Arson, AIDS, crack and crime. Much has been written about the recent history of the Bronx in terms of social pathology.
But before drugs and fires broke homes and ravaged communities, before hip-hop pioneers like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five transformed “The Message” of urban decay and abandonment, helping to give birth to a worldwide cultural movement, many African Americans (like the Irish, Germans, Italians and Jews before them) simply found the Bronx a place where working-class families fostered dreams of upward mobility.
“Everybody thinks of blacks in the Bronx through the fires and the drugs, maybe through hip hop, but there was this whole era that was very different, which had an equal musical and cultural richness,” said Mark Naison, Ph.D., professor of African American Studies and director of the Urban Studies Program at Fordham. “These were tough working-class neighborhoods, but they were also nurturing and hopeful and optimistic.”
Mark Naison, Ph.D. (far right), and members of the Bronx African-American History Project, from left to right: Robert Gumbs; Harriet McPheeters; Peter Derrick, Ph.D.; James Pruitt; and Leroy Archible.
Photo: Bruce Gilbert
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That’s the story Naison is discovering and telling as he works with the Bronx County Historical Society and the Department of African and African American Studies at Fordham to document the history of people of African descent in the Bronx—a group that now numbers approximately 500,000, according to Naison, but has been “virtually ignored by scholars and journalists and largely undocumented.”
The seed for this collaborative project was planted in October 2002, at a book party celebrating Fordham University Press’ publication of Jill Jonnes’ South Bronx Rising: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of an American City. Naison and Peter Derrick, Ph.D., archivist and editor for the Bronx County Historical Society, began talking about the plight of anyone hoping to research the history of African Americans in the Bronx. Archival records and demographic data, according to Derrick, are not readily available.
To help fill the gap, Naison began collecting oral histories. Last April, he met with one of his former students at Fordham, Victoria Archibald-Good (TMC ’74), a social worker who grew up in the Patterson Houses, the first public housing development in the Bronx.
“The story that emerged stunned me,” Naison said. “Her childhood was so different from what most people would think was the black experience in the Bronx or the black experience in public housing.”
During the interview, “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child: Growing Up in the Patterson Houses in the 1950s and Early 1960s,” which was published in the spring 2003 issue of The Bronx County Historical Society Journal, Archibald-Good recalled the free day camps and medical clinics open to neighborhood children, and described a general sense of “camaraderie and supportiveness” she received “not only from my own family, but from folks in the building that weren’t blood relatives.”
Since last April, the Bronx African-American History Project has grown organically. Some interview subjects, who heard about the project through word-of-mouth or read about it in a The New York Times article published last July, have contacted Naison directly. Archibald-Good led Naison to other former residents of the Patterson Houses. Working with a team of research advisers, Naison also identifies possible subjects whose knowledge of the community might further the project.
“There’s a whole community of people out there who want to tell their story and the story of African Americans in the Bronx,” said Naison. “It’s very moving, and every time I do the interviews, I learn something new. That’s a wonderful opportunity for a historian.”
Naison expects the project to last a decade and hopes it will spawn a series of publications, museum exhibits and documentary films. Robert Oppedisano, director of Fordham University Press, has already signed Naison to share his research in a book titled Before the Fires: An Oral History of African-American Life in the Bronx From the 1930s to the 1960s.
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