When Frank Sinatra Came to Italian Harlem: The 1945 “Race Riot” at Benjamin Franklin High School


Editor's note: This article originally appeared in: Are Italians White? How Race Is Made in America, pp. 161-176. Eds. by Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno. New York: Routledge, 2003.

New York City's worst racial incident in the immediate postwar period erupted on September 27, 1945 at Benjamin Franklin High School, an all-boys school located on Pleasant Avenue between East 114th and East 116th Streets in Italian Harlem. This, the most Italian Little Italy, which in 1940 had approximately sixty thousand Italian Americans, occupied an area of East Harlem from East 96th Street to East 125th Street from Madison Avenue to the East River. Its enrollment included 1,162 students, 37 percent of whom were Italian American, 13 percent African American, 9 percent Puerto Rican, and 41 percent "Other" that included a large number of Jewish students. Over a span of two months, this incident generated over eighty articles and editorials in New York City's press as well as mention in the Black press outside of New York City. Some of these newspaper accounts, and the accompanying photographs, gave the impression that a full-scale riot had occurred and that the Italian community was populated by violent racists. By implication, these reports communicated that Benjamin Franklin, its principal, and its underlying educational philosophy had failed. BFHS, which had gained a national reputation as a center of intercultural and interracial education, so of all of New York City's eighty high schools it was the least likely high school where a racial incident would occur. This paper presents the remarkable campaign (that concluded on October 23, when America's most famous Italian American, Frank Sinatra, visited the school) that healed the racial breach caused by this incident and restored the reputation of the school, it s principal, and the Italian community.

Leonard Covello, New York City's first Italian American high school principal, had gained national recognition for his leadership as the founding principal of Franklin High, which was widely viewed as an experimental community for the implementation of Covello's educational philosophy. Among other things, his perspective (which he termed community centered education) celebrated the contributions of immigrants and advocated the maintenance of their cultures and specifically their languages, so that in 1939, for example, 553 students, almost one-half of Franklin's enrollment, were studying the Italian language. Courses in every subject area and frequent student assemblies celebrated the cultures and contributions of all nationalities and races in the construction of a pluralistic culture and society. Covello insisted that the public schools must reflect a "reciprocal relationship between the good things in both foreign and native cultures. ... For this purpose the community-centered school does not want to suppress the traditions of foreign cultural groups. ... The appreciation by the school of such values leads to a fuller integration between itself and the community; it gives recognition and prestige to foreign cultural groups...." At Franklin, the recognition and celebration of ethnic diversity was consciously extended to include full racial equality. According to Covello, the goal of BFHS was to "Make the school the training ground for democratic living." In recognition of this, the Office of War Information (OWI) produced a documentary about BFHS, "A Better Tomorrow," that depicted the school as an exemplar of "democracy in action," which was screened in a score of countries.

On Thursday morning, September 27, a dispute about a basketball broke out in the gym between a small group of African American and Italian American boys, which later spilled over into the locker room. The boys challenged one another to fight it out after school. When news of this incident reached Covello, he assigned the two best faculty members for this task,William Spiegel, the basketball coach, and Salvatore Pergola, the Dean of Boys, to stand outside the building at dismissal in order to quell the threatened fight. Spiegel was the attendance officer for the school and, much more important, he had led the winning (and integrated) basketball team. The Benjamin Franklin Year Book, 1942 was dedicated to Spiegel, where under his smiling photograph, a student journalist asserted: "He may act tough at times but he is only fooling. He gives unselfishly of his time to us in the community." This piece then quoted a New York Journal-American article which stated that "With Ben Franklin High assured of at least a tie for its fourth straight Manhattan Public School Athletic League Basketball Title, the spotlight once again was thrown upon one of the greatest coaches ever to mould youngsters in high school athletics-Bill Spiegel. Dean Pergola had a unique rapport with the students. In The Heart Is the Teacher, his autobiography, Covello describes him as "a stocky, colorful, energetic man ... born in New York City of Neapolitan parents, with an instinctive affinity for problems relating to tough East Side boys."

Covello's intervention was sufficient to ensure that the African American students exited the school without incident; however, when they reached the bus stop, which was two blocks north of the school, a mob-primarily made up of local toughs-armed with sticks randomly attacked them. The police were called; and within ten minutes, peace was restored. Although many of the African American boys had been hit, none had been injured sufficiently to require medical treatment. The next morning, a group of African American boys, while marching down East 116th Street (Italian Harlem's major east-west artery), began chasing a white boy. Upon being alerted of this development, Covello raced from the steps of the school, where he had been standing to meet the group. Covello arrived at the same time as the police, who searched some of the African American students and arrested two of the boys for carrying weapons. Later, in school, the police questioned and searched other African American boys from this group and arrested three more for carrying weapons. (The charges against the five African American students were ultimately dropped.) During the day, some of the African American students became very much alarmed when a crowd from the Italian American community began gathering outside the school. Covello allowed those African American students who felt threatened to remain together as a group within the school library. The schedule of the day, however, including a student assembly at which African American and white students performed, proceeded normally.

Under Covello's guidance, the faculty and staff acted to protect the African American students from any potential harm when they left the school building. The city buses that most of the African American students used to reach their homes in Central Harlem were rerouted so that they stopped directly in front of the school. The buses, which were escorted by police cars, did not stop to pick up passengers until they had reached Lexington Avenue, the informal western border of Italian Harlem. There were no incidents of missiles being thrown at these buses or any harassment of the African American students. Significantly, the African-American students opted to walk through Italian Harlem to reach the subway line, four long blocks distant from the school, arrived there without incident.

After dismissal, a faculty conference was held, but unfortunately there is no documentation of its deliberations. On Saturday, at the school, Covello conferred with John Ernst, Associate Superintendent, of the Board of Education, and Edward Lewis of the Urban League. It was not unreasonable, therefore for Covello to state to reporters that: "There is no need to worry. Everything's all right now." However, major New York City newspapers did not concur with this version of these events.

On Saturday, five of New York City's daily newspapers covered the Benjamin Franklin story. In a four-inch article printed on an inside page, The World-Telegram (which appeared in the afternoon) reported that "street fighting broke out twice with five hundred white and Negro students and their elders battling each other and eighty uniformed and plainclothes policemen." The article in the liberal Republican Herald Tribune focused on the measures taken at Benjamin Franklin to ensure order. It reported that the Italian American mothers who had escorted their children to school were ushered into the school auditorium where Covello and John de Martino, the chief inspector in charge of the ninety-five police officers assigned to the school, assured them, in English and Italian, that they had no cause to fear for their boys' safety. Contrasting with these reports were articles that sensationalized and grossly misreported the events at Benjamin Franklin which were published by: The New York Times, the City's most prestigious newspaper; The New York Daily News, a tabloid with the largest circulation; and The New York Post, the (then) liberal tabloid.

The headline of Times' front-page story, blared "Student ‘Strikes' Flare into Riots in Harlem Schools: Knives Flash in Street Fights as Elders Join Pupils in Battling the Police: Coaches' Row a Pretext." The use of the term "riot" to describe these events associated Benjamin Franklin, Italian Harlem, and Covello with the most backward and disreputable forces in American society. The subtitle of the Times article tied the disturbance at Franklin to student strikes organized by the Communist-led American Youth for Democracy that were in progress in other high schools in support of a city-wide boycott organized by the public schools' physical education teachers who were demanding additional pay for after-school supervision of student activities. However, Franklin did not have a chapter of the American Youth for Democracy and no student strike was ever proposed-or carried out-at any time there. The Times also extensively reported on assaults on African American students who had boarded buses after school, an occurrence about which no other newspaper reported and for which no evidence was proffered. Covello insisted that the Times reporter, Alexander Feinberg, whose byline appeared on this article, was not present at any of the flare-ups and had culled emotion-laden testimony after the fact. The Times coverage was the most damaging because is was the most prestigious daily in the city.

The headline of The New York Daily News article – "2,000 High [School] Students Battle in Race Riot"-epitomized the single most inaccurate and incredible reportage of this incident. First, the figure "2,000," which was cited in no other report, grossly overestimated the number of participants in a dispute in a high school with an enrollment of 1,200. Most disturbing, of course, was the appending of "race" to "riot" in the headline, terms which were contradicted by the text of the article which reported that: "Almost miraculously nobody was seriously hurt, although there were battered heads and bruised faces." The New York Post published two similar stories in its two editions, one of whose headlines used the term "riot" and the other the milder description "school race strife." In contrast to the articles' headlines, the texts of both articles characterized the incidents in Benjamin Franklin as "flare-ups" and a "free-for-all." Both articles, however, linked the Benjamin Franklin incident to the much more serious racial disturbances simultaneously occurring in Gary and Chicago.

On Sunday, September 30, the City's press published more balanced reports on the Benjamin Franklin incident. The Daily News article ratcheted down its description of the incident from "riot" to "street battle." The News also mentioned that the five African American students who had been arrested "were arraigned in Youth Term Court and were paroled in the custody of their attorneys." Surprisingly, the Daily Mirror, a tabloid notorious for sensationalizing news, dropped the Benjamin Franklin incident into the seventh paragraph of an article about police measures in response to the overall agitation in the high school system. A short article published in the left-leaning daily, PM, characterized the incident as an "outbreak of street fighting ... among several hundred white and Negro pupils [in which] no one was injured." In closing, the article quoted Covello: "The real trouble is not the school. The trouble is that adults mix into the situation." Il Progresso Italo-Americano's article described the incident at Benjamin Franklin in its headline as a "tumult," and in the text as an "uproar" among "more than five hundred students." The only new perspective on the Benjamin Franklin event came from the Sunday Worker's article, whose headline characterized the Benjamin Franklin event as an "Anti-Negro Riot," which was part of a "Nationwide Racist Plot." The text of the article did point out two neglected facts: "two Negro lads" had endured injuries and although five African American boys had been arrested, "No whites were touched by the police."

Covello understood that the sensationalizing of this incident in segments of the press threatened to discourage boys from enrolling in Benjamin Franklin. In an unpublished article, Covello revealed that "Today, families in the areas adjoining the East Harlem area, particularly from Yorkville [a predominantly Irish and German American community south of East Harlem], use every subterfuge to send their boys to schools other than Franklin." The capacious, almost palatial, edifice that had been erected to house Benjamin Franklin had been designed to accommodate three thousand students. Nonetheless, even after James Otis Junior High School, with its enrollment of one thousand, was located within the building, there were still far too few students to fill this monumental edifice's well appointed classrooms. In the evening, however, Franklin's adult enrollment had swelled from 1,500 in 1938 to as many as four thousand during the war years in courses as varied as Russian, Advanced English or vocational courses such as "Doctor's Office Assistant" and "Switchboard."

At his home, on Sunday evening, September 30, Covello convened a meeting, with seventeen well-chosen people, who developed a strategy and tactics to combat this assault on their school and their community. William Spiegel and Sal Pergola were invaluable liaisons to the student body. Abraham Kroll, a reliable and close associate, had served as Covello's Administrative Assistant from the founding of the school in 1934. The four names which are illegible on the minutes were most likely members of the high school's faculty. Rose Russell, the leader of the Teachers Union (CIO) represented both the faculty and the Left. Fred Kuper, the law secretary to the Board of Education, provided a direct link to Benjamin Franklin's governing body. Daniel Dodson, the Executive Director of the Mayor's Committee on Unity, would ultimately write the key report on this incident. Rose Covello (née Accurso), herself a Mathematics teacher, assisted Covello in every aspect of his work. Miriam Sanders (Mrs. Vito Marcantonio) was the "head worker" of Harlem House, and one of the local community directors of the East Harlem League for Unity, an organization formed in 1943 for the purpose of developing "better understanding among nationality and racial groups."

Most important was the presence of the most prestigious member of the community, Vito Marcantonio, who represented the community in Congress from 1934 until 1950. Marcantonio's reputation rested in part on his sponsorship of civil rights legislation in the House, where he led the fight against the poll tax, fought to make lynching a federal crime, and to ensure the funding of the Fair Employment Practices Commission. In the House, he had achieved a national reputation as a spokesman for the Left. In the City, he was the leader of the American Labor Party (ALP), and in East Harlem he forged its multiethnic, multiracial population into an unchallenged political coalition. The childless Covello and the orphaned Marcantonio were lifelong collaborators.

The group agreed to draw up of a fact-sheet to counter the biased reportage. It then focused on returning the school to normal, which more than anything else meant students learning in classes. Marcantonio recommended that "teachers visit homes of absentees [and that] Negro organizations send out representatives to all Negro students' homes-if absent." There was also discussion of the creation of a brochure, "mimeographed copies to be sent to leaders in [the] community for their signatures." Someone suggested using the newspaper articles about the racial incidents in social science classes as "an example of how bad reporting is done. The minutes of this meeting then bluntly stated: "Plan for parade-very carefully planned-try to have it come from students." It was recommended that the "student suggestion for parade" come from "VO [varsity organization] leaders," and that the "boys responsible for incident on Thursday ... take initiative." Marcantonio committed to contact Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to obtain permission for the parade. He was also charged with convincing "Joe Lewis or Frank Sinatra" to attend a rally. Remarkably, except for a proposal that a film strip be created for use in local movie houses, everything that was proposed in this one meeting was actually carried out.

Covello and Marcantonio knew that the attitude and actions of the Italian American community were the keys to repairing the damage caused by the racial incidents that took place on September 27th and 28th as well as well as enhancing the prospects for racial harmony in and around Benjamin Franklin. The content and thrust of the brochure that came out of the September 30th meeting reflected that conviction. Entitled "Who Gets Hurt?/Chi ha sofferto da tutto questo?", its text responded: "The Italo-American Community; the Negro People; Every Group in the Fight for Liberty!" Clearly, the key assertion that this leaflet had to sustain was that an attack on the African American boys outside of Benjamin Franklin also hurt the Italian Americans, because in the mêlée only African Americans got hurt. The flyer supported this premise by making three points. First, it reminded its readers that "The same people who hate us, also 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 the people." The flyer stated that "Benjamin Franklin High School is an example of how the people can unite and live peacefully together." It also pointed out that Franklin is "one of the most beautiful, most modern, best equipped of any school in the city." Finally, it reminded the readers that the OWI documentary, "The Government was proud of us-proud enough to show us at work to the Italians at home, to the French, to the British, and many others." The text next attacked "the reactionaries, who would divide us, include some traitors among our own people.... our own ‘Bilbos' [who] are as dangerous as the Bilbos of Mississippi." (Theodore Bilbo was perhaps the single most virulent racists in the Senate.) It closed with these slogans: "Stop Hate Talk"; "Build the People's Unity"; "Keep Our School Free of Discrimination and Hate-Free to Grow."

The name "Bilbo" was current because two months before, he used the salutation "My Dear Dago" when he responded to a letter written by Josephine Piccolo, a resident of Brooklyn, castigating him for attempting to block the appropriation for the Federal Fair Employment Practices Commission. From the floor of the House, Marcantonio demanded an apology from Bilbo (which he did not offer) on behalf of Piccolo, who had three brothers in the armed forces, one of whom had died while in service. Covello and Marcantonio seized upon Bilbo's slur of Piccolo as the lynch pin of their effort to engage the Italian American in a campaign affirming interracial cooperation.

Clearly, the flyer was intended solely for circulation in the Italian American community. After all, the African American people did not need to be convinced by anyone that Bilbo was an abomination and a threat. The translation of the leaflet into Italian was not only done to accommodate the first-generation Italian Americans, many of whom could not read English well, but because Covello believed that: "The familiar language must be used. It is the idea and not the language itself that is important." The brochure was used to enlist in this campaign Italian Harlem's prominenti who received a letters from Covello which stated: "The attached statement is being signed by the leading people of our community. Our plan is to have it printed in leaflet form and to distribute thousands of copies in our community. If you want your signature to appear on this leaflet, please sign the attached statement and return it immediately."

On Monday morning, October 1, Covello conferred at the school with a number of people who could credibly verify his version of these events, including: Walter White, the Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Walter O'Leary, the Director of the Bureau of Attendance; Assistant Chief Commander John De Martino; Ed Lewis of the Urban League; Edith Alexander, an African American, who was the Associate Director of the Mayor's Committee on Unity; and Saul Battle, the first African American New York City patrolman, who was then a City Parole Commissioner. Directly and indirectly, these individuals began to lend their reputations and connections to the cause of defending Covello and Benjamin Franklin High School. That same morning Covello convened a general assembly to enlist the students in the fight-back campaign. Covello laid down the law. He explained to the students: "Our student body represents forty-one nationalities or races, yet we never had such an outbreak as the one that occurred Friday." He then intoned his mantra: "We must not have intolerance here." Sal Pergola, who followed, admonishing the students: "We don't want Bilboism here. ... A few days ago we slipped. Let's not do it again." At a faculty meeting held on Tuesday October 2nd., the teachers and staff were armed with the facts: a chronologically organized fact-sheet, which was prepared by a "committee of teachers." This document established that the scope and consequences of the events were far smaller and much less virulent than depicted in the press coverage.

The tone and content of Monday's newspaper articles reflected the beginning of a turnabout. The Times quoted Covello to the effect that "the battles" at his school were "merely a boys' fight," and that "outside elements, unorganized but vicious, might have contributed to the difficulty." The removal of the racial conflict from the school-after all, the fights did take place outside the school and school operations were not interrupted-distanced the incident from Covello and Benjamin Franklin. On Tuesday, Covello's voice was widely heard throughout the City through reports on Monday's student assembly. The arch-conservative Journal-American (an afternoon paper) printed in bold type this terse quote of Covello: "We must not have intolerance here." It also reported that attendance at Franklin on Monday reached 60 percent, which in view of the lurid press coverage was evidence that Benjamin Franklin was returning to normal. The most dramatic change was in The Post, whose African American journalist, Ted Poston, endorsed Covello's "contention that three slightly related racial incidents had been magnified into sensational stories of racial conflict." Poston added that Covello's version of these events was "strongly supported by eyewitness and community leaders. ... [as well as] several teachers, including two of the five Negro members of the staff." The second edition of the Post also published a photo of two Franklin students-an Italian American boy with his arm around the shoulders of an African American boy-studying together. The article closed by quoting Covello to the effect that: "Stories ... which smear a community unjustly play right into the hands of Bilbo and his ilk." The shift in the Daily Worker's coverage was hardly less dramatic. The headlines on Monday's paper blandly stated "‘One of Those Things': Cops Call School Riot." The same issue of the Worker reported a Teachers Union proposal that at Franklin the Board of Education reduce class size to twenty-five students and hire at least twenty-five additional teachers, especially trained for remedial work. In a somewhat different vein, a third article prominently printed a joint statement issued by Marcantonio and Benjamin Davis, Jr., a City Councilman elected on the Communist Party ticket from Manhattan, that warned New Yorkers to "be on the alert against fascist provocations such as caused the East Harlem anti-Negro riot." This extreme language was somewhat incongruously followed by criticisms of the "exaggerated and distorted stories appearing in the reactionary press." The article then quoted Marcantonio and Davis as calling on "the parents of all children, both Negro and white, to see that the children attend school today." The coverage in Harlem's weekly People's Voice, which was financed and staffed by the Communist Party, closely resembled the Daily Worker articles.

On Wednesday October 2, press coverage affirmed Benjamin Franklin. The Mirror printed Covello's pledge that "positive action will be taken to prevent future outbreaks." It further cited his assertion that "in the eleven-year history of the school, the multiracial student body had gotten along like members of one family." The Daily News, the Daily Worker, and Il Progresso spoke favorably of Monday's student assembly. The News described it as the beginning of a "campaign for cooperation between white and Negro students." The Worker focused on Pergola's speech excoriating Bilboism. Although it led with material on the police measures that had been put in place to ensure the safety of the students, the Times also quoted Covello's mantra: "We must not have intolerance here," and reported on Walter White's pledge to plan an "affirmative program" of fostering better relations among members of the school body as well as among persons living in the neighborhood." The most thorough and thoughtful coverage, however, appeared in the Herald Tribune. An editorial, "All Is Not Well," suggested that "in difficult districts [sic] such as Harlem and the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn ... [the Board of Education must provide] smaller classes and money for extra positions." It also called for "community re-education led by the schools...." It published White's crystal clear declaration that "What happened on Friday was not a riot." In greater detail than other papers, it also described visible signs of racial harmony and cooperation. Uniquely, the Tribune account quoted as some length Saul Battle, the African American Parole Commissioner, who stated that "it seemed rather unfair that only Negroes were arrested in a flare-up that involved both Negroes and whites."

White's interpretation of these events, as the leader of the pre-eminent African American organization, carried great weight. However, Covello also knew the importance of Battle's presence. In a seventeen-page unpublished manuscript, "The Community School and Race Relations," he wrote: "We are not living in a fool's paradise. When necessary, police action will definitely be taken. We have already had Negro policemen assigned near our school, and in fact more than one, to give our Negro students a feeling of greater security. [This decision has also been taken in order to] point out to the neighborhood that Negro police and Negro teachers have been accepted by the city and school authorities on the basis of equality."

The best news of all was first carried by the afternoon paper, The World-Telegram, "on Tuesday all except 10 percent of normal attendance showed up for classes." Hence, the first goal of the fight back-normal attendance-had been achieved. In addition to all the other measures enacted, the normalization of attendance also resulted from a letter from Covello to the parents of absent students that stated: "It may be that this absence was caused by an expression of fear that your son might receive personal injury. We wish to assure you that the majority of the boys of this school were in classes today; everything was peaceful, and at no time was there any hint that anyone might be injured. Accept this assurance that conditions in this school are completely normal. I urge that you have your son return to school at once." Articles in other City papers were supportive of Benjamin Franklin and its administration. The World-Telegram reported that a telegram sent by Algernon Black and William Andrews, the co-chairs of the Citywide Citizens Committee, to LaGuardia, placed the blame for the racial incidents on "adult attitudes which are aimed at segregation and inequality." They also criticized the Board of Education for "failing to provide enough competent teachers ... [as well as allowing] overcrowded classes and overworked substitute teachers."

PM quotes Covello as saying that he was going to meet with a small group of alumni living in East Harlem to form "personal police groups to break up troublesome groups of boys outside the school." It is clear that Covello and Marcantonio personally intervened in this situation in the most immediate ways. A life-long resident recalled that during the evening following the radial outburst, Marcantonio approached a group of older boys with whom he was hanging out with and asked them not to loiter around the area of the school. One of the boys shouted out to Marcantonio: "If you had a sister, would you want her to marry a n------?" He then recalled that without saying a word, Marcantonio turned on his heal and walked away. Covello also talked to the members of a social club, whose headquarters, on East 118th Street and Pleasant Avenue, faced the site where the attack on the African American students had occurred.

The linchpin of the fight back campaign took place on Monday, October 8th at 8:00 PM, in the auditorium of Benjamin Franklin High School. Billed as a "Community Mass Meeting," it clearly intended to bring together the leadership of Italian Harlem and the residents of Italian Harlem for the single purpose of reaffirming and manifesting the commitment of the Italian American community to Benjamin Franklin as an integrated school. Covello and Marcantonio visualized this assembly as a means of manifesting the unanimity of the community's leadership on this issue as well as providing a way for enlisting the community members in the fight-back campaign.

On Saturday, October 6th, Covello made a special effort to reach Italian-speaking members of the community by speaking on radio in Italian in order to give "a very brief and very exact exposition of the facts" of what had occurred at Franklin on September 27th and September 28th. He closed by inviting his listeners to attend the meeting at the school in order to join together with "eminent citizens of our community who will present to you, in English and Italian, the true and fair exposition of the facts." As someone who "for eleven years [who has] worked all year around, day and night, seven days a week," Covello appealed in a letter to the parents to "assume your share of the duties as citizens of this Community" by attending the assembly where he noted he would report to them in English and Italian. On his Congressional stationery, Marcantonio sent a letter of invitation to community residents, which exhorted them to remember that: "The Benjamin Franklin High School belongs to the people, ... and we must defend it. American democracy is based on the principle of equality. We cannot permit the ugly head of race hatred to rise in our midst."

Gathering the prominenti of Italian Harlem was the next task. On October 1st, letters of invitation were sent to forty-three leaders, thirty-four of whom accepted. Covello and Marcantonio had succeeded within one week in assembling: State Senator, Richard Costanzo; State Assemblyman, Hamlet Catennacio; Democratic Party chieftain, Frank Rossetti; judges; labor leaders; heads of veterans clubs; and morticians. Most important, the local clergy endorsed this effort. Catholic clergy attended from every Italian national church-Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St. Lucy's, Holy Name, and St. Anne's. The pastor from the Jefferson Park Methodist Church, of which Covello was an active member, also accepted the invitation. Among the minority who did not respond were: Joseph Piscitello, a functionary from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, who Marcantonio had defeated in the 1940 ALP primary; Frank Ricca, his defeated Democratic opponent from 1942; and Joseph Cioffi, the Democratic Party candidate in 1944 for State Assemblyman who had been defeated by the Republican-ALP candidate, Catennacio. Within one week's time, Covello and Marcantonio had successfully summoned the political, social, and religious leadership of Italian Harlem. Significantly, there were only four non-Italian Americans among the thirty-four community leaders who attended the assembly: two Irish American Catholic priests, who served at local parishes, one social worker, and one medical doctor.

One thousand parents ("mostly Italian American," PM reported) attended the Community Mass Meeting. The headline of "Who Gets Hurt?" and the responses "The Italo-American Community!," etc., appeared on the top of the assembly's program along with this slogan: "No man is safe unless all men are safe; no group is safe unless all groups are safe." The program was highly ritualized. It started with the color guard of James Otis Junior High School marching into the auditorium, while the audience stood to sing the "Star-Spangled Banner," followed by "A Better America," the OWI-produced documentary, and then Covello's introductory statement, the text of which is not available. The program ended with "brief statements by leading citizens of the East Harlem and sponsors of the Community Mass Meeting." PM, the only newspaper to cover this event, published this excerpt of Marcantonio's address: "[The street fighting] would delight Bilbo and [John] Rankin. We've got to fight the Bilbos and Rankins all over the world. We, of Italian origin, know the meaning of discrimination because we have been exploited, so we refuse to discriminate against others. We have no quarrel with any people; we have no quarrel with Negro people." (PM noted that the audience booed the names of Bilbo and Rankin.) Although we have no copies of the other talks, we do have a message from A. Salimbene, a business representative of a local of the Excavators and Building Laborers Union, who because he was unable to attend because of illness, wired Covello this statement: "In the highest form of democracy, tolerance is the greatest need. To live together, work together, and study together regardless of race, creed, or color is what our fighting men gave their lives for.... In a democracy such as ours, this must be our daily creed. I urge this meeting to resolve that we will always fight for freedom for all peoples regardless of race, creed, or color." Following the speeches a resolution was presented and unanimously accepted that reaffirmed "our profound belief in the American principle of racial equality and tolerance [and] pledged to go forward in unity and solidarity in an ever-expanding program of better understanding among all racial and cultural groups in our community."

The morning following the Community Mass Meeting, Covello distributed a letter to the faculty and students that reproduced the resolution, which he asked be discussed in every English class. He further urged the faculty and students "to take positive action by signing the pledge [card] to march in the Columbus Day parade on Friday...." This reminder was reinforced by a letter from Covello the parents requesting that they sign consent cards so that their children could march. He closed by urging their "cooperation in this manifestation of unity among all our people, by the participation of your son, and if possible, yourself, in this parade." The faculty also received a letter from Covello seeking their participation in the Columbus Day Parade, which closed: "Let us affirm by positive action how deeply we feel on the question of segregation, discrimination, and the fomenting of race hatred." Actually, preparations for the parade were under way in advance of these missives. At an all-day student conference held on Wednesday, October 3rd, The Herald Tribune reported that: "A Negro boy proposed a resolution that all the boys of the school march en masse in the city's Columbus Day parade, to demonstrate their unity to the entire city." During this student conference, students developed a series of slogans, including: "Christian, Jew, Negro, White-Americans All-Unite and Fight Race-Hate." The Chair of the English Department, Robert Shapiro, requested that the English teachers work together with the students to create "slogans that are brief and dramatic. They should be expressions of: 1) the democratic spirit of unity of races; 2) respect for all individuals; 3) our school unity."

Benjamin Franklin's participation in the Columbus Day Parade became news even before it happened. Columbus Day morning, The Mirror reported that "A feature of the parade will be the participation of the student body of Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem, scene of recent racial disturbances. The students voted to take part as a demonstration of American unity and solidarity, their principal announced." The following day, four New York City dailies published stories that included mention of Franklin's participation in the parade. The Times remarked that a "delegation of five hundred students of Benjamin Franklin High School, led by their principal, Dr. Leonard Covello, and flanked by parents ... marched in a demonstration of unity, signalizing the restoration of interracial harmony and good-will at the school, where disorders occurred on September 27 and 28. The Times did not, of course, here or any other place, note that on the day following these "disorders," it had published a headline terming them "a riot." Noting that the Franklinites marched behind a huge banner which proclaimed that they were "Americans All," The Tribune increased the estimate of the Franklin delegation to six hundred, which it noted constituted "fully half of the student body of the school, [who marched] ... as a demonstration of its ‘American unity and solidarity.'" The Mirror stated that: "Notable among the ten thousand students who took part was a large group of white and Negro pupils from the Benjamin Franklin High School...." The article also noted that: "A burst of applause greeted a float on which one of the girls from the high school personified the Statue of Liberty. She was flanked by banners reading: "Americans All-Negro, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant." Il Progresso, printed the Franklin story under a subheading-"Every Race, Every Faith," which after relating some background described how "[The students] were marching together one after the other-the whites, the Negroes, the Catholics, the Protestants, and the Jews-with Prof. Leonard Covello, the principal, at the head. The public comprehended the significance of this ‘fusion' and applauded from the heart."

On October 23, 1945, the finale of this remarkable campaign took place. The most popular singer in the United States (who not inconsequentially happened to be Italian American) came to Benjamin Franklin High School to add his voice to the chorus demanding "unity and solidarity" across racial, national, and religious lines. From 1944 until 1948, Sinatra became very involved in supporting a wide variety of progressive organizations and causes, but most especially the fight against racism. In 1945, for example, he made thirty appearances around the country speaking against prejudice. PM published an article on the morning of the event where Sinatra (who is described as toying with a gold St. Christopher medallion, on the back of which was engraved a Star of David) said that he was "Going to lay it on the line" during his talk at Franklin. In the middle of a program that started with an organ prelude, flag salute, Bible reading and band selections and ended with "expressions of our School's thanks to Frank Sinatra, Ambassador of good will," Sinatra told the students that hate groups had sent "delegates and agents among the kids" to talk up race prejudice.... This country was built by many people of many creeds, so it can never be divided.... No kid is born and two days later says: ‘I hate Jews or colored people. He's got to be taught.'" The Daily News reported that Sinatra pointed out that there are no discernible "biological differences between races. ... He also asked the high school students to serve as "neighborhood emissaries of racial good will." The Daily Worker, the only other City daily newspaper to cover this event, reported that the boys liked Sinatra because as one boy said, "he speaks our language." Curiously, Sinatra did not sing "The House I Live In," a Popular Front anthem that Sinatra had dramatized in a ten-minute documentary, but one of his least memorable songs, "Aren't You Glad You're You?," which was totally devoid of any social or political content.

Covello and Marcantonio's success in leading this movement depended on their deep roots and prodigious service to this community. Covello had arrived in Italian Harlem from Italy at the age of nine; Marcantonio lived his entire life within a four-block radius in Italian Harlem. Subsequently, they lived in adjacent brownstones at 329 and 331 East 116th Street, which was three blocks from Benjamin Franklin and on the same block as Marcantonio's political headquarters, 247 East 116th Street.

In the House, Marcantonio was a singular voice defending the rights of the foreign-born, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and. specifically Italian Americans. Marcantonio's delivery of service to his constituents was legendry. Every Sunday at his East Harlem headquarters, he listened to the petitions of his constituents until the last of these was heard. Annually, thousand upon thousand of residents in Italian Harlem had some problem resolved or at least attended to by Marcantonio and his staff. One of his biographers has stated: "Few men in public life has been so intimately linked with a particular urban neighborhood ... the man was the product and personification of the neighborhood."

Contemporaries described Covello as "almost a little god in East Harlem," and another as "the dean of East Harlem. He is undoubtedly the most experienced person in the community and his activities were more widespread and extended over a longer period than any other person." His involvement with East Harlem extended far beyond Benjamin Franklin. For example, when he identified its lack of a newspaper as both a reflection of, and a contributing factor to, the disunity of East Harlem, he spearheaded a group which in March of 1941 founded the East Harlem News, an eight-page tabloid that appeared monthly until 1943. East Harlem News, which featured articles in Italian and Spanish, published announcements and news about the community's numerous social clubs, churches, and of course Benjamin Franklin. Under the headline, "Towards Building a Better Community," the front page of its first issue, for example, announced the monthly "community night" at Franklin where readers had the opportunity to join a community committee, including: Housing, Health, Juvenile Aid, Racial Committee, Adult Education, Parents Association, Citizenship and Naturalization. These committees both afforded services for the community and linked the school to the community.

Covello and Marcantonio had led the campaigns first to found the school, which was initially, housed in two antiquated public school buildings, and some years later to obtain a new facility for the school. When its new edifice was opened in 1944, Marcantonio stated at its dedication: "[Benjamin Franklin] is interracial in character and community-wide in the scope of its work.... It can truly be said that this great building is indeed a monument to democracy in education." Their highly visible and tangible service to Italian Harlem gave them enormous prestige and credibility. Therefore, the community, its leaders, and residents accepted their evaluation as to the gravity of this situation and accepted the course of action they proposed. Their actions had also given them enormous credibility trust with African Americans

Covello and Marcantonio built this fight-back on the ideology of the left New Deal, especially as articulated by Henry Wallace and the Congress of Industrial Organization. This political perspective insisted that democracy (social democracy, if you will) was dependent on working class unity, which was endangered by racism, anti-Semitism, and nativism. Therefore, they did not try to shame or bully the Italian American community, but to appeal to its best instincts and sense of self-interest. They succeeded in convincing this community that what was at stake was its reputation, the viability of their school, and a connection with others who had been systematically left out of the American dream. Within the community, the Harlem Legislative Conference-a coalition of more than one hundred political, social, and religious organizations in Italian, Spanish, and Black Harlem – had widely disseminated this point of view. The ALP, which had a large presence in the community, also promulgated this outlook. Community centered education was, of course, congruent with this outlook. The infusion of the school and the community with activities based on this political perspective created the foundation for Covello's fight back. Its success helped prevent a recurrence of a racial incident, reinvigorated Benjamin Franklin's progressive mission, secured Covello's reputation, and helped perpetuate Marcantonio's leadership.

Photo: Frank Sinatra performs for Armed Froces Radio, 1944. Department of Defense

Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.


  • I lived not more than 100 yards away from this school. I did not go there. I and most of my friends went to Cardinal Hayes in the Bronx. Why? Too much fighting and the school in 1952 was a wreck. Hayes was build at the same time and I was there in July 2015. It is in the same shape and very clean. Yes, the student population has changed but the school still is the top of the list. We had to take a bus and a train to get to the school. We had to wear a jacket and a tie also. If you gave the teachers a hard time over and over they would remove you from the school permanently. On the other hand Franklin to me was a place where kids could fulfill their days in school . Period. I lived there until 1961 and nothing changed. I look back at these times as a learning experience. I learned what was good and what was bad. I survived and went on to live a very nice life. 538

    Posted by vincent ponz, 02/24/2016 3:55pm (8 years ago)

  • Feb. 2013
    I graduated from B.Franklin H.S. in 1942 ! It was a great school! America at it's finest ! Italian , Irish , German , Negro and Spanish student body . It was also great academically . Some very sucessfull graduates. Doctors , lawyers , business men , politicians, etc.
    It also had one of the greatest H. S. Principle in New York City history Mr. Leonard Covello .
    Bruno Vineis

    Posted by Bruno Vineis, 02/01/2013 4:10pm (11 years ago)

  • I Graduated from Benjamin Franklin in 1942. I had attened a high school prior to Ben. Franklin.When I went to Ben Franklin (located then at 108 st,) to initiate my transfer to the school , I was brought to Mr. Covello office. He was having lunch at the time and one of the first things he asked me was , If I wanted some lunch! He was a great principle and a wonderful man. I will never forget him.
    Bruno Vineis

    Posted by Bruno Vineis, 02/01/2013 3:32pm (11 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments