By Courtesy of UAV 813.400 Box 27, Folder 2. Harvard University Archives.

Cubans in Cambridge: Harvard’s 1900 Cuban Summer School and U.S. Imperialism

"This program — which Cuban historian Louis A. Pérez called an “imperial design” — strove to teach Cuban schoolchildren lessons in civics, American history, and English, whether they wanted them or not."
By Kendrick N. Foster

In 1899, the satirical magazine Puck published a political cartoon entitled “School Begins.” The cartoonist depicts Uncle Sam as a teacher, instructing four Black children wearing nametags that read Cuba, Porto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines. “Now, children, you’ve got to learn these lessons whether you want to or not!” reads the caption.

This cartoon illustrates American policy within its territories and colonies at the turn of the 20th century, especially in Cuba, where military governor Leonard Wood — a Harvard Medical School graduate — led the U.S. occupation of Cuba in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. His government aimed to rebuild Cuba after the war, embarking on a program to transform the Cuban education system from the ground up.

This program — which Cuban historian Louis A. Pérez called an “imperial design” — strove to teach Cuban schoolchildren lessons in civics, American history, and English, whether they wanted them or not.

As the new educational system took shape, 1,283 Cuban teachers arrived in Cambridge to take part in Harvard’s Cuban Summer School, where they would learn English, geography, history, and pedagogy to take back to their students in Cuba. By the Summer School’s end, nearly half the total number of teachers on the entire island of Cuba had participated. It marked the largest-ever cultural exchange between Cuba and the United States, before or since.

But the Cuban Summer School also played a large role in Wood’s efforts to modernize — and Americanize — Cuba through educational policy. Instead of trying to Americanize Cuban schoolchildren, though, the U.S. decided to Americanize Cuban schoolteachers, and through the Cuban Summer School, Harvard participated enthusiastically in that effort.

A Gift ‘From Teacher to Teacher’

When Alexis Frye arrived in Havana as the island’s new superintendent for schools in November 1899, he had Charles William Eliot to thank. The University president had interceded with Elihu Root, the secretary of war, to assure a Harvard man’s appointment to the critical position, and Frye had gotten the job. “I WILL NOT DISAPPOINT YOU,” he wrote Eliot in all caps.

In their conversations about Frye’s appointment, Root had told him to “win the people.” Frye attempted to do so with the Cuban Summer School, one of his first big projects in office. On February 6, 1900, Frye and Ernest Lee Conant, Class of 1884, a Havana lawyer,, wrote to Eliot to formally propose the idea.

“As alumni of old Harvard and with the firm belief that our alma mater offers the best facilities, we naturally turn to her for help,” Frye and Conant wrote. The two Harvard graduates hoped that the Cubans would see their military occupiers in a new light. “We want the ties between the two countries drawn closer, so that all feeling of antagonism may melt away, in order that our country may do a higher and better work for Cuba…”

Several days later, Eliot responded to their request with a one-word telegram: “Yes.”

Preparations for the Cubans’ arrival soon proceeded in earnest. Harvard did not directly contribute a single cent to the Cuban Summer School. Instead, it set up a subscription fund to raise a total of $70,000 for all the requisite expenses. A May 12 notice announced the fund, and Bostonians responded to the call, donating $1,100 more than Harvard requested.

Beyond asking for money, the May 12 notice also set out the Summer School’s main objectives. “The effect on the minds and hearts of the teachers is not to be produced chiefly through the actual instruction given them,” the notice expounded. “It is to be produced by the sight of our people and our homes, and through personal acquaintance with our modes of life and with the evidences of our civilization.”

According to this reasoning, more informal cultural contact in a quotidian setting would advance Americanization; Harvard would provide that setting.

On May 16, Frye sent a notice to Cuba’s public schools announcing the plan for the Summer School. “This invitation is without parallel in the history of the world,” Frye wrote grandiosely. “It is not a gift from nation to nation, but from teacher to teacher.” The notice elaborated on logistics, excursions, and the course of instruction. Importantly, it set out a procedure for teacher selection. Frye detailed a complicated scheme to make sure that “every portion of the Island” could “receive benefit from the summer studies” while also making sure that the strongest teachers were chosen.

Even while Cuba’s mayors and principals met to determine which teachers would go to Harvard, the program’s business manager C.C. Mann got to work securing accommodations for the incoming teachers. The male teachers would reside in Harvard dormitories, while the female teachers would live in private residences close to Harvard Yard.

Mann viewed hospitality from the host families as essential to the program’s mission, especially considering that few teachers understood English. “They will, therefore, need much friendly guidance and sympathy, which cannot possibly be paid for,” Mann wrote in a notice advertising the need for lodging. Mann also employed 20 women to serve as chaperones for the Cuban women, under the theory that the Cubans believed it was “not proper for them to go abroad without complete chaperonage,” as the Boston Globe reported.

“In regard to your asking for information as to what a chaperone’s duties will be,” Mann wrote, “I would say that you would simply live in a house, keep a watchful eye over the teachers, and assist them in any way which you could devise.”

As the teachers’ arrival approached, Elihu Root lent his full support to the project. Root hoped that the CSS could help Cuba “avoid the conditions which have subjected Hayti, San Domingo, and the Central American republics to continuous revolution and disorder” (never mind that the United States’s gunboat diplomacy had caused some of that “revolution and disorder”).

As Root concluded, “I believe that this body of teachers going back, after their experience here [in the U.S.], and scattering into every municipality in Cuba, will carry back more of saving grace for peaceful and prosperous Cuba than the whole power of the Government could accomplish in any other way.”

‘Harvard Is Metamorphosed’

On July 30, 1900, the first U.S. Army transport carrying Cuban teachers arrived in Cambridge.

William Coolidge Lane, Class of 1881, the College’s head librarian at the time, described their arrival in a diary entry: “They came out by electric-car loads from the wharf and Memorial [Hall] was a dignified and impressive place for them to come to first,” Lane wrote. “They were admirably patient and on the whole were a pretty good looking crowd, though the Havana men who came today [July 1] are superior.”

On July 4, the Cuban teachers paraded through Harvard Yard to Cambridge Common, where they posed in front of the elm where Washington had taken command of the Continental Army and listened to a patriotic speech by Curtis Guild, a colonel in the Massachusetts militia. “The welcome that Cuba gave then to our soldiers New England returns to Cuba’s scholars,” Guild told the assembled teachers — even though, by and large, Cuba had not welcomed U.S. soldiers.

The next day, Eliot greeted the arrivals with a speech in Sanders Theater. As the Boston Globe reported, Eliot told the teachers that “they represented the highest intelligence and most advanced life of Cuba, and he wanted them to see the same life and how it was imparted in this country.” After Eliot’s speech, the teachers split up into 40 English language classes, separated by proficiency.

Later that day, they explored soil weathering in Medford for their geography course and visited the Ginn and Company textbook printers to learn about the U.S.’s advanced industrial economy.

Beyond the geography and English curricula, the Cuban teachers also went to lectures on American history, Spanish colonial history, kindergarten pedagogy, and the Sloyd teaching method, which emphasized manual labor and physical education.

The Cuban teacher Pablo Rousseau reflected positively on the English curricula at the summer school. “Notwithstanding the short time dedicated to learning a language as difficult to learn as English, the methods used for its syllabus were very beneficial,” Rousseau wrote in a pamphlet published after his return to Cuba. He wished that more teachers could have attended the history classes from Lecturer William Gaspard de Coligny, whose “notable erudition of the events after the discovery [of the Americas] and during Spanish colonization” shone through in the lectures.

And while Rousseau devoted significant time to explaining the Sloyd method, he felt it did not emphasize the “qualities and culture of the teacher” enough.

Though the Cuban Summer School project rested upon educating Cuban teachers so that they could return to Cuba sufficiently Americanized, it also produced new interactions, briefly interrupting the typical white, male, Anglo-Saxon Protestant nature of Harvard’s campus.

“Harvard is metamorphosed,” the Boston Sunday Post wrote, “with the arrival of seven hundred smiling senoritas.” Indeed, female teachers experienced “the sanctum sanctorum of American young manhood” as students at a time when the school was “forbidden to womankind.”

Similarly, the Boston Herald commented with awe that the teachers had “all shades of complexion” among them. “Most of them would have been recognized at once as hailing from the tropics,” it added.

Cultural contact often took place at twice-weekly dances that the Catholic Societies of Boston put on in Hemenway Gymnasium, as well as at receptions alternately put on by individual professors and by Harvard itself.

These dances — and the ensuing press coverage — sexualized Cuban women. An article in the Boston Globe is representative: “As long as their money lasts the Cuban senoritas will be second to nobody in their hats and gowns and gloves,” it reported on July 14 about the previous night’s dance. “So attractive were they that quite a number of gray-bearded old men ventured to hazard their lives on the slippery floor for the sake of sharing in a Cuban danzón.”

But the same article also emphasized how, after the first few events, the Cubans and the Americans had taken the time to learn each others’ dances. “The result is that everybody has a far more social time than at the earlier receptions, and the affair is naturally much more helpful to the Cubans than when they felt themselves a people apart.”

After six weeks of instruction, Cubans left Boston on Aug. 16, 1900, a day with such a “violent” storm that “the gutters ran full to the curb, and areas of flagging in various parts of the yard [i.e., Harvard Yard] were flooded,” as the Boston Globe reported.

They did not leave the United States immediately: After departing from Boston, they visited Washington West Point, N.Y., New York and Philadelphia. These stops stemmed from Wood’s desire for the Cubans to see and absorb from observation.

In Washington, a “large crowd” gathered to send the teachers off to West Point. “The Cuban girls waved their handkerchiefs and kissed their hands laughingly,” the Boston Globe’s correspondent reported. “The señors, more excitable and demonstrative, gathered in groups on the platform and cheered and hurrahed until they were hoarse.”

After nearly two months away from their home country, the Cubans arrived in Havana on August 29.

A ‘Profound Gratitude,’ With Asterisks

After the Cubans left Cambridge, the Globe raised the question that would target the Cuban Summer School’s historical legacy: Did the Summer School actually do anything for the Cuban teachers — or the country? — given the short time period?

The Globe believed it had. Echoing language the Harvard organizers had used in their original fundraising notice, the editorial hoped that the Cuban teachers would take their experiences in the U.S. and move beyond their “antiquated schoolhouses, in which discipline is hardly known” back in Cuba towards “entirely new conceptions of human development.”

The Educational Review disagreed with the Globe. In its October 1900 issue, Roger Clapp argued that the Cubans simply did not have the capacity to learn anything while they attended the Summer School, calling the Cubans “nothing but grown-up children.” “This childishness was the most noticeable feature of the visitors’ character,” Clapp continued, “showing itself daily in a total failure to grasp the significance of what they were seeing.”

As they dispersed across the island back to their hometowns, the Cubans also began to draw conclusions about their experiences at the Summer School.

While Pablo Rousseau expressed his admiration of American pedagogical ideas, Guantánamo teacher Regino Boti confessed his skepticism about the whole project, a skepticism that grew stronger with time. Several months after the Summer School finished, he criticized his fellow teachers for falling prey to the Summer School’s Americanizing mission. His fellow teachers “disrespected Cuban tradition, Cuba’s men, and Cuba’s history, to live in a foreign tradition,” Boti charged.

Indeed, even though Harvard might have provided the setting for a deeply imperialist project, that project could not snuff out Cuban nationalism among the teachers. “We Cubans have a profound gratitude towards Americans” after the Summer School, Matanzas teacher José de Castro Palomino wrote in an autograph book, but he still remained cognizant about the ongoing military occupation. “It will be much better when our Cuba is independent,” he concluded.

Despite the teachers’ hopes, Wood had the last word on the project. In his final report after American troops’ departure from Cuba in 1902, Wood concluded that the educational reforms and the Cuban Summer School had left the school system in “most excellent running order” for the new Cuban government.

But, as Boti and Castro Palomino could have attested, it failed to do one crucial thing: It did not win the people.

—Staff writer Kendrick N. Foster can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kenning_f.