Every day—both during and beyond Women’s History Month—let’s consider our women’s lives. This article will take you on a journey of New York City’s only freshwater river to the places where many diverse notables have worked. Sometimes they are sites where national figures have been kept in sacred memory. This pantheon of Great Americans can enrich our lives today if we have the courage to hear their voices.
Portraits like Diane Sargent’s (shown below text) will illustrate the lands coursed by the Bronx River (map at left courtesy Bronx River Alliance) in New York City as a network of beauty and conscience.
Sargent is known as a force for good at the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality in the 90s and early 2000s. She served as project director of the Bronx Greenway Plan (1993) consolidating ambitious goals for the expansion of the Bronx’s many large criss-crossing linear parks. This plan represents three years of collaboration with borough-wide community boards. It set standards for many subsequent improvements. Diane owns a real estate consulting business in the Kingsbridge district, is a history buff and environmental justice pioneer. She says, “You can get a lot done if you don’t need to get credit…that’s the kind of person I am…I’m a doer.”
The BAAHP is dedicated to uncovering the cultural, political, economic, and religious histories of the more than 500,000 people of African descent in the Bronx. The BAAHP encourages, promotes, and builds partnerships between Fordham University, the Bronx County Historical Society, and diverse African-descended community leaders, citizens, organizations, and elected officials from around the city and especially in the Bronx.
MOUNT VERNON has been home to many prominent citizens of New York State including Phylicia Rashad (actress), Adam Clayton Powell (statesman), Ossie Davis (socially conscious actor), Ruby Dee (socially conscious actress), Robin Givens (actress), Denzel Washington (actor), Sidney Poitier (actor) and New York State Senator Ruth Hassel Thompson. Ms. Thompson follows in the tradition of her predecessor William White Niles in consistently supporting the Bronx Zoo’s free public programs. This riverside Westchester County’s heritage includes Malcom X’s wife and children who moved there after his martyrdom. Dr. Betty Shabazz moved her girls from Queens to a leafy private home where they played outside regularly and were expected to do yard work. Ilyasah Shabazz (born 1962) is the third daughter. She has published a coming of age tale entitled Growing Up X. Ilyasah was once Director of Public Relations for the City of Mount Vernon and has been an executive of CUNY’s Black Male Initiative. Mount Vernon is a great place to study the last century of conditions for the African-American middle class in America as written about in books like Black on the Block.
WOODLAWN CEMETERY offers us dozens of African-American twentieth century icons including an international businesswoman, an industrialist, one who lived through Victorian-era America, an international performing artist, and a key patron of the Harlem Renaissance, among others!
Bricktop was a Harlem Renaissance patron like A’Lelia Walker (daughter to America’s first self-made woman millionaire Madam C.J. Walker). They both helped finance Harlem Renaissance writers, plays, singers, and visual artists. She was a legendary singer and nightclub owner known for entertaining the rich, famous and talented in her Paris, Rome and Mexico City jazz clubs. Cole Porter wrote “Miss Otis Regrets” especially for her. Noel Coward, the Duke of Windsor, Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Baker and Duke Ellington were among her patrons. Did you see her homage scene in Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris?
Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) Butternut section
Through her hair and cosmetics business, Ms. Walker amassed the largest self-made fortune of any American woman of any race in her day. She began selling her products door-to-door, eventually establishing a major corporation in Indianapolis, and moving to New York where she built her beautiful Irvington estate, “Villa Lewaro.” Madam Walker was generous to many charities, donating funds to preserve the Frederick Douglass home as a museum, funding scholarships at the Tuskegee Institute and supporting the NAACP.
Alina C. Martin (?-1882) is buried in the di Zerega family plot near the Webster Avenue gate to Woodlawn Cemetery. Martin may have worked the east Bronx DiZerega estate (built after emancipation in New York State) in what is now Ferry Point Park. Many Caribbean and native-born domestic trades professionals worked the homes and gardens of early industrialists before mass transit transformed places like Hunt’s Point and Throggs Neck into densely settled neighborhoods.
Florence Mills (1895-1927) Arbutus section
Known as the “Queen of Happiness”, she was among the 1920’s most popular entertainers. Mills was a singer, dancer, and vaudevillian who starred in several productions in New York and London. Duke Ellington wrote “Black Beauty” as a tribute to Mills. Six carloads of flowers were brought to her grave; Ethel Waters was an honorary pall bearer and James Weldon Johnson attended the service. Over 10,000 people paid tribute to her at the funeral chapel and when she was laid to rest a plane flew over Woodlawn dropping rose petals on her grave.
A’Lelia Walker Robinson (1885-1931) Butternut section
The only daughter of Madam C.J. Walker, A’Lelia used her inherited wealth to promote art and culture during the Harlem Renaissance. Among A’Lelia Robinson’s circle of friends were Countee Cullen, Carl Van Vechten, and Langston Hughes who is reported to have thought that the renaissance died with her.
WAKEFIELD and WILLIAMSBRIDGE are important neighborhoods in all of the Bronx for many reasons. Here, you will find some of the very few public buildings and a park named for African-Americans including a Willie Bowman (Civic leader) school, Albert Tuitt, Sr. (publisher of the Bronx’s last Black newspaper) school, and Agnes Haywood Playground named for a major civic leader of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. She helped found the Williamsbridge branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People aka The NAACP and attended to wide-ranging social services needs through the local branch of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW).
Our green profile in this section of the Bronx River corridor is Jessie W. Collins, a Baychester resident and educator who grew up in Alabama. She settled in the Bronx by her 20s. She was a Bronx River Restoration Project, Inc. (BXRR) board member from 1983 – 2003 making many important decisions about budget and group direction among a board she respected highly. Ms. Collins is a former Edenwald Houses Community Center administrator who then taught Special Education at J. P. Sousa Junior High School in Baychester through summer 2011. Her son, now a civil servant, worked for a summer on the Bronx River in the 1980s. Many youth from Edenwald Houses have worked on the Bronx River over many years partly due to her collaboration with the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program. Collins remains dedicated to community development via parks. Today, she leads the Friends of Haffen Park near the New England Thruway in a part of Baychester often called the Valley. Teaching youth to identify tree and bird species is a focus of this group.
NORWOOD/ BEDFORD PARK/ FORDHAM
Sarah “Sadie” Delany’s (1989-1999) life graced the Broadway stage when her biography Having Our Say: the DeLany Sisters’ First 100 Years captured the American imagination in the 1990s. That book and play provides us with a rare published account of race in the NYC public school system. In chapter eighteen, we learn in hilarious detail, that Ms. Delany integrated the teaching staff at Theodore Roosevelt High School on Fordham Road during the Great Depression when the demographics of that neighborhood were very different. It reads, “I became the first colored school teacher in the New York City system to teach [home economics] at the high school level.” Her final Board of Education position was at Evander Childs High School–also a Bronx River watershed neighborhood–where she retired in 1960.
Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, was published in September of 1993, and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for over six months.
NEW YORK BOTANICAL GARDEN
Therese Lemelle is the former Art Director (1997-2000) at NYBG. She wrote the graphic standards for NYBG publications and branding including grounds signage. She believs in sourcing materials and professional services locally. To that end, she redirected large printing contracts to a Morris Park (Bronx) vendor among many initiatives while saving the institution money. Among her many projects in print from that period are illustrated color books including The Conifer Arboretum and A Visit to the Garden. This adoptive Bronxite has taught graphic design at a mid-Manhattan college among her many distinguished projects. Originally from Westchester, Therese holds a BA in interior design and Masters in visual communication. She continues to work in the Bronx, having had a distinguished career including work at the Hostos Art Gallery and with the Bronx Council on the Arts.
Jessye Norman‘s (1945 – ) NYBG projects are summarized in “Were Pollen and Allergies a Problem in Eden, Too?” by Christopher Mason in the pages of the New York Times. Mason wrote, “Ms. Norman, one of the world’s best known sopranos…[is] a trustee of the garden…[and a] Phalaenopsis…known as the Jessye Norman orchid.” The story continues “Referring to the concert that Ms. Norman has agreed to give at Avery Fisher Hall a year from now to benefit the New York Botanical Garden, [Gregory Long, garden president] said that her contributions as a board member are highly prized. ‘When she’s not traveling, she attends board meetings, and we don’t find her to be diva-like in the least…She understands the value of her celebrity to us as an institution, and she’s very generous with it. There’s no ego about it. The truth is that no one is more congenial or ready to capitalize on their acclaim in the community than Mrs. Astor and Jessye Norman.'” NYBG’s Winter 2011 newsletter listeded Ms. Norman among the Distinguished Counsellors to the Board.
Karen Young-Washington, is a co-founder of the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners (BUGs), and active on the boards of Just Food, the NYC Community Garden Coalition, and the New York Botanical Garden. Sister Washington has lived in the Bronx since 1985 and saw Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer’s legacy project Bronx Green-Up (BGU) begin. BGU helped her establish the Garden of Happiness (with forty 6′ X 8′ plots) in 1989 on her home block as one of its first efforts. She also partners with BGU on BX Community Board 6′s community multi-cultural gardener’s association La Familia Verde Garden Coalition. The Coalition is associated with a health fair, fire safety instruction, a food pantry, and a Cornell Extension program to teach young scientists about gardening and nutrition. This native New Yorker has been a physical therapist for over thirty-seven years. In Greening the Bronx (Bronx Times June 8, 2006; Ciafardini, Bobby), Washington declared “Bronx Green-Up turned me into an activist…my involvement has expanded my horizons.”
ALLERTON – BRONXDALE
Madrue Chavers-Wright (1916?-1989?) was the daughter of a major African-American Chicago journalist, industrialist, and banker who established a rural summer camp for children. She wrote a family biography called The Guarantee centered on her father, P.W. Chavers. He was an early advocate for protecting all of our bank deposits through what became the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. She made her career in social services and was a charter member of the National Association of Social Workers, active with the Social Workers for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, and a Representative to the United Nations. She was also a Corporate Member of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. This paragon of twentieth-century African-American mobility and civic virtue lived simply in the tan brick cooperative residential tower located at 2410 Barker Avenue between Allerton Avenue and Pelham Parkway. Her life forces all to consider the complexity of the whole Bronx African-American community because she was NOT unusual.
WEST FARMS/ FORDHAM/ TREMONT
Lorraine Vivian Hansberry (1930 – 1965) was an African-American playwright and political activist from Chicago for whom biographies have been written. She is memorialized in the Lorraine Hansberry Academy (originally IS 167, later IS 200, and finally PS 214 and Emolier Academy). This landmark commands one the busiest intersections anywhere in the Bronx at 1970 West Farms Road, Bronx NY 10460. She came from a proud family who demanded full access to American society; her father fought residential discrimination and two other relatives were charter members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
She lived in Greenwich Village (Manhattan) and Croton on Hudson nearby. Her husband attended a commemorative service for her shortly after the school opened very much as Paul Robeson visited a junior high school in Mott Haven (Bronx) named for him shortly after it opened. Distinguished graduates include Princess Jenkins (owner of the Brownstone boutique on 125th st. near 5th Ave.), Vronzella Ross (of Teacher’s Paradise store across the street), Raheim of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Richard Alomar (landscape architect). This school, originally appointed with wall to wall carpeting, was endowed with excellent music and art programs and an active wood shop during it’s first decade. An alumnus says it was very similar to today’s Calhoun School in Manhattan where they use a progressive approach to education that attends to the intellectual, emotional and social growth of its students as individuals and as members of a larger society.
CROTONA PARK EAST – BRONX RIVER
Genevieve Brooks (later married as Genevieve S. Brooks – Brown) is credited with helping to bring the central Bronx back from the ashes. She is standing to the far right in the picture below wearing black in front of a Charlotte Gardens home. Together with an openly gay African-American owner of several Crotona Park East buildings named Eae J. Mitchell, and others, she formed MBD Community Housing Corporation (originally Mid-Bronx Desperadoes) before taking office as the Bronx’s first female Deputy Borough President in 1990.
While MBD operates several apartment buildings and has initiated new public parks, and more, their signature project is the Charlotte Gardens housing development. Charlotte Gardens boasts several blocks of 1.5 – 2 story private houses bordering Crotona Park where mass media recorded urban decay surrounding President Carter’s 1977 visit. Ms. Brooks helped found Saebury Child Care which is still going strong, however she began her housing activism at the building where she lived around 1960, 1335 Seabury Place on Boston Road.
Her community development work is written about in books like South Bronx Rising.
The Chiffons (Doo Wop singers) were one of the top girl groups of the early 1960s. With their trademark tight harmonies, high-stepping confidence and the hit machine of Goffin and King writing songs such as “One Fine Day,” the Chiffons made music that helped define their era. These ladies began singing together at James Monroe High School in 1960 and lived in the Bronx River Houses. See their Wikipedia bio for more information!
LONGWOOD/ HUNT’S POINT/ SOUNDVIEW
We humans are intrinsic to nature though modern culture creates undue separations. Locally-focused progressive groups like Mothers on the Move (MOMs) help moderate that distance.
MOMs member, Rita Veras, works to transform public school inequalities and other social injustices by organizing within a democratic model. She says, when the organization found out that members’ children were not doing well, the organization began to ask parents what they could do to make change.
Today, corrupt Dept. of Education administrators from an earlier period of protracted unaccountability are gone. New leadership administers local schools. There’s better commitment to distributing resources more equitably. Reading and math scores have risen.
Decent housing, traffic safety and environmental justice campaigns have led to other changes in the neighborhood such as renovated buildings, several redeveloped and new parks, and safer streets. These changes were the result of organizing by MOM – a determined group of parents and community residents who refused to let their community’s children be victims of neglect.
Celia Cruz (1926-2003) The “Queen of Salsa” from Cuba, once lived at 786 Prospect Avenue above Casa Amadeo, a Latin music store that has retained a sense of heritage since that neighborhood was a crucible of Afro-Caribbean music. For over fifty years, she performed with highly celebrated bands. Her most enduring performances were with “El Maestro,” the legendary Tito Puente. This Grammy winning artist was known for her flashy stage costumes, colorful wigs and her signature cry, “Azucaar!” Proud of her African heritage, a large Coptic cross adorns her tomb at Woodlawn Cemetery.
Who’s up for good food? Tanya Fields, 33 years old, is bringing the South Bronx Mobile Market to her community in glorious yummy color! Her forty foot blue bus covered in fun-loving plant paintings sells fresh locally harvested veggies to points in the southeast Bronx. The New York Times chronicled this venture of her company, the Blk Projek, in its first several weeks of operation, however Tanya’s not new on the scene. She wrote about earlier efforts to establish an urban farm in the Longwood neighborhood in The Next Eco Warriors: 22 Young Men and Women Who are Saving the Planet published in 2011. Yes, she was eventually granted land for her dream in 2013 very near the Simpson Street station of the numbers 2 and 5 trains…urban farmers are invited to join her!
What’s it all about? The Blk Projek seeks to create economic opportunities that address food justice, environmental justice and public and mental health needs. This empowers under-served women of color by creating businesses in the forms of small food enterprises, urban agriculture, political education, community beautification and holistic health programs. By creating wealth and equal access to these enriching experiences, they strengthen and empower society as a whole.
You can see there’s a lot going on down by the riverside…and we only scratched the surface! The poster immediately below was prepared for a 2013 event at the Langston Hughes Library in Corona Queens where this blog’s focus was first presented to the public in greater details. Thanks for visiting.