It would be a daunting task to give a historical overview of the position of black men in American society. Even if I were John Hope Franklin, I don’t think I could summarize the impact of slavery, Jim Crow, deindustrialization, and the rise of the prison industrial complex.
Instead, this essay will focus on my own research on African American communities in the Bronx in the 1940’s and 1950’s and analyze how the position of black men in those communities offers insights and possible lessons for trying to reengage young black men with the educational system and the mainstream economy.
“I went in the Army and I tried to join the Tank Corps. When I got to Louisiana, I found I was in the Corps of Engineers. And you know what we do? We worked to win the war. We built anything that could be built: bridges, tunnels, houses, officers quarters, mess quarter, roads, airstrips. We loaded and unloaded ships. We did anything in the way that involved work, construction work. You know when I got back to the United States, after the war, I couldn’t get a job in construction and there was no union that would let me in. And there was damn little that I couldn’t do in the way of construction work. They’ll take you and turn you into construction workers in the army, in a segregated army, and then when you get back into civilian life, you can’t get a construction job.”
The image which emerges with overwhelming force, both from interviews and documents, is of strong, cohesive neighborhoods where working class black and Latino residents looked out for one another, shared their cultures, raised one another’s children, and looked to the future with considerable optimism. In 1951, an African American magazine called Our World described Morrisania in terms that almost no one today would apply to Black or Latino neighborhoods in the Bronx
“Right now, most of the Bronx’s 75,000 Negroes live between 160th Street and Crotona Park South. To them, the Bronx is a borough of hope, a place of unlimited possibilities.”
African-American men played a central role in creating this atmosphere of security and hope. The majority of adult men in these communities were in families and in the labor force and black men played key roles as mentors to local youth in churches, community centers, and after school and night centers in the public schools. Most of the people I interviewed have spoken of the influence of ministers, teachers, community center directors, and their own fathers in guiding them through the sometimes perilous pathway to adulthood. Figures like Reverend Edler Hawkins of St Augustine’s Presbyterian Church, Floyd Lane of the PS 18 night center, Vincent Tibbs of the PS 99 night center, and Eddie Bonnamere, a music teacher at Clark Junior High School, are mentioned in interview after interview as people who saved lives and inspired people to achieve more than they ever dreamed possible. In these working class black and Latino neighborhoods, which were not without problems – they had gangs, alcoholism, and heavily tracked schools – adult black men were a powerful presence in families, voluntary institutions, and public funded recreation programs and they passed on a legacy of strength, optimism, and community responsibility to young men in the next generation, some of whom went on to careers in civil service, teaching, social work, health professions, the media, politics, and business.
However, even in these relatively optimistic times, racism in the city’s labor and housing markets were chipping away at the stability of these neighborhoods and undermining the ability of black and Latino families to accumulate social capital and transfer it successfully to the next generation. With few exceptions, the portraits of black fathers that emerge from my interviews is of men who worked two or three jobs in the most fragile sectors of the secondary labor market- they drove cabs, loaded trucks, worked in factories and cleaning establishments, operated elevators, cleaned buildings, and worked as cooks and porters on trains. Although there was a small component of government workers – especially postal workers and people who worked for the New York City Transit – and a few people who owned small businesses, what is strikingly absent – especially in comparison to what you would find in Jewish, Irish, and Italian neighborhoods at the time – is skilled unionized workers in the construction, printing, or garment trades. In the 1950’s, and even into the 1960’s, New York had tens of thousands of high paying, unionized, blue jobs that could be passed on from father to son and elevate a family into the middle class and black men had virtually none of them! The worst example of this was the construction trades. Even though many black men came from the South and the West Indies with construction skills, they could not get jobs as electricians, plumbers, steamfitters, or sheet metal workers on major construction projects even when they were located in black neighborhoods. The following is a quote from Oliver Leeds, a leader of Brooklyn CORE who led massive sit-ins during the construction of Downstate Medical Center in 1963 (this is courtesy of my colleague Brian Purnell who is writing a dissertation on the history of the Civil Rights movement in Brooklyn):
This had devastating consequences for black families and communities. Basically, from the 1950s through the 1970s, a period when the city’s economy was losing hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs, African Americans, unlike their Jewish, Irish, or Italian counterparts, could not attain upward mobility within the working class, or achieve middle class incomes through blue collar occupations. Indeed, black male youth who did not graduate from college actually faced worse employment prospects than their fathers because many of the jobs their father worked at were being eliminated.
This helped trigger a fragmentation of the social structure of working class black and Latino communities like Morrisania or the Patterson Houses. As college educated and upwardly mobile families from these communities moved to the North and East Bronx, Queens, Westchester, or New Jersey, men who remained, who for the most part had high schools educations or less, faced an economy that offered them lower wages and even more humiliating conditions of work than their fathers had experienced. For many, the underground economy was their only realistic option, but this was not the relatively benign, non violent, underground economy of their father’s day, which was organized around the numbers business. This was the fierce high stakes heroin trade of Nicky Barnes and Guy Fisher, which left corpses, broken lives, and shattered communities in its wake. In this fierce and frightening atmosphere, being a husband, father, and a family man was an overwhelming strain on even the best intentioned young men Many cracked under the strain and many young men weren’t up to it, a tragedy presented with great power in the Hughes brothers’ brilliant movie Dead Presidents.
To make matters worse, as the job crunch on young working class black men intensified, and the violence of their daily lives became more overwhelming, New York City underwent a fiscal crisis, and with the help of the Emergency Financial Control Board, decided that youth culture mentoring and recreation was expendable. All the after school and night centers in New York public schools were shut down, recreation supervisors were removed from the parks, and the great music programs in the city’s junior high schools were eliminated. So at a time when young men needed them the most, the Floyd Lanes, Vincent Tibbs, and Eddie Bonnameres were removed as forces in Bronx neighborhoods and other places like them around the city.
By the beginning of the 1980s, the idea of cohesive, safe working class black and Latino communities in the South Bronx with a strong male presence in families and the legal labor force had become unimaginable to people growing up in those neighborhoods. They faced a world of mean streets, shattered families, and a legal labor market that offered them little but stagnant wages and a humiliating work culture. And that was before crack!
The world we live in now, one where young black men feel so alienated and marginalized, has been shaped by many historical forces, some of them going back to slavery, but many of the problems have roots in labor market discrimination in the relatively recent past and short sighted and pernicious government policies implemented less than thirty years ago.
Fifty years ago, black men were a central part of every formal and informal institution in South Bronx neighborhoods and were an integral part of the leadership structure that made these communities safe and cohesive. If we change government priorities and challenge racial hierarchies in the labor market, there is no reason why they cannot play that role again.
Mark Naison presented this talk at the CUNY Black Male Initiative Inaugural Conference.