With a ribbon cutting today, Alice Young’s 98th birthday, the Rochester City School District will mark the renaming of School No. 3 from Nathaniel Rochester Middle School to Dr. Alice Holloway Young School of Excellence, honoring Young’s 33 years of service creating opportunities for city students.
Education’s power to expand horizons has been a theme in Young’s life since the start. She remembers a pivotal moment when she was 4 as if it were yesterday. She is sitting atop a wagon full of furniture. She knows something big is happening. Her older brother holds the reins, driving two horses that are hauling the family’s belongings from Virginia to North Carolina, where there is a school Young and her six older siblings can attend.
There were no high schools for Black children in Jim Crow-era Virginia in the 1920s. For John and Lucy Holloway, who were farmers, obtaining an education for their children meant pulling up roots and rebuilding, so they sold their farm and moved eight miles over the border to be near Warren County Training School, a new school in the village of Wise. (It was a Rosenwald School, named for philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who with Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute, led efforts to build desperately needed schools for African-American children in the South. Local communities built nearly 5,000 of the schools in 15 states.)
Young’s family moved into a log house on a stretch of eight acres they bought in Hawtree, where her father soon built a house. The move was a bold step and perhaps an early lesson in innovative thinking for Young, who went on to earn a reputation in Rochester as an educator who tore down fences that prevented poor, underserved minority and disabled children from receiving a quality education.
Young earned an undergraduate degree from Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. She moved north with a friend to teach in a migrant camp, then followed her friend to Rochester. She started graduate work at Cornell but stopped when the commute proved too long. After marrying James Young Sr., she started teaching in city schools in 1952—one of the first five African-American teachers in RCSD, itself a first in integration efforts. During this time, she earned master’s and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Rochester and raised three children with her husband.
District administrators noted her success motivating students who couldn’t read and promoted her to vice principal—Rochester’s first African-American in the role—to teach the techniques she had used with her students to faculty at School No. 19. She became principal of Ellwanger & Barry School No. 24 in 1962, again a Rochester first. White parents went to the central office to complain, but the district stood firm. Sympathetic neighbors and parents did what they could to erase the fear and rumors.
Along the way, as a practical matter, Young bent the rules if they stood in the way of effective teaching and learning for underserved children. With a pleasant demeanor—plainspoken and matter of fact, more likely to ask forgiveness than permission—she gamed the system when it impeded student learning.
As an administrator, Young wrote Rochester’s Title 1 programs in the mid-1960s to integrate the schools ahead of federal mandates—including the Urban-Suburban Interdistrict Transfer Program. Urban Suburban, which continues today, received national recognition as the first and only voluntary desegregation program in the country. Its earliest transfer students are in their 70s today.
Venturing into the predominantly white suburbs was a bold move. But it proved less daunting than the program’s predecessor, the Inner City Transfer Program, which allowed students from 10 struggling city schools to attend better-equipped urban schools nearby.
“That was the rugged part, that was tough,” Young recalls. Angry white parents packed the room at school board meetings, irate over the notion of more African-American students in their classrooms, she says. They threw dirty socks on stage, but they left Young alone. Always on her mind was enlarging the world for poor children in the inner city.
“I remember thinking about that. I said, ‘Now, how will youngsters know what’s on the other side of the fence if they can’t move the fence? I’m taking down the fences,’” she says.
Young also served as principal of School No. 5. All students in the district who had learning disabilities attended No. 5; there were 17 classes for special ed students and 18 for everyone else, with different faculty and hours for each—a logistical nightmare, she recalls.
Young launched yet another integration effort, pulling them together into one schedule, and it worked beautifully. She didn’t ask permission first, she didn’t wait for endorsement—she just knew it would work, so she did it. An administrator called her into his office to complain, but by the next year, the district had adopted Young’s schedule to use in another school.
In 1961, she became the only woman and African-American on the founding board of trustees of Monroe Community College. Now chair emerita, she still attends meetings and is the longest-serving trustee in the State University of New York.
Young retired in 1985. Both the college and city schools have changed in ways that would have been unimaginable in the 1950s. The advice her parents gave when she was growing up has kept her grounded and focused during some turbulent times, Young says.
“‘Anything worth doing is worth doing well,’” she recalls them saying. “‘Don’t ask anyone to do something that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself. And don’t ever be so good that you don’t want to get your hands dirty.’”
“I feel humble,” she adds. “I’m blessed and I know it.”
Sally Parker is a Rochester Beacon co-founder and a contributing writer.