My Truth: My Journey Toward Servant Leadership
Situated between Bedford and Franklin Avenues in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, our new home at 669 Park Place was a converted two-family home, including what I later learned was an illegal one-bedroom apartment on the top floor. Tenants, customary in those days, were necessary to help Ma to meet the expenses of our new home. But unlike my childhood home on Linwood Square, in Roxbury, MA, these tenants were not family members or friends, but total strangers, referred by a local realtor.
Transportation-wise, my new home had several distinct advantages We were steps away from the Franklin Avenue Shuttle which provided easy access to the IND’s “A” train, going directly into Manhattan. The IRT’s Franklin Avenue station at nearby Eastern Parkway, was just six blocks away, and the Lorimer Avenue bus line traversed Franklin Avenue.
Nearby my new home was Ebbets Field, home of the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers, who many Brooklynites lovingly called,”Dem Bums.” Taking the Franklin Avenue Shuttle toward Prospect Park, Ebbets Field was a quick two stops, or just a short 15-minute walk away.
The Dodgers had signed the legendary Jackie Robinson, to a Major League Baseball player contract in 1947 and the Dodgers and Jackie (Black people always call our heroes by their first names: Martin, Malcolm, etc.) enjoyed a passionate fan base throughout Black America. I was a part of that fan base – and happy that my Red Sox and the Dodgers were in different leagues.
Brooklyn’s fans were arguably more die-hard than those of my beloved Red Sox And it wasn’t just Jackie, who captured their fans. Two other Black players starred for the 1949 Dodgers, ace pitcher and good hitter Don Newcombe, and catcher, Roy Campanella,
Everyone seemed to be on a first-name basis with the team’s players, Duke (Snider), Pee Wee (Reese), Gil (Hodges), Billy (Cox), Carl (Furillo), Ralph (Branca) (see 1951 season) etc. Red Barber, always in his “cat bird’s” seat (radio broadcast booth – there was no television), steadily described the games with his deep Southern accent. The team’s rivalry with the hated New York Giants was comparable to the Red Sox/Yankee rivalry. Within the Black community, the question of a game’s outcome was almost always followed by, “How’d Jackie do?”
It didn’t take long for me to get caught up in Dodger mania. Ebbets Field was like a bandbox, much smaller than Fenway Park and you felt as if you could almost touch the players. Home runs over the high right field fence bounded onto the heavily travelled Bedford Avenue thoroughfare.
Tickets for Dodger games were almost always available on game day and I saw the team play several times. Once I saw them play against St. Louis Cardinals’ great Stan Musial, arguably baseball’s best hitter – after Ted Williams, of course.
I’m certain that it was my arrival in Brooklyn that spurred Dem Bums to a winning 1949 season. Sure. Jackie won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award. The Dodgers won the 1949 National League Championship, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals by one game. Sadly, we lost the World Championship to the Yankees in five games. “Wait until next year.” The excitement of that summer of 1949 was documented in David Halberstam’s book by that name.
IT’S A DIFFERENT WORLD
It didn’t take me long to realize the extent to which racial discrimination had been embedded into almost every facet of my hitherto sheltered life in Boston. Boston radio stations played no Black music whatsoever, while New York had three Black-oriented radio stations. “Symphony Sid,” a white disk jockey catered to the Black community and broadcast be-bop jazz all night long from a storefront on 125th Street in Harlem nearby the Apollo Theatre.
It was common to see Black salespeople in major department stores. I never a single one in Boston. Many of the subway conductors and bus drivers were Black. (And to think that in Boston Dad’s co-workers laughed at him when he simply mused about applying for such a position.) Black police officers were not uncommon – even outside the Black community.
One day, having heard so much about Times Square I decided to check it out on my own. My childhood trip with Don and Juke Shelton into downtown Boston paled in comparison to the complexity of this trip. I took the Franklin Avenue Shuttle, to the A train into Manhattan, transferred at the complex Broadway-Nassau station to the IRT to 42nd Street. Remember, the alphabet.
I was overwhelmed by the number of rushing people, loud noise, and speed of the trains. Everyone seemed to be in a rush to get somewhere else and annoyed when I asked questions. Upon reaching Times Square, I saw several tour bus guides and naively went to take one – until I realized it would cost money that I didn’t have. I meandered over to Radio City Music Hall, paid a hefty $1.25 and spent almost all day watching the double-feature movies, news, and, the (all white) choreographed Rockettes dancers – before returning home.
That unaccompanied trip to Times Square, seeing a plethora of Black public employees and the many Black players of the Brooklyn Dodgers – and listening to Black-oriented, radio stations — was my introduction to New York City. It was unlike anything I’d known and heightened my awareness of the extent of institutional racism in Boston.
Unbeknownst to me, the roots of my radicalization were sown that summer of 1949.
It was a whole new world. I was 16 years old.
FRENCHIE & THE DIPLOMATS
One of my first orders of business upon arriving in Brooklyn was to meet my new friend, Conrad Mauge known to all as “Frenchie. Eleanor, friends with Frenchie’s sister had encouraged us to become pen pals. We’d done so, had already exchanged several letters, and so we felt as if we already knew one another.
Frenchie was really welcoming. He and his friends lived on or around Carlton Avenue, between Atlantic Avenue and Cumberland Place. There was a dilapidated YMCA at the end of the block – for Black people. The white YMCA, on nearby downtown Ashland Place was cleaner, better equipped and in all respects superior to that Black Carlton Avenue YMCA. I was shocked and angered to realize that the YMCA maintained blatantly segregated facilities in Brooklyn and elsewhere in New York City.
Everyone had a street name. Red, Blue, Rat. I have no idea how these names came about. They just happened. I knew I was accepted by the group, when without fanfare, they started calling me, “Boston”.
Everyone looked up to Frenchie. He was the undisputed leader of the group, despite his youth. He was only fourteen-years-old, younger than the rest of us. He was very bright, unflappable, and listened to others before making any “suggestions.” He led, not by power, but persuasion.
Frenchie and his friends introduced me to stick ball and the Dodgers. It was an insular, deeply loyal group — in many respects like family. They were my friends.
But there was a dark side to Frenchie and the others that I found troubling and contrary to my value system. They liked to drink. I’d never before had a sip of booze. And, because I was bigger than most, I willingly became the designated booze-buyer. The legal drinking age was 18, no carding. I still couldn’t stand the stuff.
As the 4th of July approached, I told them of the fun of setting off fireworks in our Roxbury neighborhood. They countered by bragging about tying fireworks to a cat, lighting the fuse and laughing as the screaming animal jumped about. I was repulsed by this “fun,” but kept it to myself.
I saw a naked live woman for the first time in my life on a hot summer afternoon. While hanging out on Carlton Avenue with Frenchie and my new friends, our attention was drawn to two women loudly arguing at the entryway of a nearby house. Their arguing escalated, became physical as they punched, cursed and pulled at one another’s clothing; that led into tearing at one another’s clothing.
One woman literally ended up wearing nothing but her shoes and underpants. The victor angrily walked away, and sullenly returned to what was apparently her home. The defeated and now utterly humiliated other woman quickly gathered her clothing, barely covered her breasts, and walked away.
This so-called “cat fight” was nothing like those bare-breasted Grecian statues that I had gawked over at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. There was nothing sexual about the scene that unfolded before me. It was raw, uncontrolled violence. What was it about? I have no clue.
The guys thought the whole situation was absolutely hilarious. Not me. I’d never seen two adults engaged in any sort of physical altercation, much less two women and to see them tear one another’s clothing off was totally beyond my comprehension. This wasn’t sex. It was unrestrained violence. It wasn’t funny. It was frightening.
Despite the underage drinking, the July 4th animal cruelty, and the “humor” of the women’s “cat fight”, my bond with Frenchie, Blue, Rat, Red & company grew as the summer progressed. They unquestionably welcomed me into their fold. They accepted me as I was; they introduced me to the underbelly of a city I’d never known. By giving me a street name, “Boston,” I was fully, if informally, a part of their family. I was committed to my friends, the Diplomats.
I was becoming street-wise.
Loyalty works both ways. They’d welcomed me into their fold and thereby had earned my loyalty. We were like family. Didn’t I owe them my loyalty?
There was an informal family structure that we all bought into. Frenchie was the patriarch, the informal leader, not by power, but by his warmth, intellect, and persuasiveness. But like any effective leader, he consulted with others before making a “suggestion” about a course of action. His was a kind of benevolent dictatorship. He’d earned our respect.
Bedford-Stuyvesant, or “Bed-Sty,” was an overwhelmingly Black section of Brooklyn, doubtless because of the racist real estate practice of redlining. Its neighborhoods were controlled by violent youth fighting gangs. It was territorial and a tenuous peace was maintained by the understanding, “stay out of my turf, or else we’ll kick your butt.” Invasion of another gang’s turf was an insult and disrespectful. It required retaliation. The fights involved not fists, but sticks, clubs and homemade handguns. We called them “zip” guns.
Engaging in these gang fights – legally called “unlawful assembly” — could result in commitment to an upstate juvenile reform school. Gang fights were serious business. It was not unusual for kids to get seriously injured; occasionally killed. Gangs fights in Bed Sty were definitely not the romanticized stuff of the musical “West Side Story.”
What might have been a singular turning point of my life occurred on a hot Saturday afternoon in late August. Unbeknownst to me, earlier that day, Frenchie and the guys had decided to “Jap” a neighboring gang at 8:00 p.m. that evening. To “Jap” was a racist slur-word, stemming from the December 7, 1941 Japanese so-called “sneak” attack upon Pearl Harbor.
I was terrified to realize that I was about to be involved in a violent gang fight with its potential for serious injury. But these were my friends, my only friends that summer. A few weeks earlier, Frenchie and the gang had shared my excitement about my acceptance at “The Mecca,” Howard University. I would soon be leaving my new friends for the next chapter of my life. I had just turned 17 years old.
My loyalty to the group outweighed my fears and better judgement however, and with unspeakable apprehension, I agreed to meet them at the intersection of Carlton and Cumberland at 8 p.m. that evening.
There was a moment of silence and someone — I’m not sure who — said, “No, you’re not.” It was a statement. Suddenly the others joined in, agreeing. I remember Frenchie, my pen-pal, from my darkest days earlier that year, saying, “Stay home, Boston. You’re going to college; you’re going to be somebody!” And he meant it.
Here I was a shy, insecure kid from Boston, who had been embraced by kids who a future colleague would was dismissively characterize as “the dregs of society.”
Yet my friends, these so-called “dregs,” must have seen something in me. Something I didn’t see in myself. A bright future.
They didn’t need to check my loyalty box. Apparently, I’d already done so. To the contrary, they did the unthinkable in a street gang – then and now. First, they put my future interests ahead of their collective immediate interests. Second, they gave me license to do what I really knew was the right thing: Stay home. Third, they saw and articulated in me, a hope for a brighter future that was likely beyond their reach.
I stayed home that night
I am eternally grateful to Frenchie & Co. I don’t recall the outcome of their fight. I left for The Mecca shortly afterward and, other than Frenchie, had no real contact with them afterward. The story of Frenchie through 1960, using a pseudo name, is written in Ira Henry Freeman’s “Out of the Burning Tree.”
I next saw Frenchie in 1956. I was an aftercare social worker for the New York state reform school. Frenchie was under the supervision of another social worker. He unexpectedly arrived in the office; I greeted him enthusiastically, but the warmth wasn’t there. We perfunctorily exchanged phone numbers but he didn’t respond to my repeated calls. Years later, I learned through the media that he’d been convicted of several major white–collar crimes, including embezzling millions of dollars from a federally-funded drug rehab program. He died of cancer in about 1994.
MY FIRST JOB
My first full time job was at the National Urban League on West 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Thanks to my cousin Enid Baird, who was executive assistant to the then Executive Director of the National Urban League, Lester Granger, I was hired as a temporary “goffer” for the princely sum of $20 weekly. I folded and stuffed thousands of envelopes, made myself useful in any way I could and – best of all – delivered messages to board members throughout New York City. That’s how I really got to know the NYC subway system.
I got lost and unlost on the subways countless times. Often my errands took much longer than necessary. But the Urban League staff was wonderful, kind and patient with me. They knew that I was new to “The City”, and, of course, it didn’t hurt to be Enid’s cousin. I was polite, always on time, eager to do whatever was asked of me, and thrilled by their trust in me.
I learned an important life lesson: No matter how limited your skills, those intangible qualities, will hold you in good stead with any employer.
On my last day at work, everyone gathered in the break room and gave me a card, wishing me well in college. Inside was a $50 check from an auxiliary group to help with my anticipated college book purchases. They apologized for the relatively small amount. I was thrilled beyond words. I’d never received such a gift.
First Frenchie & Co. and now these kind and generous women had shown their confidence in me. Maybe, just maybe, one day I could be “somebody.”
I’M OUTTA’ HERE
I couldn’t wait to leave for Howard. It wasn’t only because I was about to embark on the newest chapter of my life. It was that Ma/Calvin “thing.” Calvin had completed his jail sentence in Boston and resisted Ma’s overtures to join us in Brooklyn. She was concerned about what he might do if he remained in Boston. (And with good reason, given his rage toward his ex-wife.)
I was so eager to leave home, that I disregarded Ma’s request that I await her return home from work before leaving for Howard. For once in my life, I was going to have a say in the terms of my departure. Perhaps there was a degree of passive aggression in play. Until then, Ma had dictated every change. This time it would be different.
I left home on my terms, leaving Ma a note, weakly explaining that I unexpectedly had to be on campus by some nonsensical time, couldn’t wait, and would be in touch upon my arrival. Looking back, I regret my impetuous departure. Didn’t Ma deserve the opportunity to hug her son as he left for college? I think so now.
I took the noon train from New York’s Pennsylvania Station to Washington D.C., carrying my entire life’s belongings in a single suitcase.
(Ma had good reason to be concerned about Calvin. Within six months of his release from jail, he again stalked and accosted his ex-wife, and stabbed her date in the hand; he was a practicing dentist. Calvin was convicted of a felony and sentenced to state prison.)
Tags: Brooklyn Dodgers, Park Place, street gangs, Urban League
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