By Dr Mark Naison
Yesterday, Paul Cannon made the big announcement; after two decades leading a great elementary school in the same Bronx neighborhood he grew up in- PS 140 in Morrisania- he was retiring from the NYC Department of Education.
My emotions about this announcement are mixed. On the one hand, I am happy that Mr Cannon will be able to escape the stress and sleepless nights that are the Principal’s lot during this Pandemic.
On the other hand, I am sad that a new generation of young people will lack the guidance of a person who loved his school, loved his students, loved the Bronx and loved life.
I first met Paul Cannon during the heroic early days of the Bronx African American History Project when we were doing 3 oral history interviews a week, many of them documenting the rise of a Black community in the Bronx neighborhood of Morrisania.
Someone who knew Paul set the interview up, and it was a memorable experience. An older gentleman who joined Paul for the interview shared some memorable stories about life in the legendary Blue Morrocco, one of Morrisania’s leading music clubs in the 50’s and 60’s; Paul himself regaled us with stories about growing up on Fulton Avenue and having to run home from Columbus High School whenever the Italian kids at that school got in a fight with a Black kid; but thing that impressed me during the interview was Paul describing how he organized Sunday basketball games for neighborhood fathers at PS 140 so they would be more involved with their children’s education.
Any principal who was in their school 7 days a week had my attention, and I arranged to visit PS 140 on a school day and play in one of the Sunday basketball game
Thus began a 15 year relationship between PS 140 and the Bronx African American History Project that has included numerous visits by its students to Fordham, the creation of an “Old School Museum” in the school honoring the legacy of Historic Morrisania, “School Yard Jams” where students dressed up and performed the music of neighborhood artists like the Chantels, Eddie Palmieri and Grandmaster Flash- one of which took place at the 2008 Convention of the Organization of American Historians- and tours of the school which I organized for visitors ranging from a member of the NY State Board of Regents, to education scholar Pedro Noguera, to social workers and musicians from Germany.
What stands out most to me from all these visits and events is Paul Cannon’s love for his students, his determination to do everything possible to make his school a welcoming place, from having beautiful murals all over the building, to having couches in the school lobby for neighborhood grandparents, and his genius in making Bronx pride and Morrisania pride an integral part of his school culture! You could not enter PS 140 without feeling the joy with which Mr Cannon approached his job, even at a time when schools in the Bronx were being threatened with closure and deluged with tests.
Under those pressures, many schools in the Bronx closed down their community history programs and did nothing but test prep. Not Mr Cannon. Even in the height of the school closing mania under Michael Bloomberg, at PS 140, community history was always front and center
Paul Cannon is a true hero of the Bronx-someone who took pride in its history, shared that pride, and used it to enhance the experience of thousands of young people growing up in the Borough.
He also turned his school into a center for neighborhood renewal efforts, working with the Bronx Old Timers group to organize summer programs for local youth and have streets and schoolyards land marked to honor neighborhood heroes.
I always tell my students that though many people associate the Bronx with crime and decay, its revival in the face of multiple catastrophes make it a great American success story.
Paul Cannon is one of the individuals who spearheaded that revival.
Working with him, and building a friendship with him, has been one of the great joys of my life.