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PACSCL Hidden Collections Processing Project » Temple University Urban Archives

Temple University Urban Archives

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Helen Oakes: Philly’s Public Schools’ Biggest Fan

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

Just before the winter break, we wrapped up processing at Urban Archives with the Helen Oakes papers.  This was truly an exercise in team processing with Forrest, Megan G., Megan A., Christiana and me contributing to the effort.

Helen Oakes was a pretty remarkable lady who devoted her life’s work to advocating for public education in Philadelphia in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.  She believed that children across the city deserved equal access to education and that the city’s public schools could and should provide it to them — if only they could get their acts together.

Oakes first became interested in the schools in the late 1960s, when she was an active member of the League of Women Voters.  The League conducted a survey of schools which found that schools with a higher percentage of African American students were getting shortchanged when it came to funding.  Angered by this blatant inequality, Oakes launched her newsletter, Oakes’ Newsletter, in 1970, to publicize this and other issues in Philadelphia’s public schools.  The Oakes’ Newsletter was devoted to the discovery and understanding of problems in the school district, of which there were plenty.  Enough, in fact, to keep Oakes writing for nearly twenty years!

Oakes research into public education was relentless.  She investigated the ways in which public education was outright failing the city’s youth, as well as the external forces exacerbating the already taxed school system.  She carefully studied the budget; teacher training; standardized testing and integration.  She investigated programs designed for special needs students and sex education.  She looked at the relationships between education and external issues such as drug use, teen pregnancy, race, poverty and crime–and she published everything in Oakes Newsletter. Oakes wrote to shock her readers and to expose issues in the public schools for sure, but she had a more noble purpose.  She wanted the public schools to be better, and believed that they could be if the school district faced some of the major issues head-on.

A full run of the published newsletter along with her research files are available at Urban Archives. The collection also contains scant files related to her term on the Philadelphia Board of Education in the 1980s.  An outspoken and critical member of the board, Oakes was not asked to serve again after her term expired in 1989.

Friends Neighborhood Guild and Germantown Settlement records at Urban Archives

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Unknown size: small.

This fall, at Temple University’s Urban Archives, I helped our now graduated processors, Forrest and Megan, process records of the Friends Neighborhood Guild and Germantown Settlement.  These collections  evidenced an ongoing tradition of the settlement movement in Philadelphia throughout the 20th century.  The settlement movement is an area of particular historical interest to me, so I was excited to play a more active role in processing the collections, especially because both organizations represent ongoing and successful settlements that have made noteworthy contributions to their respective communities (though over the course of 2010, Germantown Settlement, unfortunately, closed its doors).

The records we processed document the work and activities of the organizations and through this also offer a glimpse into the collective lives of the people and neighborhoods they served.  As one may expect the records of a settlement house to do, the records evidence the existence of a long list of social problems endured by these neighborhoods.  Poverty and unemployment, need for child care, urban blight (and, subsequently, urban renewal), teen pregnancy, and a host of other issues were diligently combated by both Germantown Settlement and Friends Neighborhood Guild.

Unknown size: small.

Though to a lesser extent, the papers also show some of the more positive aspects and changes in settlement administration and of community life overtime.  In the second half of the 20th century there was evidenced a shift in administrative philosophy, particularly for the Friends Neighborhood Guild, away from the traditional settlement model to a more all-encompassing community organizing model in which constituents played a more active role in steering the work of the settlement.  Also more prominent in the Friends Neighborhood Guild records, though not entirely absent from Germantown Settlement (and my favorite part of our foray into the settlement movement), were the photographs of people having fun together and taking part in settlement sponsored activities.   There were several photographs of athletic teams and classes, as well as snapshots taken during Guild anniversary celebrations in the 1970s and 1980s.  The images of anniversary celebrations suggest them to have been well attended events in which community members played an integral role.

Researchers would be interested to know that both collections are supplements to existing collections housed at Urban Archives, making for quite a comprehensive body of information regarding each of the organizations as well as of the larger settlement movement in Philadelphia, dating back to the 1800s.

Neither of the collections, as it turned out, were ideal candidates for minimal processing.  The Germantown Settlement records, which I fully expected to be challenging, were, to put it bluntly, in complete chaos when the processors got started.  General administrative and financial records as well as records documenting particular activities were scattered throughout the near 100 linear foot collection and folders were poorly labeled to boot (if papers were in folders at all).  In this case the processor’s job was to turn chaos into anything at all usable and I think they accomplished this goal; however, the collection, as it stands now, is still in need of some TLC.

Friends Neighborhood Guild fared better overall, but proved more difficult for our processors than I anticipated.  All in all, I think the collection was improved by processing and is most certainly, in my opinion, ready for research; however, there are aspects of its final arrangement that I wish were handled differently.  This occurrence is testament to the nature of our project, which necessitates a lot of remote supervision (in this case, the processors were on their own, so to speak, towards the end of processing) and a general lack of time to dwell on decisions or to go back and change things.

Here are a few snapshots from processing Germantown Settlement:

And from Friends Neighborhood Guild: