Charlotte Collett, Interviewed by Christian Stegall, November 21, 2016
Location of Interview: Oneonta, New York
Charlotte Collett was born in Harlem, New York in 1951. She grew up in government housing during the 1950s and 60s, and attended the State University of New York at Old Westbury, Columbia Teacher’s College, and received a PhD from New York University. In addition to teaching in New York City public schools for over 30 years, she has played the violin and sung the blues around the world. In this story, she talks about her own educational path.
CC: Anyway, I played violin and sang in the chorus in middle school and then applied to Music and Arts High School and the High School of Performing Arts, which at that time was located on West 46th Street in the theater district. Music and Art was in Harlem near City College, so I ended up going there. In elementary school I had a guidance counselor named Mrs. Giddings. She was the only black professional who worked at the school. All of the other blacks worked in the cafeteria.
She [Mrs. Giddings] recommended that I get a scholarship at something called the Metropolitan Music School, which was located off Central Park West in the 70s. And Paul Robeson’s granddaughter was going to school there too. She was taking music lessons there. I decided to go to Music and Art instead of Performing Arts High School. They both are now combined as Fiorello H. La Guardia School of Performing and the Arts. It’s now located at Lincoln Center in the Lincoln Center Area. I went to high school in Harlem and Miriam Makeba’s daughter was in my school. She went to Music and Art at that time.
I just remember we organized something called “Music and Art Students against the War in Vietnam.” We joined with other high schools throughout the city to organize against the war. I was once told by one of my history teachers, that I was the best example of participatory democracy she had, because I was always out with my bullhorn or passing out leaflets. I worked with a girl named Laurie. I can’t remember her last name, but we would write flyers against the war or whatever political thing was going on at the time.
We decided we would use at least two or three new vocabulary words, so we would learn something as we were writing our leaflets and stuff. So I went there and one day in homeroom I was asked by a student, because I was known as being politically active, if I would come to her to a meeting across the park, Morningside Park, on the other side, down in Harlem proper, and she asked me if I would be willing to tutor black kids after school? I said, of course I would love to do that.
I went with her to a meeting and it turned out to be some kids from SUNY, State University of New York at Old Westbury on Long Island. I met these students there and hadn’t thought much about going to college. College is something people have to talk to you about as you grow up. You have to have some kind of contact and know how to negotiate the world outside of your home. Someone has to kind of guide you there.
At any event, I went to this meeting and I ended up visiting SUNY Old Westbury and ended up applying to SUNY Old Westbury. I got in. That’s how I got to college. That was an interesting experience. I was there for four years, and college wasn’t enough even then. I graduated in 1974, probably before you were born. I applied to Columbia Teacher’s College.