During the first half of the 20th century, the jobs of typist, archivist, and stenographer were almost exclusively reserved for unmarried white women, as shown in the exhibit sim cityRae Feld, the daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, founded WBI after the school where she taught typing in Midtown refused to enroll African-Americans in business classes. It is said that when Field’s employer denied admission to four African-American women in February 1930, she resigned and offered to teach the students herself. With his father skeptical, Field rented two rooms and eight Underwood typewriters on 125th Street. She named her freshman school after educational leader Booker T. Washington to welcome African Americans. Thirty-four years later, when the Bronx chapter of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs honors Feld with the Sojourner Truth Award for her service to the community, she can boast that WBI has changed the face of New York clerical work.
WBI cannot be just a school of skills. WBI staff and students have had to agitate for well-paying jobs. WBI staff and students support Harlem political and religious leaders such as Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., State Assemblyman William T. Andrews and Hulan E. Jack, City Councilman Benjamin Davis Jr., Rev. James H. Robinson of Master Church and Rev. Dr. St. John W. Robinson Marx. WBI employees and students participated in the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign to boycott and picket Harlem businesses that refuse to hire African Americans. WBI staff and students also supported the NAACP, the International Fraternity of Sleeper Car Porters and other groups in pressuring Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to comply with the Harlem Mayor’s Conditions Commission Lessons learned into action. The riots of 1935. While white city leaders ignored most of the commission’s recommendations to combat the damaging effects of segregation and discrimination, they did agree to remove some of the barriers to hiring African-American administrators, clerks, typists and stenographers in city agencies. Many applicants are trained for these positions and prepare for the WBI’s civil service exam.
WBI has also become a cultural center. The school is located in the heart of Harlem, one block from the Apollo Theater, across the street from the Theresa Hotel, and above Lewis H. Michew’s African National Memorial Bookstore. Commencement and Alumni Ball are important community events, with activist Cyril Philip, NAACP’s Catherine E. Ricketts and Dr. Lawrence Dunbar Ray Lawrence Dunbar Reddick, curator of the New York Public Library’s Schomberg Collection of Black Literature and History. WBI students—the vast majority of whom are women—form literary societies, art clubs, and reading groups, and organize lectures, performances, fashion shows, and exhibitions. WBI Manager Florence K. Norman founded the Lambda Kappa Mu fraternity for business and professional women in 1937.Five years later, WBI alumni also helped found the George Washington Carver School in Harlem, which offers
Those unable to attend high school and college are required to pay for adult education. WBI hired distinguished Harlem photographer Austin Hansen to document the graduation ceremony and showcase the early work of portraitist and muralist James Ira DeLoache.
In his 1985 oral history, Feld explained why clerical skills were so important to many African-American New Yorkers in the mid-20th century:
I always tell the girls the story: whatever you get here, no one can take it from you. If you have to go back and clean, you don’t stay and clean if you have cleaning on your mind. Things happen. The world is growing. Things change. If you can type, you will get a job.
Although political and social pressure on New York employers by WBI staff, students, and allies throughout the 1930s laid an important foundation for integrating their civilian workforce, Feld remembers that it was World War II that really brought her students opened the door.
War requires thousands of typists, stenographers, and bookkeepers. Still, racism continues to shape hiring practices. While most employers want to hire someone who can type at least 60 words per minute, WBI staff know they need to prepare students twice as well, and can type at least 100 words per minute, and even 120 is particularly prestigious position. This is partly because WBI staff know students get nervous when they demonstrate their skills, so they may type more slowly. However, they also knew that many white employers were looking for any excuse that they couldn’t hire African Americans. As a result, WBI graduates have earned a reputation as excellent typists and stenographers.
Exhibited in sim city is a 1961 IBM Selectric typewriter that visitors can try out. Unlike the typewriters used by WBI graduates in the 1940s, the Selectric uses spherical typing elements, which allow for a huge increase in speed. In any case, 120 words per minute on the Selectric is tough, between the manual disconnection and the stress required to type each letter. So imagine typing at that speed on a 1930s or 40s machine under the scrutiny of a hostile hiring board!
During World War II and after, WBI’s program exploded in size, graduating hundreds of civilians each year into steady, middle-class jobs. WBI graduates go on to become
The first African-American clerks were hired at Governors Island, Brooklyn Army Terminal, Chase Manhattan Bank, Kimbell’s, and more. As a result, the WBI Alumni Association has also become a powerful economic, cultural and political force across the city and region, under the long-term leadership of early graduate Vertella Valentine Gadsden.
WBI persisted in Harlem until 1967, when the space the school had leased since 1933 was demolished to make way for Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Federal Office Building. At its new location in Union Square, WBI staff embraced emerging computer technology and the changing economic landscape. However, as the Selectric typewriter on display suggests, the shift to new technology and ultimately digital technology has increasingly changed the scope of job training. Given the need to revise their curriculum, and the fact that WBI no longer primarily served Harlem or the African American community, school leaders decided to sell the business in 1980.
sim city Illustrates the relationship between technology and society, and the WBI’s 50-year history echoes this message. Technological development does not automatically and equitably provide opportunities. Instead, WBI students seized their commitment for their own purposes.
The history of WBI should be better known. But when the WBI shut down, many of its records were scattered. Gathering more information about WBI’s distinguished and dynamic students will help document an important period in the history of New York City and the state. It will also preserve hard-earned lessons for another generation of students facing unequal technology and educational opportunity today. If you have information about or a connection to WBI that you would like to share, please contact the author.
Dylan Yeats is a Brooklyn-based historian, curator, archivist, consultant, and tour guide. He is also the great-grandson of Rayfield, the founding director of the Washington College of Business in Harlem.