BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — Ask a resident of Stuyvesant Heights about the area’s history and you’ll find a wide range of respondents: the friends and families of Tuskegee Airmen, neighbors of actress and activist Lena Horne and Jackie Robinson, and homeowners who remember when brownstones sold for $500.
The stories of longtime, elderly residents in Bedford-Stuyvesant are being preserved through the Stuyvesant Heights Oral History Project, an annual initiative looking to maintain the experiences of the historically African-American community.
“The neighborhood of Stuyvesant Heights is so deep, generationally,” said Mary-Ann Monforton, the project's manager and vice president of the Macon MacDonough Stuyvesant Lewis Block Association.
“We realized the neighborhood was changing very rapidly. We were trying to catch something in transition by talking to the senior members of the community and hearing them out: Where they were from? When they first moved here? What they did for work?”
Monforton and fellow organizers started the project on their blocks in 2010, reaching out to neighbors in their 70s and 80s.
There’s Archie Chavis, owner of the former Archie’s Grocery on Patchen Avenue, recalling how his store sold “the coldest beer in town.”
Or Henrietta Tolliver, who moved to MacDonough Street with her family in 1943 and remembers the area’s trolley car and the soda man stopping by every Saturday.
“There was a fellow who was at Pearl Harbor when it got bombed, or stories of women who moved with their nine children and their husband passes away and they raise that family, and all the kids do well and go to college,” Monforton said.
“Every person has a story and every story is so interesting.”
Five locals are interviewed each year and honored at an annual celebration.
The festivity has grown from 30 people in attendance to up to 135 people, Monforton said, prompting the block association to move the event from Akwaaba Mansion to the parish hall at St. Philip’s Church on Decatur Street.
This year’s ceremony will take place on Sept. 21, where attendees can chow down on a buffet from Peaches restaurant and hear the recordings from honorees.
“Since the very beginning, it’s been an incredibly moving experience for the old-timers involved to the new generation coming with their kids,” Monforton said.
“Young and old, rich and poor, it has brought us together.”
The MMSL Block Association’s Sixth Annual Stuyvesant Heights Oral History Project presentation will be held on Sept. 21 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at St. Philip’s Church, 265 Decatur Street. Tickets are $30 in advance and $35 at the door.
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.