A number of interesting personalities were involved in the Modern School movement. School founders were an assortment of anarchists, socialists, syndicalists, and single-taxers. They tended to be atheists or freethinkers. Principles and teachers were predominantly native Americans of Anglo-Saxon heritage, while pupils were predominantly Jewish, and nearly all of working class origins. (Avrich, Modern School Movement, 47)
The largest ethnic group at the Stelton colony were East European Jews, but there were also many Italians, Spaniards, French, English, and native Americans, as well as a number of other nationalities, including Chinese. The majority of the Stelton colonists were anarchists.
Teachers were widely varied in their experience and theoretical knowledge. The task of teaching eager and rambunctious children without subduing them or stifling their curiosity was extremely taxing, and many teachers did not last long. Difficulties were exacerbated by a general lack of stable funding, with donations from labor organizations, philanthropists, and fundraisers including theater productions making the schools viable.
Born into a respectable New England family in 1878, Leonard Abbott began attending socialist meetings at the age of 17 while living in Liverpool, England, where his father was representing American metal firms. Leonard Abbott would become an active figure in the American socialist movement. By 1907 he had gravitated towards anarchism, writing in Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth magazine, but retained an affinity for socialism. He was an extremely active figure in the Modern School Movement, the first president of the Ferrer Association, a speaker at its founding conference, editor of the Ferrer memorial volume it published, and lecturer at the adult center.
Emma Goldman (1869–1940)
Emma Goldman, infamous anarchist and modern rebel icon, was a leading figure in organizing Ferrer schools as well as attracting others to support the project with her forceful oratory.
Further Reading: The Emma Goldman Papers Project
Alexander Berkman (1870 – 1936)
Probably most widely remembered for his attempt to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, Berkman was also an intermittent lover of Emma Goldman and and active organizer and writer. He took a leading role in founding Ferrer schools in New York. Reportedly the children loved to visit him at his office for boisterous play.
Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman
Harry Kelly was a major figure in the early Ferrer Association and was instrumental in the founding and operation of the Ferrer Colony of Stelton. He was born in Missouri and left school after fifth grade to help his family. He said he became a dedicated anarchist after hearing an anarchist speaker in Boston in 1894. Introduced to the Ferrer Association by Emma Goldman, he became its first professional organizer.
The son of the Standard Oil Company treasurer, Alden Freeman became interested in the Modern School primarily due to Emma Goldman’s influence, and he would make heavy financial contributions to the New York school until withdrawing his support following the Lexington Avenue explosion.
Cohen was born in a Jewish village in Minsk province in 1878, and would never forget the pogroms he witnessed in his youth. He was an early radical, organizing workers, and even a revolutionary group among his fellow soldiers during his brief time as a conscript in the Tsar’s army. He emigrated to America in the early years of the 20th Century and involved himself in the Jewish anarchist movement. Eventually he would become a major organizer and administrator of the Modern Schools.
William Thurston Brown
Brown was a prominent organizer of Ferrer schools. One of his activities was traveling across the country founding new schools. Some of these projects were not firmly established and were short-lived.
Alexis and Elizabeth Ferm
The Ferm couple had a profound influence on the Stelton school. Their politics were primarily a mixture of Benjamin Tucker’s individualist anarchism and Henry George’s single-tax ideas. Elizabeth was a somewhat dogmatic adherent to the educational methods of Froebel, and had an authoritarian bent, often displaying a harsh demeanor and sometimes discouraging children from reading before she considered them ready. Nevertheless, former students often recall the Ferms in fond terms as “Auntie” and “Uncle.” The Ferms had run schools in New Rochelle, Brooklyn, and New York’s Lower East Side before coming to the Modern School, where they employed similar methods. While they often quarreled with parents, including for their focus on physical, creative, and craft education over traditional academic subjects, the Ferms provided beneficial leadership and direction to the Stelton school, and students continued to excel academically during their tenure.
Further reading: Freedom in Education, a book by Elizabeth Ferm.
Will Durant (1885-1981)
An early teacher at the New York school, Durant was essential in getting the school on stable footing. Durant’s mother had hoped he would become a priest, but he grew skeptical of Catholicism and dropped out of the seminary at Seton Hall to pursue a career in education. His career with the Ferrer Association began with a recommendation from Alden Freeman, who had attended a lecture of his. Durant remained a socialist, but grew more friendly towards anarchism during his time at the school. He ended his career at the center after he and a fourteen-year-old student named Ariel fell in love and married, to become lifelong intellectual partners. Durant would eventually become a successful writer and lecturer, to Emma Goldman’s disdain. Will and Ariel would even be awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford in 1977 for their contributions to American cultural life.
Will Durant and pupils of the New York Modern School at East Twelfth St, 1912.
Further reading: Will Durant Foundation
Jim and Nellie Dick
James had met Francisco Ferrer himself in 1907, and organized a Modern School in Liverpool, England. Nellie (born Naomi Ploschansky in Kiev) was also involved in a libertarian education project in London. The couple met at a May Day rally in 1913, Nellie hoping to inquire whether a writer known as Jim Dick would be able to lecture at her school. They moved to the United States in 1917 to avoid military conscrpition and were soon put in charge of the boarding house in Stelton, the beginning of their careers in America.