Queens College opened 11 October 1937, on the site of the former one-room Jamaica Academy (where Walt Whitman once taught). Built in the early 19th century, Jamaica Academy was on Flushing–Jamaica Rd. (now Kissena Blvd.), and became a public school in 1844. In 1909, it became part of the New York Parental School for troubled boys.
In 1934, NYPS was rocked by rumors of abuse, and an investigation was launched. The school shut down, and students were sent to local public schools. Several months later, school grounds became city property, intended to house 500 mental patients from Randall’s Island Hospital who were temporarily homeless due to the building of the Triborough Bridge. (Unsurprisingly, the evil Robert Moses was involved!)
Concurrently, County Judge Charles S. Colden appointed and chaired a committee to investigate the possibility of a free college in his borough. In September 1935, the response was affirmative. Mayor LaGuardia also came on board in hearty support of such a proposal, and in March 1937, the Board of Education chose the NYPS land as the future location. Paul Klapper, former School of Education dean at City College, was chosen as president.
Though many schools in this era opened much later than they do today, QC didn’t deliberately start its inaugural semester in October by design. A painters’ strike precluded opening when the rest of the city’s colleges began.
Happily, the inaugural class of 400 was roughly 50-50. Like Brooklyn College next door, QC too was co-ed from the jump. There were forty teachers and administrators, also about 50-50. Dedication Day was held on 26 October and attended by Mayor LaGuardia.
A special dinner for Dr. Klapper was held 30 October at the Hotel Astor and attended by over one thousand. Guests included Mayor LaGuardia and Gov. Herbert H. Lehman. Dr. Klapper insisted the funds raised go to a student aid fund for the new school.
The first school dance was held Wednesday, 24 November 1937, at which the school colors, blue and silver, were announced.
Rosenthal Library, Copyright Voidvector
In 1940, QC introduced a summer session, evening classes, and radio classes. That year also saw a visit from Roger Baldwin, one of the founders of the ACLU, at a Peace Day Rally.
In 1941, the school was fully accredited, just in time for the first class to graduate on 16 June. The ceremony had to be held in a tent, since it rained that day.
The day after Pearl Harbor, a false air-raid siren disrupted a civilian defense rally on campus, and everyone had to go home. During WWII, over 1,100 men and 22 women from QC served in the military, 59 of whom were KIA. The remaining stateside students held regular War Bond drives, observed Meatless Tuesdays, collected over a ton of scrap metal, and used their own papers for tests.
Façade of Remsen Hall
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at the first Spring Victory Lecture in 1943, and that August, the Army Specialized Training Program created a unit to study foreign languages and engineering. A Victory Fleet tanker was later named Queens Victory in gratitude for the school’s role in the war effort.
In 1948, a graduate division was added.
Mrs. Roosevelt visited again in 1951, speaking about the importance of education in the modern world.
Disgracefully, several professors were fired and blacklisted during the dark days of McCarthyism. In 1982, they finally received pension restitution.
In 1960, a dress code was forced on female students, forbidding trousers, shorts, and similar attire. It was lifted in ’67. Also in 1960, smoking was banned in classrooms.
Many QC students and alumni were active in the Civil Rights Movement, most famously Andrew Goodman, one of the three slain Freedom Riders. In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the first speaker in the JFK Memorial Lecture Series.
Students were also active in protesting the Vietnam War. Some students and professors were arrested for taking part in demonstrations.
Residence hall, Copyright Nkabouris
CUNY schools were closed for two weeks in response to the financial crisis of 1976, when the city very narrowly escaped bankruptcy. Though the adoption of open admissions in 1970 hurt other CUNY schools, QC wasn’t affected as much as the others.
In theory, open admissions sound wonderful, guaranteeing higher education to anyone who graduates high school. However, in actual practice, this flooded schools with underprepared students.
CUNY schools were forced to start charging tuition, and QC lost 15% of its budget. Some faculty resigned in protest, and enrollment sharply dropped.
By 1986, the school had started recovering, and today QC is once again a highly-ranked academic institution.
My characters Patya Siyanchuk and Nikolay Kutuzov-Tvardovsky attend QC to respectively become an art and biology teacher for second careers.