Book by Sandra L. West
Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
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Badge of Honor:
Coming of Age in 1960s Newark
By Sandra L. West
They would not let
me march. Black people were lynched, tarred, feathered,
and maimed throughout the South. Duped out of jobs and
left for economic dead. Insulted and degraded. While I
did visit my ancestral home every summer vacation of my
life, my parents would not allow me to return to march
with the DownSouth, Greensboro, North Carolina
college students during Freedom Summers or even to
participate in civil rights rallies in the new
UpSouth homeland of Newark, New Jersey. Their
restrictions were the bane of my adolescent existence.
When my North
Carolina born mother and father returned home to see
their own parents, they were not allowed in “white”
restaurants. The white side of the beach was separated
from the black side by brown rope. The water was dark
green/blue on both sides. They were bound by apartheid
laws that I, a 1960s teenager, was bound to help break.
Many of my Carolina
relatives lived in sharecropping shacks, but Uncle
Richard Foy lived in town because he was a dentist and
main Queen Street was where his office was near. He
served black folks when white dentists wouldn’t. I
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya
Angelou and if Dr. Foy’s patients could speak from the
grave, they would tell a similar story. As the Arkansas
saga goes, young Maya had a terrible toothache and
Grandmother Henderson took her to the closest dentist,
the white doctor named Dentist Lincoln, who not only
refused to accept the elder’s grandbaby as a patient but
“Annie, my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s
mouth than in a nigger’s.” (Angelou 184).
The South was
rough, and Kinston was no different.
I was restricted in
Kinston and I was restricted in Newark. Unlike children
of the 21st century who roam streets and
subways at all hours without parental supervision, my
movements were monitored. I was not allowed to run
around Newark. I didn’t even think about it.
When school was
out, I rode with my parents down back roads, pre I-95
days, from Newark to Kinston. We traveled with a potty
in the back seat so as not to have to ask/beg a gas
station attendant or a restaurateur for use of public
restrooms where signs humiliated us. “White Men”
“White Women” “Colored.” We packed our lunch and
ate by the side of the roads at picnic tables. We kids
thought it was such an adventure, eating like that, when
actually, our parents were ducking Jim Crow as best they
could by keeping us far away from people who would
invariably snarl “We don’t serve colored here.”
I could slide in
and out of Kinston and its rural hamlets with parents
close-by, but I could not return south to join the 1960s
civil rights movement, something I yearned to do.
“I am not going
back to Kinston to get you out no jail for talking back
to white folks,” argued my father when I, a rebellious
15-year-old, asked to join students who were on the
front lines desegregating lunch counters and such. I
asked, but no was no and that was that. Well, not
Now, my father had
an activist history of his own with community block
clubs, church stewardship, and labor unions. As a matter
of fact, many times when I now see Congressman Donald
Payne we share a chuckle about Willie A. West,
especially if something is going wrong in the old
neighborhood that the Payne’s and West’s shared; we know
that none other than he could negotiate, mediate and
dilute the crisis.
My father was a
character. He spoke a little high school French that he
pulled out for show and tell whenever I was having
trouble with my high school Latin. He said “no” to me
in French, Standard English and Black English. No, I
could not join the civil rights movement. I was too
young, too bull-headed, NO. He was not going to
bring me home in a pine box.
mother had to bring him home. Just 14-years old, he was
murdered by grown men in August of 1955, when he came
from Chicago for summer vacation in Money, Mississippi.
His tongue was cut out and stuffed back into his mouth.
His private parts were cut off, and stuffed there too.
He was beaten with an axe. His mother almost did not
know who he was. (Raphael)
I was a few years
younger than Emmett Till when in August of 1959 my
father moved the family from the North Ward of Newark to
the South Ward, seeking a higher quality of life. He
purchased 395 Chadwick Avenue for $17,000 from Mrs.
Yetta Stein and her devout husband. The streets were
tree-lined. Chadwick extended straight past Hawthorne,
with no Route 78 to split the neighborhood in the name
of urban progress.
I grew up with all
kinds of people. Early black families on Chadwick Avenue
were the Characters and the Stricklands. Mrs. Character
was an asthmatic who lined up tins and cereal boxes in
the food pantry like little wooden soldiers, as if a
military officer would one day come in, inspect, and
chide her if one can of baby green peas was out of
place. The Strickland family had three children who
could have company when their parents were not home,
something we were forbidden to do, and we obeyed but
were in total awe of those “free-to-be” children. We
West’s lived quietly in the same house with Polish and
Russian Jews. Mr. and Mrs. Boralsky, Stanley and Sarah,
with a grandfather living there too, were in the
downstairs apartment with three children, and my parents
demanded we be respectful. They insisted upon it.
was beautiful and serene. So, I vividly remember the day
when the crass adult world defiled my innocence.
Our black telephone rang off the hook. Before I could
get “West Residence” out of my mouth an oily voice
excitedly told me “The niggers are coming. The niggers
are coming. Sell now.” Little did he know that I, a
12-year-old child, was one of those who was not only
coming but had arrived. He tried his best, but my family
members were not white, were not running, and were not
selling. I had come into direct contact with housing
discrimination, part and parcel with Red-Lining.
During the mayoral
tenure of Kenneth Allen Gibson – [June 16, 1970 Gibson
elected mayor of Newark, the first African-American
mayor of a major eastern U.S. city] there was a Newark
Office of Consumer Action headed by Dennis Cherot.
Cherot contributed a chapter titled “Out of Necessity”
to NEWARK: 1967-1977 An Assessment, edited by
Stanley B. Winters and published by New Jersey Institute
of Technology. This is a very important chapter – as
they all were -- because it defines Red-Lining, among
other injustices black people endured. Cherot wrote:
Newark residents are also exposed to the practice of
“redlining” which involves banks discriminating against
Blacks and other low-income groups in mortgage loan
practices. The refusal of banks to grant mortgages and
home improvement loans to Newark residents has seriously
affected the city’s growth and rehabilitation. Living in
urban neighborhoods which are primarily Black or
Hispanic should not be a criterion for denying loans.
Individuals should be granted loans on their
qualifications and their ability to repay the loan.
Without monies from the lending institutions, Newark
residents are denied the chance of helping themselves to
improve their surroundings. (228).
So, while the real
estate agent I “met” on the telephone forced a hard and
quick sale in the neighborhood – and most of my white
neighbors did bale out and run to Hillside, Union, West
Orange – the new black homeowners were given the shaft
by banks and this, coupled with the fact that 50% of
Newark supermarkets fled the area (West 1), helped fuel
the South Ward/Newark history of frustrated
neighborhoods. Thus, this area and all of black Newark
became ripe for the Rebellion of 1967, aka The Newark
around-the-corner neighbor Susan Magezis saw the
hand-writing on the wall, way back then. She is the
older sister of my high school classmate Joy. I see the
sisters occasionally even though Joy, writer and
teacher, lives abroad. Susan had then argued and
reasoned and tried to convince the Jewish elders that no
one could move into the homes they loved and “bring
down” the neighborhood if they just stayed put and did
not rush to sell, if they sold at all. Makes
sense to me, even 40 odd years later.
During those high
school years, I saw the world partly through the
television my father purchased from Sears, when Sears &
Roebuck was on Elizabeth Avenue where Branford Brothers
Moving and Storage currently does business. On
television news in 1963, I was traumatized when I
witnessed a politician named Theophilus Eugene “Bull”
Connor of Birmingham, Alabama sic dogs and high powered
water hoses on black folks who wanted to exercise their
right to vote and to march peaceably. My dukes were up.
I joined SANE (Sane
for a Nuclear Policy) with my friends at school, and
learned about The Vietnam War. I united with SDS
(Students for a Democratic Society), and The National
Conference of Christians and Jews that met at Robert
Treat Hotel. Joy was a member also, of NCCJ. Then, I
joined C.O.R.E. and N.A.A.C.P.
With parental no’s
ringing in my ears, I would steal away. I put on my
brown penny loafers and walked the length of Newark
behind Robert “Bob” Curvin, the leader of C.O.R.E.
(Congress on Racial Equality). I remember a particular
C.O.R.E. march keenly because, on that same television
set where I was “introduced” to Bull Connor, I had seen
equally callous white people with turned-down mouths
crack raw eggs upon the heads of trained-in-non-violence
black college students who sat at lunch counters in
southern Woolworth’s. We marchers in Newark stopped on
Broad & Market, in front of our Woolworth’s 5 and 10
cent store where Conway is located now. Our rallying
cries and chants tried to shame them for the way they
held black folk captive DownSouth, as if we were
not held captive UpSouth. Our method of operation
was called sympathy march, and my parents forbade
me to leave the house, but I walked.
I walked holes in
my brown penny loafers. My mother threw my loafers in
the garbage along with the Ike and Tina Turner 45
records my sister and I loved so much.
I got my shoes out
before any sanitation truck could claim them. They had
holes in them, yes. But, holes and all, those shoes were
my Badge of Honor.
When I graduated
from Weequahic High School in 1964, I moved to Harlem to
live with my aunt and cousin in a huge apartment at 54
West 119th Street. The rent on Apartment #2
was $50.00 a month and I went to the theatre several
times a week for $10.00 per discount ticket.
By 1965 I had
joined the Youth Council of the NAACP (National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People),
headed by Hazel Dukes. We were part of a huge march on
125th Street and Lenox Avenue (now Malcolm X
At this time,
Selma, Alabama was a picture of particular
pigheadedness. Even with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on
the books, things were not right. In Selma there were
29,000 residents. Out of 29,000 were 15,156 black
residents and out of this number a niggardly 156 black
registered voters. (Violence in Selma 1965) Activist
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Non-Violent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC) rallied and marched to
change these statistics and other intolerably low
figures in towns and cities across the South. They were
met with the utmost resistance as they marched from
Selma to Montgomery across Pettis Bridge on March 7,
1965. State troopers trampled and billy-clubbed praying
marchers into the history books. They called it Bloody
Sunday but Monday was just as bad. (Franklin 476-477)
The revolution was
well-televised. There were many responses to Bloody
Sunday. One was from the March on Washington (1963)
architect Bayard Rustin who called for a march in
Harlem. I attended, March 1965, as part of the NAACP.
The New York Amsterdam News took photos and there I
was, on page 44 of the March 26th edition, in
my favorite navy blue raincoat and cat-eye glasses. You
could not see my 6 ˝ mediums in that photograph, but I
had them on, my brown penny loafers. My Badge of Honor.
The photos took up
an entire tabloid page under a huge banner When The
Word Is Given – They Rally Around. Black nuns, The
Oblate Sisters of Providence journeyed from Baltimore.
White soldiers rolled in steel wheelchairs. It was a sea
of indignant people, a wave of humanity trying to do
something about the inhumane among us.
When I look at
those photos now, I am reminded that, after all of that,
black people vote in a haphazard, slapdash manner; if
they vote at all. They feel justified in nonvoting. They
proudly proclaim “I don’t vote. Ain’t nothing to vote
for.” I look at those old photos, taken not really so
long ago, and I am reminded that I have problems getting
10 people together for a block meeting so that we can
have a safe neighborhood here in University Heights.
More than lives were lost, back in the 1960s.
I don’t know if I
will ever march again. I have returned to Newark after
marching in Harlem, Montclair, Savannah. I happily
follow in my father’s community activist footsteps. I
believe in organization and, as Joy and I were
discussing via e-mail just the other day, we realize we
are fortunate to have been nurtured in the very special
era of the 1960s. And, we know things are different.
Used to be, other
folk tarred and feathered black people and called us
unspeakable names. Now, we do it ourselves/to ourselves
through what is supposed to be entertainment. Or even
through education at a historically black college or any
college, an education many of our young folk defile with
changed also, the way people respond to things. So many
people are anesthetized and do not feel the racist
pinch, do not respond to insults on their people, their
womanhood, their manhood, their intelligence. I feel
the pinch. Among other things, I have made the decision
to not listen to rap music because it is toxic
and damaging to me and my community.
Thick white sneakers have replaced
my brown penny loafers. Hopefully, I will not have to
use them, in this the 21st century.
PHOTOCAP: Aunt Helen in the autumn of her years, with caretaker daughter,
Carolyn Jane Foy, sitting
on bench at Riverside Terrace, 157th Street & Riverside
Drive in New York’s Morningside Heights
Credit: Sandra L. West
* * *
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York:
Random House, 1969.
Cherot, Dennis. “Out of
Necessity.” Newark: 1967-1977 An Assessment: Papers
the Conference on An Assessment of Newark, 1966-77.
Stanley B. Winters, ed. Published by New Jersey
Institute of Technology.
Franklin, John Hope.
From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans.
Fifth Edition. New York: Knopf, 1980.
New York Amsterdam News.
“When The Word Is Given – They Rally Around.”
March 26, 1965,
Emmett Till, The Oratorio performed by Trilogy: An
Opera Company at Trinity & St. Philip’s Cathedral, 608
Broad St, Newark, NJ, June 9, 2007 at 8 p.m.
Violence in Selma 1965.
West Whiteurs, Sandra.
“City Supermarkets: Where’d They All Go?” Information
Newark, New Jersey, September, 1976. Vol. V, No 1.
posted 8 July 2007