Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Passing of Dr Vincent Harding- Minister, Scholar, Activist- Proud Product of the Bronx

Today, I just learned of the passing of Dr Vincent Harding, a minister, civil rights leader, and pioneering scholar in the emerging field of Black Studies. Dr Harding's odyssey led him from a childhood in the Bronx, where he graduated as valedictorian of Morris High School, to work with Dr King in Atlanta, Selma and Birmingham, to the founding of the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, toward a role as a major academic adviser to the great film series
"Eyes on the Prize." I had the privilege of meeting Dr Harding for the first time when I interviewed him for the Bronx African American History Project at Morris High School about his experiences growing up in the Bronx and attending Morris HS and remained in touch with him till his passing. Dr Harding was perhaps the single most inspiring figure I have encountered in many years of scholarship and activism, someone who had a unique ability, whether in speaking to a large group, or in private conversation, to make people around him strive to be a more humane and caring person. He was a spiritual leader in the best sense of the word, as his influence was not so much through instruction as example. He radiated goodness, and compassion and humility, even though he was one of the most brilliant scholars of his generation. R.I. P. Dr Harding. You will live in every person you touched with your writing, your speaking and your incandescent spirit

Here, in tribute to Dr Harding, is an excerpt of an interview I did where he reflects upon teachers who inspired him when he was in high school.

Historian Vincent Harding Reflects on What Constitutes Great Teaching at an Urban Public High School
The following is an excerpt of an interview that we did for the Bronx African American History Project with Historian and Civil Rights activist Dr Vincent Harding at Morris HS in the South Bronx, from which Dr Harding graduated a valedictorian in 1948. In it, he reflects on great teachers who influenced his  life, and how his experience at Morris affected his future scholarship and activism ( e.g. his work with Dr King at the Albany Georgia and Birmingham Alabama protests, his founding of the Institute of the Black World, and his word as an adviser to the film series “Eyes on the Prize). Needless to say, his reflections have a certain relevance to current policy debates about what makes a great teacher.

 MN. What I would like to do, if it’s OK is turn to your high school experience. When we were talking before we went on tape, you said there were a number of memorable teachers you had at Morris.Could you talk to us a little about your Morris experience.

VH. That’s a very important matter. When I first was applying to high school, I started out thinking that I was going to apply to the School of Aviation Technology, but someone wise told me that’s probably not what you want to do,because that was more a technical school than anything else. And my next goal was Stuyvesant ( a prestigious exam school). I had a tremendous amount invested in going to Stuyvesant because of the reputation of the school and because I was supposed to be a pretty bright person. And it was a marvelous experience for me to be to be rejected because even though I did well in math, I was not as good in math as some of the other applicants and so Stuyvesant was out. The next place I thought I should apply was Clinton,, and it was only after Clinton said “ No, you are not in our area” that I considered Morris. Its was kind of a last choice. And I was soon disappointed that I was being sent to Morris because I had heard that Morris was not nearly as good as these other palaces and it was a disappointment for a while.

 But as I said to you earlier, Mark,for me Morris played an absolutely crucial part in shaping my identity and my sense of purpose in the world. When I came to the school for this interview, I was very happy to see the name Jacob Bernstein, the Morris principal when I was there, on the wall, because I remember him saying often that what he wanted to do was make Morris a real United Nations. He used that phrase often. And that whole idea of seeing diversity as something you’re not forced into or trying to avoid, but something you welcome and try to shape into its best possibilities was a very important matter to me. 

Morris was an important counterpart for me to the church in Harlem I attended, Victory Tabernacle Church, and together they gave me the key elements of citizenship in a truly democratic society.Because what I had at Victory was a solid African American base from which I could move. I  didn’t stay there. I moved into the more diverse world that Morris represented. So that whole idea of moving from a particular cultural base into a larger society, into which you can bring something powerful out of that base, is something we Americans have to learn to do better 

Now as for teachers, the most important teacher I had a Morris was a biology teacher. I never had her in a course, but she was my adviser, thank God. Her name was Ellen Bursler. I don’t know how long she had been a biology teacher, but she provided something to be of tremendous importance, and that is that Mrs Bursler loved me. I was more than just a number on her list of advisees. She really came to the point where I knew she cared about me. And she got to know my mother, and my mother appreciated her, and she helped me find part time and summer jobs because she knew that if I really wanted to go to college, I not only needed income, but exposure to a wider world-all that was part of her role as teacher. In my mind, I keep coming back to the image of her address in the upper left hand corner of the letters she constantly sent to me even when I was in college. 975 Knowlton Avenue is what I would read. I would visit her house at times, meet her husband. She even invited me to her synagogue on a couple of occasions. She was for me the model teacher and she marked me for life through her deep concern and love for me. 

The second person who comes to mind is a woman who taught French, Helen Prevost And the impact she had on me was a little unusual. When I came to Morris, I had this side vision of myself as an athlete of some sort because in Junior High School, I had been on the softball team. I always had enjoyed sports very much. But when I came to Morris, I acquired an interest in journalism and thought that I would like to write for the school paper, the “Morris Piper.” And it turned out that in this particular period, at the end of my first year at Morris, the tryouts for the Piper and the tryouts for the basketball team were on the same afternoon. And for reasons I don’t fully understand, maybe knowing what she would say, I went to Mrs Prevost, with whom I had been friendly, and asked “ Mrs Prevost, could you help me decide what I should do. Both of these tryouts are at the same time.” And she said “Basketball you can enjoy but for a very short time. Writing,journalism, you can do those your entire life.’ So I ended up going to thePiper and Mrs Prevost was very important to me because going into journalism turned out to be a very important direction for me in my life.