When We Lived in Harlem

Nearly a half century ago when we were graduate students at Columbia my wife and I moved into a housing project in West Harlem We had been invited to assist as part of a small program to help desegregate Grant Houses. We qualified financially for the program as typically impecunious grad students, but the program was soon discontinued in the face of quite accurate protests that we had been allowed to jump ahead on a long waiting list. The experience, however, for us was invaluable and we were able to pay back a bit even while living in Apt. 14G in 430 W. 125th St.

Our initial experience on moving in was almost comic. With the exception of one elderly women, all residents in this 21 story building were either African American or Latino/a. Thus, we were greeted with great suspicion by our neighbors. Children would literally flee if they found us in the elevators. Adults generally greeted us with stony expressions on their faces. We must somehow be spies for the project administrators — possibly looking for an illegal man in an apartment? Families on welfare were still barred in those days from having an unemployed father and husband live in, if granted welfare support. After WW2 African American men who had moved up from the South to take war jobs in the area were routinely laid off to make room for the returning vets. And not much was available for minority men apart from pushing wagons around the garment district — if they could get those jobs. This grim fact is never reported as one of the primary reasons for the breakdown of minority families. Midnight busts were going on from NYC to Poughkeepsie where I started teaching in 1963.

However, after about six months both we and our neighbors began to get used to each other. A man in an elevator explained one day that he was off to New Jersey where he kept his boat for fishing. We discovered a phone number where we could report that both elevators had gone out on the building — Friday nights often with the project staff away until Monday — walking up 21 floors! One of the constant problems was druggies shooting up in the stairwells which made such walk ups a special experience. We complained and suggested that locks be installed on our unguarded entry doors with keys handed out to residents — it was done and the druggies disappeared. My wife represented us on the Democratic County Committee

The most significant breakthrough, however, came when we decided to get active on behalf of the Kennedy campaign in 1960. This led to a meeting with our building Democratic campaign captain, Lindsay Walcott, who invited us to join with him at the George Washington Carver Democratic club on 145th St. and Amsterdam Avenue. This happened to be the base of NYC’s most powerful politician at that time, J. Raymond Jones, the “Harlem Fox.” Ray had come to the states when the U.S. takeover of the Virgin Islands blocked his taking up the all Island scholarship that he had been awarded for higher education in Denmark. Instead he schlepped ice blocks up tenement stairs in Harlem. Ray was an incredible person — dedicated, as we discovered, to getting Harlem “off the plantation.” At that time, as so often happens, most of Harlem’s pols were sellouts for crumbs off the table. Ray set about bringing in honest men and so the now vaunted big four entered political office at Ray’s urging — Basil Patterson, David Dinkins, Charlie Rangel, Percy Sutton. The first time Charlie ran for office I had become Ray’s aide and could tell an amusing tale or two about Charlie’s horror at the way campaigns were run in those days.

But back in time to our arrival at Ray’s club. There was only one other non African American family there — the Seaveys who did money lending (ordinary credit was not available to Harlem residents then). We found ourselves facing the same suspicions that we had first met in the project. Why else could we be there than to make out somehow. People simply did not believe that we were committed Democrats and also much concerned with achieving civil rights for all. It really took about 2 full years for people to begin to trust us and Ray invited us to run for the board of the club. When we could not put down the necessary $25.00 deposit to do so, he covered it for us.

What became obvious was that Ray was the prime reformer not only of politics in Harlem but also of educational opportunity for all. He was working with Kenneth Clark, the noted CCNY psychologist who had done the doll studies indicating that African American little girls preferred white dolls which in turn influenced the Court in the Brown desegregation decision. It was quite ironic to have alleged reform pols from downtown approaching Ray with hopes of doing dirty deals while Ray was working behind the scenes with any and all — some of the decent labor leaders of those days and others — to fulfill the dreams that perhaps he had had to abandon when his scholarship was scrapped. I was sometimes his liaison here and there for some of these efforts — to the chancellor of the City University of New York which was under Ray’s stimulus to expand the number of its colleges throughout the city to make real educational opportunities (“open enrollment”) available to all able and willing to pursue them. Sadly free tuition would soon be scrapped as would the full reality of open admissions. But the starting point was with Ray who saw that we needed to open the doors to the children of working people of all backgrounds (thus our strong blue collar union support).  He had formed a union/minority alliance that worked!

This is hastily done with a busy day and week ahead. Perhaps it gives a bit of the flavor of things back then. We hated to leave Grant Houses where we had made a warm home, but were obliged to do so by my employers at Vassar who were not so warmly disposed towards our concerns. We have, however, maintained our ties with Harlem since (where my wife several months ago received awards from all our local pols from Charlie Rangel down for her stellar efforts in directing monies into the community from resistant NYC administrations. I enjoyed the happiest of careers teaching incredible students in CUNY whose consequent careers and contributions to society continue to amaze me. It all began at 430 W. 125th St., Apt. 14G.

And now we have a governor from the ‘hood.  Whee!

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent 212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]
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