Student Solidarity: The 1934 One Day Walkout of West Winfield, New York

Even the smallest of towns can see sparks of radicalism. Solidarity movements exist in several forms, from honoring the picket lines of striking workers to anti-war protests in solidarity with the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. Student movements all throughout history have been characterized as displays of both solidarity and resistance, acting against wars, egregious abuses of power, and other entities characterized as unjust and disagreeable. In the village of West Winfield, New York, anything in the news focusing on students primarily relates to school sports, homecoming weekend, graduation, and similar events. In the mid-1930s though, students from the small village engaged in an uncharacteristic act of radical solidarity with their fellow schoolmates.

In late 1934, two students were barred from attending school functions and were soon after expelled from West Winfield Central High School. Their expulsion came after they still attended a senior dance after their activities privileges were suspended. What was the initial offense that led to these students being hit with disciplinary measures? They walked on the grass on school grounds after sod had been laid down. They didn’t maliciously try to tear up the lawn with a vehicle or dig it up in some other way, they simply walked on the grass. Annoying? Perhaps yes. An act deserving of an indefinite suspension from extracurricular activities and eventual total expulsion? No. Rather than turn away the students when they arrived at the dance, they were still able to attend and then were informed of their expulsion from the school the following Monday when they reported for classes. That not a single chaperone did anything to prevent them attending displays either a lack of care on the part of those overseeing the function, or a lack of communication from the principal to his faculty.

Seeing their peers expelled for such a minor offense didn’t sit well with the student body. In response, students ranging from 7th graders to seniors initiated a walkout the very same day that the expulsion took place. Students left the school in droves. A spur-of-the-moment, unplanned action, between 100 and 200 students (though some papers cited numbers even hire than 200) marched through the streets of West Winfield in defiance of their principal’s actions as a show of solidarity with their wrongly removed schoolmates. Their demands included the reinstatement of the expelled classmates and the removal of their principal, one H.D. Love, for his egregious abuse of power. Being that many if not all of those who walked out would be considered children, it was a great boost in morale when it was revealed that the majority of parents and townspeople approved the walkout rather than condemning their children for “disobedience.”

This mass student action would create the necessity for an emergency school board meeting that very same, with the school board knowing that if they didn’t address this problem immediately, this one day walkout held the potential to become a much lengthier battle. Six students and several locals townsfolk were also a part of this emergency meeting. No details, as far as can be seen, are available regarding what specifically happened during the deliberations between the students, the West Winfield citizens, and the West Winfield school board. That being said, the available information does show that an effective dialog occurred, and those who represented their wrongfully thrown out classmates were able to bring about the desired outcome in their brief but passionate struggle.

After a night of deliberation, the expelled were finally reinstated as students at West Winfield Central High School. There were restrictions placed on said students, restrictions that once more are not explained in the available literature, but nonetheless the students were no longer . The other demand of the student protesters, the removal of Principal Love, however, would not be met. In fact, the school board responded to this demand by saying Love’s removal was “out of the question.”

Although their demands were not fully met, the primary goal of reversing the expulsion was, with their efforts ultimately resulting in victory. The spontaneous, one day walkout of 1934 exemplifies the need for solidarity when fighting against injustice in its various forms, whether that be questionable decisions by administration or global political issues. Had only a fraction of students protested the knee-jerk expulsion, this struggle could’ve escalated to something far more protracted and difficult. That several students spanning six different grade levels heeded the call to action simultaneously displays the sense of community that many find in small town, rural areas, in addition to the strength of youth culture regarding young people’s ability to take a stand against what they see as genuine problems of varying fields. Students protests are typically seen as synonymous with movements on the college level such as the efforts against the Vietnam War, however the students of West Winfield showed that you don’t need to be at the college level to fight the good fight.

J.N. Cheney is an aspiring Marxist historian. His research primarily focuses on New York State labor history, branching into other facets of the history of socialism in the United States as well as the global socialist movement. He’s written for Midwestern Marx and has been published in their Journal of American Socialist Studies under both a penname and his given name. He is currently writing a book on the Little Falls Textile Strike of 1912. Read other articles by J.N..