Theses Doctoral

Evangelists of Education: St. Philip’s Episcopal Church & Educational Activism in Post-World War II Harlem

Boyle, Jennifer

Post-World War II public schools in Harlem, New York were segregated, under-resourced and educationally inequitable. Addressing disparities in education was of paramount importance for the socioeconomic mobility and future of the neighborhood. In an effort to understand how race, religion, community, and education intersected in this context, this dissertation answers the following research question: How did St. Philip’s, the first Black Episcopal church in the city and one of the most historic churches in Harlem, participate in education during the post-World War II period? Responding to and preventing inequities in the neighborhood, including the substandard state of the public schools, St. Philip’s served as an educational space and organizational base for the community.

St. Philip’s participation accounts for the way a Black church emerged as a space for education when the public schools were foundering. The church’s ethos of education - community engagement - reframes traditional frameworks of teaching and learning beyond schoolhouse doors. During the postwar period, St. Philip’s expanded its in-house programming for Black children, youth and adults, constructing a new community youth center, where classes, tutoring, after-school activities, college counseling, career guidance, day-care, recreation and clubs were community staples. Understanding the importance of inclusivity, continuity and consistency, programming was accessible to the entire neighborhood, regardless of membership with year-round services such as summer camp and career counseling. As an organizational base, the church hosted education talks and committee meetings, facilitating a forum for the community to engage in critical conversations about the state of education. It was a safe space for transparency and troubleshooting. Concerns about education expanded beyond conversations in the church, however. St. Philip’s corresponded directly with city governance, petitioning school-makers with recommendations and demands.

This dissertation broadens the traditional civil rights narrative of Black religious activism, which has the tendency to dichotomize who participated and how they participated. This polarization includes regions: North-South, religions: Christian-Muslim, figureheads: Martin Luther King, Jr.-Malcolm X, and strategies: peaceful-militant. Historians Charles Payne and Nikhil Pal Singh push back on this oversimplified interpretation as “King-centric.”* St. Philip’s educational activism foils this paradigm as a Black Episcopal institution in a northern city. St. Philip’s brings nuance to categorizations of Black churches as either being focused on the far-reaching goal of social transformation or compliant with conservative social philosophies based on respectability politics. Its participation was both radical (such as establishing educational programming at the Community youth center that was open to members and non-members alike, regardless of class, age, political or religious beliefs) and conservative (such as sitting out of the 1964 citywide school boycott, while the majority of the Black community participated). In this way, St. Philip’s educational activism in Harlem calls into question criticisms of the Black Episcopal Church that position it as elitist and accommodationist to white values and white power, hence, apathetic to the challenges facing the Black population in cities during the post-World War II period.

*Nikhil Pal Singh, Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 6; and Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 419.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
History and Education
Thesis Advisors
Waite, Cally Lyn
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 2, 2020