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Black History

Catching Up with Dr. Adelaide Sanford



Part 1
An Interview by Maitefa Angaza
for Our Time Press 

Dr. Sanford spoke about the education institute established in her name, about John Henrik Clarke House, the Board of Education for People of African Ancestry, imperatives for children and parents, and establishing agency in our communities. 


First, I would like to say that I’m just so proud of Dr. Lester Young and Dr. Renee Young for the Adelaide Sanford Institute. [Founded 2006] When I first met them they were young people with great, great potential and great dedication. And when politicians in New York held a conference and asked that – as a result of that conference – should there be an emphasis on health or should there be an emphasis on education, on housing…? It was those young people who were the only ones who took up that mantle and said, ’Yes, there should be an ongoing facility that deals with education of people of African ancestry, because no intelligent people abdicate the education of their children to the historical oppressor.’ But we really didn’t have institutions outside of that, and outside of those established by people of African ancestry who had very little resources to get their policies into the mainstream of African American educational life.  

So it was only the Youngs that took up that mantle. They gave it my name. I didn’t have anything to do with its development; they just felt some of the principles that were part of what we thought education should be for African American children, were not on the agenda for public education. So their effort was to keep it on the agenda, but in addition, to provide some resources, so that parents would know what their children should be like, what their children should hope for, what their children were capable of, what their history was, and what their future was. And that’s what the Adelaide Sanford Institute has done. 


And as far as I know, it is the only place in the United States where legislators of color asked for an emphasis on those essential elements of our people, and it was picked up and moved ahead, the way the Institute has done. And they have done extremely important work, some of it not well known. Publicity is not always there, and they don’t necessarily have wealthy people contributing on an ongoing basis. I look at some of the things that John Legend said, I look at some of the things that other people who are in the entertainment field talk about, but I don’t know that they are connected, to understand what the Institute does.  

OTP:That’s really a wonderful achievement on the part of the Institute, though. 

AS: Yes, it is! It was a wonderful decision and they have been able to work with educators, with children, and with parents. They have the workshop with parents because the model of education for parents is so inadequate in terms of the public education system. They think of telling parents what to do. But the Institute understands that we really need, as a people, pre-parenting. So that there’s some understanding of what the responsibilities are in America and in New York, when it comes to being a parent. Because young people don’t necessarily know. Even if they have parents, these parents don’t necessarily talk about what it means to be a parent, and I think that the Institute’s work with parents is extremely important, because there is no other model. 

OTP: Right, I see. Can you tell me what you had in mind … what was your impetus for founding the Board of Education for People of African Ancestry? 

AS: When I became a regent in 1986, it gave me a view of what was going on in education across the state and across the United States. And one of the things that struck me was that other groups had boards of education involved in advocacy for their children. Certainly, the Catholics did, certainly the Jewish people did, and the Asian people did. They had their own board, organizations that went to regents’ meetings and knew what type of decisions were being made that affected their children. They had volunteers who were looking at curriculum material. We had no media, no advocacy, Nothing – while our children were the ones who were the least identifiable as being successful. We had no one looking at curriculum, we had no one going to meetings, we had no one at the regents’ meetings. So I started to talk about the importance of having an organization that looked at what the state was doing for children of African ancestry.  


And it was very, very, difficult. Most people agreed that we should do something, but they didn’t know the effect of not having any reporters there, not having any representatives or cultural organizations, or sororities or fraternities, or any group. I tried to form an organization of volunteers who would look at these issues. Everybody agreed, but nobody could do anything about it. My husband, Dr. Jay Sanford, said, “Why don’t you try and see if you can pull some people together?” And that’s what I did.  

That first founding board, in the criteria was – and this was a criteria that I developed out of my own thinking – that irrespective of what you did for a living, what has been your commitment to people of African ancestry on  a voluntary basis, knowing the love of our people, knowing the value? What kinds of groups have you organized? There were five people who became the founding members because they did have some history of working for our people, not on a salary basis, but on a voluntary basis. And I didn’t look for people who had money; I looked for people who understood the importance of contributing to our people, by learning their past and building on today, so that there could be a future.  

And as we began to meet, I brought materials about the Board of Regents, what they did, how curriculum was developed, how the textbook industry contributed to it, how the pejorative labels of “disadvantaged,,” “culturally-deprived,” “at-risk,” – all of those things were weapons. If you look at what Carter G. Woodson had told us: that if you wanted to determine a person’s behavior, you have to determine what they think about themselves. Think of the importance of that statement.  

So that was the beginning of that board and we would meet in churches and there was always a time when we could meet, and a time that we had to leave. We didn’t really have cultural organizations that said, ‘Oh yes, you can meet here.’ It was my husband who said, “You need a place of your own, where you can come early, stay late, draw up your own agenda and stand on your own terms.” That began the search for a site and that, of course, bloomed into the John Henrik Clarke House. That board began to gather together people in 1988 and in 1990 the board was established as a 501c3. And in 1992 we went into the building that is Clarke House. And of course, it’s still there and functioning. 

Part Two of our interview with Dr. Sanford will appear in next week’s paper.