Park jogger case, which administrators feared would “rile up” black students, in November 2013.

Brief scope of the Past

Jeena Lee-Walker graduated from Barnard in 2000 and earned post-grad degrees from Harvard and Fordham. She began working for New York City Department of
Education (“DOE”), beginning in 2011, as a 9th-grade English at the “High School for
Arts, Imagination and Inquiry” in Manhattan.

“Central Park Five Case, Explained” 

The Central Park jogger case was a major news story that circulated throughout numerous news industries in the late 90’s. The story revolved around five boys of color, Antron McCray (15), Kevin Richardson (14), Yusef Salaam (15), Raymond Santana (14), and Korey Wise (16), and a 28-year-old white woman named Trisha Meili.

According to the recollections Ken Burns received for his documentary The Central Park Five, on the night of April 19, 1989, a group of about 30 young teenagers (mostly black and Latinx boys) met up in Central Park around 9-10 p.m. and engaged in various acts of mischief, like throwing rocks at cars. They even went as far as assaulting random joggers, leading to the arrest of two of the young boys by the police, Kevin and Raymond. They were held for hours in the Central Park precinct before officers contacted their parents to notify them of their arrest for “unlawful assembly.” They also reported that the boys would eventually be sent home with a ticket to family court. However, at 1:30 a. m., a 28-year-old white woman named Trisha Meili was discovered in Central park, beaten badly, raped, and barely alive. Hence, the boys were held longer than promised due to suspicions that they may be possible perpetrators involved the incident regarding Meili.

The boys were still detained the next morning and ushered into separate rooms where cops questioned them individually about Meili. Several more teenagers, including Antron, Yusef, and Korey, were brought in for questioning later that day. The boys were detained and endured non-stop interrogation for over  14-30 hours. Moreover, detectives threatened and coached them into providing the answers they wanted to hear. Teen Vogue author, Lincoln Anthony Blades also reported that:

Days later, the five boys were indicted for attempted murder, rape in the first degree, sodomy in the first degree, sexual abuse in the first degree, two counts of assault in the first degree, and riot in the first degree. Once the boys left the interrogation room, each and every one of them reversed course on the lies they were goaded into telling when speaking with legal counsel.

A trial in August, 1990 acquitted Yusef, Antron, and Raymond of attempted murder, but convicted them of rape, assault, robbery, and riot. A second trial ending in December 1990, convicted Kevin of attempted murder, rape, assault, and robbery, and Korey of sexual abuse, assault, and riot. All of the boys faced charges of five to 15 years in prison, four of whom resulted in serving seven years, while Korey, charged as an adult, was sent to Rikers Island.

It wasn’t until 12 years later that Meili’s true attacker steps into the spotlight.  Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist already serving a 33-years-to-life sentence confessed to attack. Tied with new DNA evidence, New York County district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau vacated the convictions of the five boys and cleared all charges, after having already served their time in prison. Kevin, Raymond, and Antron took this opportunity to sue New York City for $250 million, citing malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress, and eventually reached a settlement for $40 million.

Film makers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon released a documentary examining the case on November 23, 2012, called The Central Park Five.

Why Fired?

Lee-Walker argued, in response to administrators, “that students in general, and black students in particular, should be riled up,” despite agreeing to dial down her approach. She believed her lessons to be captivating and the topic to be important. She also found it to be a perfect application of the Miranda v. Arizona court case

Administrators still accused Lee-Walker of insubordination and given poor evaluations, more so because she pushed back.

Feeling abandoned and mistreated, Lee-Walker filed a suit in Manhattan Federal Court, and named the Department of Education and several school administrators as defendants. She claimed that:

retaliation against her violated her First Amendment right to discuss the Central Park Five case, and that the firing violated the city’s contract with the teacher’s union because she was not given a required 60 days notice.

In her favor, her lawyer, Ambrose Wotorson, told The News, “We’re not looking to turn our students into automatons. We’re looking to turn out independent thinkers — and she got fired for that, and that’s just wrong.”

On November 23, 2016, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed Lee-Walker’ case, reasoning that “her termination was not a violation of her rights” because school districts can regulate the content of school-sponsored speech as long as they are “reasonably related to pedagogical concerns.” Furthermore, Lee-Walker’s lesson plans, were not entitled to First Amendment protections.

As of February 27, 2018, Husch Blackwell LLP and Theresa Mullineaux report in an article for JD Supra:

If the Supreme Court decides to hear Lee-Walker v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ., the Court will address two issues: (1) do state-employed pedagogues enjoy the protections of free speech in academia, especially given the Garcetti case and (2) if not, does the First Amendment protect a teacher or professor in a public school or university?

Resources

Learn more about Lee-Walker v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ. by reading the legal brief for the case.

Aziza Rahman ’20

Sources

Bekiempis, Victoria and Greene, Leonard. “EXCLUSIVE: NYC high school teacher claims she was fired for Central Park Five lessons that administrators feared would create ‘riots’.” New York Daily News, New York Daily News, January 8, 2016, accessed May 30, 2018, http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-teacher-fired-lessons-central-park-article-1.2489687.

Blackwell, Husch, LLP and Mullineaux, Theresa. “Jeena Lee-Walker V. N.Y.C. Dep’t Of Educ. Et Al.: Book Banning And The First Amendment.” JD Supra, JD Supra, LLC, February 27, 2018, accessed May 30, 2018, https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/jeena-lee-walker-v-n-y-c-dep-t-of-educ-27242/.

Blades, Lincoln A. “Central Park Five Case, Explained.” Teen Vogue, Condé Nast, July 18, 2017, accessed May 30, 2018, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/central-park-five-case-explained

Jeena Lee-Walker v. City of New York Department of Education of the City of New York, et al., 42 U.S.C. 1983 (2018).

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Pulitzer Prize-winning Novelist: Jhumpa Lahiri

“Meet the face of our newest alum pin, Jhumpa Lahiri ‘89. To pick up a pin, stop by the Barnard Library!

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Jhumpa Lahiri is widely renown for her collections of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008), and novel, The Namesake (2003). Interpreter of Maladies earned the Pulitzer Prize, PEN/Hemingway Award and The New York Debut of the Year. The Namesake was a New York Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and was selected as one of the best books of the year by USA Today and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications.

Lahiri’s most recent publications include her newest novel, The Lowland (2013),  a finalist for both the Man Booker prize and the National Book Award in fiction, and new memoir, In Other Words (2015), originally written in Italian while in Rome and titled, In Altre Parole. 

Early Life

Nilanjana Sudeshna “Jhumpa” Lahiri was born in London, England to Bengali Indian immigrants, Amar and Tapati. Around the age of three, Lahiri moved to Kingston, Rhode Island where she spends most of her life growing up. Amar was a librarian at the University of Rhode Island but frequently took Tapati and Lahiri to visit relatives in Calcutta (Kolkata).

As a young girl, Lahiri was surrounded by shelves towering with Bengali poetry and literature books which her mother read religiously, and books about China and Russia her father read for his graduate studies in political science, and Time magazines which he read to relax. However, Lahiri still somehow felt void of books in her life. She always pictured “the perfect” house to be overflowing with books on shelves and scattered across tables; they would be everywhere and lining the entire house. She was permitted to own a book when she was between the ages of five and six, and she describes the first book her mother bought for her as “diminutive, about four inches square, and was called “You’ll Never Have to Look for Friends.”” Her first encounter with oral stories was listening to her maternal grandfather as he crafted stories for her long after everyone had gone to sleep.

For Jhumpa Lahiri, reading and writing fed her soul. She made discoveries that nourished her mind and soothed her desires, but often defied her parents for the culture and knowledge her books entailed.

Lost in Transition

Lahiri’s journey into and through adolescence was immersed in self-doubt and denial. She convinced herself that “creative writers were other people, not me,” allowing what she loved at seven to become what intimidated her most at seventeen. She, instead, dove into “practicing music and performing in plays, learning the notes of a composition or memorizing the lines of a script.” She wrote essays and articles with the drive to become a journalist and entered Barnard majoring in English literature with the hopes of becoming an English professor. She was, in a sense, afraid of herself in writing. In an article she wrote for The New Yorker, she describes:

For much of my life, I wanted to be other people; here was the central dilemma, the reason, I believe, for my creative stasis. I was always falling short of people’s expectations: my immigrant parents’, my Indian relatives’, my American peers’, above all my own. The writer in me wanted to edit myself. If only there was a little more this, a little less that, depending on the circumstances: then the asterisk that accompanied me would be removed. My upbringing, an amalgam of two hemispheres, was heterodox and complicated; I wanted it to be conventional and contained. I wanted to be anonymous and ordinary, to look like other people, to behave as others did. To anticipate an alternate future, having sprung from a different past. This had been the lure of acting—the comfort of erasing my identity and adopting another. How could I want to be a writer, to articulate what was within me, when I did not wish to be myself?

Lahiri later graduated from Barnard in 1989.

Post-Barnard

After graduating from Barnard, Lahiri moves on to obtain three masters degrees in English, creative writing, and comparative studies in literature and the arts, and a Ph D. in Renaissance studies. She also became a professor of the creative writing program at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts.

Among winning the Pulitszer Prize, PEN/Hemingway Award and The New York Debut of the Year, the Man Booker prize and the National Book Award in fiction, Lahiri also won numerous other awards including the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, the Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Vallombrosa Von Rezzori Prize, the Asian American Literary Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. In 2014, she was also awarded a National Humanities Medal.

In 2001, Lahiri married Alberto Vourvoulias, a Guatemalan-American and embraced writing and publishing in Italian. She published a number of other stories, along with In Other Words, and “The Boundary” (2018), including The Clothing of Books (2016), Ties (2017), which was named a New York Times Notable Book and Best Foreign Novel by the Times of London, Trick (2018) and Dove mi trovo (2018). She continues to write in Italian and translate her stories to English.   

The Penguin Classics Book of Italian Short Stories, edited and introduced by Lahiri, with selected translations, is forthcoming in Spring 2019.

Resources

Learn more about Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri in the Barnard alum magazines at the Barnard Library Academic and Information Services (BLAIS), listen to her interviews with NPR, or read her own published article in The New Yorker, “Trading Stories: Notes from an apprenticeship,” a self reflection of her life from childhood into adulthood.

Or, do all three!

Aziza Rahman ’20

Sources

Chotiner, Isaac. “Jhumpa Lahiri.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group, April 2008, accessed May 30, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/04/jhumpa-lahiri/306725/.

Deutsch, Robert. “Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri.” USA TODAY, USA TODAY, August 19, 2003, accessed May 30, 2018, https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2003-08-19-lahiri-books_x.htm.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. “Trading Stories: Notes from an Apprenticeship.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast, June 13, 20, 2011, accessed May 30, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/trading-stories.

Leyshon, Cressida. “Jhumpa Lahiri on Writing in Italian.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast, January 22, 2018, accessed May 30, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/books/this-week-in-fiction/fiction-this-week-jhumpa-lahiri-2018-01-29.

Minzesheimer, Bob. “For Pulitzer winner Lahiri, a novel approach.” USA TODAY, USA TODAY, August 19, 2003, accessed May 30, 2018, https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2003-08-19-lahiri-books_x.htm.

NPR. “Strained Connections in ‘Unaccustomed Earth’.” Interview by Neda Ulaby. Book Tour, May 6, 2008. Audio and summary article, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97418330.

NPR. “Jhumpa Lahiri’s Struggle To Feel American.” Interview by Steve Inskeep. Morning Edition, November 25, 2008. Audio and summary article, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97418330.

 

Librarian and Archivist of Black Culture: Jean Blackwell Hutson

Meet the face of our newest alum pin, Jean Blackwell Hutson ‘35. To pick up a pin, stop by the Barnard Library!

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Jean Blackwell Hutson is best known for her work at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where she served as chief for 32 years (1948-1980). Hutson expanded the Schomburg immensely during her tenure there, increasing the collection from 15,000 works to 75,000 works. As a librarian, archivist, and educator, Hutson was an advocate for the importance of cultural and scholarly centers dedicated to the preservation of Black history and life around the world.

Early Life

Born in Sommerfield, Florida in 1914, Hutson moved to Baltimore with her mother (a teacher) after her parents divorced. Her biographer Sharon Fitzgerald said in an interview with Schomburg archivist Alexsandra Mitchell that Hutson was a “precocious… [and] gifted child.” From a young age, Hutson formed connections with important Black intellectuals of her time. She met Langston Hughes when she was young and they became lifelong friends. He often referred to her as his “little sister,” and would later help her transition into the social and intellectual world of Harlem. While attending Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, Hutson encountered teachers such as Norma Marshall (Thurgood Marshall’s mother), Yolanda Du Bois (W.E.B. Du Bois’ daughter and a figure of the Harlem Renaissance), and May Miller (the daughter of Kelly Miller and a well-known Harlem Renaissance-era writer).

Path to Barnard

After graduating at fifteen as Valedictorian of her high school class, Hutson spent three years studying psychiatry at the University of Michigan. While she was there, she organized against their segregated dorms. Hutson’s mother was worried about how much time Hutson was spending on student activism, so she encouraged her to transfer to Barnard. At Barnard, Hutson switched her major from psychiatry to English. Barnard also had segregated dorms at that time, but Hutson lived in the International House at Columbia where graduate students lived. During her time at Barnard, Hutson was also a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. She would later return to Barnard in 1974 to speak about her career at a Thursday Noon meeting, and again in 1983 to participate in a “Dialogue Between Distinguished Educators.”

Becoming a Librarian

After college, Hutson spent a year getting her masters at the Columbia School of Library Service. Library science was not Hutson’s intended career path — she initially took it up as a temporary occupation while saving money for medical school. However, she never left the field of libraries and education after graduate school.

Hutson’s advocacy for accessibility and attention to marginalized peoples started early on in her career as a librarian, when she worked at a New York Public Library branch in the Bronx. There, she expanded the collection to include books in Spanish that would appeal to the Spanish speaking patrons of the library. Sharon Fitzgerald notes that Hutson brought, “uncompromised intellect… to every idea… so the library became a natural place for her,” and that she shared, “extraordinary generosity… with patrons.”

Hutson married musician Andy Razaf in 1939, but they got a divorce after eight years of marriage. Starting in 1947 she worked in New York Public Library’s Division of Negro Literature, and she became chief of the Schomburg Collection (originally based on Arthur Schomburg’s private collection of books) in 1948. In 1950, she married John Hutson. They later had a daughter, Jean Frances Hutson. Unfortunately, that marriage was also brief as John Hutson passed away in 1957.

Hutson’s Time as Chief

Hutson spurred a tremendous amount of growth at the Schomburg. She curated important art and historical collections and got her friends Langston Hughes and Richard Wright to donate their personal papers to the collection. Hutson said in a 1964 radio interview with Director of Urban Planning of the American Jewish Committee Irving M. Levine that she was committed to, “filling the gaps of omissions that have occurred” in the telling of Black history. Her work as a librarian and archivist reflects her success in this pursuit. In 1962, Hutson helped publish the Dictionary Catalogue of the Schomburg Collection. This catalogue made the reach of the Schomburg global, as microfilms of the catalogue allowed libraries around the world to explore the contents of the collection. Hutson’s personal prowess as a librarian and educator also attracted international attention. In 1964, she was invited to the University of Ghana to help assemble their Africana collection. She spent the year there as a librarian in the University’s Balme Library.

On her return to the Schomburg, Hutson focused her efforts on fundraising for a new building to house the Schomburg. In addition to helping create the Schomburg Corporation in 1971, Hutson lobbied for federal funding in Albany. Her efforts came to fruition in 1981 when the impressive $3.7 million building opened its doors.

Life beyond the Schomburg

Even though she retired from the position of chief in 1981, Hutson’s name will forever be attached to the Schomburg Collection, especially because of the Jean Hutson General Research and Reference Division (which was dedicated to Hutson on her 80th birthday). After her retirement, Hutson went on to hold a position in the office of library administration at the NYPL.

Hutson was also involved in many organizations beyond the Schomburg, including the American Library Association, the African Studies Association, the NAACP, and the Urban League. In addition, she helped found the Black Academy of Arts and Letters and was the first president of the Harlem Cultural Council. She was an associate adjunct professor of history at City College, where she encouraged students who were engaged in the Black Power movement to use the Schomburg as a resource for their activism. She wrote for journals and library publications, and also contributed to books such as Notable American Women: The Modern Period: a Biographical Dictionary. She has been honored with many awards, including The Annual Heritage Award of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1966; The Black Heroes Memorial Award for Outstanding Community Service Commemorating the Lives of Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Whitney M. Young Jr. and Martin Luther King, Jr., 1974; and The Professional Service Award, Black Librarians Caucus of the American Library Association, 1980.

Hutson passed away in 1998 at age 83, leaving behind a rich legacy of scholarship, culture, and history for the world to cherish and explore.

Resources

To learn more about Hutson in her own words, read an interview with her in the Barnard Alumnae Magazine or listen to her 1968 conversation with Irving M. Levine on Black history.

To learn more about the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, visit the NYPL’s about page.

-Sarah Barlow-Ochshorn ’20

Sources

“A Celebration of Scholarship.” Barnard Alumnae, Summer 1983. http://digitalcollections.barnard.edu/islandora/object/BC11-08:10450#page/16/mode/2up.

Chambers, Kate. “Navasky Speaks at Thursday Noon.” Barnard Bulletin (New York), January 31, 1974. http://digitalcollections.barnard.edu/islandora/object/bc:bulletin-19740131-5.

“Class Notes.” Barnard Alumnae, Fall 1984. http://digitalcollections.barnard.edu/islandora/object/BC11-08:10695#page/40/mode/2up.

Fitzgerald, Sharon. “The Early Life of Jean Blackwell Hutson.” Interview by Alexsandra Mitchell. Live From the Reading Room, September 7, 2017. Audio, https://www.nypl.org/blog/2017/09/07/birthday-jean-blackwell-hutson.

Howard, Sharon. “Hutson, Jean Blackwell.” Oxford African American Studies Center, Oxford University Press, accessed May 24, 2018, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e0285?hi=0&highlight=1&from=quick&pos=1.

“Hutson, Jean Blackwell 1914–.” Contemporary Black Biography, Encyclopedia.com, accessed May 24, 2018, https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/historians-and-chronicles/historians-miscellaneous-biographies/jean-blackwell-hutson.

Hutson, Jean Blackwell. “Mrs. Jean Hutson: Are We Rewriting History?” Interview by Irving M. Levine. New York Tomorrow, December 24, 1968. Audio, http://www.wnyc.org/story/mrs-jean-hutson-are-we-rewriting-black-history/.

Smith, Dinitia. “Jean Hutson, Schomburg Chief, Dies at 83.” The New York Times February 7, 1998. https://www.nytimes.com/1998/02/07/arts/jean-hutson-schomburg-chief-dies-at-83.html.