Agnes de Lima

Agnes de Lima was born in New Jersey to a conservative banking family that had emigrated from Curaçao. De Lima grew up in Larchmont, New York, and New York City, and graduated from Vassar College in 1908, majoring in English. During her Vassar years she participated in organizing to improve the working conditions and pay of college maids and, due to the liberal reformist thinking of the Progressive era she encountered in Vassar, she committed herself to activism in socialist, feminist, labor, education, and other reform movements. [1]

After Vassar, De Lima moved to New York City and worked as a writer for the Russell Sage Foundation and the Bureau of Municipal Research. She earned a master’s degree from the New York School of Social Work in 1912. In 1917 she became deeply involved in Mayor John Mitchel and Randolph Bourne’s movement for education reform. The program was dropped after Mitchel lost in the Republican primary in 1917. After Bourne died in 1918, De Lima took up his post as leading writer on education at the journal The New Republic. De Lima also contributed to The Nation, among other publications. Her articles were collected into a 1924 book, Our Enemy the Child. Hailed by many as a pioneering work on progressive education, the book promoted child-centered learning and education as a means to reform society.

Around the time she was at The New Republic, De Lima entered into a romantic relationship with Alvin Johnson, who would go on to become the first president of the New School for Social Research. While Johnson remained married to his wife, Edith, in the early 1920s he and De Lima conceived a daughter, Sigrid de Lima (1921-1999). Although his paternity was kept quiet, Johnson supported Sigrid and she remained close to the Johnson family. After earning an M.S. in Journalism at Columbia University, Sigrid joined Hiram Haydn’s very successful creative writing workshop at the New School and went on to publish several novels. She was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1953. According to Alvin Johnson’s private correspondence, De Lima remained Johnson’s confidant throughout the coming decades, with whom he shared private as well as school matters. [2]

De Lima continued working as a labor activist, writing on education for national journals and newspapers in the 1920s and 30s, while also collaborating on projects and writing publicity materials for progressive schools, including the Lincoln School and the Bank Street School. [3] She even ran a small Progressive school of her own briefly. [4] John Dewey, a leading figure in the field of progressive education and one of the inspirations for the New School for Social Research, wrote an enthusiastic introduction to De Lima’s fourth book, Little Red School House, published in 1942.

Married briefly in the 1920s, Agnes de Lima lived in Mexico in 1928 and Palo Alto, California, in the 1930s. By the time she arrived at the New School in 1940 to lead the Publicity Office, De Lima’s affair with Johnson was probably long since past. She devoted her expertise as writer and educator toward promoting the New School, and was particularly committed to broadcasting the institution’s mission to educate adults and non-traditional students. She was involved in sparking and contributing ideas for symposia and lecture series, arranging and promoting exhibitions and concerts, writing the weekly New School Bulletin, as well as conducting outreach to donors.

The material collected in the archives of The New School shows that the Publicity Office under De Lima’s directorship grew into an important contributor to the school’s success. It also became a repository for documenting New School history, and De Lima grew into the role of de facto New School historian. She continually advocated for an expanded staff so that she could write feature articles and a book about the history of the school that would “communicate something of the fire of enthusiasm, which is shared alike by all who work here.” [5] Unfortunately, the book was never written.

De Lima retired from the New School in 1960, in the midst of administrative upheavals and “changing of the guard.” She continued to live in Greenwich Village until her death in 1974.

For more in the New School Archives on Agnes de Lima, see the New School Publicity Office records, 1918-1993.


[1] Wallace, James M. “Agnes De Lima”.…”>Agnes De Lima (1887–1974). Accessed Dec 3, 2017.

[2] Rutkoff, Peter M., and William B. Scott. New School: a history of the New School for Social Research. New York: Free Press. 1986. p. 92.

[3] “ASSAIL CONDITIONS IN PASSAIC MILLS.” New York Times (1857-1922), Dec 16, 1920.…. Accessed Dec 3, 2017.

[4] Wallace, James M. “Agnes De Lima”.…”>Agnes De Lima (1887–1974). Accessed Dec 3, 2017.

[5] Agnes De Lima. The New School Story – A condensation and preliminary memorandum, undated, The New School Publicity Office records, NS.03.01.05, box 27, folder 2, The New School Archives and Special Collections, The New School, New York, New York.


Agnes de Lima, unknown photographer. Approximately 1936. Courtesy of Alison Greene.