Bertram L. Baker, the United Action Democratic Association, and the First Black Democratic Succession in Brooklyn, 1933-1954
It has been asserted in the recent literature on the urban political machine and ethnic succession that the conditions for succession in American cities were different for white ethnics than for nonwhite minority groups, such at blacks and Latinos.(2) The Brooklyn illustration defies the prevailing view.
To understand why the process of racial succession in the political party system of Brooklyn unfolded in a relatively unruffled manner, we must take into account the conditions that make succession likely: a steady and swift rate of demographic change, extensive interparty and intraparty competition, a highly capable ethnic group leadership and a decentralized political party structure. These elements were present during the 1930s, 40s and 50s in Brooklyn's largest black community, Bedford Stuyvesant. Black political participation in the Democratic party during those years was fundamental to the party's vigor and dominance.
There is a strain in the literature on the urban political machine and ethnic succession that concludes the machine used every means available to block the political aspirations of the black community to gain a share of party and community power.(3) Again, this perspective receives little or no support from the Brooklyn experience. Middle twentieth century Brooklyn political history challenges this notion, particularly in the case of the first attempt by blacks to elect one of their own in the Democratic party.
Martin Lomasney, Boston's political leader during the early decades of the century is reported to have advised the party faithful: "Never write down anything when you can say it; never say anything when you can nod your head.(4)
Given the machine politicians' penchant to leave their history behind through verbal tales, oral history is ideally suited to bring a fresh perspective to the literature on machine politics. This article therefore relies on in-depth interviews with key individuals. Approximately two dozen activists that witnessed the transition from Irish and Jewish rule to black control in Bedford Stuyvesant were interviewed. The interviewees were mostly club members, more often than not the district leaders and the election district captains. Politicians outside and inside the Democratic machine were interviewed. These people were selected on a "one contact leads to another contact" basis, that is, the snowball method. In the main I was fortunate: most individuals were willing to articulate their experience in Brooklyn politics. I found oral history most useful with retired political leaders. Contemporary politicians, for instance, judges still sitting on the bench, were reluctant to speak freely, fearing possible damage to their still active careers.
Where personal documents such as photographs, memoirs, letters, newsletters, and diaries existed, a close examination was undertaken. However, the sheer volume of these materials calls for a Brooklyn Politics Archive and Oral History Collection to be founded.
Before World War I, Brooklyn's black population was minuscule and residents were concentrated in four small pockets: in the downtown or Bridge Street area, in Weeksville, (located within Bedford Stuyvesant), in Fort Greene and in Bedford Stuyvesant (primarily along lower Atlantic Avenue and Fulton Street).
Although the black population in Brooklyn surged forward during "The Great Migration" after the War, the black community did not advance significantly as a percentage of the borough's population between 1880 and 1920. By the 1920s, blacks had already begun to expand their core along the Fulton Street and Atlantic Avenue axis leading from downtown and Fort Greene to Bedford Stuyvesant. As late as 1940 the black population had risen to a mere four per cent of the borough's population. …