The Schools That Came Before Queens College

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Queens College opened its doors in 1937, but the land QC sits on already had its own rich history long before that.

In 1909, the New York Parental School opened its doors with the goal of turning troubled boys into respectable citizens. The school opened with a total of 180 boys from all over the city, and it hoped to achieve its goal by offering residential living, teaching an assortment of trades ranging from carpentry to cooking, conducting military drills, and assigning chores as a form of physical labor. Hobart H. Todd, the school’s principal at the time: “discovered that labor [was] a great moral agent; that [made] humans clean and respectable… everyone [was] kept busy from morning until it [was] time to turn into bed.”

It seemed that the school was achieving its goal until the start of the 1930’s­— which was also the early years of the Great Depression— when things started taking a turn for the worse. The mayor at the time, Fiorello La Guardia, started receiving letters that claimed that the students at the school were being mistreated. These letters led to a case being opened in which the jury found, “that children committed to the school are improperly fed, poorly treated, beaten without cause and given inadequate formal… education.” While the jury was able to uncover this information, it didn’t have enough substantial evidence to charge the accused parties. The jury recommended that the school be shut down or reform its objectives.

Soon after that, the Parental School permanently closed. But it left traces of its history and presence that can still clearly be seen in Queens College’s architectural structures. In the school and college section of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle from 1909, there’s a picture of the Parental School that could easily be mistaken for Queens College campus today. The reporter writing the article on the school stated, “They are all of the Spanish type of architecture—stuccoes walls and red tiles…”

Before the Parental School took residence on what is now the Queens College campus, there was another school there. And this school brought forward a more hopeful outcome. The Jamaica Academy was located where the current Student Union is. The Central Queens Historical Society was able to find evidence that Walt Whitman, American poet, taught at the Academy between 1839 and 1840. In 2005, Queens College President (2002-2014) James L. Muyskens dedicated a new “Walt Whitman Garden” not only in honor of the poet’s teaching, but also in honor of the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book, Leaves of Grass. This wasn’t the first time that there had been a dedication for Whitman on QC Campus. In 1939, a campus building was named Whitman Hall. Coincidentally, this was before it was even known that Whitman had once taught on QC grounds. Unfortunately, the building was demolished in the 1960s. However, a plaque still remains in Whitman’s honor by the garden that bears his name.

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