Richman, Julia (1855–1912)

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Richman, Julia (1855–1912)

American educator and children's rights activist. Born in New York City on October 12, 1855; died in Paris, France, on June 24, 1912; daughter of Moses Richman (a painter and glazier) and Theresa (Melis) Richman; graduated from New York Normal College, 1872; graduate work in the school of pedagogy at New York University, 1897–98; never married; no children.

Julia Richman, born to Jewish parents in New York City in 1855, was ten years old when she entered the New York city public school system that later would be the focus of much of her life's work. In 1870, she enrolled in a two-year course at the New York Normal College (later Hunter College of the City University of New York), and after her graduation returned to the public school system as a teacher despite her father's protests. She was named vice-principal of the school at which she taught ten years later, and in 1884 was named principal of the girls' department at P.S. 77.

Over the course of the 19 years Richman spent as principal at P.S. 77, she was also deeply involved with Jewish educational concerns. She served as the first president of the Young Women's Hebrew Association from 1886 to 1890, was a member of the Jewish Chautauqua Society's educational council from 1889 to 1898, and served as chair of the committee on religious school work for the Council of Jewish Women from 1895 to 1899. She was active in the Educational Alliance, which promoted the assimilation of Jewish immigrants, from its founding in 1889, particularly in the classes run by the alliance that helped to prepare immigrant children for their entrance into the public schools. A member of its board of directors beginning in 1893, Richman used her position within the public school system to help foster the alliance's goals.

Richman was promoted to a district superintendent of city schools in 1903, and chose to work in a district on the city's Lower East Side, which at the time was a crowded, poor neighborhood inhabited primarily by Jewish immigrants. She also moved to the Lower East Side, a far cry from the genteel uptown environs in which she had previously lived. Richman saw her mission as assisting the education of and adjustment to America not only of the 23,000 schoolchildren in the district but of their families and neighbors as well. She did this with typical determination and forcefulness (one of her neighborhood campaigns spurred some locals to start a petition requesting removal of "this self-constituted censor of our morality"), but always with her focus firmly on the welfare and development of schoolchildren. She co-wrote a series of six textbooks on arithmetic, cajoled the school board into setting up classes for developmentally disabled and physically challenged children, instituted separate schools for children with delinquency and truancy problems, set up eye examinations in the schools, and started a program of school lunches for qualified children. Understanding the economic world in which most of her pupils lived, she also made available a job counselor for those who were forced to quit school in order to work. From 1906, her home became the "Teachers House," where principals and teachers in her district met with each other and with three social workers to formulate improvements in the schools.

Richman retired as school superintendent in 1912, leaving behind her a vastly improved school environment on the Lower East Side. Having lectured on education and written articles published in such journals as Forum, Educational Review, and Outlook, she planned to concentrate on her community work and on writing and public speaking. She traveled to Europe that summer, but became ill in Paris and died there after an appendectomy, at the age of 56. Julia Richman High School in New York City was named in her honor.

sources:

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Read, Phyllis J. and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Gretchen Monette , freelance writer, Ferndale, Michigan