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Anarchy in the East Village! The Ferrer Modern School

Friends of the modern school photo c. 1911-1912
The Modern School, c. 1911-1912, from the Friends of the Modern School website.

The East Village was the first home of the Ferrer Modern School of New York City. First located at 6 St. Marks Place, this school was based on the European model of the Esquela Moderna founded by Catalan educator and anarchist Francisco Ferrer, executed for sedition in 1909. Ferrer espoused education for all regardless of age or economic standing and he espoused an anti-church, anti-state and anti-authoritarian philosophy similar to Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Prior to his death, Ferrer had large followings in the United States and Europe and his death sparked the formation of the Francisco Ferrer Association in New York City in 1910 by twenty-two anarchists and anarchist sympathizers. At its first public meeting on October 13th of that year, the Association pledged to start a school for adults and children.

6 st marks place 1
6 St. Marks Place today

On September 5, 1911 the Ferrer Association established the Modern School at 6 St. Marks Place. According to The New York Times, the opening was “celebrated…by a mass meeting of Socialists, Anarchists, Rationalists, Libertarians and radicals in general.” The choice of location for their center was a logical one as this was the center for gatherings both in private homes and cafes involving political and social debates. Center to the Association’s philosophy was that through a nurturing environment and education, people could develop a significant degree of self-reliance and therefore not need to be subject to the restrictions of government. The School offered adult classes in political philosophy, history and English language (for immigrants) as well as lectures on art and literature, and music and theater productions. It was the center for discussions and debates which focused on issues of the day, some of which were industrial unionism, sexual freedom, psychoanalysis, and modern art. The Association’s plans to create an educational program for children were initially deferred due to the cramped quarters of 6 St. Marks Place and insufficient funds.

In order to be able to expand its programming to include children’s education, the Modern School was moved in 1912 to its second East Village location, 104 East 12th Street (demolished by 1955). Libertarian in their approach, the instructors refrained from teaching accepted dogma to the children and rather stimulated their thoughts and guided them to express themselves as clearly as possible. “Isms” such as socialism were not taught; children were encouraged to come up with their own ideas without being prejudiced by adult beliefs. Traditional educational methods of examinations, ranking and coercive discipline were not used at the Modern School but rather ‘free order’ was used in which the children created the parameters and the discussions themselves.

Within a year, however, the school sought a new location. The location at East 12th Street lacked a yard big enough for children to play and the school was not welcomed by all of its neighbors, including clergy at St Ann’s Church next door. By October of that year the School moved to yet its third location in New York on East 107th Street.

NYT archives july 3, 2014
Bombing site in Harlem – from the New York Times Archives, July 3, 1914.

In 1914 radical anarchists associated with the Ferrer Center were discovered to be part of a plot to bomb the mansion of John D. Rockefeller in response to the Ludlow Massacre. This was one of the nation’s deadliest labor disputes, in which striking workers of Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation, along with their families, were gunned down and their living quarters (tents) were set ablaze. The group of New York City radical anarchists planned retribution for Rockefeller and his son, however the bomb detonated in the Harlem home of one member of the group. Shortly after that and due to political pressures, The Modern School moved to Stelton, New Jersey.

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