Leonard Covello and Vito Marcantonio are among the most neglected figures in modern Italian-America history. Covello, an educational theorist and practitioner, created a comprehensive strategy for addressing the educational needs of immigrant schoolchildren. Marcantonio, Congressman from East Harlem for fourteen years, from 1931 to 1936 and from 1938 to 1950, was the most successful radical politician of his era. Measured against their accomplishments, the lifework of these men has received scant scholarly notice. This paper will explore the lifelong collaboration between them.
Vito Marcantonio was born in 1902 to a native Italian mother and an American-born father. He lived on an almost exclusively Italian block in the center of the largest Italo-American community in the United States, Italian Harlem. His later success in politics was heralded in a letter of recommendation written by his elementary school principal:
Vito has distinguished himself by his unswerving fidelity, his fine zeal in the performance of his duties, his tenacity of purpose, his initiative, his courage, and his innate leadership… Although he was considerably undersized, he was given the position of chief of the school patrol. As such he displayed all the fine qualities that I have enumerated above… I can bear testimony to the fact that he is an excellent thinker and likewise a very able talker. I am sure that in business he will be a huge success.
Upon graduation from elementary school, Marcantonio was one of two boys from his district to enter De Witt Clinton High School, then a very prestigious institution, from which Marcantonio alone graduated. His native East Harlem community of 250,000 people did not have its own high school until 1934, so he traveled downtown to Tenth Avenue and 59th Street to attend school. It was a De Witt Clinton High School that Marcantonio met his fellow East Harlemite, Leonard Covello.
A young, impoverished Italian immigrant who had earned a Pulitzer scholarship and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University, Covello developed a pedagogical strategy that helped increase the educational achievements of Italo-Americans. Covello identified the dramatic clash between the ethos of the American educational institutions and Italo-Americans. Covello identified the dramatic clash between the ethos of the American educational institutions and Italo-American social structure of as the core reason for the low scholastic achievements of Italo-American students.
The socioeconomic class that comprised the vast majority of Italian immigrants, the contadini (peasants), was apprehensive about formal education in general and opposed the extension of school attendance beyond childhood years. Economic and social factors underlay this attitude. The economic deprivation of the Italian immigrants often necessitated that children contribute economically to the maintenance of the household as early as possible. Even when the economic situation of the family improved, strongly negative feelings about prolonged education remained. In East Harlem, the average income per family in 1950 was twice as high in the core areas of Italian Harlem as compared to El Barrio, the adjacent Puerto Rican community, yet there was a relatively slight difference in the average number of years of schooling per adult in the two areas in that year: 6.6 to 6.9 in El Barrio and 8.0 to 8.4 in Italian Harlem.
The school was perceived as a threat to familial traditions among Italo-Americans. Education could only diminish the prestige of the parents and, worse, remove the children to a different-albeit higher-class, leading to the dissolution and disintegration of la famiglia, the only institution to which the contadini felt any real allegiance. As recent arrivals from a society in which social contact between classes was minimal and intermarriage unheard of, socioeconomic mobility for their children was an unwelcome prospect. “The school takes our children away from us” was the frequent complaint of Italian immigrant parents. Covello’s study of East Harlem’s Italo-American high school boys conducted in the early forties demonstrated that, at least in an ethnically homogenous community with ethnically homogenous schools such as East Harlem, negative attitudes toward prolonged education persisted in full force through the third generation. (The impact of this study should be moderated by the likelihood that those Italo-Americans who had more positive attitudes toward prolonged education were among those most likely to have moved out of East Harlem.)
Covello’s lifelong project was the development of a strategy he termed community-centered education, which would lessen the conflict between the Southern Italian folkways and the American educational system. Community-centered education bridged the gap between thee community and the school. The school reached out to the community, and the community became involved in the school.
In 1914, some three years before Marcantonio’s arrival at De Witt Clinton, Covello began to implement his strategies for improving the educational achievement of Italo-American high school students. Initially, the realization of his goals took three forms: promoting the study of the Italian language, establishing student clubs called Circoli Italiani, and the founding of the Casa del Popolo, a settlement house located in Italian Harlem. Marcantonio’s participation in all of these activities directed by Covello gave form and direction to his life.
In 1922, Covello reported that there were 220 students studying Italian. By 1929, there were 600. Largely due to his efforts, the Italian language achieved parity with French, German, Latin, and Spanish in the New York City public school system in 1922 as an acceptable fulfillment of a requirement for graduation with an academic degree. Aside from the conventional academic reasons for language study, Covello stressed the importance of the study of Italian for second and third generation Italo-Americans as a means of “creating a sympathetic bond between parents and their children, now often separated by the inability to speak the same language.” He also envisioned a command of the language as requisite for meaningful social and political work in the Italian community. Language instruction in Italian took on added importance owing to the somewhat paradoxical pattern of second and third generation Italo-Americans: strong retention of the immigrant social values coupled with weak retention of the culture and, in particular, the Italian language.
Marcantonio was a student in the first Italian class that Covello taught. Marcantonio’s fluency in Italian, the result of Covello’s teaching, was of inestimable value to his political ascendancy in East Harlem. The devotion of his Italo-American constituency could only have been strengthened by his ability to deliver speeches in Italian and, for example, to refer to his inept Democratic opponent n 1948, John Morrissey, as a testa di cappuccio (“cabbage head”).
Starting with a dozen students in 1915, Covello organized a club for Italo-Americans students at De Witt Clinton, Il Circolo Italiano. The club sponsored various cultural activities, some in Italian, purchased Italian books for the school library, and printed a bilingual journal, Il Foro. Marcantonio responded enthusiastically to Covello’s efforts to disabuse students of the notion that Italian meant inferior. Covello recalled that the young man became a “volcano of energy, [becoming] involved in anything that had to do with the Circolo and the Italian department.” For example, Marcantonio played the role of Evaristo in Goldoni’s Il Ventaglio, which Il Circolo presented in English at De Witt Clinton in January 1921. (It is noteworthy that he was billed as “Victor” Marcantonio on the program.) Il Circolo Italiano provided Marcantonio with his first opportunity to develop political skills. Covello remembered that when denied the presidency of the club because of his “offhand actions and ‘socialistic tendencies,’ Marcantonio managed to revise the organizational structure so that chairman of the executive committee had powers exceeding those of the president. He then convinced the club’s membership to elect him to this position. That neither his politics nor the style met with universal acclaim from fellow members of Il Circolo is reflected in this item from the gossip page of the December 1923 issue of Il Foro: “You never appreciate a good man until he is dead. That is why Marc is keeping quiet. But bear in mind: ‘Little drops make big rivers.’ Now, for his diploma at the N.Y.U. Law School.”
Covello’s primary motivation in organizing Il Circolo at De Witt Clinton (others were later founded at a number of other high schools) was to increase the educational success ratio of Italo-American students. At that time, De Witt Clinton’s student body was comprised of predominantly college-bound Jewish students, many of whom came from the Lower East Side, but there were also many students who came from more affluent families from the Upper West Side. Lionel Trilling, a De Witt Clinton alumnus from that period, recalled that the intellectual atmosphere at the school was serious and exciting, with many gifted teachers and a considerable regard for scholastic achievement. Stress was on the humanities, and academic standards were high. De Witt Clinton offered new horizons to the Italo-American students, but it also appeared as an alien, even hostile, environment. One of the members of Il Circolo recalled that: “We were a minority group and were looked down upon. Some teachers even had the impression that we couldn’t learn.” The strong peer group relations among Italo-Americans that have been noted by many observers characterized Marcantonio’s fellow students, who were generally hostile to educational and social mobility. Marcantonio himself was subject to a good deal of social pressure from his neighborhood friends because of his educational pursuits. As he returned from school with books under his arm, they would taunt him with the nickname “the Professor.” The negative attitudes of the peer group reinforced similar negative attitudes in the family toward prolonged education. The Southern-Italian ethos dictated that the economic needs of the family took precedence over the needs of the individual when decisions about employment, income allocation, or education were made. The economically ambitious Italo-American youths were faced with the alternatives of succumbing to these pressures and reducing their goals or becoming alienated from their families. Covello envisioned Il Circolo as a counterforce to all of the obstacles to the educational success of Italo-American youth. Il Circolo provided a familiar, protective enclave within an alien environment, which many Italo-American students perceived as hostile. The anti-educational pressures of the neighborhood peer group could, according to Covello, be countered by creating Il Circolo Italiano as a second or substitute peer group, which was intrinsically pro-education. Il Circolo’s emphasis on Italian language and cultural studies might also mitigate the suspicion of the Italian immigrant parents toward prolonged education. By the mid-1920s, De Witt Clinton’s Circolo had grown from twenty-five members, at its inception, to approximately three hundred. When Marcantonio entered New York University, he and other former members of the Circoli Italiani founded the college-level Interscholastic Circolo Italiano under Covello’s tutelage. One of the main functions of the group was tutorial assistance to East Harlem’s high school students.
Covello saw the Circoli as fulfilling one further goal: to provide a counterweight to the pressures of forced acculturation which led to the alienation of the most gifted and ambitious Italo-American youth from their communities which were thereby deprived of effective leadership. When Covello arrived in the United States at the age of nine, his family’s first place of residence was on East 112th Street between First and Pleasant Avenues, one block from Marcantonio’s birthplace. This area of Italian Harlem housed immigrants from Avigliano in Southern Italy. When the community was demolished to make room for Jefferson Park, the Aviglianese colony reacted with a “curious fatalistic attitude… Generations of hardship were behind them. Life was such. “La volontà di Dio!’” For Covello, responsibility for the deplorable conditions in the Italian communities of his time, particularly Italian Harlem, rested with the educated who “possessed the qualities, the power, and the opportunity for leadership [but] failed to act in behalf of our Italo-American communities and their people.” One function of Il Circolo was to encourage the Italo-American student to remain and serve in the community and to provide the leadership necessary to counter the fatalism of the contadini mentality.
The vehicle for connecting and committing these students to the Italo-American community was the Casa del Popolo. Within Italian Harlem, this agency was unique in that its directors and staff were Italo-American-Americans, it taught Italian as well as English, and it promoted both American and Italian culture. Marcantonio was in charge of the citizenship classes. Covello recalled his protégé patiently explaining to Italian workingmen the history of their adopted land in a manner that was “intense, but not without humor.” Presaging the painstaking and individual approach to problem solving of his political organization in years to come, Marcantonio personally conducted his classes in small groups through the bureaucratic labyrinth of the naturalization process.
Covello and Marcantonio continued to collaborate throughout their lives in matters large and small. The project that brought them closest was securing a permanent home for the neighborhood high school. Covello became principal of Benjamin Franklin High School in 1934, when the school was housed in a number of older buildings. From the onset, LaGuardia was predisposed to their efforts. After all, East Harlem encompassed the congressional district he served for ten years. On a purely political level, Marcantonio’s control of the American Labor Party, on which Fiorello LaGuardia was dependent politically—it provided almost thirty-seven percent of his votes in 1937—and his command of the unrivaled political machine in East Harlem ensured the building of a new facility.
In 1940 Marcantonio wrote Covello: “I flew down [to Washington, D.C.] with the Mayor this morning and had a very satisfactory talk with him in regard to the school. … I am confident that everything is going to be alright.” Marcantonio reminded his constituents of his influence by illustrating the front page of a 1940 campaign brochure with an architect’s drawing of the school that was about to be built, captioned “I brought the New Benjamin Franklin High School to the District.”
Covello, along with Marcantonio, who was chairman, played a vital role in the Harlem Legislative Conference (HLC), a remarkable coalition of community organizations. One of the group’s major objectives was public housing. At Benjamin Franklin, in keeping with his conception of community-centered education, Covello set up some twenty committees composed of teachers, students, and community leaders. The Housing Committee initiated class discussions and sponsored exhibits in the school library. Class compositions on housing and films emphasizing the need for better housing also formed part of the campaign during the first few months of the committee’s existence. The school’s Housing Committee and that of the HLC merged in the East Harlem Housing Committee.
In March of 1939, a community mass meeting passed a resolution calling upon the mayor to locate low-rent housing in East Harlem on the land that was being considered for a luxury housing development. In a radio address on the problems of housing in East Harlem broadcast in 1938, Marcantonio stated:
As president of the Harlem Legislative Conference, I urge you all to join with us in militantly demanding a low-cost housing project… in our district. We urge that the East River waterfront be used for this purpose. We are opposed to the exploitation of this site by realty interests. We are opposed to the erection of another Tudor City along the East River. We do not want in our community penthouses and silk hats alongside of tenements and people on relief budgets. We do not want Dead Ends. The East River is our river. We were born on its banks. We learned to swim in that river. We have lived and suffered alongside its banks. We have had to smell it in the hot summer days. Now that the river has been cleaned, and now that the land alongside of it is available, we want that river to ourselves. Let those of us who have been part of the very existence of that river, enjoy it now by living in clean and cheerful homes on its banks. It is our river, and we do not intend to have anybody take it away from us.
More mass meetings were held and petitions were circulated. Marcantonio’s close personal relationship with Mayor LaGuardia was very useful in the campaign. In the midst of it, Marcantonio wrote:
In 1938, 1,300-unit project, East River Houses, located between East 104 to East 105th Streets on the banks of the East River was completed. A 1940 campaign brochure included a drawing of the East River Houses with the caption “I Brought a Housing Project for 1,200 Families to the District.”
Covello’s involvement with the Harlem Legislative Conference went beyond the fight for public housing in East Harlem. When the executive committee of the Conference requested that Marcantonio pay some of the organization’s outstanding bills, the Congressman replied:
So far as dough is concerned, it is definitely out. I am up to my neck trying to pay campaign debts, and am being hard pressed… This business of personally financing the Conference is all wrong. I think a meeting with men like Covello. … to find ways and means, such as running a little luncheon for the purpose of raising funds might work.
In 1941, the New York Journal American carried the story that Teachers [at Benjamin Franklin High School] praise Soviet Russia in the classrooms, while students sell the Communist paper, The Daily Worker, in the halls.” In response, the Harlem Legislative Conference organized a meeting to combat “this attack upon our children, Mr. Covello, the teachers and the people of East Harlem.”
At East Harlem rallies, Covello and Marcantonio frequently shared the same platform as featured speakers. A mass meeting in 1939 sponsored by the Progressive Lodge of the International Workers Order, Covello and Marcantonio headed the list of bilingual speakers against the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which was chaired by Martin Dies, a right-wing Democrat from Texas. At an “East and Lower Harlem Conference on Jobs and Training” sponsored by the HLC in 1941, and at a “Give a Can of Milk Rally” sponsored by the American Labor Party Campaign for the Children of Italy in 1946, both delivered keynote speeches.
Covello and Marcantonio cooperated and assisted each other on various political matters. During the politically difficult period of the German-Soviet Non-Intervention Pact, Covello wrote: “I would appreciate it very much if you would send me any material you have on peace and the reasons why America should keep out of this war, as I am going to speak Friday and shall need this material in order to prepare my speech.” When a political lieutenant asked Marcantonio to intervene so that a Puerto Rican youngster would have the opportunity to take entrance examination to the High School of Music and Art, Marcantonio replied: “Bring the father to the Harlem Legislative Conference Friday night. Covello and some other members of the Board of Education will be present and I will take the matter of his son up with them right there and then.” One month before Marcantonio’s death, Covello translated a medical report at Marcantonio’s request for one of his former constituents.
The lifelong collaboration between Covello and Marcantonio was sustained by their shared commitment to East Harlem. Both were devoted residents of the community. From the early thirties on, Covello and Marcantonio lived in adjacent brownstones in the heart of Italian Harlem, East 116th Street, which was called “the Fifth Avenue of Harlem’s Little Italy.” Their commitment embraced all of East Harlem’s residents. Neither of them ever flinched from confronting the Italian community with the demand that Blacks and Puerto Ricans be granted equal access to the schools and public housing located in Italian Harlem.
In September of 1945, a flight between Black and White students broke out at Benjamin Franklin High School. No one was seriously hurt, but four Black students were arrested for carrying weapons. This relatively minor incident escalated into a genuine crisis, partially attributable to the concurrent outbreak of serious racial disturbances in Chicago and elsewhere. Sensational journalism did much to exacerbate the situation. The New York News, for example, published a story on the incident under the entirely misleading headline “2000 Students Stage Race Riot.”
Covello immediately initiated a comprehensive campaign to restore calm, a campaign in which Marcantonio was centrally involved. On the first of October, Marcantonio contacted LaGuardia and obtained commitments from them to: (1) issue a statement that it was safe for students to return to school; (2) try to get Joe Louis and Frank Sinatra to appear at the school assembly (Sinatra did appear):and (3) approve the participation of a racially integrated contingent of Benjamin Franklin students in the forthcoming Columbus Day parade. The following day, Marcantonio sent this letter to leading residents of Italian Harlem:
The incident that occurred is a signal to all believers in unity and democracy to become aware of domestic fascist propaganda in the various communities in the City of New York. It is a notice to all of us to be on the alert. The maximum unity and united effort is required at this time of all of us to urge:
(1) To increase all the efforts for: A. Full employment; B. $25 per week for twenty-six weeks unemployment compensation; C. enactment of Fair Employment Practices legislation; D. an adequate housing program; E. the appointment of a Negro on the Board of Education; F. the exposure of the misrepresentation of the part of the reactionary press to divide the people.
(2) To go to the people personally and directly and tell them the reason for equality and cooperation against the common enemy: reaction, unemployment, and the purveyors of race hatred.
(3) Not to believe the distortions appearing in the reactionary press.
(4) To urge the parents of all the children to attend school.
Simultaneously, the following leaflet signed by Marcantonio was distributed throughout Italian Harlem:
Who Gets Hurt?
Who? The Italian-American Community!
Who? The Negro People!
Who? Every Group in the Fight for Liberty!
The same people who hate us… who discriminate against us, also hate the Negro people, the Jews, the Catholics, the foreign born. They hate everyone who wants America to be free for all of the people.
Senator Bilbo calls us “Dear Dago,” the Jews, “Dear Kike,” the Negroes, “Dear Nigger.” Men like Bilbo are afraid that a united people will destroy discrimination forever. Benjamin Franklin High School is an example of how the People Can Unite and Live Peacefully Together.
The school was built eleven years ago. It is one of the most beautiful, most modern, best-equipped of any school in the city. We fought hard to get it. … But the Reactionaries Don’t Like That… They Fear Unity.
That is why they hang around like vultures… waiting.
And those who would divide us include, unfortunately, traitors among our own people, our own Bilboes. … Those who preach hate. …
We in our own community bear the responsibility for beating back the Bilboes. That is, because we are the majority in this area. And for our own safety, we must do it.
The following week, Marcantonio spoke at a mass meeting held in Benjamin Franklin High School. Maintaining that the September incident did not reflect the majority sentiment of Italian Harlem, Marcantonio stated further:
What occurred outside the Benjamin Franklin High School is a matter of concern to all of us. The Benjamin Franklin High School belongs to the people… We cannot permit the ugly head of race hatred to rise in our midst.
As your congressman, I believe this situation calls for frank and honest talk. Therefore I cordially invite you to meet with me at the Benjamin Franklin High School. …
Covello and Marcantonio’s views did not coincide exactly, but there were sufficient points of contact to enable their remarkable relationship to endure. Covello had been influenced by socialism in his youth. The experience of tutoring the daughter of a millionaire while attending Columbia jolted Covello, who wrote: “I kept seeing before my eyes the [millionaire’s family], with their home in the country and their mansion in town, and the people of East Harlem who worked all day long and were barely able to fill their stomachs and clothe their children.” Yet politics were never Covello’s main concern. He was an educator with a theory of education that necessitated the social activation of the community. Covello envisioned a high school as the fulcrum on which Italian Harlem could be transformed into a more positive environment. The structure of the new high school reflected this philosophy, as was reported in the New York Times:
A community Advisory Council was formed to link the community agencies, civic-minded residents, parents, and school together in developing an all-inclusive program of education. Today fifty organizations are represented in this council. Twenty-two committees have been formed covering the full gamut of community needs. … The Community Advisory Council coordinates all agencies of the neighborhood. Pupils sit on the committee along with the city department heads, social and civic workers, parents and representatives of businessmen’s groups… in the last two years of this experiment, 1,000 men and women have been helped to become citizens. An “Old Friendship Club” has been formed consisting of boys who left school before they completed their courses. A study of social and anti-social conditions is underway and will be used to better living conditions for the residents. … The community is being educated along with the pupils in the school.
Much of the structure remained operative; much did not. In any case, Benjamin Franklin High School did play a role in the organization of East Harlem’s residents in heir own behalf.
In order to fulfill his educational mission, Covello believed that he would have to understand fully the community and its people. Covello collected every conceivable fact he could find concerning East Harlem demographics, housing conditions, economy, and organizations. If data had not been published or were otherwise unavailable, he gathered them. He compiled lists of organizations including religious, fraternal, social and trade unions. To understand his students better, Covello spent ten years researching a doctoral thesis, The Social Background of the Italo-American Child.
The underlying political content of Covello’s educational activities is epitomized by the following excerpt from an untitled draft of an essay on Italo-American-America students and the Italian community, which Covello wrote around 1930:
I am completely convinced that education—which is not the accumulation of knowledge and the sharpening of people’s wits to prey upon their fellow man—can be a potent force in directing young people’s lives to serve and not exploit a fellow human being. This is a very difficult job indeed because our society is based in the main on the exploitation of human beings, but there is no doubt that we can and should try to lessen the impact of this type of thinking and this way of life in our present day society. For, as teachers, we cannot remain neutral in this struggle and our job is to be on the side of the exploited.
Inasmuch as the very existence of the community-centered school with Covello at its head was due to Marcantonio, the protégé was able to present his mentor with a veritable laboratory in which to test his theory of community-based education. In turn, Marcantonio gained prestige from the support of Covello, who had earned vast respect in East Harlem, which was of inestimable value in maintaining his political leadership of the Italian community.
Had it not been for Covello, Marcantonio might well have been another typical American success story, a ghetto-raised son of an immigrant mother who became a professional. Marcantonio’s academic success would likely have destined him to alienation from Italian Harlem. It was Covello’s influence that oriented Marcantonio to community service and total integration into the community. Both were major factors in his political success. Moreover, Covello’s matchless understanding of Italian Harlem was at Marcantonio’s disposal.
To the childless Covello, Marcantonio was “one of the boys,” and the favorite at that. While still at De Witt Clinton, Marcantonio was the first to call Covello “Pops,” a nickname that stuck to the teacher for the rest of his life. Covello was Marcantonio’s only confidant and the most important figure in his life. Within the framework of Covello’s educational theory, Marcantonio was perhaps his most successful pupil. The final irony was that the mentor, Covello, was a pallbearer at his protégé’s funeral.
By Gerald Meyer, Ph.D
Hostos Community College (CUNY)
Bronx, New York
Wonderful article. Wonderful story and encouraging in showing how education, communuty organizing, and political skills can bring about social change. Covello brings to mind the dedication of both Paulo Friere and Danilo Dolci.