By now, everyone has heard of the movie Hidden Figures that informed us about three brilliant Black women who were excluded from American textbooks regarding their contribution to the space race of the 1950’s. But, most people are not aware of the “hidden figures” in other movements in America such as the civil rights and its offshoot, the parental control movement.
An army of brilliant, talented women: mothers, sisters, and wives worked behind the scenes organizing, planning, and making sure the numbers turned up for the sit-ins, marches, and boycotts to improve education for Black children in the 1960’s. Thousands of those women are forgotten because their names were never included in newspaper articles, textbooks, or reports. A rare few who were written about are Thelma J. Hamilton, Annie Stein, and Dolores Torres in New York City.
However, there was one notable woman who worked tirelessly behind the scenes in Buffalo, NY in the 1960’s. Her name was Mrs. Elizabeth Lidge Burgos. While some of her later work with Model Cities is documented in the book City on the Lake: The Challenge of Change in Buffalo, New York by Mark Goldman, her earlier work with parents was not fully captured by journalists and historians.
Raised at the knee of Mrs. Burgos, I actually grew up around the kitchen table where she did most of her organizing, telephone calling, and note taking. I observed her, overheard anecdotal stories about her, and viewed primary source documents and artifacts that spotlighted her work.
In the 1950’s, she started out by becoming involved in the parent teacher organization (PTO) and other neighborhood organizations out of concern for her own children. Then her concern expanded to include all Black children in the city of Buffalo when grassroots organizing organically blossomed.
Things really got heated in 1965, when she learned that the principal of School #6, Mr. Phillip W. Patti, was administering violent discipline by physically hitting children.
On February 22, 1965, the Currier Express published an article on the front page titled “Parents Picket.” The article said, “The Rev. Mr. Curry told reporters that parents have asked that Patti be removed from School 6 pending a final decision on the complaints.” However, the Board of Education continued to ignore the concerns of Black parents and did not take them seriously, despite receiving six affidavits from teachers regarding Patti’s actions. The Board issued a statement saying, “Patti would remain at his post.”
The following month, on March 31, 1965, The Buffalo News published an article titled, “Sit-In Demonstrators Arrested In Offices of Board of Education: 28 Booked on Charges of Trespassing After Police Lift Them Onto Cart And Haul Them Out.” The article mentions a woman by the name of Mrs. Donald Moe as head of the parents group that wanted Patti out. It says, “Parents and other demonstrators on March 24 began picketing the school. A partial boycott of pupils followed, leading eventually to this week’s demonstration in the Board of Education office. Meanwhile, both picketing of the school and boycotting of classes entered its 5th day.”
The unfair arrest of peaceful demonstrators and the negative light that the mainstream newspaper cast on the parents did not deter the Black-owned newspaper, The Challenger, from acknowledging victory when it published the article, “Patti is Relieved of School 6 Post.”
Elizabeth Burgos didn’t stop there. She continued to fight for quality education for students who lived in predominately Black neighborhoods. She organized the PTO with a plan to ensure a quality education in School 37, now Futures Academy. The parents were poised to collaborate with teachers on writing a rigorous curriculum to suit the particular needs of their children. However, the Board requested that a magnet school program be written because they were planning to bus in White students from outside of the Fruit Belt. However, it should be noted that Brown v. BOE was not about bussing but was about ensuring that education was equitable amongst Black and White students. Bussing and White Flight had become unintended consequences of the movement.
Mrs. Elizabeth Burgos, along with parents Mrs. Irene Gault, and Mrs. Betty Jeter, collaborated with other Black teachers at School 37, including Mrs. Peterson, Mrs. Long, Mrs. Lewis, and a Black male shop teacher, to write the magnet program curriculum. The program was so well received that they were invited to the White House by then President Ronald Regan and honored in a ceremony in the Rose Garden.
There may never be a movie made about the women behind the parental control movement of the 60’s, but Black educators today stand on their shoulders when we advocate for Black representation in the staffing, curriculum, and instructional policies and practices in Black schools.
To learn more about Elizabeth Burgos, click the link below: