The Strike That Changed New York

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Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis

Jerald E. Podair

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On May 9, 1968, junior high school teacher Fred Nauman received a letter that would change the history of New York City. It informed him that he had been fired from his job. Eighteen other educators in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville area of Brooklyn received similar letters that day. The dismissed educators were white. The local school board that fired them was predominantly African-American. The crisis that the firings provoked became the most racially divisive moment in the city in more than a century, sparking three teachers’ strikes and increasingly angry confrontations between black and white New Yorkers at bargaining tables, on picket lines, and in the streets.

This superb book revisits the Ocean Hill–Brownsville crisis—a watershed in modern New York City race relations. Jerald E. Podair connects the conflict with the sociocultural history of the city and explores its legacy. The book is a powerful, sobering tale of racial misunderstanding and fear, a New York story with national implications.

Jerald E. Podair is assistant professor of history at Lawrence University. He received the Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians in 1998.

“This well-conceived and deeply researched book raises serious, difficult questions. Jerald Podair advances our knowledge of the emergence of two New Yorks—one white, one black—and opens the door to potentially illuminating and undoubtedly painful, discussions.”—Arnold R. Hirsch, University of New Orleans

“An engrossing, astute, and scrupulously fair book on the bitter, school-based racial conflicts that shocked and transformed New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. Jerald Podair has finally given those conflicts and the city in which they occurred the history that they deserve.”—Gary Gerstle, author of American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century

“Podair’s telling of the racially polarizing Ocean Hill–Brownsville crisis is outstanding: clearly written, deeply researched, and admirably balanced.”—James T. Patterson, Brown University

“The eruption over the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district in 1968 was a gut-wrenching affair that forever changed the politics of race and liberalism in New York City. Only with the passage of three decades, and with the arrival of a greatly talented and fair-minded historian, is it possible to begin making sense of what happened. No one will agree with everything in Jerald Podair’s excellent book. But everyone interested in comprehending the furies of the American 1960s will need to read and reflect on it.”—Sean Wilentz, Dayton-Stockton Professor of History and Director of the Program in American Studies, Princeton University

“Podair does a fine job of untangling the various threads of this complex story, which illuminates the nuances of racial politics in the post civil rights era within the context of the pluralistic concerns and conflicts arising in a key northern city.”—John A. Kirk, American Studies

"Podair deftly weaves a complicated story about class and race, labor and civil rights. . . . There are no faultless heroes or thoroughly evil villains here—only human beings struggling to make sense of their world and achieve justice as they understand it. This quality distinguishes Podair’s book from many other civil rights and labor histories. Highly recommended."—Choice

"[This] well-written and admirably balanced book will most likely stand as the definitive account of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis for some time. . . . Future scholars of New York history, as well as those who want to understand 1960s American, will find Podair’s engrossing and judicious book indispensable.”—Vincent J. Cannato, New York History

“In this fascinating volume, Podair . . . brilliantly chronicles the events and far-reaching impact of the infamous, racially charged 1968 teacher strike that shut down the New York City public schools. . . . Podair’s vivid account of this debilitating breakdown of trust reads more like tragedy than history. It offers great insight into the racial separatism that school systems nationwide struggle with to this day.”—David Ruenzel, Teacher Magazine

“[A] clearly written, well-argued study. . . . [A] significant achievement in explaining what was at stake for blacks and whites in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike and how it became a turning point for New York.”—Steve Golin, The Journal of American History

“Jerald Podair’s new book does an admirable job of telling all sides of the story itself in a clear and compelling fashion”—Richard D. Kahlenberg, Washington Monthly

"[A] stimulating and depressing—stimulating as a meticulously researched portrayal of an event both unique and universal. . . . The book is engaging, well-documented, and provocative, revealing a series of events both unique and universal that provide a deeper understanding of current racial issues and dilemmas."—Virginia E. Causey, Journal of American Ethnic History


Winner of the Allan Nevins Prize awarded by the Society of American Historians
ISBN: 9780300081220
Publication Date: October 11, 2002
288 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
18 b/w illus.