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Ten Year Project Records the Story of Blacks in the Bronx

By Patrick Wall | April 5, 2013 1:17pm
 Bronx African American History Project founder Mark Naison (center with glasses) and research director Oneka LaBennett (second from right) with Brian Purnell (far right) and members of hip-hop group Rebel Diaz. Rebel Diaz will perform at the project's anniversary celebration on April 6, 2013.
Bronx African American History Project founder Mark Naison (center with glasses) and research director Oneka LaBennett (second from right) with Brian Purnell (far right) and members of hip-hop group Rebel Diaz. Rebel Diaz will perform at the project's anniversary celebration on April 6, 2013.
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Bud Glick

FORDHAM — Once upon a time in The Bronx, there was a black boy who spent his summer evenings swaying on a fire escape to the rhythms of a Latin club around the corner. When he grew up, he married a Puerto Rican woman.

There was a black girl who rose to the top of her class, but her teacher tried to tear her down with a dig about her family’s modest means. A white classmate defended her.

And there was a black jazz player and music teacher who taught hundreds of neighborhood kids to play the trombone and trumpet. Each summer, he organized a concert outside the housing project where they lived.

These are a few of the hundreds of tales of black life in The Bronx last century that were nearly lost before a team of Fordham University researchers and their community partners set out a decade ago to document them in what has become the Bronx African American History Project.

“There’s this whole history that was totally erased and forgotten, which a lot of people wanted to put back on the record,” project founder Mark Naison said.

On April 6, the project will celebrate its 10-year anniversary with a daytime conference, followed by a nighttime concert and dance party.

It was at a party in 2002 when Naison, a professor of African and African-American Studies, and Peter Derrick, then the archivist for the Bronx County Historical Society, lamented the lack of historical documents about blacks in The Bronx — at least before the notoriously rough '70s and '80s.

“How do you get an undocumented population on record?” Naison recalls thinking. “Oral history.”

The project initially zoomed in on Mott Haven’s Patterson Houses in the 1950s, then a new and well-maintained development with the feel of a vertical village.

“If you went in the wrong direction, by the time you came back, everybody in the neighborhood would know,” one former resident said in an interview Naison quoted in an article.

Then the research shifted to Morrisania in the 1930s through the '50s, at that time a bastion for middle-class blacks who fled overcrowded Harlem and soon established prominent churches and jazz clubs in their new neighborhood.

Both histories contradicted the normal narrative of an early Bronx peacefully inhabited by whites, which began its decline with the arrival of blacks and Latinos, Naison said.

Actually, The Bronx of this era was a “safe, dynamic, multiracial community,” Naison explained, “which produced some of the greatest music the world had ever seen.”

As soon as the project launched, locals began calling the researchers asking to be interviewed or suggesting other subjects. Before long, they were helping conduct the interviews too.

Led by the community, the researchers expanded their scope to chronicle the challenges of the '70s and '80s, as well as the borough’s once-vibrant jazz scene and the genesis of hip-hop.

One interviewee described how, as a boy in the '70s, he had been violently abused by his father, but he channeled his rage into a gig guarding a local DJ’s equipment. That boy became DJ Disco Wiz, a pioneering Latino DJ.

While the Fordham faculty and students conducted interviews with community partners, Derrick collected archival material for the Historical Society.

He eventually obtained the papers of The Bronx’s first black city councilman, copies of one of the borough’s earliest black newspapers and hundreds of boxes of records from two influential civic groups that helped rebuild a burned-out Bronx.

Derrick, a white north Bronx native, said those documents and the oral histories helped him understand that most South Bronx residents felt the same way as he and his neighbors during the dark days of drugs and decay.

“They were middle-class people who were wondering what the hell was going on and what they could do about it,” he said.

The project now includes more than 300 oral histories, in addition to the reams of historical documents. Researchers from across the region and as far away as California have visited the Historical Society to access them, said Derrick, who is now retired from his post.

Naison, who praised the support of Fordham alumni and administrators for the project, is planning a book based on the 1930s through '60s oral histories. He has also trained Bronx schoolteachers on how to craft their own community history projects.

Recently, the project researchers have homed in on the West African immigrants who began settling in the borough in large numbers about 15 years ago and now constitute the largest African population in the Americas, Naison said.

But whether the tales are told by recent Ghanaian immigrants, jazz-loving old-timers, or even Chris Hayes, the cable news host and Bronx native whose oral history was recently recorded, all shed light on the variety and vivacity of life in The Bronx, said the project’s research director, Oneka LaBennett, a Fordham professor of African and African-American Studies.

“I’ve heard stories that were tragic, triumphant and inspirational,” LaBennett said, “but not a single one that was dull.”

The project’s anniversary conference begins April 6 at 8:30 a.m. at the Keating 1 Lecture Hall at Fordham University. The concert, film screening and dance party begin at 5:30 p.m. at the McGinley Student Center.