GRAD SCHOOL & WORLD OF WORK
I wasn’t at all surprised that Adelphi University was the polar opposite of Howard. It was situated in Garden City, New York, a wealthy, white, suburban community, and, other than the School of Social Work, its student body was predictably almost entirely white. I wasn’t distracted by the demographics. I knew it beforehand and was there for one reason: Earn the master’s degree. I was focused and empowered.
Remember, this was a joint sociology/social work program. I had a great relationship with my sociology faculty advisor, but I was increasingly drawn to the School of Social Work’s training in direct services to marginalized people. Graduate social work education, then and now, consists of three weekdays of field work training in a reputable social agency under the close supervision of an experienced graduate social worker, with the other two days spent in the classroom.
My field work assignment was to assist adjudicated juvenile offenders, that is, kids who had been to court and then sent to New York State’s reform school at Warwick and were now ready to go home and transition back into their communities. I didn’t know it at the time, but that field work assignment in the fall of 1954 exposed me to the end-result of institutional racism in our treatment of young people. It laid the foundation for much of my future.
I was assigned to counsel five kids of varying backgrounds. I quickly learned that simply being Black with the best of intentions wasn’t enough to overcome their deep suspicion of me. I was just another authority figure in their lives. On the one hand, I was there to help them re-enter school, advocate for them with their teachers, and navigate social services and family relationships. On the other hand, I had the authority to return a child to the institution if he was chronically truant from school or seriously misbehaved in school or at home. Under these circumstances, how could a child be entirely open with me about his coming and going, much less his uncertainties?
During my field work assignment, I never even considered issuing a warrant for a child’s return upstate. But how was the child to know that? It’s challenging to use one’s inherent authority in a counseling relationship with any child, especially under these circumstances. The kids remained guarded, fearing that any disclosure of errant behavior could lead to a return to Warwick.
By the end of my first postgraduate school year, I knew what I wanted to do: Work directly with kids. I withdrew from graduate school and went to work full-time as an after–care social worker for the above-mentioned State Training School for Boys. There was no opposition from anyone. Ma respected my decision. It was my first professional position. Annual salary? $3,425. I couldn’t do much on that salary, even living at home.
Soon afterward, through a young adult church group, I met a wonderful young woman, Gloria Hall. We fell in love and a year later we were married. The marriage wouldn’t last, but we had two great children; a son, Scott Albert Johnson (1962-2010), followed by our daughter, Alison Elizabeth Johnson. You’ll meet them later.
Shortly before our wedding, I accepted an offer I couldn’t refuse. My employer offered me a chance to return to graduate school full-time and earn my master’s degree in social work, with all tuition paid plus a modest stipend. The offer carried a two-year commitment to stay at with the agency afterward.
Gloria agreed that the offer was indeed too good to refuse, and I gleefully accepted it. In June 1957, I received my Master of Social Service degree from the Adelphi University School of Social Work. I was one of about 25 students in the school’s third graduating class. That degree was an academic credential that opened many doors for me.
In the years that followed, I saw inequality closeup. New York State was relatively forward-looking when it came to social welfare programs. Not so with juvenile justice.
At that time New York State was one of only three states that treated juvenile offenders as adults once they reached 16 years of age. The law takes no notice of clear scientific evidence that a child’s brain and level of social maturity isn’t fully developed until his or her mid-twenties. The result? Many juveniles, between the ages of 16 and 18 years who commit nonviolent offenses (shoplifting, for example) and might be rehabilitated in juvenile courts, are swept into the adult criminal justice system and adult prisons. The practice contributes to mass incarceration of Blacks.
Another discriminatory practice of the New York child welfare system at the time was the requirement that children be placed in an institution of his or her religious faith. If such a placement wasn’t feasible then the child was sent to poorly funded, inadequately staffed, public institutions, such as the New York State reform schools.
Jewish kids invariably were sent to highly regarded private residential treatment centers. Kids identified as Roman Catholic – and almost all white — were sent to a so-so private institution on Staten Island. The remainder, Protestant or undeclared, went to one of two struggling private facilities with limited capacity. All others — overwhelmingly Black or Puerto Rican boys — would go to the ill-funded, inadequately staffed Warwick School for Boys. There, predictably, the recidivism rate was significantly higher than the private institutions.
The most egregious practice of the juvenile justice system at the time was the denial of the right to counsel for children. That is, a child had no lawyer to represent him or her when they appeared before a judge.
This ill-advised policy was based on the antiquated theory that the juvenile court was a social court, not an adversarial court. It was supposedly geared toward rehabilitation. The presence of counsel, the theory continued, would lead to adversarial proceedings, contrary to the best interests of the child.
The result? Poor, overwhelmingly Black and Puerto Rican kids, accompanied by their unsophisticated, equally overwhelmed parents or guardians, usually faced an all-white array of court officials — police officers, probation officers, and judges. Such niceties as the presumption of innocence, the rule against hearsay, and other fundamental Constitutionally-guaranteed rights were unheard of in these closed juvenile legal proceedings.
I’m still saddened and outraged by one particularly tragic situation. Frank (a fictitious name) was a 14-year–old, tall, slender Black kid who lived with his single mom in a fourth–floor, walk-up apartment in Harlem. Other than having skipped school a few times that year, Frank was a typical, fun-loving, neighborhood kid.
One morning, Frank was awakened by his mom’s screams. She was being beaten by her visiting boyfriend. Frank ran into the kitchen, saw the man beating his mom, and jumped on the man’s back in an attempt to stop the beating and protect his mom. The man threw Frank off his back and toward a drawer in the kitchen. Frank impulsively grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer and stabbed the assailant in his shoulder. Frank’s blow struck an artery. The attacker bled out and died before help arrived.
It was a classic case of defense of another – a situation that with legal representation would have resulted in dismissal of any charges and perhaps counselling for his emotional trauma resulting from that fateful evening.
Not so for Frank. He was arrested, charged with being a delinquent child, and committed to Warwick. He served six months and I was assigned to him “help” him following his release. As I tried to work with him during the following year, he was always guarded and superficial. He went to school, but otherwise, stayed at home. I never reached him . I never saw him smile or show any emotion. Any wonder why?
It wasn’t until 1967 in a landmark case that the U.S. Supreme Court held that juveniles were entitled to the right to counsel in court proceedings. Imagine Frank’s life if he’d had the benefit of even a first–year law student?
Because of my youthful appearance and enthusiasm, my colleagues would teasingly call me “the boy social worker.” One, Sam, who was white and held his position only because of the shortage of credentialed staff, tried to temper my enthusiasm. He counseled me: “You’ve got to remember, Lloyd, we’re dealing with the dregs of society.”
I was speechless. If the best that Sam could do for himself is work with these “dregs” (Black, like me), what does that make him? A pimp? A parasite? Further, if Sam and his ilk don’t believe these kids can be helped, then they directly contribute to the mass incarceration of young Black kids.
“I GUESS YOU’VE GOTTA KILL SOMEBODY.”
By the late 1950s, gangs, like the one I’d flirted with in the summer of 1949, had become serious problems in New York City. Gang fights, mostly over territory, were increasingly violent. Several kids under the supervision of our office were directly involved in more than a few of what became high-profile gang-related killings.
As for me, I had moved on from my own gang time. By most objective standards, I was ”somebody”, as Frenchie and the other gang members had predicted. I had graduated from college, earned a graduate degree, and had embarked on my professional career.
Then as now, gang members didn’t participate in traditional, structured, community–center programs, as I had in Boston as a kid. Accordingly, a new municipal agency, the New York City Youth Board was organized and implemented a detached workers program. Much like the Spartans’ mentor, Freddie Gumbs (remember him back in my childhood years in Roxbury, Massachusetts?), the detached worker reached out to gang members on their turf –– the streets – not in a community center; they tried to build relationships with kids, counsel them about jobs and offer other services for themselves and their families.
In the course of my work, I developed a trusting relationship with one of my charges. John, 16, was the leader of a local street gang that frequented the 150th street area of Harlem. He wanted job opportunities for himself and other gang members, and he knew the services offered by a detached worker included job placement. He asked me to try to get a detached worker for his gang.
Despite my best efforts, the short-staffed Youth Board couldn’t meet our request. John was visibly disappointed when I broke the news. So much so that he asked me to serve as their worker. When I explained I couldn’t do so, he said with resignation, “I guess you gotta kill somebody.” I’m certain that this wasn’t a statement of intent. John simply knew that it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil and, in his own way, said so.
I never believed his statement would be a prediction. About a month later, John and his gang were involved in a “rumble” — a gang fight — in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. A white boy, Michael Farmer, who walked with a limp, was stabbed during the fight and died. Michael was the son of an NYC firefighter, and the case, and the racial differences between John and the deceased white youth, received massive local media attention. John was eventually arrested, convicted, and sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. I never heard from him again.
The news that John’s request for help through a detached worker had been turned down just a few months earlier, spread like wildfire through my office. One day I received a call from a CBS News producer I’d never heard of before. His name was Fred Friendly, and he wanted me to participate in a radio program done by his friend and colleague, the legendary journalist, Edward R. Murrow.
I was excited by the opportunity to tell John’s story. It was the first of many media appearances for me. I learned the basics of dealing with the media: Keep your answers brief, think sound bites, speak with authority.
And Murrow nailed it. He went through all of the systemic failings of our juvenile justice system that contributed to the problems of John, Frank and other similarly-situated kids. In his dry trademark manner, Murrow concluded with the question, “Who Killed Michael Farmer?” Then Murrow answered his own question: “We all did. Thank you and good night.”
Years later, when I had the opportunity to help members of Congress address some of these cruel miscarriages of juvenile justice, I thought about John and Frank.
It wasn’t a hard decision for me to move on. I needed a break. This stuff was taking a toll on me. Emmett Till had been brutally murdered during the summer of 1955. I’d had to take a literacy test to exercise my right to vote in Brooklyn. I’d raised a few bucks in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Earlier, in the summer of 1953, I’d been fired from a summer job at a luxurious Gardiner Island, Long Island, New York resort, because I refused to swim in the out-of-sight section of its lakeside pool, designated solely for the use of Black employees like me. Just like the D.C. theater manager when we desegregated the RKO Keith Theatre in 1949, my supervisor tried to assure me that he wasn’t prejudiced. It’s just that the guests weren’t ready.
I was the only one of over 30 Black employees, mostly college students like me, who refused to submit to the hotel’s segregationist practices. That bothered me more than my supervisor’s weak apology.
I opted for a better–paying, less emotionally-wrought position as a psychiatric social worker at the Veteran’s Administration Out-Patient Clinic in Brooklyn. It wasn’t a hard decision to move on.
Even there I wasn’t spared. Barbara S., a white colleague, was a good friend, I thought. We often socialized with our spouses. One day over coffee at work, she “slipped” and referred to a Black humorist as a “nigger.” I never spoke to her again. Why? If someone tells you who they are, believe them. She did and so did I.
Otherwise, it was a nice time for Gloria and me. We scraped together enough money to buy our first car – a tiny, long-forgotten, two-door, navy blue Rambler American sedan that looked like a turned over bathtub. We visited her home town in Jamaica (my first of many visits to Jamaica) and even took a meandering week-long trip to upstate New York, highlighted by a memorable visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Surprise. Surprise.
But on Memorial Day weekend, 1959, my older brother, Calvin was involved in a traumatic, life–changing event. It changed my life, and the lives of many others, too.
Next. Accountability & All In for Equality.
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