The entire student body marched out of school and went on strike to protest the policies of the local school board. Sound like Berkeley in the 1960s? No, it was the city of San Diego in June 1918.
The walkout of 1,500 students, virtually the entire student body of San Diego High School, was immediately caused by the abrupt firing of 19 teachers by the five-member Board of Education. But pressure had been building since the previous school year, when the board, with three newly elected members taking the lead, dismissed school superintendant Duncan McKinnon, who’d proved popular with teachers and students as well as most city officials.
The board followed that up with a questionnaire sent to all city teachers asking their opinions of their jobs. This questionnaire was prepared by the board’s “teachers committee,” whose membership included no teachers. City teachers at that time served under year-to-year contracts. At a mass meeting in response to the questionnaire, 91 of the 94 teachers on staff chose to respond with a collective statement rather than individually. Seventy-seven of them eventually signed a reply which was sent to the board.
On June 6, 1918, the board mailed dismissal notices to 19 teachers. Among those dismissed were Arthur Gould, principal of San Diego High School, and Pauline Gartzmann, who had been secretary of the teachers meeting which had approved the joint reply to the school board.
The response by the students was to organize a walkout. Led by a disciplined executive committee, they marched downtown and rallied in Balboa Stadium. They also drew up a petition to the board demanding an explanation for the dismissals. And they called a strike to last until their questions were answered.
Their activities culminated a few days later in another rally at the stadium where the students were joined by some 4,000 members of the general public sympathizing with their demands. Public supporters included organizations like the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce.
The strike lasted through the end of the school year on June 21. City newspapers reported the communications of both sides, included a statement from the school board refusing to recognize “the insurrection and the alleged resolution of the so-called student body of the High School.”
The matter may have been clinched on June 22 when The San Diego Union published a letter from the board claiming the “several among those” dismissed “were under surveillance by the authorities for Pro-Germanism and those teachers were dropped for that reason.”
This was in the midst of the First World War. However, letters of inquiry sent by supporters of the students to government law enforcement and intelligence officials revealed that none of the teachers had been under investigation.
Students returned for the new school year on August 31. Some of the teachers had been reinstated, but most had accepted employment elsewhere or had entered defense work, according to Robert Heilbron in his essay, “Student Protest At Its Best: San Diego, 1918” published in the January 1974 Journal of San Diego History.
The school board members never retracted their false claims about the teachers, but a public campaign eventually resulted in the recall of the three board members who had spurred the firings and the strike.
In addition to the Heilbron essay, sources for this post included the 2013 book San Diego Yesterday by Richard Crawford.
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