The 2020-21 school year marks Packer’s “demisemiseptcentennial,” an anniversary that falls at a historic and challenging moment. Our last normal day of school was on March 12, 2020, over a year ago. Since then, the Covid-19 pandemic, our national reckoning on race, and a debate over the direction of our country have suffused our lives with uncertainty. A look back at Packer’s archives is reassuring: our history reminds us that this community has previously faced tumultuous times and successfully fought for greater justice. It also reveals that our current students’ dedication to activism echoes our past.
The following texts are excerpted from previous issues of this magazine (formerly The Packer Alumna), and writing and speeches by students, faculty, alumni, and others.
James Polk had just been elected President, the Civil War was 16 years away, and the nation was in flux.
“A Century of Beginnings”
The Brooklyn Female Academy, as the early Packer was called, began in a century of beginnings — the beginning of national expansion on a large scale, the beginning (or very near the beginning) of the industrialization of America and of the reign of the machine, the early stages of the ever-swelling wave of immigration from Europe, the beginning of great wealth and monopolies and organized labor, the beginning of the struggle for the emancipation of American women, the beginning of nationalism and of pride in our country, and the beginning of the great public school system…. The brief war with Mexico did little to ruffle the peace of the country, and although there was intense emotion and discussion between the North and the South over the question of slavery and states’ rights, when the school was founded, the storm clouds of the Civil War lay low on the horizon, invisible to the general view.
— Marjorie Nickerson, A Long Way Forward: The First 100 Years of The Packer Collegiate Institute (1945)
In honor of its centennial in 1945, Packer commissioned Marjorie Nickerson, a faculty member from
1910 to 1941, to write the definitive history of the school. A Long Way Forward: The First 100 Years of The Packer Collegiate Institute is available to read online.
Packer’s founders did not see a contradiction between their commitment to women’s education and their expectation that women remain in the domestic sphere.
A Victorian “Progressive Education”
In the prospectus issued August 1, 1845, the trustees stated the purposes of the new school. The statement was progressive, almost modern in its realization that education should be modified by society and the environment of the pupils. At the same time it was thoroughly Victorian in implicitly confining the sphere of woman’s influence to the home. Its practice, as well as its theory, shows the Brooklyn Female Academy to have been in line with the progressive educational doctrine of the day. The Brooklyn girls were trained to be ladies, but they were also trained to be intelligent women.
— A Long Way Forward (1945)
The Brooklyn Female Academy was built on Packer’s current site. At that time, Brooklyn Heights was dotted with large estates and spacious gardens, but had no running water.
“Rural Quiet and Salubrious Air”
The Brooklyn of 1845, although possessing only 40,000 inhabitants, was even then one of the largest cities in the United States…. The girls who came to the Brooklyn Female Academy for the first time in May 1846 (for the school opened in May, because the building was finished then) took their way along shaded roads, past gardens in open fields to the sound of birds’ songs instead of to the roar of a great modern city…. To this beautiful residential district, the Wall Street ferry to Montague Street, which began to operate in 1853, brought many New York businessmen to enjoy [Brooklyn’s] rural quiet and “salubrious” air…. [It nevertheless] possessed many discomforts common to all American cities in the 40s and 50s…. The cobblestone pavements were rough and noisy, the unpaved streets ankle deep, or even knee-deep, in mud after a rain…. There was no water system until 1858…. The infant city was unable to cope with fires of any importance for lack of a water system.
— A Long Way Forward (1945)
A New Year’s Day fire, and the lack of a municipal water system, caused The Brooklyn Female Academy to burn to the ground in 1853. With funds donated by Harriet L. Packer, the widow of one of Academy’s original trustees, the school was rebuilt and renamed the following year. The entrance of Founder’s Hall looks much the same today.
The debate over the purpose of women’s education continued.
“Ability in Household Manners”
Too many girls unfortunately consider their education completed when a diploma is received... [T]hey devote their whole time to accomplishments and the pursuit of pleasure.
But, as our parents are so fond of telling us, when our school life is finished, our real life is just begun; and then, the foundation of our education being laid, comes the time to fit ourselves for what is considered a woman’s true sphere.
A thorough knowledge of housekeeping includes the general care of a house, as regards ventilation, skill in cookery, control of servants, and, if economy be necessary, ability to make two ends meet….
Ill-temper generally—I will not say always—follows on the part of the man, who somehow forgets that before marriage, when ability in household matters was mildly suggested as one of the requisites of a good wife, he indignantly scouted the idea of “marrying a cook.”
“Just like a man!” I fancy I hear some young girl exclaim.
Yes, exactly, my friend; for man is, at best, but an inconsistent animal. But still he must be pleased, if there is to be any peace or comfort for the “weaker” (?) [sic] sex.
— “B.M.C.” in “Housekeeping,” in The Packer Quarterly, 1873
Packer graduates’ attitudes toward the suffrage movement were influenced by the intersecting forces of gender and socio-economic status.
Suffrage and “Real Womanliness”
Whether in the past you worked for suffrage or against it…, it is your new privilege, and as such cannot be abused. For what abuse of a gift is there greater than its neglect? The sword left in its scabbard rusts and stains the hands that thereafter touch it. What of the flame-bright sword now bound at your side? Will you leave it in this shameful scabbard of those who will corrupt it to evil ends, or will you keep it shining by your own tireless battle for the right?
For it is you, most womanly of women, in your pleasant homes, atmosphere with faith and purity and honor, who will best wield this sword. It is you who will and must fight for the weak and the sinful and lead, or it may be, drive them toward hope and happiness.
Many of you consider that the sum of woman plus suffrage equals unwomanliness. It now rests with you to prove this true, for men have always declared that women never stand by each other in crises. So it is for you to put aside your objections and your distaste and join the rest of us who have always felt it our duty to uphold suffrage.
Then indeed you will prove to men that you are unwomanly. For they will see that you are neither petty nor narrow-minded, but that you have the greatness of spirit which can forget personal prejudice and spend itself nobly for others. And so doing you will provide, through this unwomanliness, what real womanliness is.
— The Packer Alumna, 1917
Packer Alumni Spotlight: Lucy Burns, Class of 1899, was a prominent figure in the American movement for women’s suffrage. Read more>>
The Chapel in 1854
In 1921, when Packer’s students and faculty were exclusively white, efforts to understand the experiences of Black Americans, like the Founder’s Day speech below, were probably rare.
“Negro Achievement” and Anti-Black Violence
White people of culture have been accused to think pityingly of the cultured Negro, believing that he finds little congenial companionship within his own race. This may have been true 25 years ago but certainly is not true today. There is today in the United States a large group of colored people of education, of some means, who have a rich and varied social life. Every year universities, North, South, East and West, graduate hundred of Negro boys and girls who enter business or the professions and enter them to succeed....
Brooklynites do not need to go South to see Negro achievement. They will find in Harlem the largest body of prosperous Negroes in the country. A South African was taken over Harlem one evening a few weeks ago by a colored man. His amazement at the progress of the Negros was prodigious. Inadvertently hurting his hand, he was taken to a colored physician, whose skill and large practice among both races filled the South African with astonishment so that he exclaimed, ‘What will [South African Prime Minister] General Smuts say when I tell him this!’ He was equally amazed at the beautiful architecture of St. Philip’s P.E. Church, at the prosperous Colored Men’s Club, at the audience in the Lafayette Theater....
[This] is a glimpse of the position which the Negro has won in the United States. What is his reaction to the daily race prejudice and discrimination, to the brutality of lynching, to the cruelty and slavery of peonage? How does he feel toward the white race who dominate America?
This is an attitude which you should know, for it is one that the country has already to reckon with. There would have been no riot at Tulsa [in May 1921] had not young colored men armed themselves in a march to the jail to guard a Negro who they feared would be lynched.
— Mary White Ovington, Class of 1890, in a 1921 Founder’s Day keynote speech
Packer Alumni Spotlight: Mary White Ovington, Class of 1890, was a white activist, journalist, and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Read more>>
The dehumanization and destruction of World War II reaffirmed the enduring need for a liberal arts education. But in 1945, even as the school’s Junior College program enjoyed steady enrollment, Packer stopped short of advocating that women enter male-dominated areas of the workforce.
A “Cultural School” in “a War Weary World”
Although Packer has met the diversified demands of its students in the past, it is and always has been primarily a cultural school. The future of the cultural school is being widely discussed. The trend of the 20th century toward vocational training has been greatly increased by [World War II], which requires highly specialized skills. The papers are full of the achievements of young men who can design, build, or fly airplanes; who can design, build, or man ships, guns, and tanks.... No medals are bestowed on cultivated persons as such....
A war weary world may turn with relief to the resources of minds educated in the liberal arts. It may realize that the rich understanding, the sympathetic imagination, and a wide range of information and intellectual power which are the result of such an education in fertile soil will be needed, not only to restore our national life and the pursuit of peace, to solve the problems of our own democratic society and to help to reorganize the world, but to make for a full, rich, and satisfied life for the individual. Schools like Packer are needed as never before.
— A Long Way Forward (1945)
As women across the socio-economic spectrum began to enter the workforce in greater numbers, Packer graduates increasingly felt that they should not have to choose between pursuing a higher education and a career and having a family.
The pattern of a woman’s life, simply because she is a woman, differs radically from a man’s. Most women marry, and during the early years of marriage and family, are deeply absorbed in the varied, demanding, and immensely satisfying responsibilities of a wife and mother…. This means, as a rule, at least a partial hiatus in any professional career.... Precious little attention has been given to designed educational opportunities to meet the needs of the married woman. Rather, we have assumed that if she marries early, she is not interested in continuing her education. The possibility that the choice could be a question of timing rather than goals has not received serious attention…. Educational institutions… must provide for, encourage, and assist the able, part-time student —the married woman—by creating more flexible schedules.
Actually, studying, in appropriate doses, mixes wonderfully well with homemaking…. I well remember overhearing the voice of a guest who commented to my son: “It must be easy to do your homework when your mother and father are doing theirs.”
— Mary Ingraham Bunting, Class of 1929, in “A Huge Waste: Educated Womanpower,” in The New York Times Magazine (1961). A trained microbiologist and an advocate for women in the workforce, Bunting was the president of Radcliffe College and the first woman appointed to the Atomic Energy Commission.
A biology class in 1970
The school’s 125th anniversary occurred at a time of major social change. At Packer, coeducation and the dismantling of the Junior College were just a few years away. In 1970, youth activism (and some generational tensions) swept the nation.
“Today’s Young People”
There are many young people today who are limited in their perspectives, who are selfish and undisciplined, who are sloppy in appearance and irresponsible in behavior. All these critical characterizations are true in part. There is a small minority among current students who are more insistently hostile, abrasive, and discouraging than an earlier generations. But there are among today’s young people an unusually large proportion genuinely affected by the charitable instincts that civilized persons have long been taught to admire as a man’s highest ideals…. This generation of youth is far more humanitarian in its perspectives and commitments than preceding generations we have known…
I am filled with genuine optimism for the future of our society. It is, I believe, more likely to be a humane society because of [young people’s] priorities than if it were determined by the values of the self-concerned, individualistic rationalists who have dominated the development of our world, our cities, in our time and before.
— James Hester, President of New York University, in a speech at the school’s 125th anniversary celebration in the Chapel (1970)
In a year when remote learning and “Zoom events” have become commonplace, it’s remarkable that in 1995 email (sent via modems and telephone lines) represented a new frontier for Packer.
“A Complete Electronic Mail System” All the computers at Packer now have the ability to communicate with each other.... In addition, Packer hosts a complete electronic mail system through which every student and faculty member can send and retrieve messages and files. This system has revolutionized communication at Packer. Students can communicate with their teachers and each other over this system.
And the network does not end at Packer’s walls. Eight outside telephone lines are dedicated for e-mail, giving the Packer community the capability to communicate with each other from home via a modem (a device that allows a computer to communicate over a conventional telephone line). Packer also maintains one telephone line exclusively or access to the Internet and the World Wide Web.
— The Packer Magazine (1995)
In the mid-1990s, Packer embarked on a study of the role of gender in teaching and learning. The findings addressed the need to foster and recognize the skills of all students.
“Finding Your Own Voice”
Were you one of those students who always had your hand raised and sat squarely within the teacher’s line of vision, or were you the shy student who had calculated exactly how far the teacher’s peripheral vision extended, who looked furiously busy at all times and never raised your eyes when the teacher looked in your direction? Sometimes this may be the student who didn’t do his or her homework the night before and wants to escape detection, but far more frequently, this is a very good student, but one who finds it difficult to take the risk of speaking up.
I used to believe that it was important to respect this sort of shyness and the wish to be invisible. After all, I can still hear myself saying, I can see the student does all of her work (the quiet student who excels is most of the time a girl) and moreover does it really well. Why should I put her on the spot?... We are doing a tremendous disservice to students when we allow them to stay silent in class discussions. Expressing your own opinions in public, standing up for your opinions and finding your own voice, are skills and abilities we should not be restricting to one half of the human race or only to those students who already feel confident. Having a voice is not a luxury; it is a necessity.
— Barbara Seddon, English Teacher, in “Gender Equity and Beyond” in The Packer Magazine (1997)
Packer students in 2021 are engaged citizens, speaking out and teaching one another about civil rights, voting rights, and racial justice. In the days leading up to the recent presidential election, students in George Snook’s Advanced Topics in US Government spoke at a virtual Upper School community meeting, sharing their responses to a posthumous 2020 essay by civil rights activist Representative John Lewis.
“The Change We Want to See”
Dear Congressman Lewis… In this country, my rights are not the same as my white peers’. Freedom from fear does not exist for people like me.
I was just eight years old when I had my Emmett Till. In 2012, when Trayvon Martin was murdered in cold blood, my world was shattered. I was suddenly awakened to the terrifying realities of life as a Black man in this country. That no matter the fight of my ancestors, I will still be valued, thought of, and disrespected, solely on the basis of my skin color.
— Shanthan Benjamin-Webb ’21
Congressman Lewis, you said, “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble...” Now more than ever, there is something so powerful in knowing that John Lewis believes ordinary people are able to rebuild the heart of America. If only we were all able to understand that we have more power in our voices than we believe....
We can’t rely on other people to make the change we want to see. Voting is our way of producing a democratic society. If we don’t vote, we’re simply allowing [ourselves] to take steps back when so many fought for us to take steps forward.
— Olivia Rosas ’22