Students at all NYC schools have a day off today in what is officially noted on the Dept. of Education's calendar as a Chancellor's Conference Day for Staff Development. That dry description actually masks the fact that today's day off from school is a tradition that dates back to 1829 and used to be one of the most widely celebrated holidays in Brooklyn and Queens. Dating back 178 years, Anniversary Day was a school holiday to celebrate and commemorate the founding of the first Sunday School (a de facto Protestant institution at the time) on Long Island. [See our post on Anniversary Day 2006]
A quick survey of the archives of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, placed online by the Brooklyn Public Library, reveals a story of a widely celebrated religion-themed public school holiday that eventually succumbed to the changing demographics of Brooklyn and Queens. The figures and accounts are exclusive to Brooklyn, an independent city until 1898, but we imagine parallel events were occurring in Queens. The following are brief descriptions of newspaper articles that we found to be just the tip of the iceberg of what the library's archive project offers.
May 29, 1861 - "THE ANNIVERSARY, Grand Rally of the Brooklyn Sabbath Schools –– Patriotism Rampant"
In good weather, twenty-thousand children parade in separate contingents from Eastern and Western Brooklyn towards City Hall and then Fort Green. The Western Parade Marshall is identified as "Mr. Douglass," who may have been abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
April 12, 1890 - "CHILDREN'S DAY, The Anniversary Parade for June 4"
Outlining plans for the celebration, 75,000 kids are expected to march in a parade celebrating the establishment of Sunday Schools. A portion of the parade route is talked of being moved to Cumberland St., because the heavily cobbled stones on Clinton Ave. were impossible for kids to walk on and they had to detour onto Clinton's sidewalks in prior years. The paper prints celebratory hymns, but reminds readers that they are property of the "Brooklyn Sunday School Union."
May 26, 1893 - "A DUBIOUS ANNIVERSARY DAY, Sixty-fourth Annual Parade of the Sunday School Union"
The "dubious" refers to the weather, which was inclement, but 60,000 kids marched. New York Gov. Flower is on hand for the proceedings. The paper describes three times the number of spectators as marchers, as 6,000 marched down Willoughby Ave., to Sumner, down Vernon, to Hart St.
5/23/1899 - "HOW LOCAL SCHOOLS GOT AROUND THE LAW, Phases of the Anniversary Day Problem Which Has Caused So Much Trouble"
A year after consolidating itself into the greater City of New York, there is grumbling in Brooklyn about the celebration of a day which previously would be a "holiday granted without question." "This year the question of an Anniversary Day holiday became a business proposition to the board solely." There is squabbling about making it a half day, as members of the Brooklyn School Board and the Central Board contest the holiday. At issue is school funding, which is reduced if kids get the day off. A proposal is raised to consult with the Sunday School Union to move Anniversary Day to a non-school day.
February 11, 1900 - "ANNIVERSARY DAY PARADE, "Members of the Brooklyn School Board Regret Unwillingness of Sunday School Union to Compromise"
Relations between the School Board and the Sunday School Union becomes adversarial when the latter refuses to change the date of the celebration from a school day. Consolidated Brooklyn can no longer grant exclusive holidays to its students without losing funding.
April 27, 1902 - "AGAINST ANNIVERSARY DAY, 'An American Mother' Points Out Its Unfairness to Those Concerned in Parade"
A letter to the editor, in response to a separate letter from "A Brooklyn Mother" who presumably is in support of the holiday, protests that the religious nature of Anniversary Day that applies to 10% of Brooklynites violates the non-sectarian nature of public schooling.
May 27, 1902 - Letters to the Editor
A number of letters to the editor decry the decision of the School Board to discontinue making Anniversary Day a school holiday.
In 1959, Gov. Rockefeller reinstated Anniversary Day at the request of the Queens Federation of Churches. Re-christened Brooklyn-Queens Day, public school students once again had their extra day off from school. In 2005, negotations between the city and the United Federation of Teachers extended the day off to all five of New York's boroughs. Today is the second year kids all across New York get out of class on a June day. We wonder if they even know why.