Monday, April 16, 2012

Who is M A Cassidy?

I’ve been writing on deadline recently to complete revisions on an article on M. A. Cassidy with graduate researcher Lindsey DeVries. I was going to call it “Massillon Alexander Cassidy: Progressive Schoolman,” but lately have been leaning more toward “A Southern Progressive: M. A. Cassidy and the Lexington Schools, 1885-1928.” It will appear in the next volume of the American Educational History journal. 

I did my student teaching in 1972 at Cassidy School, under the supervision of my predecessor, some 23 years later, Principal Dorothy Friend. I always thought it was a great school. The kids were treated with respect. When I moved my family to Lexington in 1985, I knew where I wanted my own children to attend school. For almost two decades as the principal of the school that bears his name, I was in possession of a quantity of historical data about Cassidy. I have always wanted to learn more about the numerous progressive initiatives of the hard-working school superintendent. He is arguably the best example of how progressivism manifested itself in Kentucky’s schools. As is frequently the case when reviewing school records retained by the school, I read the good news – as opposed to all of the news.

Previously, I had been principal of two schools whose names came from the communities where they were located; Ryland Heights in Kenton County, and Meadowthorpe in Lexington. Both had the usual local historical memorabilia; neither assembled into any kind of historical account, as I recall. When the building was built, some names of teachers and administrators, and a bunch of photos (perhaps a yearbook), news clippings…was what one found.

But when I became the principal of Cassidy Elementary, I inherited not only the school, but the man. A very large portrait of the man still adorns the first floor hallway as a reminder to all of the wonderful deeds of our namesake. Well, not really.  We weren’t exactly sure of just what those deeds were. But surely he must have been wonderful to have merited such a remembrance. More impressive is his tombstone in the Lexington Cemetery. 

So, who was M. A. Cassidy? When I studied the record, what would I find?

I will confess to a bias in favor of effective school administration and Cassidy was very competent. He led people. I respect that because it’s important work. Folks who do it well are valuable.

Our review of school board records, personal letters, newspaper and scholarly accounts paints a picture of a popular superintendent who transformed the modest schools of Lexington from an undistinguished collection of dilapidated common schools, into to a more efficient system of graded schools, with improved buildings and better trained teachers, while preaching the gospel of literacy and expanding equality of educational opportunity, in a remarkably even-handed fashion for his time, to an increasing number of children. Under his watch, the schools in Lexington grew to enjoy a national reputation for quality. High praise, indeed.

Cassidy was one of a new breed of New South superintendents who maintained the long-standing interest in moral and civic training emblematic of 19th century schoolmen, but now saw the school as a vehicle to solve social problems and advance national progress.

Upon reviewing the impressive list of Cassidy’s progressive, child-centered initiatives, one might guess that he was dispatched by John Dewey to bring Lexington into the 20th century. But the data reveals a much more nuanced set of conditions which portray Cassidy as a distinctively southern-style reformer who held conservative and progressive ideals in equal measure.  

Problematic is the proper casting of the ex-Tennessean’s racial politics, which, while clearly racist, were consistent with the vast majority of Lexingtonians early in the 20th century. Cassidy moved to the north, and found a “southern” state where his racial attitudes were a good fit with the white Democratic majority: at once, progressive and paternalistic; concerned but condescending. 

Conversely, the data present a clear record of Cassidy’s staunch support for black education including cooperation with black leaders, the establishment and improvement of schools for blacks, and the creation of a black teacher association and teacher-training institutes. Cassidy distinguished himself, remarkably, by insisting that schools for black children in Lexington would be up to the same standards as schools for whites. 

In Golden Deeds, his nationally recognized book and character development program, Cassidy shows no reluctance in praising Abraham Lincoln and other heroes who were white, black, men and women. He believed that women should be educated as much as they want, but that their best purpose was in the home. The data illustrate a southern accomodationist’s approach to white supremacy.  

Illustrative of the breadth of miscegenation fears at the time was the U.S. Supreme Court’s acceptance of white supremacy as a matter of “science” in Berea College v Commonwealth (1908). Reasoning that interracial marriage would “destroy the purity of blood and the identity of each [race],” and that prejudice was simply nature’s guard against that unnatural amalgamation, prohibitions against miscegenation went unquestioned by the court. The majority went so far as to argue that it was a credit to America’s civilized society that “the stronger race” did not simply “annihilate the weaker race” and in that way, the law that made it illegal for black and white kids to go to school together, preserved the peace. (See upcoming article in the Journal of Negro Education with Roger Cleveland and June Hyndman).

Cassidy belonged to that class of southern accommodationist progressives who made education their career, utilized the expertise of science and business to efficiently reshape civic life, and who saw themselves as the teachers and guardians of subordinate African Americans in whom they would cultivate some measure of collaboration and consent.


Anonymous said...

Dear Richard,

I've read this post nearly a dozen times. Now I've decided to publish my comment. What good does it do to say that Cassidy's racism was consistent with that of other 20th century Lexington residents?

No, it doesn't make an article about Cassidy any less relevant ---look at all the historians who write about Jefferson Davis --- but it does seem to be an unspoken way of excusing the behavior of the namesake of the school you once led.

Richard Day said...

Great question, and I'm not sure I have the best answer for it.

The historians argument is related to what is called presentism. When we look back into history and find facts, that's a good thing. But the interpretation of those facts is also important, and there, it is always tempting to use present-day standards to judge folks from another time and another culture. Historian are supposed to resist that impulse.

Everything I've read on Jefferson Davis also includes contemporary perspectives. He is well-situated among his fellow confederates.

As I wrote in the full article, our effort was neither to excuse Cassidy nor to assail him. I present his quotes as I found them and the reader can decide what that means. But fairness dictates that some perspective accompany the facts. So I also present facts related to the larger community as well.

I wondered how it was that Cassidy could have become so popular if he was the only person who held such views?

If I continue this study (I think there's enough interesting material here for a small book) I will certainly have to dig deeper and deal with these issues at some length.

Plus, I am learning a lot more about the impact of the Civil War on Kentucky and the schools. It's a remarkable history. This study will become stronger when I add the politics.

Thanks again for the comment.

Anonymous said...

Dear Richard,

Tell us more about "presentism." What historian coined the term? Do all historians embrace this view? When did this term first make the rounds in historical circles? Finally, does "presentism" argue that we should not judge Hitler's antisemitism by today's standards?

Richard Day said...

Historians live on a tightrope hovering over presentism on one side and moral relativism on the other.

In historical analysis, it seems to me, some balance needs to be struck. When used for interpretations of the past, present-day knowledge and ideas can introduce any number of biases that ought to be avoided.

Since…sometime…in the 20th century…many (not all) historians…or at least the composite views of the ones I’m learning from…tended to advocate reporting the events and facts while guarding against laying too much judgment on the people…or at least tempering that judgment in light of what the people alive at the time would have known. Others would restrict themselves completely.

I’m more moderate on the subject, but aware of the claim.

On the other side of the tightrope is moral relativism, which should also be guarded against. Some claim that avoiding moral judgments leads to a kind of moral relativism that excuses some pretty awful stuff. That’s not good either.

I hope to shoot pretty close to the middle, while remaining aware of both extremes. So, I report what I find, try to do so in a logical and chronological manner, and provide enough context that the issues under question at the time cannot be missed.

I confess I’m still a little new at this; not being a career historian…but I hope, a promising fledgling.

Hitler’s central ideas sucked and if that was an academic interest of mine, I’m sure I’d say so.

Even so, I stop short of believing that there is any unassailed authority on human morality. For example, I would also stop short of proclaiming on moral grounds that slavery should be condoned because it is condoned in the Bible.

Anonymous said...

History must be studied in context of the conditions which existed at the time. It is easy for folks to Monday morning quarterback event after they have occured and the outcome determined. The challenge is actually being open minded and coming to accurately understand what occurred in context of the conditions which existed and not superimposing our own personal values, contemporary standards, etc. Lincoln is recognized the great emancipator but lets remember that though he did not support slavery, he still held many of the contemporary ideas which did not align with equality of the races. Similarly, Washington, Jefferson and the rest of our beloved founding fathers not only were slave owners but equally did not support equal rights for women. Are we going to throw them under the same bus as Hitler based upon our self somewhat self righteous belief that we modern folk are more morally enlightened or intelligent than these icons of American leadership? Dog gone it, thats like saying Rupp's players were not as offensively talented as todays players who have three point lines and shot clocks. You have to evaluate past events in context of the conditions that existed. Read a little of C VanWoodward's stuff about the discipline.

Richard Day said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

I see what you all are saying. What about Adolf Rupp's well documented racism? Was this consistent with the views most held at that time? Should we go easy on Rupp even though UK waited until 1969 to put a black player on the team?

Richard Day said...

Each should be judged according to their time...and that includes Rupp.

As a freshman on UK's campus in 69-70 and a resident on the same dorm floor as the team (before the Wildcat Lodge) I heard segregation advocates use the phrase "keep UK lily white" to describe the desired campus population more than once.

I was also present the night that Tom Payne (Rupp's first black player) woke up everyone in the dorm somewhere around 3AM using the buzzer system in Holmes Hall. To hear the language hurled at Payne for his ignorant and inconsiderate deed, you would have thought a KKK meeting broke out in the lobby. It immediately went to race.

If one wishes to hunt for evidence of racism in our history, it's there to be found in the words and actions of some, even many, people.

Paul McGlothin said...

MA Cassidy was my great grandfather.I grew up with his daughter Margaret Sandford and her husband William J. Sandford.

Thank you very much for your interest in our family. Certainly MA Cassidy is someone we are all proud of. Margaret Sandford carried on in her father's progressive tradition.She was one of very few women who went to the University of Kentucky in the early 1900s.There she studied to be a journalist and wrote stories about life in Kentucky's early history. She and her husband were twice threatened by the Klux Klux Klan for their successful efforts to open public recreation to African Americans. Perhaps I can be of help in your studies. We have a great many family pictures from the MA Cassidy era that you may find useful.

With appreciation,

Paul Sandford McGlothin