The origins and reasons for a Tuesday-through-Saturday schedule for Decatur’s public schools remain mysterious, educator and author Tom Keating acknowledges.
Keating, the author of the 1999 book “Saturday School: How One Town Kept Out ‘the Jewish,’ 1902-32,” spoke to a lunch crowd of 156 people at the DeKalb History Center on Tuesday, July 19, about Decatur’s use of Saturday instead of Monday for classes early in the 20th century.
At a scant 60 pages, Keating’s book was criticized at its release for being short and for raising more questions than answers. The lunchtime discussion at the old DeKalb Courthouse expanded on the topic based on recent research involving the school board members who implemented what Keating called “this peculiar practice.”
“This had been a practice on and off — mainly on — from 1902 and lasted till 1932,” Keating said. “The story was not easy to learn about; it was buried.”
The Christian defense of holding school on Saturday instead of Monday was that the practice allowed students to worship on Sunday without worrying about homework and preparation for class the next day.
In the book Keating speculates that the policy actually was created to preclude Jewish families from living in Decatur. “The years of this practice have never been acknowledged by the city nor apologized for, neither by the city commission nor by its school board, though the board did acknowledge it. Maybe the story of Saturday school will be lost in the graveyard of selective history.”
An audience member asked Keating what triggered the rule in the first place. “I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t find out. People didn’t talk about it, though women were more forthcoming than men to discuss it. If you ask someone why they did the deed, they’re not always eager to tell you.”
Another attendee wondered what pushback the school board received from the Jewish community. Not much, apparently. “A prominent rabbi told me those folks weren’t going to services anyway. You already had, from the 1840s until 1924, an influx of three generations of German-background Jewish folk,” Keating said. “But then you had Russian ones coming. … There was pushback against them, so there was no time for a secret that nobody talked about.”
He added: “It was not so much a secret as it was a mystery and something that was never uncovered. The good old days were not really good old days. The 1920s was one of the most bigoted (decades) in the 20th century.”
Keating said his own grandfather, who moved to the United States from Ireland in 1913, would have seen plenty of signs reading, “Catholics need not apply here.”
Were there any Jewish children who actually attended Decatur public schools on Saturdays?
“Yes,” Keating said, mentioning two or three families near the end of the 30-year period.
“Saturday school is an early example of the tension between inclusion and exclusion,” he said. “Anti-Semitism was played out in Decatur in a unique manner, and for that reason alone it’s worth researching and sharing.”