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Only A Teacher
Schoolhouse Pioneers
Henry Adams
Catharine Beecher
John Dewey
Elaine Goodale Eastman
Charlotte Forten
Margeret Haley
Horace Mann
Julia Richman
Laura Towne

Julia Richman (1855-1912)

Julia Richman's career as a progressive educator coincided with the great changes brought about by late 19th century immigration and school reform efforts in New York City. She was the first Jewish principal and first woman (and Jew) to be appointed a District Superintendent. The primary focus of her considerable energies was always immigrant children and their families. She combined academic innovation with grassroots social work to Americanize her students and bring them into the national mainstream.

Julia Richman was born into the prosperous German-Jewish community of New York in 1855. Flouting expectation that she would marry well and settle into domesticity, she planned a career as a teacher. Richman defied her family to go to Normal School and in 1872 began teaching. By 1884, she had been made principal, and in 1898, was appointed District Superintendent for the Lower East Side, a teeming immigrant neighborhood.

The Lower East Side provided the perfect laboratory for many of Richman's innovative practices. Early in her career she developed an intense interest in recently-arrived immigrants and in the urban problems that affected them. From her position as a well-established citizen, she looked on the eastern Europeans who now arrived in droves as candidates for instant Americanization. She was deeply committed to Jewish education and relief work, but she saw the public schools as the most important vehicle of socialization. She believed that schools would lead children, and indeed whole families, out of poverty and alienation, making them prosperous and upright citizens. English-language immersion, coupled with vocational training and lessons in hygiene and culture, would remedy the ills of tenement life.

As a principal, she had made her school a showplace for progressive ideas. She enacted new policies regarding automatic promotion, individualized curriculum and parental involvement. As a superintendent, she could carry out her ideas on a larger scale. She joined forces with New York's school reformers to rid the schools of corruption and inefficiency. But Americanization remained the issue closest to her heart.

Richman had a genuine affinity for the cause of immigrants. But she was also an enormously ambitious woman at a time when the arenas for women's achievement were few. In education, social work and religion, women (always with the help of powerful men) could make their mark. Richman was no radical feminist: she never agitated for equal pay for women or for female suffrage. She devoted herself to improving the lot of New York's newcomers, no small undertaking in itself.

Today, Richman's practices seem both enlightened and benighted. She provided wide-ranging social services for her students, but also had no qualms about washing their mouths out with soap if they reverted to speaking their native languages. Her primary aim was always to bring her students and their families into the norms of American life, and she used whatever means she felt would accomplish that goal most effectively. Long before she died, at the comparatively early age of 57, she had achieved nationwide respect as an authority on Americanization and progressive education.

In Her Own Words

"Ours is a nation of immigrants. The citizen voter of today was yesterday an immigrant child. Tomorrow he may be a political leader. Between the alien of today and the citizen of tomorrow stands the school, and upon the influence exerted by the school depends the kind of citizen the immigrant will become."

"What is the mission of the public schools?...To transform a heterogeneous mass of untrained children, often the offspring of an interminable line of untrained parents, into a great nation of men and women."

"Now we are engaged in a great civic struggle testing whether the influence of the school is strong enough to combat those adverse forces, born of immigration, economic conditions, parental neglect, municipal corruption and industrial inequalities which tend to degrade the standards of American citizenship."

Scholars on Teaching Immigrants

Nancy Hoffman
Professor of Education, Brown University


For immigrants, education seemed the route to become Americanized and to get your part of the American Dream. The teacher represented a kind of role model, but the teacher also in a sense was the bearer of not just culture, but the culture of the new land. The teacher is the bridge to a better life. There was enormous respect from students for their teachers.

David Tyack
Professor of Education, Stanford University


Americanization became a new national religion. A lot of influential people became very afraid of immigrants and of the effect of immigrants on this country, and we used the power of the state to try to eradicate ethnicity. And one of the main instruments for doing that was the public school.

A lot of the teachers in immigrant cities like New York were themselves second-generation immigrants. Many of them felt a duty to Americanize, so for a long time -- certainly from 1890 through World War I into the 1920s -- the official policy was to use the power of the state through the schools to Americanize.

Further Reading

Berrol, Selma Cantor. Julia Richman, A Notable Woman, 1993





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