Remembering the heroes of Harlem

I am publishing a blog post I wrote four years ago about teaching at Wadleigh Junior High School (IS 88) in Harlem and one teacher in particular who was definitely a Hero of Harlem. His name was Ed Plummer, a mathematics teacher, who ran the ABC (A Better Chance) scholarship program, helping Wadleigh graduates get into prestigious prep schools and high schools and on to university. The program was supported by many of his celebrity friends, including the late singer and actress, Lena Horne, and the famous author, James Baldwin. I received an email from a Wadleigh parent who had sent a former student the sad news about the death of Ed Plummer. The parent wrote to Sean: “Sadly, I received an email today from Mr. Derrick Wallace (present director of the scholar’s program in Mr. Plummer’s absence – he was in a nursing home), that Mr. Edward Plummer passed away yesterday 12/5/18. Funeral arrangements and memorial services are still underway. You may contact Derrick at for further information. Mr. Plummer was an angel among us.” Here’s my original article. The Plummer story is below in italics. Here’s the piece I wrote in 2014.
I found an article I had written back in 1982 among some documents from my days as literary editor and TV critic on The Australian. I thought I’d publish it on my blog as it still has some validity (and it wasn’t published back then). And sure enough, halfway through my revision, I discovered that two of the main participants were still alive and still contributing to the education of children. Here is how the story began in 1982:
Education is alive and well in Harlem. If you had told me six weeks ago that I was going to write that about the famous black community in New York City, I would have said: “You are out of your mind.”
But it’s true. I saw it myself: black and white teachers working together so black children can make it in the outside world, still run by white people; parents and administrators pooling their resources to help kids get an education in a city that is by no means financially secure; and, most important, the children themselves, learning despite the disadvantages they have inherited from society.
It happened at Wadleigh Junior High School 88, just off Seventh Avenue and 114th Street in west Harlem, which is overwhelmingly black – east, or Spanish Harlem, is predominantly Hispanic. The reason I chose this school? Twelve years ago in 1970, I was a teacher there, an experience I have never forgotten [and still haven’t 44 years later!].
I taught there in there in 1968-69 and 1970, during teachers’ strikes, Cambodia and Richard Nixon, the killing of student protestors by national guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio and myriad protests against the Vietnam War and the draft.
Conscription and idealism were the two main factors in teaching in Harlem. One sure way of avoiding the draft and, almost inevitably, Vietnam, was to teach in a so-called disadvantaged area. It seemed to me, and I’ve said it many times since, much more preferable – and reasonable – to be teaching black kids in Harlem than to be killing Vietnamese kids in Vietnam in a war I didn’t believe in. It was an opinion shared by most of my generation.
As a relatively young and inexperienced teacher, I had my quota of bad days at Wadleigh – when the only thing that kept me going was the thought that I was contributing to society. And to be honest, that the day would come when I would turn 26 and no longer be eligible for the draft: April 30, 1970 was a day of freedom. Ironically, five years later on that same date, Saigon fell and the war was over.
During this time, my best mate, James McCausland, used to say: “Every time I pick up a newspaper, I expect to see your name in the headlines: either saying you killed a kid or a kid killed you.”
He was referring to the violence in the schools and on the sometimes mean streets of Harlem. Among the incidents which stand out in my memory are: a sixth-grade pupil of mine waiting outside a classroom with a broken bottle in his hand to pay back a teacher who had slapped him earlier in the day (fortunately, he gave the bottle up to me without a struggle); another student spitting in my face which prompted me to chase him down the stairs, out the door, and down several streets, before I realised I was a white man running after a black child in Harlem; and getting mugged for 35 cents as I walked across Morningside Park after school to climb the stairs to Cathedral Parkway and my bank. I was in more danger from the elderly white resident screaming “help” from the top of the steps. There was a fleeting smile from one of the young black guys as I explained I only had 35 cents to my name. It was not an easy gig teaching in Harlem.
In hindsight, I can see that many of the confrontations were due to my inexperience in the classroom, but there was a lot going on outside the school. The society was tearing itself apart in the late sixties and it was reflected in the classrooms and the corridors. Toward the end of the 1970 school year, dozens of children were roaming the five-storey building. False alarms were being pulled so often, the deputy principal had to resort to the PA system several times to announce: “This is a real fire, I repeat, this is a real fire. Everybody out of the building.”
And here is the story about Ed Plummer and the heroes of Harlem. My condolences to his family and friends and the myriad of students he helped over the years:
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. There was the Faculty Follies, whose proceeds went to the ABC (A Better Chance) scholarship program, helping Wadleigh graduates get into prestigious prep schools and high schools and on to university. The program was run by Edouard E. Plummer, mathematics teacher, and it was supported by many of his celebrity friends, including the late singer and actress, Lena Horne, and the famous author, James Baldwin.
The teachers were special, and I always considered them heroes because they stayed in Harlem – while many of us left when we turned 26. (I mentioned this to the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott when he was the Shadow Aboriginal Minister and wrote about it in a previous post When I returned to Wadleigh to see if the school had changed during my 12-year absence, it was the teachers I talked to first – colleagues like Ed Plummer, Doris Brunson, Ken Chevers, Carmen Matthew and Jim McGann. They had more than 100 years of experience, all of it at Wadleigh Junior High School. Ed Plummer put it best: “I was teaching blacks before it was fashionable to teach blacks.”
One person I’ll never forget is Doris Brunson, who began teaching at Wadleigh in 1957, and refused several better-paying jobs to stay at the school until she retired. She helped found the ABC program with Mr Plummer, and was an award-winning teacher for her contribution to the education of children in schools like Wadleigh. When I went back in 1982, she asked me if I wanted to teach one of her English classes. As you can see from the blackboard in the photo above, I taught a brief lesson about Aboriginal Australians, as their anthology had a story about Evonne Goolagong Cawley and how she became a successful tennis player. The story also gave me the opportunity to talk about Aborigines in Australia and their problems – problems in discrimination similar to ones they faced.

But Ms Brunson demonstrated why she was a master teacher (1982 photo above). Her lesson to her eighth grade class was based on a teleplay about a blind girl in the same anthology. Miss Brunson read the stage directions and told the children to “put some feeling into your voices.” They did. Nothing is forced and when something in the text needed explanation, she did it … almost automatically. After the reading was over, she had some of the students come to the front of the class, put on blindfolds and try to guess what objects are being handed to them. A simple, but effective follow-up.
Later over coffee, I asked Ms Brunson what kept her at Wadleigh for so long: “Despite all we have against us, we have a nucleus of people, who have hung in there and done their best. There are teachers here who care. That’s one of the beautiful things about Wadleigh. I think that’s the reason I stayed. There were times when I was really ready to chuck it in. When there was pressure on me to produce and make sure that the children get what they are supposed to get, even though your energies are rapidly dwindling. You feel as if the children are pawns in a game and it angers you. Then you see those kids and you compare them to other children getting all the benefits and all the goodies, and you say, ‘I’m going to try another year’.
“I’m glad I did. I have a more positive attitude to the classroom. I made certain personal changes and I really enjoy the children. I felt I was a good teacher and was producing at a satisfactory level. But now I have become even more involved with the children in the classroom in a much more intense way. I feel as if I’m in touch with each child. It’s a very, very thrilling and exciting experience and it carries me on.”
Ms Brunson stopped suddenly and said if there was one person I should mention in my article it was the assistant principal and trades teacher, Ken Chevers: “I want you to be sure and give credit to Ken because without his help, we would have really gone under completely. He did his job and other people’s jobs. You began to think you were seeing him in triplicate. He was on this floor, that floor, he was all over the place.”
Ken Chevers was then a 24-year veteran of Wadleigh, a small man of 60, who didn’t look a day over 40. As tough as they come, he was all heart. The kind of bloke who could silence a school assembly, with one sentence, looking the recalcitrant n the eye, and saying: “If you don’t want to bounce, shut up.” The student shut up. But he could also tell the same eighth-grade assembly: “You’re the cream of the school. You set the example.” He was proud of the kids and they knew it. And whenever I had a problem with the kids in my class, Ken would show up before I called him. It must have been a Chevers triplicate.

And that’s where I’ll end my 1982 story. It had to be updated when I made contact with Ed Plummer. I was going to transcribe what I had written about this magnificent teacher from my 1982 piece, then I Googled him and up came the “Wadleigh Scholars Program” ( And there he was, pictured with some of the scholarship students, and a photo with a white-haired, but still beautiful, Doris Brunson (see recent photo above). Fifty years on, at the age of 86, Ed Plummer was still working on the scholarship program. I called to find out how he was. It turns out Ed had a stroke in June after the 50th anniversary of the program had been celebrated at a special ceremony at Columbia University. He was still in hospital, but was due to get out in a few weeks. No prizes for guessing what he plans to do: “I can’t wait to get back and work on the program. It’s my legacy.” And what a legacy it is – getting more than 500 students into 108 boarding and prep schools in the past half century. Will it keep going? “Don’t worry, they’re keeping going.” He had someone working with him on the program, Derek Wallace, “who’s very, very good.” (And still is.)
Ed told me to get a copy of a lovely piece by David Gonzalez, which was published in the New York Times on June 8 this year (2014), before the celebrations at Columbia. Gonzales talked to Ed at his office – a small room in the Wadleigh Secondary School (Gonzalez’s photo above) – where he reminisced about some of those 500 students whose photos or clippings are on the wall: “This one went to Lawrenceville, then Yale. This one, Peddie. Hotchkiss, St Paul’s. This one went to Harvard undergrad and Harvard Law. This one’s a doctor. He ran for Congress.”
In 1982, I talked to Janice Simpson, then a correspondent for Time Magazine where she worked for three decades. She’s now the co-director of Arts & Culture Reporting at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism, and writes a blog Broadway and Me Janice Simpson was in the first ABC program at Wadleigh, and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. She told me: “The teachers in the ABC program were very important to us, but they would have been even if there weren’t a program. They were what people think of teachers in the old sense – they cared and they pushed you. At the 15th reunion, we told the teachers what they meant to us, and they thought we were just saying that to make them feel good.” But Ms Simpson said the ABC program was “like another family. There is a community of experience and a real strong concern for the classes that follow. Teachers like Miss Brunson and Mr Plummer are rare today in this era of ‘Me First’.”
In June, David Gonzalez spoke to a program alumnus, Christopher S. Auguste, now a partner at the law firm Kramer Levin in Manhattan, who got into the prestigious Phillips Academy in the early 1970s thanks to the ABC program. He said: “Plummer was way ahead of his time. His focus was on black and Hispanic boys. He was seeing there was an issue brewing, which has become even more of a tragedy now.”
And what’s happening at Wadleigh now is what I feared would happen. Mr Plummer told Gonzalez that fewer children come from the neighbourhood around the school, where new luxury buildings and cafes have forced minority residents to move: “Blacks and Latinos are not going to be helped, they’re going to be pushed out. They can’t afford it. Nobody gives a damn. Most of our students used to come from this area. Now, most don’t.” A study mentioned by Gonzalez confirms Mr Plummer’s assertion: New York City’s public school system is one of the most segregated in the United States:
And yet, I have to say in my five and half years of teaching in the US and Australia, before returning to journalism, I never worked with better teachers than Ed Plummer and Doris Brunson (and I worked with a lot of good ones). They worked their guts out in difficult conditions, never losing their cool and always caring about the kids in their care. Mr Plummer believed one of the reasons for the failure of schools in disadvantaged areas was poor teaching. Thirty-two years ago, he told me: “How can you expect students to live up to standards set by teachers when those same teachers don’t live up to the standards themselves?” I asked him at the weekend if he still believed that, and he said: “Yes.” In 1982, he told me about a young female teacher who came to observe him, and her supervisor asked what she thought. “She said I was like Hitler toward the children. This was the same lady who ran out of the building in tears later in the day,” says Mr Plummer. “The children chased her out of the classroom.” Ed Plummer was a stickler for discipline. His students had to wear a coat and tie, and line up at the door of his classroom (the latter was a tactic I borrowed in my teaching days in Australia). Another graduate of the scholars program, Larry Jennings, told me in 1982: “Mr Plummer was tough. But when I think of him, it wasn’t really fear that he used. He wanted us to succeed and he gave 110 per cent. You did your best and you got his support.”
I’ll leave the last word about teaching in Harlem to the late Ed Plummer, who told the New York Times what he said to his first class of scholars 50 years ago: “You are as good as anyone else, or better. There will be people who don’t want you there. But you have to go. You are the Jackie Robinsons* of education. If he could do what he did, you can open the doors to those who follow behind you.”
*I’m adding a footnote here because a good friend in the US suggested Australians might not get the reference to Jackie Robinson. He was the first African-American baseballer to play in the major leagues. I have written about Jackie in a previous post when I reviewed a biography of Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who brought him into the majors in 1947. The biography is by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Jimmy Breslin, and it’s a book that says a lot about baseball and racism. Highly recommended.

12 thoughts on “Remembering the heroes of Harlem

  1. I had the opportunity go to through the Wadleigh Scholars Program and was taught by Mr. Plummer as well. Words cannot describe my level of gratitude for his wisdom, dedication and love for his students. I consider myself to be extremely blessed to have been one of his students.

    • Hi Sheneen, Thanks for that. Mr Plummer was the best of many excellent teachers at Wadleigh, and his continuing dedication and love for his students and his program will be his legacy. I haven’t heard back from him, so thanks for reminding me. I will try to get an update on how he is. Kind regards, Tom

      • Hello can u give me any info on Edd I have been trading to contack him.a friend in London

  2. Hello Sean. Sadly, I received an email today from Mr. Derrick Wallace (present director of the scholar’s program in Mr. Plummer’s absence – he was in a nursing home), that Mr. Edward Plummer passed away yesterday 12/5/18. Funeral arrangements and memorial services are still underway. You may contact Derrick at for further information. Mr. Plummer was an angel among us.

    • Thanks for letting Sean and me know, Marcelle. I will email Derrick and update my blog post to let others know about the Hero of Harlem, who certainly was an angel. My condolences to his family and the hundreds of students he mentored over the years.

  3. So Tom,

    My name is Jack Denny-Brown, and I too taught at Wadleigh during the years 1968-1971. Earlier today, I had some time on my hands and I decided to see if I could find any images of the old school where I had begun my teaching career in 1968. Wadleigh Intermediate School, Manhattan. IS 88. That was how I found your blog. Gonzomeets the Press. In your entry, dated Oct 2014, “Remembering the Heores of Harlem”, you talk about a math teacher Ed Plummer, whom you admired, and who has, you tell us, passed away. I remember him. As a teacher who stayed on at the school through all those years, he earned your respect and deserved it. I remember countless other teachers and students from those years. You mention Jim McGann. That brings to mind a white guy with an Ahab beard. Am I right? Elfrida Wright . . . during the class pictures . . . “Smile! Why aren’t you smiling? What’s wrong with you children? Everyone smile . . . right now!” And I remember you, too, I think. If I am right, you taught sixth grade. You were newly married at the time and, I believe, living in the Village. At least you moved there after you left the school. I believe I had dinner with you and your young wife in the Village, where you were living and working as a journalist for what I thought was a radio station. WINS? You wrote and narrated a short piece about the school, including a vivid description of Mr. Basch. Remember him? The overseer. Am I right? If not, then you were still someone I would have known.

    I taught at Wadleigh for three years, finally leaving in June of 71 as the pressures of the draft allowed me to breathe a little easier about the draft. My number of 196.

    There were any number of young teachers like us, who had no intention of going ito teaching, but who ended up there as an alternative to carrying a rifle in Viet-nam. I kept in touch with some for a time. Mark Jacobs is a very successful law professor at Mason Rice University. Walt Newman is the CEO of a bio tech company in Cambridge MA. Bob Hirshfeld, my best friend at the time, has vanished. Dave Waxse is a retired judge in Kansas.

    After I left Wadleigh in 1971, it took me about five years to get my act together and reenter the fray. I worked as a hippie carpenter, house painter, cab driver, auto mechanic, dishwasher, what have you, before I finally wrote to Agnes Violenus, my old supervisor, and asked her to write a recommendation to a graduate program in education in Cambridge MA. She did so. The admissions director later told me, over a beer in some bar when we came to know each other better, “that recommendation was what got you into this school.”

    So teaching became my profession. I taught at three different schools for forty years. Three marriages. I retired in 2014, and now I live in Lunenburg MA with my wife who still works. I work as a substitute teacher in the Lunenburg High School, which is great fun.

    It all started at Wadleigh Intermediate School during the teachers’ strike in the fall of 1968.

    I am hoping you are the teacher I remember. If not, then you were another one of the teachers whom I met sitting in one of those smoky teachers’ rooms during off periods weathering the countless fire alarms. It was indeed a wild time.

    Somewhere, I have an old black and white shot of me with one of my sixth grade classes at Wadleigh. But I cannot find the thing. I have so few pictures from those days. Hope all goes well with you, Tom.

    By the way, your blog is truly impressive. I have enjoyed reading more recent entries, including most recently the Tiananmen Square entry.

    Your old colleague, Jack Denny-Brown

    • Hi Jack,
      I found your wonderful reply to my post, Remembering the Heroes of Harlem, updated with the death of Ed Plummer last year. He was just one of my heroes from those teaching days from 1968 to 1970. I left Wadleigh in June 1970 as I had just turned 26 and I was no longer facing the draft. I can’t say for sure I remember you, although I thought I could remember most of the teachers from that time. However, I can say that I did teach a sixth grade class in Room 211, and remember one of the funniest kids I ever met, Herman Hunter. I have a few stories about Herman, and always wondered what happened to him. I can also say I wasn’t married when I taught in New York, never lived in the Village, and didn’t work as a journalist on a radio station. I had been working as a journalist at UPI in 1966 and 1967 while I was getting my Master’s degree at NYU. I left New York in 1970 and wound up in Australia in 1971, where I taught for a few years at a high school in Sydney and then returned to journalism in 1974 and have been a journo (an Aussie nickname) in Australia since then, though mostly retired these days. I’ve been happily married since 1973 with a saintly wife, two daughters and four grandchildren. Back to Wadleigh. Yes, I remember all those teachers you mentioned: Jim McGann, a great guy, a veteran with seven kids and no TV set (his kids just read. One of his daughters wrote to tell me her father had died years ago after I mentioned his name in a post), Elfrida Wright, yes, she was a classy lady; Ed Plummer, of course, the magnificent Doris Brunson, Mr Basch, with the big voice who always told us to keep in line and we should get up at 5.15am as he did every day (I never wrote or narrated a description of Lester Basch, so that must have been someone else); Ken Chevers, who was always there to help, especially when students threatened to attack teachers. It didn’t happen often but Ken was there, and Agnes Violenus, who was wonderful, as you discovered. On days when I thought would never end, Agnes would show up and ask how things were going. She was there to cheer me up. Anyway, that’s why in the original story I wrote in 1982 when I revisited Wadleigh and taught one of Doris Brunson’s classes for a lesson on Australia, I said: “The real heroes of education in Harlem are those who stayed behind: the Brunsons, the Plummers and the Chevers, not those who moved on to pastures new.” I can’t say I remember teachers Mark Jacobs and Walt Newman, but I do remember Bob Hirshfeld, sorry to hear he’s vanished, and Dave Waxse, the All-American football player who made sure the students behaved. I’m not surprised he wound up as a judge in Kansas. And it’s great to hear that Agnes gave you the first step up in a 40-year teaching profession. Sounds like you have a terrific retirement, having fun as a substitute teacher in Massachusetts. Thanks for taking the time to reply to my story on Harlem and your kind words about my blog. It’s very possible we knew each other when we were at Wadleigh, but it was nearly 50 years ago. Thanks for the memories.
      Your old colleague,
      Tom Krause

  4. Great to find a reply here today! No, clearly, you are not the guy I had in mind. Another face comes up. A bearded face. Stocky guy with a sense of humor. Perhaps that was you. Fifty years is a long time, after all. I am impressed that you remember your room number. You clearly developed a close relationship with the established faculty at the school. I suspect I spent most of my time talking to the young shellshocked teachers, like myself. Bob Grafstein and his later wife Joan Connolly, I think it was. I attended their wedding in Western MA in 1971. The music teacher who played tenor and soprano sax, tall and husky. The black jazz tuba guy. Most of the names have vanished from my memory. Mr. Spanakos, or “Spanky” as the kids called him. Mr. Fritch, my supervisor in the English department. Funny that you should mention the voice of Mr. Basch. He was, in reality, a small man physically. But his voice was huge. . . .and then there were the kids. Lettie Fontenelle, whose family had been the subject of a LOOK magazine article two years prior. About how they had moved to Long Island and made the grade with a new house. Which had burned down and now they were back in Harlem. Another kid, Henry something or other, who was knifed in the street outside his home. I went to visit him . . .naively . . after school one day. The streets were jammed with stoop sitters. I asked the people on the stoop of his building . . does Henry live here? Sure does. The front door was not locked. I walked up to the third floor. People in the stairwells. The mother was so surprised, and moved that I had come. On the way home I was terrified. It had gotten dark and I was walking through the streets and on up through Morningside Park, as you mentioned. I lived on Amsterdam on the edge of the park, at the the top of the hill. My sixth grade class put on a play one year . . “Staggerlee”- from a story written by Julius Lester in his collection of stories Black Folktales. It was the first play I ever wrote. I’ve been writing plays ever since, primarily for kids, and performing them every year.

    So you were there, for sure. I am in contact with so few people from that era. No photos. Just the images in my memory. Not all happy ones. But I think I learned a great deal from that experience. When I entered the school I had no intention of entering the profession. While I was there I learned that it was something that could challenge and interest me. And that it was something I could do. Teaching has been good to me and for me.

    Thanks for responding. I will check into your blog periodically. There is so much happening in the world out there. I’m addicted to tv news, NPR, and the NYT. Nice to get a new perspective from time to time.

    Your old colleague, Jack DB

    • Hi Jack, Good to hear from you again. I remember many of the students, too, but your walking up the steps to visit Henry not knowing that he had died reminded me of a day when I walked up similar steps to the fourth or fifth floor. Harold was a sixth grade student and he had missed a few days at school and I decided to see what had happened. So I walked past the stoop sitters (and a few were, I’m pretty sure, drug dealers) and came to Harold’s door. There was none. The day before some burglars had robbed the apartment and taken the door as well and his parents had asked him to mind the house until they got home from work. I went back to school and told one of the staff what had happened, and it was fixed up fairly quickly. I did attend a few parents meetings at night, catching the A Train to 116th Street. It was a long two block walk! But the locals knew me, and they did look out for teachers. I wrote an end of school play in 1970 with Miss Brunson, in which I played Grandma Fricative (a consonant sound picked up from my NYU days) and the math teacher (can’t remember his name) sang “I Did it My Way.” We had a teachers/parents party afterwards and more drinks than we should have. I enjoyed teaching but journalism was in my blood. I used to write a blog post every week but found that I was repeating myself so I wait until an idea strikes. I’m thinking of doing one on Trump’s re-election campaign. I am, of course, addicted to news as well. Keep up the good teaching work and enjoy yourself.
      Your old colleague, Tom K

  5. My bad. I didn’t mean to suggest that Henry was dead. He survived the attack. Serious injury though. He was out for five weeks at least. He was home when I got there, but I didn’t have a whole lot to say to cheer him up. Apparently it hurt when he laughed. Don’t make me laugh he said. So I did what I could. I think the family was a little self-conscious of the look of the place. By the time I left it was getting dark, which was something I had not considered.

    Enough about the past. I look forward to reading whatever you have to say in your blog, Tom. Hopefully, Trump will stumble into some kind of peace deal with Iran. Frightening enough out there without Trump and his stupid posturing.

    Your old colleague, Jack DB

    • Hi Jack, Sorry about that. I wasn’t sure if Henry was still alive, and thought the people in the stairwells were mourning his passing. Happy to hear he made it. I agree about the past. Let’s look forward. If you haven’t read it, I wrote a blog post about my going back to the US in 2016 for the 50th reunion of my class at Villanova. I asked my fellow alumni about whether they would vote for Trump. Worth reading their replies. The title is: A Villanova Reunion.
      Your old colleague

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