Category Archives: New York Black Literature

New Stories of Exceptional Women: the Bronx River as oracle

Bronx River Map courtesy Bronx River AllianceEvery 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.”

  Madam C.J. Walker

Welcome back to Bronx River Sankofa!  We were born from The BAAHP (Bronx African-American History Project).

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 XIlyasah 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 (a businesswoman)“Bricktop” (Ada Duconge) (1895-1984) Zinnia section

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).

Jessie Collins, BXRR Board MemberOur 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

Having Our Say bookSarah “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 Washington, BUGs

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

At Home in Utopia documentary

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). 

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry

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.

 Genevieve Brooks

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!

 Cerita Parker (MOMS)

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.

 Tanya Fields - The Blk Projek

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.

Exceptional Women poster

 

Diane Sargent helped assemble the BX Greenway Plan. Photo taken 2013.
Diane Sargent helped write the Bronx Greenway Plan. Photo taken 2013.
Bronx Greenway Plan
Bronx Greenway Plan of 1993

Bronx Greenway Plan

Advertisements

Plants and People, remembering the Bronx River’s African-American Heritage

All known records for Bronx walking tour attendance were shattered on March 12, 2011.  Over one-hundred and ten people joined the first tour to outline eras of importance in the history of African-Americans along the Bronx River.  From Soundview north to the Westchester border, many people of African descent have called these landscapes home.  Kicking off at historic Boston Road in the Allerton neighborhood and concluding where the famous New York Draft Riots blew up far from Manhattan, walkers made their own soundtrack.  What sound?  Old time instrument sounds! 

          Plant materials turned instruments carried the beat.  Let’s get in tune with those processed vegetables simple and grand.  Tambourines’ wooden frames and hollow-gourded maracas blended with cracking acorns beneath so many feet along the way.  This place-based tour and related research are known as Bronx River Sankofa*.  Sankofa includes many stories of people’s plant life: ones harnessed to make necessities, medicines, and more.  We will explore and imagine what these plants may have meant beyond pure economics, and how we came to conserve them.

          This blog you are reading is a remembrance.  It will feature both community sketches and personal profiles…as they unfolded in time.  Hear the sounds of times past by clicking on the period headings (i.e. Colonial New York; Revolution, Emancipation, and Civil War, etc.) for each section.  This essay is a combination of Bronx County Historical Society published works and a decade of independent research by a Bronx African-American History Project Community Researcher.      

 Lenape Indian home

1613-1783 Colonial New York

African-Americans have helped shape the society we now call the Bronx since 1670 when the first of them arrived as involuntary laborers from the island of Barbados to work the 1,920 acre Manor of Morrisania under sugar merchants Lewis Morris and family, who brought them.  To imagine that homestead, visit the Valentine-Varian House in Norwood.  That two and a half story Georgian-styled farmhouse with characteristic symmetrical design was established in 1758.  The original owner’s (Isaac Valentine) land extended east to the Bronx River just like the Morris holdings.  Valentine was a blacksmith.  Furnaces were dependent on large quantities of wood to support the fires that melted metal for horse shoes, tools, cooking implements, carriage axles, etc..   According to Prof. Lloyd Ultan, the eight slaves he held were far fewer in number than the Morris family held.  Farming was important at both sites.  Crops of the period included beans, wheat, corn, tobacco, rye, barley, apples, and pears.  In this pre-industrial period, most materials used for all purposes were simple.  Even the component parts of a common boat could be discerned largely by sight and simple inspection.  Here’s another instance in which locally harvested trees were important.  Native pine, hickory and oak species were plentiful.  Some enslaved Africans were boatmen, navigating sloops filled with produce and dry goods up and down the Hudson River.  They worked sawmills and gristmills beginning at today’s 182nd Street.  They cut lumber into logs and ground rye into flour and corn into meal.  There, large grinding stones were powered by the Bronx River.  In an age of simple transport and semi-locally-oriented economies, these early industries were crucial to the lives of all settlers.  The mills of West Farms are one reason it became an early population center amid virgin forests and wetlands elsewhere in what would become the Bronx.  Do you know the Bronx Zoo (Wildlife Conservation Society) on the Bronx River Parkway at Fordham Road?  These 265 acres include much of the former slave-estate of James DeLancey and extended family.  One indicator of the centrality of bound labor to that early economic system comes to us in a run-away notice published by John P. Delancey in the 1813 pages of the West-Chester Patriot (Source: Annotated Primary Source Documents by Anthony C. Greene).   

Natural wealth

1784-1865 Revolution, Emancipation and Civil War

Isaac Varian was the second owner of what we enjoy today as the old stone Museum of Bronx History at 3266 Bainbridge Ave, Bronx, NY 10467.  Holding three involuntary African laborers, he re-established this vast holding, stretching north to Yonkers, as a source of meat for markets along the original Boston Road route, and possibly Manhattan.  Varian was a butcher.  Some portion of the livestock feed—including the crops mentioned earlier—would have been produced on site.  Natural springs and the Bronx River itself would have supplied water. 

Historic Black New York

1866-1916 Raising the Roof: establishing independent churches

A quantity of fireplace timber would have heated the Bronx’s first known independent African-American church during the Victorian era.  Later, carpentry adapted early homes to three more Black churches we can visit today!  Woodlawn Cemetery’s 1882 burial of Alina C. Martin in the DiZerega plot provides a great opportunity to consider Centreville African Methodist Episcopal Church, probably established in the 1850s, which appears on maps by 1868.  That A.M.E. church was sited to the NE of today’s Parkchester development at a provincial commercial center convenient to a good number of African-American service professionals (coach-drivers, horse-tenders, butlers, maids, others) working on the estates of the east Bronx then.  It was a time when newly established commuter trains, ferries, and private ships made many waterfront Bronx communities convenient and desirable to Manhattan’s executive classes on par with Oyster Bay, Long Island.  Martin may have worked the DiZerega estate, Island Hall, in what became Ferry Point Park in the twentieth century.

           The “three more black churches” cited are now over one-hundred years old including: St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Butler Memorial Church, and Trinity Baptist Church.

Old school learning

1917-1938 War, Renaissance, and Depression

This too was a heyday of carpentry as ambitious African-Americans began to move to the central Bronx from Harlem, the American south and the Caribbean.  Artist Jacob Lawrence dramatized this period in his Great Migration series.  A privileged minority bought existing wood-frame houses where they exhibited their class identity and aspirations. Between 1920 and 1921, they landmarked their arrival when St. David’s Episcopal Church (founded 1895) erected a building for those too dark for Harlem’s elite St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.  This Mediterranean-derived brick and timber one-level house of worship was designed by New York State’s first registered Black architect Vertner Tandy.  Wooden beams both acquired and custom-built came to hold up community pride as much as weight.   

Carver bust at the Hall of Fame

1939-1965 Getting organized, expanding opportunity

This was the heyday of domestic horticulture for all social classes.  In this period, municipal housing projects had their own tree care crew and larger maintenance staffs.  An expanding middle class of African descendant New Yorkers from various points in the diaspora bought large numbers of private houses in the north and east Bronx and Mount Vernon.  Lawns were neat and flowers were abundant.

1980 poster @ W. Farms Rapids Park

1966-1985 Movement Years

Afro-Caribbean music—largely played with the kinds of instruments that opened this article—was preserved when Casa Amadeo was established in 1969.  Mike Amadeo, music writer and guitar player bought and renamed this existing Latin music shop where one can still find the best of the old and new.  Standing outside after-hours, you can often hear live sessions in the same building once occupied by Tito Puente and Celia Cruz. 

          Earth Day was established in 1970.  Burgeoning eco-awareness was highly visible in a wide array of new or expanded permanent initiatives from the Bronx Council on Environmental Quality to Pelham Bay Park.  Many groups began to focus on restoring the Bronx River.  In 1974, the Bronx River Restoration Project (BXRR) was established by Ruth Anderberg.  BXRR was as committed to documenting and stewarding the plants along the banks as the water flowing between them.  Fred Singleton, Project Dir. assembled summer youth employment program members and Boy Scouts to rehabilitate an original Bronx River Parkway path from 1925.  Their riverside work between Gun Hill Road & Allerton Avenue was captured in a 1983 (August 18 Metro section) NY Daily News article entitled “60 Bronx youths are on right path.”

Historic Charlotte Gardens

1986-1997 Civic Renewal

Let’s talk science and ornamental horticulture!  Jamaican-born Vietnam War veteran Keith Lloyd was the founding curator of the orchid collection at New York Botanical Garden (N.Y.B.G.). He vested four and a half years in the American Air Force, seventeen at Lenox Hill Hospital as a medical technician and twenty years at N.Y.B.G. including studies at its School of Horticulture through 2000.

           Keith’s been a community gardener on the Upper East side in the 90s and loves poetry and literature which he often recited as he worked.  Brother Keith (he prefers being addressed less formally) was aided in his efforts by African-American soprano opera singer Jessye Norman (NYBG distinguished adviser) who donated several orchid specimens and even gave a fundraiser concert for the Garden in1998 at Lincoln Center. Keith’s legacy is large. Today, his work and the projects he initiated helps N.Y.B.G. raise large sum$.  The orchid cases at the Library Building rotunda around which numerous earned income activities are held and a second live display within the Conservatory were begun during his tenure.  Orchids (Orchidacea) are the largest family of flowering plants, with approximately 30,000 species found on every continent except Antarctica. Orchids come in many different sizes, shapes and colors. The Sarah Davis Smith Orchid Collection he cultivated remains vast, featuring representative examples of the orchid flora of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Americas.

Dr. Kobe Abdul-Salim, is an ivy league-trained botanist (graduated circa 2003) who taught a few classes at N.Y.B.G..  A field botanist, part of his research is concerned with associations between plant communities in Africa and South America including St. John’s Wort and Symphomia.  Dr. Abdul-Salim taught classes in the continuing education dept., roughly, between 2004 and 2011.  He is from Harlem and also briefly taught at a mid-western university.

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 (transferred to Parks in 1998) on her home block as one of its first efforts.  She also partners with BGU on BX Community Board 6’s community multi-cultural—her neighborhood is increasingly Latino/a—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.” 

Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference

1998-Present  Fast Changes: steps forward and back

The foods of an exploding immigrant population from continental Africa is bringing the Bronx new spices sold in specialty grocers and restaurants run by these New Yorkers.  Meanwhile, neo-conservative policy at the national and state level reveals its truths in greater dependence on food stamps for more locals. 

          The career of Charles Vasser and the Butterfly Project are emblematic of the Bronx since 1998.  Chuck is the former Director of Community Affairs (promoted from Human Resources Director) at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo.  He was an Executive Committee member and Vice-Chairman to the Bronx River Working Group and a charter board member to the Bronx River Alliance whose articles of Incorporation he signed.

          Chuck worked at the Zoo for twenty years.  He started his career at the South Bronx Development Organization near his native Morrisania.  Growing up, he often visited Crotona Park where he grew vegetables in the community garden which still exists there.  Vasser was a tenant organizer in the 1970s and 1980s and has coached basketball for decades.  This Bronx Community College alumnus was instrumental in founding the Butterfly Project with a student researcher at Fordham University and many others.  The project has seen many plantings of butterfly friendly plants and habitats in community gardens throughout the Bronx as well as a substantial and extensive indoor and outdoor Butterfly exhibit at the zoo (rebuilt in 2004).  Vasser’s impact on regional pollinator-friendly gardening exceeds beyond the Bronx thanks to his leadership role in the Butterfly Project Pollinator Curriculum Guide, published by the Open Space.  

          Chuck lives in the Soundview neighborhood where he raised his daughter and son.  Read his Community Green blog to step into his wonderful green world. 

          This essay was inspired by the Zulu Nation’s fortieth anniversary (1973-2013).  Its founder Afrika Bambaataa developed and continues to promote a theory of Hip Hop in which the fifth of five elements is knowledge.  Knowledge, says Bambaataa, is as important as the better known Bboying, MCing, Graffit, and DJing.

*The word Sankofa comes from the Akan language of Ghana that translates in English to “go back and get it.”  Many groups of African descent use this word and symbol to describe the journey of drawing strength and wisdom from the past in order to move forward.

James Baldwin, dedicated Citizen and Novelist/Playwright/Cultural Critic provides the guiding philosophy of Bronx River Sankofa:
“History does not refer merely or even principally to the past.
On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, that we are unconsciously controlled by it,
and that history is literally present in everything we do.”

University Heights: African-American and Women’s History in Art!

Great women, American Indians, African-Americans, and Latinos/as—from the Bronx to the national stage—are highlighted in P.S.15’s Hall of Fame Gates.  Taking a tour of the University Heights neighborhood by Fordham Road, bordered to the west by the Harlem River, draws you here.  You’ll find two monumental bronze gates commissioned in the early 1990s by our city’s Percent for Art program.  They were designed by retired Kent State University art professor Brinsley Tyrell and feature thirty-six clearly identified individuals!

Hall of Fame Gate @ PS15

Featuring 18 women (two with Bronx stories), 11 African-Americans (two with Bronx connections), 7 Latinos, 1 Asian-American and 2 American Indians, this modern public art piece can be viewed by anyone from the sidewalk 24/7!  Click on the hyperlinks by each person listed further in this article to learn their bios.  The Hall of Fame Gates was created with a view to updating the concept of the better known and much older Hall of Fame for Great Americans across the street at Bronx Community College (originally New York University Uptown).  Here you will find closer parity between female and male figures, a large number of African-Americans and Latinos and substantial space given to American Indians including Jim Thorpe, Chief Little Turtle and many un-named souls climbing vertical strands on the east side of the street.  Many 20th century icons like choreographer  Martha Graham await your attention.  Brinsley Tyrel was very sensitive to the fact that his pair of gates were part of a school.  He depicts many of the famous and/or noteworthy little known Americans (see them listed below) as they looked in childhood or young adulthood.  That perspective makes the whole composition very accessible and fun!

Chief Little Turtle

This masterpiece consists of two tall gates on opposite sides of Andrews Avenue south of West 183rd Street.  Its four panels feature:

West side of the street/ left gate panel

Margaret Sanger, Nurse/ sex education activist

Gloria Estefan, Singer/ businesswoman

I.M. Pei, Architect

Herman Badillo, Politician

Rachel Carson, Scientist/ author

Colin Powell, Statesman

Tito Puente, Musician/ entrepreneur

Harriett Tubman, Abolition movement leader

Albert Einstein, Scientist/ humanitarian

Florence Sabin, Medical doctor/ pioneer for women in science

 Marian Anderson

West side of the street/ right gate panel

Antonio Novello, Past Surgeon General of the United States

Pearl Buck, Writer/ novelist

Ralph Nader, American progressive

Louise Nevelson, Artist

Jesse Owens, Track and field great

Nate Archibald, Basketball legend

Cesar Chavez, Labor leader/ catholic activist

Chief Little Turtle (first detail photo above), Indigenous leader

Marian Anderson (second detail photo above), Classical singer

Thurgood Marshall, Supreme Court Justice

Mary Bethune, Educator/ civil rights leader

  Roberto Clemente

 East side of the street/ left gate panel

Jim Thorpe, Athlete (Native American)

Eleanor Roosevelt, Humanist

Edward R. Murrow, Journalist/ media critic

Ella Fitzgerald, Singer/ American popular music icon

Faith Ringgold, Fine artist/ folk artist

Amelia Earhart, Aviator/ progenitor of women’s rights

Detail of west gate

East side of the street/ right gate panel

Martin Luther King, Jr., Statesman/ author

John F. Kennedy, Politician

Antonia Pantoja (feature photo at the top), Puerto Rican social worker and visionary

Roberto Clemente (third detail photo above), Baseball great/ humanitarian

Guion S. Bluford, Astronaut (African-American)

Sally K. Ride, First American woman in space

Helen Keller, Blind education pioneer

Jim Henson, Media producer/ children’s education advocate

This information was compiled by Morgan Powell in 2005 and 2006 (photos taken in 2014) including mail and phone interviews with sculptor Brinsley Tyrell (who preferred the original Hall of Fame busts before those older sculptures were polished under CUNY management).  Tyrell purposely left his gates unpolished.  He intended his artworks to oxidize green in the elements to make them easier to maintain.  He related that the process of establishing who would be in the this new Hall of Fame (gates) came out of many meetings with the local community board and through write-in suggestions from others in the Bronx.

E. Gate at P.S. 15
P.S. 15 Hall of Fame Gate on the east side of Andrews Avenue

The Mountaintop: What Bronx Community College’s Campus Means

Did you know that Bronx Community College occupies one of the highest points in the whole Bronx?  Do you know how it got there?  2014 is the 40th anniversary of Bronx Community College’s (BCC) first full year at the campus we know today.  A distinguished African-American educator oversaw the move from an assortment of buildings headquartered at 184th Street and Morris Avenue, near Jerome Avenue, to the high and architecturally distinguished place it now occupies.  His name was Dr. James A. Colston! 

Dr. James A. Colston

Bronx River Sankofa believes it’s crucial to find connections among the many strands of Bronx African-American environmental history.  Historic preservation and place making are key to us.  1974 was a year of growth and change in society.  Examples connect the Bronx like a constellation:

BCC received public funds for a series of ten seminars on the Bronx River,

Bronx River Restoration Project, Inc., the first civic group since the 1920s to dedicate themselves to continuous river recreation and rehabilitation, began under the leadership of former Catholic missionary Ruth Anderberg (then recently retired from Fordham University),

Mid Bronx Desperadoes (now MBD Housing) who rebuilt much of the central Bronx began,

North West Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition began,

Hostos Community College students occupied a former financial services building at the Grand Concourse & 149th Street to demand CUNY acquire it to bring facilities closer to an equal level with other CUNY campuses elsewhere throughout the city…and they won, plus

Jose E. Serrano first ran for elective office in the NYS legislature when Evelina Antonetty refused popular wishes she fold her successful activism into political office!

Colston Hall plaque

Dr. Colston has been honored with the dedication of the westernmost Marcel Breuer-designed building long known as Colston Hall where major civic events often fill the space in the lower level cafeteria.  We’ll return to the architecture of this great American college campus in part two of this Bronx River Sankofa blog.  Now, let’s read Dr. Colston’s thoughts on the meaning of this beautiful campus (modeled much later below) from a time when it was newly acquired from New York University,

“The Commencement that will honor your graduation this year is significantly different from all previous such ceremonies in the college’s history.  It will be held outdoors in a beautiful, park-like campus setting to mark a new era at Bronx Community College.

BCC Bird's eye view

You have been fortunate to have experienced the excitement and thrill of moving to a “new” campus, and it is my sincerest wish that the uplifting experience you have had during this first year at the University Heights campus will provide the impetus to your post-BCC phase, be it at a four year college or in the world of work.  I hope you will come back to visit us and bring that “special” feeling you have as the first graduates of the Heights campus to a reinvigorated Alumni Association.

Of course, we hope to welcome you back not just as alumni but as subscribers to the life-long learning process.  Your degree does not close the book on benefits you can derive from BCC.  There are many programs and courses, both credit and non-credit, that can help you toward a better career and a better life.

All of us cherish fond memories of the “Old Building” [pictured below] and the mad dashes under the Jerome Avenue El to get to class on time.  In those widely separated facilities, we created an inner campus of “spirit.”  Even though we now have a real campus, we have all profited from the fortitude that enabled us to transcend our surroundings and achieve education and closeness.  You are special because you have experienced the best of both worlds.

Original BCC @ 184th St.

If there is any lesson to be drawn from your unique experience, it could be that a consciousness of one’s past is the only reference point for determining the future.  A life motivated in escaping the past, no matter how humble, will abort any real sense of purpose.  We release ourselves from the enslavement of escapism by recognizing the essential connection between past, present, and future.  [4/4/74]”

Sankofa symbol

Brooklyn Has an Answer: Reading and Writing About Place

Carver bust at the Hall of FameSeven years working in the County of Kings – most recently as a journalist – has solidified a conviction of mine.  Knowing the paths we’ve walked sharpens our perspective as we move forward.  This blog is about Brooklyn’s African-American journey-in-print.  It begins with a book review and concludes with my reflections as a writer, enriched by that history, and compelled to supply journalistic epilogues.

            A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn. By Craig Steven Wilder (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. xii plus 325 pp).

            Craig Wilder, native son of Brooklyn, frames three and a half centuries of Brooklyn history in a class-based analysis that demands to be read.  He writes on the freedom impulse that secures family, builds community, widens opportunity, and allows us—today—to look back on earlier times from the vantage point of long established local civic clubs, churches, and other institutions.  By naming the neighborhoods and historical periods in which barriers were broken, Wilder remaps local territory from Canarsie to Crown Heights in the most alive way.  He situates history’s famous Brooklyn names in the context of national movements and economic forces.  This is how Covenant with Color acts both as time machine, showing us who we were, as well as mirror to all America.  We come to see Brooklyn as a microcosm of the nation in his words.

            Place comes alive in these pages.  It’s like an index to Black America from Anglo-Dutch colonialism reaching just shy of the millennium (1636-1990).  Read for yourself: Abolitionism, African-American leisure activities, Black Reconstruction, Brooklyn Coordinating Committee on Defense Employment (1940s), Citizenship, Congress of Racial Equality, Cotton Industry, Credit unions, Father Divine, Frederick Douglass, Draft Riots (1863), Education, Emancipation, Fugitive Slave Law, William Lloyd Garrison, Great Depression, Greater New York Urban League, Housing, Subway, industry, Irish, Italians, Jim Crow, Labor strikes, Latinos, Liberia, March on Washington, NAACP, National Negro Business League, Native Americans, New Deal, Sugar, Trade organizations, Underground Railroad, United States Justice Department, Urbanization, Voting, Warehouses, West Indian Cricket Club, Women, World War II, YMCA, YWCA, and so much more!  I cannot review this biography-of-a-people in the conventional format with catchy quotes and eye-popping details because its greatest value comes in its totality.  Every line and chapter acts as a facet to a gem—to truly see it is to read it whole.  Wilder’s deep research, penetrating insights, and above-average story telling recommend Covenant more highly than I ever could.

                               The mid 2000s brought me to Brooklyn as the environmental education coordinator for a Bedford-Stuyvesant junior high school.  I wanted to honor my students and their families by becoming more familiar with local culture, landmarks and literature.  I bought myself several books and read about my adoptive landscape—I’m a life-long Bronx resident—during train rides.  More understanding came in meeting with parents and neighboring school workers.  I even walked every block within a half mile radius of my school and made a point of eating at local restaurants where I would have normally brown-bagged lunch.  This journey’s most current moments came as I wrote at Our Time Press for a five month contract.  I invite you to read my best efforts to capture who we are in 2014 with a view to who we’re becoming. 

            These are exciting times.  Like seeds beneath the snow, something is coming!  When Tomorrow Comes (published Jan. 9) profiles five locals who each master and model responses to the emerging global environmental crises across Brooklyn.  Stories like NASA at Medgar (Nov. 21) opened a lot of eyes.  To a person, everyone I spoke with post-publication was surprised that local multi-cultural students were engaged in top notch science projects with commercial implications.  We do that?  Yes, Outdoor Afro: a Nation of Environmentalists (Jan.16) had a similar effect as people learned of a vast community of African-American outdoor hobbyists from California to North Carolina…with a Brooklyn Meet-up chapter. 

            A Nov. 21 editorial Why We Need Outdoor Education More Than Ever was an alarm bell.  It says our times call for the enhancement and expansion of the kinds of supervised and thematic however informal multi-sensory education that can restore what high stakes testing often destroys.  Meanwhile, Every Garden a Library: Outdoor Education in Brooklyn (Nov. 21, was never digitized) shows how some are making this happen in the neighborhoods of Bushwick, Brownsville, and Bedford-Stuyvesant.  Pondering the urban garden play of middle-age and senior life at public housing developments, we visited Red Hook, Fort Greene, Canarsie, Ocean Hill, and other districts in The People’s Garden: a tour of NYCHA Gardens (Nov. 28).

            Finally, on-line versions of the following articles continue to entice the community to tour local treasures: a) Citywide African Burial Grounds Gain Recognition (Oct. 31), b) Biking Brooklyn, an interview with Velo City (Dec. 5), Fulton St. Sculpture Deserves Closer Look (Dec. 19), and Underground Railroad Sites in Brooklyn to See Now (Jan. 23).  Truly, Brooklyn’s literature has an answer for every interest in urbanism and American history!