Focus on Leonard Covello- Immigrant Life During the Turn of the Century

An Immigrant Life: Leonard Covello’s Journey

Leonard Covello was born in Avigliano, in Southern Italy, in 1887. His father immigrated to New York City soon after and was joined by Leonard, his mother, and his brother in 1896. They settled in East Harlem, which Meyer (2010) calls “a community of original settlement, whose housing was constructed specifically for immigrants.” He further characterizes turn-of-the-century East Harlem as a highly homogeneous neighborhood with poor housing conditions, tremendous overcrowding, and a low level of literacy.

In his autobiography, Covello (1958) discusses in detail the daily conditions in the tenements, the streets, and the schools of East Harlem. He attended the “Soup School” on 116th Street and 2nd Avenue, which he describes as follows:

Silence! Silence! Silence! This was the characteristic feature of our existence at the Soup School. You never made an unnecessary noise or said an unnecessary word. Outside in the hall we lined up by size, girls in one line and boys in another, without uttering a sound. Eyes front and at attention. Lord help you if you broke the rule of silence. (Perrone, 1998, p.88)

He also writes that his original name, Leonardo Coviello, was changed to Leonard Covello by one of his teachers at the Soup School.

These were important experiences for Covello as he learned to adapt to a new country and a new culture. One could argue that his later emphasis on student voice and the preservation of Italian culture and heritage represented an oppositional response to his own experiences growing up. Covello (1958) talks about the almost exclusive use of memorization and drill as the ways to teach and learn in the various public schools he attended. Again, the fact that at BFHS he emphasized discussion, interdisciplinary work, and critical questioning can be seen as a reaction against the way he was educated. He describes how “[t]he constant drilling and the pressure of memorizing, the homework, and detention raised havoc with many students” (Perrone, 1998, p. 95).

Even more important than his school experiences was his association with Anna Ruddy, a missionary from Canada who founded the Home Garden, later renamed Haarlem House. Ruddy’s influence was profound; Covello adapted her vision of social service and the social gospel to serve the community of East Harlem (Meyer, 2010). Covello’s life and work can thus be framed in part by the settlement house movement that shaped many progressive thinkers and educators in the early 20th century. Covello (1958) describes the role of the Home Garden in his life as a boy in East Harlem:

Away from the Home Garden we fought the Second Avenue gang with rocks and tin cans and used garbage can covers for shields. We scavenged the dumps and the river front for anything we could sell to make a penny… But at the same time we spent Sunday afternoons and several nights a week at the Home Garden with Miss Ruddy, where we formed another club called the Boys’ Club. We read books, put on plays, sang songs. There was nothing strange about this duality, although it may seem so to people who have never been poor or lived in crowded, big-city slums… (Perrone, 1998, p. 92)

Covello thus lived the experience that his students would live a generation later. He carried with him the tensions inherent in growing up an immigrant in a poor urban area. Another conflict was more centrally related to culture. Later in his narrative, Covello (1958) describes how, as a boy, he was embarrassed by his parents and wanted to keep them away from his school at all costs (Perrone, 1998, p. 97). However, after attending Morris High School and then going on to Columbia University, Covello’s understanding and appreciation of his own culture evolved:

The reaction was setting in. What at one time we were ashamed of, must now be brought into the open. How else could we make peace with our souls? Had it been in my power, I am sure I would have returned the “i” which Mrs. Cutter of the Soup School had dropped from Coviello. (Perrone, 1998, p. 107)

In summing up the formative years of Covello’s life, Peebles (1968) writes:

His life as a young immigrant boy in one of New York’s publicized deprived areas, gave him a basis throughout his life for understanding the problems facing people living under similar conditions. An early concern for the needs of people in these circumstances was growing during these years which has maintained itself throughout his life. Such institutions as the Home Garden, schools, the Y.M.C.A. and their relationship to the family and the community all awakened in him an awareness of what needed to be done and what could be done in meeting the realities of life, and more specifically, the situations confronting minority groups. (pp.102-103)

Covello used this life experience as a basis for his work not only as an educator and school leader, but also as a community activist and an ethnographer.

At DeWitt Clinton High School (Clinton), where he taught from 1911 to 1917 and again from 1920 to 1934, Covello developed the philosophy and leadership skills that he would later employ at BFHS with such success. As Meyer (1989) puts it, “Covello began to implement strategies for improving Italo-American high school students’ achievement by alleviating, if not eliminating, the conflict between the ethos of American educational institutions and the adapted Southern Italian mores” (pp. 10-11). Meyer argues that this initially took three forms: promoting the study of Italian; organizing Circoli Italiani (Italian student clubs); and founding the Casa del Popolo, a settlement house in East Harlem.

At Clinton, Covello began teaching Italian and then founded an Italian Department in the early 1920s. Registration in the department grew from 62 students in 1921 to 475 in 1924. Clinton had the largest number of students studying Italian in the city’s high schools and indeed in the entire country (Peebles, 1968, p.144). Peebles argues that the success of the department was due largely to Covello’s commitment to teaching Italian and the appreciation of Italian culture to a group composed primarily of Italian American students. Covello wrote an Italian language textbook specifically designed for high school students and began to integrate the teaching of Italian with the students’ personal cultural experiences. As Peebles explains:

Students in the Italian Department were urged to give of themselves in their homes, their communities, and their schools. Questionnaires were used to elicit information regarding conditions that prevailed in the Italian home and community. Home visiting by the Italian staff often was arranged to acquaint the Italian family with the school program and to aid the adjustment problem that frequently led to misunderstandings between the students and their parents. (p.146)

Through this growing understanding of what an academic department could achieve vis-à-vis an immigrant community, and the idea that schools should concern themselves with the life conditions of their students through research, action, and personal involvement, Covello set the stage for the work he would later do at BFHS on a much larger scale.

While still at Clinton, Covello began to initiate and become involved in a variety of interrelated activities and groups—both in school and in the larger community—that promoted Italian culture, the improvement of intercultural relations, and developing leadership in his students. One such group, as mentioned earlier, was Il Circolo Italiano, a language and service club which Covello founded in 1914 with the student leadership of Benjamin Segreto. According to Meyer (2010) Il Circolo Italiano’s stress on teaching Italian and promoting an understanding of Italian culture had two major goals: overcoming Southern Italian immigrant parents’ misgivings about prolonging the education of their children, and providing the community with strong leadership. Il Circolo Italiano served as a means to develop student leaders through its emphasis on social service. Students were involved in many aspects of settlement house work, such as teaching English to immigrants and working with younger children in various programs. As a result, “The boys who served as leaders of this club during the twenties were dynamic and talented, most becoming successful professional individuals in teaching, government, medicine, and law” (Peebles, 1968, p.135).

Peebles (1968) goes on to describe a number of other activities and organizations that engaged Covello in the 1920s and early 1930s, including the Italian Teachers Association, the Order of the Sons of Italy, and the Italian Educational League (pp.153-166). In 1922 Covello was invited to teach at New York University, where he initiated an Italian class and began to pursue his own doctorate. Covello (1958) writes:

The idea grew in my mind of doing a comprehensive study on the social background of the Southern Italian. In order to cope with problems dealing with the education of the immigrant and his American child, it was first necessary to have all of the information I could accumulate. (Perrone, 1998, p. 119)

In 1927 Covello began a collaborative project with the Boys’ Club of New York which led to a community study of East Harlem. This work was critically important to Covello’s development as a researcher and socio-community ethnographer who understood the connections between community, culture, and education.

In the early 1920s Covello was also directing a settlement house in East Harlem called the Casa del Popolo. Meyer (2010) describes the Casa del Popolo as a place that provided both English and Italian language instruction, thereby supporting both cultures. (Vito Marcantonio, a student—and later, friend and ally—of Covello’s, who went on to serve as East Harlem’s congressman for many years, taught La Casa’s citizenship classes.) In his work at Casa del Popolo, Covello served the needs of his community in numerous interrelated ways. He taught and counseled students and worked with their families. At the same time, he was overseeing a number of social action programs that served these groups, researching their lives and needs in detail, and creating opportunities for grassroots community leadership.

In addition, in 1932 Covello organized the Casa Italiana Educational Bureau. Cordasco (1975b) examines this endeavor at length. He writes that it was “[h]oused in two small rooms at the Casa Italiana, [and] its financial support derived from the Federal Writer’s Project which had been set up by the United States Government as part of the Works Project Administration…” (p. 2). It is important to note the WPA’s relationship to the Casa Italiana Educational Bureau, since the WPA would later support other aspects of Covello’s work as well. According to Cordasco, the Casa Italiana Educational Bureau had three major purposes: to be a fact-finding organization; to centralize efforts that would support the social and cultural advancement of Italian Americans; and to organize and implement a program that would promote educational and social activities (p. 3).

Here we can again see both Covello’s focus on an integrative approach and his developing vision of how schools and related organizations would serve the Italian American community. In a bulletin he wrote in 1933 concerning the Casa Italiana Educational Bureau, Covello observed: “The need for unification and coordination of all kinds of educational work in Italian-American communities is therefore a pressing matter. The policy of drifting and of shortsighted opportunism has been all too dominant in shaping the direction of Italian-American community life” (Cordasco, 1975b, p. 3).

Covello’s work at BFHS can be seen as both the culmination and the scaling up of his 20 years of work at Clinton. While I examine BFHS in more detail later, two salient aspects of its creation and goals deserve mention here. The first concerns the goals as a reflection of Covello’s commitment to the ideal of the school as a force for community action. True to this progressive spirit, writes Peebles (1968):

Leonard Covello believed that the school should be a vigorous social agent serving to unite the community and school in a combined effort to confront the many problems that existed in East Harlem. Schools traditionally had not been oriented in this fashion, and in New York City they had not concerned themselves with community problems. (pp. 197-198)

The second key aspect of BFHS’s goals was that the school strove to be (and indeed became) a community center serving its people in multiple ways. The school building was accordingly used on a continual basis for much more than traditional academic classes involving students and teachers. Covello (1958) describes part of the speech he gave in April 1942 at the dedication of the new BFHS building on 116th Street and Pleasant Avenue:

In speaking about the program of the school, I added, ‘Fulfilling the ideal of Community Service to which it has been dedicated, the Benjamin Franklin High School will now operate on a round-theclock program of use by all community organizations. Believing that a school building should be available to all members of the community all of the time…our building is to be open every hour of every day of the year. (Perrone, 1998, pp.136-137)

The construction of BFHS is also worth examining, as it illustrates Covello’s close ties to such influential political figures as Vito Marcantonio and Fiorello LaGuardia, New York City’s famous mayor. According to Meyer (1989), “The project that brought them closest was the effort to obtain a permanent home for Benjamin Franklin High School, East Harlem’s first and only high school. Covello and Marcantonio pressured LaGuardia to provide the funds for the construction of a new edifice” (p.13). Featherstone (2005) analyzes Covello’s role as a master community organizer and writes:

One of his crowning achievements as an organizer was the successful campaign to pressure Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to build a new school building. This was a product not only of rallying the school and its neighborhoods, but of Covello’s long engagement with New York City politics at the electoral level—one of his favorite students and protégés was Vito Marcantonio, the immensely popular radical Congressman. (p.16)

Like much of Covello’s work, this accomplishment was both organic, growing naturally from his long relationship with Marcantonio, and consciously organized, a result of careful planning and effort.

Covello’s lifelong friendship and collaboration with Marcantonio is instructive as well. Like Covello, Marcantonio grew up in East Harlem. As mentioned earlier, he was Covello’s student at Clinton, participating in Il Circolo Italiano and El Casa del Popolo. He went on to be one of LaGuardia’s most important aides and an exceptionally effective community organizer in his own right. In his analysis of Covello’s life and work, Perrone (1998) describes a young Marcantonio, as a student representative of Il Circolo Italiano, giving a fiery speech at a presentation ceremony featuring LaGuardia, then president of the city’s Board of Aldermen. The subject of the speech was society’s treatment of the elderly. As Covello (1958) described the event:

The applause which followed as Marc backed away from the lectern convinced me more than ever that adolescents are far more capable of serious thought and understanding than they are given credit for being…LaGuardia shook Marc’s hand, slapped him on the shoulder in a congratulatory gesture. Then, in his own inimitable way, he thrust out his chin and picked up the thread of Marc’s speech and used it as a basis for his own talk. (Perrone, 1998, p. 58)

Perrone goes on to note the importance—exemplified by Marcantonio’s participation in the presentation ceremony—of giving students real responsibility and asking them to consider important social problems.

In discussing the relationship between Covello and Marcantonio, Meyer (1989) also notes that:

Neither Covello or Marcantonio ever wanted to leave the community. From the early thirties they lived in adjacent brownstones on East 116th Street … Their commitment embraced all the community’s residents. They never flinched from insisting that Blacks and Puerto Ricans be given equal access by right to the same schools and public housing. (p. 13)

Both of these points are key: first, both Covello and Marcantonio represented what Peebles (1968) calls indigenous leadership in their community and stayed there throughout their lives; and second, not just their fellow Italian Americans, but also people of all backgrounds, were included in their vision of community and social justice.

After his retirement from BFHS, Covello continued his work as an educational and community leader, with a particular focus on Puerto Ricans and other immigrant groups. He was an educational consultant to the Migration Division of the Department of Labor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and a leading figure in the East Harlem Day Care Center for adults. Covello moved back to Italy in 1972, where he served as a consultant to the Danilo Dolci Center for Study and Action in Sicily. He died in 1982.

Text Source:

Photo Source:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s