Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life in the Bronx from the 1930s to the 1960s

Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life in the Bronx from the 1930s to the 1960s

Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life in the Bronx from the 1930s to the 1960s

Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life in the Bronx from the 1930s to the 1960s

Synopsis

Before the Fires is the first book documenting the African American experience in the Bronx during the years when the Bronx was seen as a place of hope and opportunity for Blacks and Latinos. Consisting of sixteen oral histories whose narrators, ranging from teachers to musicians, share personal stories with almost cinematic vividness, it describes vibrant communities erased from memory by the fires and disinvestment which beset the Bronx during the 70's and 80's. These neighborhoods, the largest and most important of which were Morrisania and Hunts Point, not only had a unique mixture of cultures and ethnic groups, they produced more varieties of popular music than almost any communities in the nation. This book forces us not only to revise our understanding of Bronx history, it will inspire a new look at urban African American history during and after World War II, when black communities in many cities were anchored by strong institutions, had vibrant business districts, and were able to make public schools and public housing serve their interests with surprising effectiveness. Unsparing in its look at the way racism limited where Blacks could live, shop, seek work and even safely navigate by bus or on foot, Before the Fires brings to life a time when Black families in the Bronx were able to find and create opportunities for themselves and their children in neighborhoods there were far more multiracial and had stronger public institutions than they have today.

Excerpt

Today when people think of the South Bronx, images of violence and the fires of the 1970s come to their minds. The true history of this section of the borough before this period, however, has rarely been accurately documented and told by the African Americans who lived in these communities.

Beginning in the 1930s, African Americans from Harlem, the South, and the Caribbean began to migrate to the South Bronx, then a predominantly Jewish, Italian, and Irish area. Many of these newcomers settled in the Morrisania and Hunts Point sections of the borough, living in public housing, tenements, and private homes.

I was born in Harlem in 1939. My family moved to the Morrisania section of the South Bronx in 1941 after the birth of my younger sister, Jean. My parents were from the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. We initially lived on Union Avenue and in 1943 moved to Lyman Place, a small block of tenements and private houses between Freeman and 169th Streets.

Lyman Place was the home of two famous jazz musicians, Thelonious Monk and Elmo Hope. Leo Mitchell, who also grew up on the block, later became a drummer with the West Coast jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Bertha Hope, the jazz pianist and the wife of Elmo Hope, lived there for a few years. A number of future artists, actors, and writers were also residents of Lyman Place.

Upon graduation from Public School 54, I went on to study music at Junior High School 40, one of the few schools in the South Bronx that had a music and art program. Some of the graduates later became . . .

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