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THE ITALIAN SCHOOL IN FIVE POINTS, 1855

"Early in December, 1855, the writer, with Mr. Brace, visited several families. Our reception was not such as to promise success, although, considering their distrustful and suspicious disposition, consequent upon their isolated existence, they did not treat us disrespectfully. Having thus prepared and informed them, on the evening of the tenth of the same month we opened our School in a room kindly furnished by Rev. Mr. Pease, on the north side of the Five Points' square.

"On the first night of our operation we had an attendance of ten boys, six girls, seven young men, four young women, two men, and one woman (thirty in all), attracted, as may be evident by the age of the attendants, more by the novelty of the undertaking than by any definite purpose. Of that number, only two could read a little in Italian—not one in English; hence I formed a single class of the whole in the alphabet.

"By more frequent visiting, the attendance was, after a little while, nearly doubled; but toward spring it dwindled to such an insignificant number, that it was deemed expedient to close the school.

"Instead of being deterred by this discouraging feature, we determined to examine the field more carefully, and endeavor to discover the immediate cause of the unexpected check our hopes had experienced. Proper exertions in visiting, and cautious and timely investigations, soon brought out the fact that some absurd rumors had been circulated among them to the effect that our purpose was to turn them away from their own church, alleging, as conclusive evidence, that our school-room was used for Sunday religious meetings.

These mischievous insinuations called for the utmost prudent activity on our part, for, although these people are not fanatics in religion, they, at that time, still clung with tenacity to the infallibility of their priest. I say at that time, because the unnatural and unchristian attitude assumed since by their spiritual guides toward Italy has forced even the uneducated class into a certain use of comparative rational freedom, and, beyond the spiritual, they will not follow their religious leaders.

Meeting with only partial success by persuasion, I then promised shoes and clothing to pupils who would attend for three months consecutively; and having thus prepared the way, and without ever failing to visit the most unapproachable, it was deemed advisable to reopen the School in November, 1856.

The attendance increased by some thirty, with a minor sprinkling of men and women. Shoes and clothes were distributed in March, but the number soon after commenced diminishing, until June, 1857, when the School, as in the previous year, had to be closed for a second time. Two great advantages had, however, been developed. Their ready acceptance of shoes and clothes given and distributed in our room was a powerful argument in my hands to answer their objection to the room; and among the floating attendance I had noticed a score or so of regular pupils upon whom I concentrated my best attention and every possible encouragement, in the conviction that the result of my efforts in that direction would prove efficacious to attract others. And, in fact, when the improvement of these twenty attendants became known, it was found comparatively easy to persuade others to school.

"It had now become evident to me that, with adequate exertions and inducements, the School could be established on a permanent and working order; and on the following September we recommenced operations with better promise. But a narrow-minded opposition partially marred our success this year. An Italian priest, called Rebiccio, from the confessional and from the pulpit, flung ferocious anathemas at all who permitted their children to attend our School. He even went from house to house to use his influence in the same direction. I sent a deputation of my oldest scholars to remonstrate with him and correct his misapprehensions by assuring him that we had no sectarian teachings.

These same boys I took with me in visiting a number of the most superstitious families, and for the same purpose, but in both cases of no avail; only, instead of justifying myself, I found that these boys were equally suspected of complicity, some even assuming that they had already been converted. I felt disheartened, not because I did not hope to overcome all obstacles by patience, prudence, and perseverance, but because I could scarcely realize the actual occurrence of such an unflinching, unprincipled, and unjust persecution, or, what was still worse, of such credulous stupidity as was shown by the very people we intended to elevate.

Prompted by these feelings, I then wrote a letter to that worthy priest, inviting him to assist me in teaching, to take my place, to teach these poor children himself--in short, to do what he pleased, provided they were furnished with proper means to better their condition. The letter was couched in the most unexceptionable terms, and closed by entreating him to desist from his unjust attacks, and not to compel me to appeal to the public through the dally press, the last resort in this free country.

Discouraged by the suspicious reception I met with from the majority of these people, and by the fruitless result of my aforesaid letter, I was then preparing a statement for the newspapers, when the whole opposition scheme exploded. Under the false pretext that he was going to hire a building to open a school for these children, in connection with a church, which he proposed also to build for them, this worthy priest had collected considerable money in the Five Points, when all at once he disappeared, and it was only after months that he was heard of in affluent circumstances in Italy. A natural and desirable reaction then took place among our people, and since then the School has been yearly in operation for eleven months, and with gradual prosperity.

In June, 1866, desiring to extend our work and absorb all children exposed to the bad influences and examples of the streets that attended no day-school, we added also successfully a day session, so that now, with two hundred and twenty-eight (228) names on our books since October 1, 1867, we have a daily average of sixty-five (65), and one hundred and eighty-six (186) for day and evening sessions respectively. By these figures it will be seen that, while in other schools the proportion of the average to the names entered is, at the best, seventy-five per cent., nearly all our pupils on the roll-book attend regularly one of the two, and several both sessions. The attendants vary from five to twenty-two years of age, averaging about nine and a half. A little less than one-half of the whole are females.

SOURCE:

OPENING OF THE SCHOOL - Charles Loring Brace, The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years' Work Among Them, 1872

 SEE ALSO:

FIVE POINTS SETTLEMENT

MORAL IMPROVEMENT