Speaker Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow.

Speaker Could you tell me what the treaty school at Hudson, New York, what was the Hudson?

Speaker Some of the training school for girls at Hudson, New York, was the state reformatory where girls were sent, many of them religious abuse, children, children who had been truant, generally not children who had done anything terribly wrong.

Speaker And it had been a it had started out as a refuge for women or was called a refuge for women. Basically, it was a place where they sent women who had unwed mothers, women who were seen as vagrants, fallen women. And gradually, the age of the girls who were sent there went down.

Speaker At the beginning of the show, can we do that again?

Speaker Oh, great. On the show is.

Speaker OK. Please tell me we'll put the training school class in the training school for girls at Hudson, New York, was a state reformatory.

Speaker The girls who were sent there were generally not serious delinquents. They were just throwaways in many respects. They were children who were abused or neglected, perhaps were truant.

Speaker How did you happen to look into this place?

Speaker I'm working on a book about child welfare in New York and it involves a class action lawsuit against the foster care system of New York. And the name plaintiff was a girl who was sent there 40 years after Ella Fitzgerald. And I did a lot of research into the history of the place.

Speaker And one of the things that I discovered in talking to old counselors from there and the former superintendent was that Ella Fitzgerald had been an inmate in effect there when in the earlier mid thirties, he was fascinated to find out more. What did you do? I did. I interviewed a number of people who remember her there, including a former teacher who remembered her as being a perfectionist. Remembered her with penmanship as being perfect. I interviewed the superintendent, the superintendent of police, who remembered how they had tried to invite Ella to come back when she was famous in the 60s.

Speaker There was an assistant superintendent, Muriel Jenkins, who wanted her to come back as a kind of role model for girls from their hotel. She refused to have anything to do with the plot. She hated it. And the story that came back was that she had been held in the basement of one of the colleges and an all but tortured. And in fact, it starts with a lot of what I learned about the institution and the history of this place over the years, really from its earliest time as a house of refuge for women, as it was called in 1880. It was founded. And I think that she I think that she really was abused there. And I think it was a traumatic experience for her. And she didn't want the institution to be in any way associated with her success or associate herself with it. Why was she there?

Speaker Well, she was orphaned. And I think that what happened after she was sent to live with an aunt, as I understand it. I mean, the truth is it's very hard to determine exactly what happened because the records have been destroyed for the most part and recollections are different. But my understanding is that after her mother died, she was left with a stepfather who may have abused her. She was sent to live with, I believe, an aunt in Harlem. And I think she felt unloved. She certainly was not able to did not continue with school. She'd been a very good student, as I understand it, originally. And in the lower grades. And she was a true until she was on the street she was getting into. She I believe she spoke in one interview about warning the women in the sporting houses, as they were called, that the cops were coming. So putting the pieces together, the likeliest story that I came up with was that the police caught up with her. She was taken into custody, perhaps as a truant or as a child in need of supervision. We weren't child. These are the kinds of terms that were used for the years. And I think that she was one possibility is that she was sent to the colored orphan asylum in Riverdale, was the one institution for wayward children, sort of stop for the reform school. And it was the only place that accepted black children and was completely overcrowded at that point. I mean, this is we're talking about perhaps 1932, 1933. It's the depression. You have the black migration from the south. And I think a lot of these charitable institutions, which had they had support, they had some public support, but they were basically private institutions. They would send the troublesome teenagers. They would ship them away rather readily to the state training school to make room for younger children. And I believe that's what happened. But basically, she didn't have anybody willing to take her and she didn't have a place to go.

Speaker Perhaps she was a rebellious adolescent and she ended up in this place up the Hudson River with a very harsh and really punitive regime.

Speaker Is this something that goes through the courts?

Speaker Yes, that's. That's right. It would have been through the courts. That would have been a petition to the family court or the juvenile court. And she would have been committed to the state. Her custody would have been transferred to the state for placement at the training school for girls at Hudson, which meant that really they had to say so where she would where she would go, how long she would stay.

Speaker Right. What rights would she have in this procedure?

Speaker Grillini? None whatsoever. I mean, she would go. It's very it's really very hard for an analyst in that situation because she doesn't have autonomy. The best you can have is someone who is advocating for you as a parent or. And she didn't have that. And certainly she wouldn't have been represented by counsel at that point. So she was just powerless in the situation. She was shipped to this place up to a place of strange place with a run by strangers. And what she found there. I have a pretty good idea of what it was, because two years after she was there, there was an investigation of the other facility. There were these places called cottages.

Speaker They were really these brick buildings that had been built in the 19th century. Most of them housed 20 to 25, 25 to 30, something like that, girls. And sent just 17 of them. Two had been designated for black girls and they were overcrowded. They were the most dilapidated ones. And what the investigation found was that, in fact, they were these girls were routinely beaten by male staff. So the story that she had been confined to the basement and all the tortured really fits in my mind with that. I think she was also a place through the years with a couple of centuries, really. They use solitary confinement as a discipline. So I, I can well believe that she could have, especially if she was someone she must have been with a lot of guts and a strong will, that she would have run afoul of the system there and could have been punished in that way.

Speaker How does one get out of a place legally?

Speaker Well, legally, you will be controlled. You could be paroled to a foster family. You could be paroled to a relative. You commitment who and probably been until age 18. So until her 18th birthday, she would still have been under the authority of the state. And what's fascinating about what happened to Ella Fitzgerald is that technically she was paroled to Chick Webb's band. That's what I was told by McFarland, who was the psychologist at of the state training school for girls between nineteen fifty five and nineteen sixty three. And she described for me how she actually looked in the records. She had access to the files, the old files, and she had heard, of course, from other people at the institution that had been there. And she pulled this file and there that was to her the most fascinating thing, that they had a notation that Ella had been paroled. Chick Webb said, oh, I'm sure that what happened was that Ella, like so many other foster children or former children of the system, she had to survive essentially from hand to mouth when she was let go. She was out there, as I understand it. She was dancing for tips on one hundred and twenty Fifth Street. She was sleeping where she could she she was basically what we would have called homeless. And she her sheer talent and good luck got her this this place, this opportunity, as I understand it. Charles London persuaded Chick wife to let her sing with the band. And I think that then the state essentially put the imprimatur of authority on this arrangement. I think that's what happened.

Speaker I'm just curious what they been looking for. Just for certain. That's sort of the way it works. Stand by. So I could well imagine.

Speaker How recently did the school system. What were the conditions?

Speaker Well, the school continued the training school was in existence until 1976 and it was I really think that the conditions did not seem to love. That was certainly an effort to reform it.

Speaker Tom Tunney, Glass superintendent, considers himself a reformer. He did away with the punishment college that was still in the air since the 1920s. But on the other hand, he created a behavior modification cottage that reprised a lot of the methods that were used back in the early days, you know, in the 1980s and 1990s. So unconsciously, I would say. So it was not a good place, was not a good place for children. Institutions basically are not good places, which is something we tend to have forgotten. We seem to go through these cycles where we think of them as a place to rescue children all over again.

Speaker When I talk to term, he describes a situation where the administration uses to run a place like Cuba.

Speaker Yes, I think what happens is that the institution essentially abdicates its authority or delegated Florida to the toughest inmates. You know, it's the same system that exists in in prisons that you have trustees who essentially run the show you the same thing is true in this kind of reform school. The toughest gangs of girls, the toughest on counselors, quote unquote. Counselors run the show. And it's very hard for me, especially, I would say, for a girl or spirit of someone who has a mind of her own, a will of her own. I'm sure that that Ella, who essentially grew up with very strong sense of herself and who she was, most of it must have been terrible for her. Did not tell you what was good.

Speaker But I mean, what happens to a fragile person comes into place.

Speaker There are well, there are people who really are broken. In fact, they have a system there of well, they have a system of solitary confinement. And they said they would take away a girl's clothing. They put them in a car, would be put alone in a room with mattresses around the kind of cell, essentially. And some of them literally went crazy and they were shipped to the Brookwood annex, it was called. This is Israel. And a later period, I would say. But girls, other girls who literally went went crazy from the strain of solitary confinement, of abuse by others. I mean, essentially, I think there were people whose spirits were broken. Then there were other girls who ran away running away from Hudson, something that happened absolutely from the beginning. I mean, one of the I think in the first year that the place opened in the nineteen eighty seven, there were there were runaways. And in 1984, when it opened, as they change to a training school for girls for girls in 2016. The first girl who was admitted under the new name later ran away. So that was, that was sort of the choice. You did your time that you got through, you perhaps you were broken or you you ran away. Let me run away.

Speaker This is a creative school. What were the black girls being trained to do?

Speaker The girls were 66 percent of them, I believe, had cleaning assignments, laundry assignments.

Speaker Essentially, what this training school did was to use the labor of the girls to run institution. And in particular, the black girls were confined to the most menial tasks. And the laundry, you couldn't even argue that they were being taught laundresses because the equipment was out of date. The argument was, well, this was the work that they wanted to do and they preferred this work. And that was one of the arguments that was made. There was in 1936, a complaint and an investigation by the committee concluded a juvenile court judge and.

Speaker State officials sort of have the list.

Speaker More detail.

Speaker But anyway, they think there was an investigation of the conditions and they found that definitely the black girls were being discriminated against and had been confined to they didn't have as much school, as much schooling. They weren't given the more interesting assignments, for instance. There was a there was a school store where girls could practice being cashiers, selling things and so forth. They were not allowed to be part of that. And the woman who ran the place is one of these ironies. She was a performer. She was had been in her dad, considered a reformer. And one of the things she prided herself on was a choir, a girls choir. They went to saying for various churches and institutions and women's groups. Well, this child couldn't sing in the choir because the choir was all white. Black girls were not allowed to sing in the choir. And I was told by a woman in Bule Crank, who was a teenager at the time in Hudson, that she had the privilege of hearing Ella Fitzgerald and a small group of black girls who were invited by the local Black Amy Church in Hotsy to sing. I think to make up for the fact that they were not allowed to sing in the official Hudson sang AME Church and never forgot sitting there with her parents and hearing Ella sing and she said she sang at.

Speaker Oh, what? What sort of recreation today? Well, the Black Crows, where they were these.

Speaker I don't have to put you in the yard.

Speaker That right? Oh, let me say sorry. I mean, let me find I never see.

Speaker You were.

Speaker Yes, that's right. Second generation.

Speaker You found out these things before?

Speaker That's right. I did. And I rode a Fitzgerald's publicist a letter, a long letter describing what I had found and are trying to trying to persuade her to respond. I felt that this was the right time, would have been the right time to acknowledge this part of her life. I mean, clearly, this was so painful to her that she didn't want to ever talk about it or acknowledge it. And yet it seemed to me that the fact that there were so many other girls like her who had suffered in this way. She really she could put a face on those suffering. She could we could find out that these anonymous children who had been harmed by the system had the face of someone we cherish as a nation. And so I wrote this letter and I was told that it was that her. It was passed on to her. And I never got a reply. I mean, basically, she kept her silence. But I certainly felt that had she had it not been accurate. And I'm sure that it is. But she certainly could have denied it or, you know, told me I was mistaken or had that come back to me. Of course, she was already quite ill, I think at that point was 1994. But I think I really don't know how much she constructed another story for herself. And perhaps you're discovering that how much she constructed another story and how much bits and pieces of this emotional history came out in other ways.

Speaker OK. All right. Hold on one second. Joe.

Nina Bernstein
Interview Date:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
"Nina Bernstein, Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 21 Dec. 1998,
(1998, December 21). Nina Bernstein, Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET).
"Nina Bernstein, Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). December 21, 1998. Accessed May 29, 2022


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