MAY 2005 | VOL. 5 NO. 9  
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Raising Bronx Tales of the African-American Experience
 Craig Smith

Before the 1970s and 1980s,when the Bronx became synonymous with crime, crack, and urban squalor, the New York City borough was known to generations of African Americans (and Irish, German, Italian and Jewish immigrants before them) not as a “hood,” but a neighborhood. It was a place where solid working-class families nurtured their own and their neighbors during an era of cultural richness.

The story of that era has gone largely untold. But today, a team of Fordham University faculty and students in the Department of African and African American Studies is collaborating with the Bronx County Historical Society and a group of community researchers on an initiative called the Bronx African-American History Project (BAAHP). The mission of the project is to document the history of people of African descent in the Bronx, a population that Mark Naison, Ph.D., professor of African American Studies and director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program, estimates at some 500,000 people, the eighth largest concentration of African Americans in the country.

The idea for the project dates back to fall 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 commiserated with Peter Derrick, Ph.D., archivist and editor for the Bronx County Historical Society, about the difficulty of conducting research into the history of African Americans in the Bronx.

Unlike Harlem, the Bronx offered researchers limited archival records of the migration of upwardly mobile black families to the Bronx in the 1930s and 1940s, the development of the borough’s eclectic musical culture, and the rise of black political leadership.

It was one of Naison’s former students, social worker Victoria Archibald-Good, who helped to open his eyes to an entirely different Bronx, recalling for him the free day camps and medical clinics open to neighborhood children, and the 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.”

Naison’s interview with Archibald-Good, “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child: Growing Up in the Patterson Houses in the 1950s and early 1960s,” was published in the Spring 2003 issue of The Bronx County Historical Society Journal.

“It was as if someone reached out and tapped me on the shoulder, saying, ‘The community wants its story told.’” Naison recalls, “’and you at Fordham should help us tell our story.’”

Since that first interview with Archibald-Good, Naison and his colleagues at the BAAHP have conducted more than 100 interviews with longtime Bronx residents to fill gaps in the historical record.

Leroy Archibile knew all about the difficulties of compiling such a record. For years, he had tried to research African Americans in the borough to little avail. When Fordham entered the process, Archible leaped at the opportunity to be a part of it.

“The untold story here is that there were black folks who made the quality of life better in this community,” he said, recalling the many African American political leaders and business owners who lived in his community. “What Fordham did is give us a chance to get this story exposed. I don’t think anyone could have put this together as quickly as we did without their help.”

That help, according to BAAHP research director Brian Purnell, is in keeping with Fordham’s mission and “is very much a part of the Jesuit tradition of service.”

“The project is not only an initiative to correct the stereotypical portrayal of the Bronx by adding more nuanced, complete depictions of black people’s experiences there,” said Purnell. “It is giving people who have been neglected, disrespected and misrepresented a chance to make their own stories a part of the historical record.”

The community’s response to the project has been overwhelmingly positive. Once the word got out that Naison and his students were conducting oral histories, potential subjects began to flood Naison with phone calls and e-mails requesting to be interviewed.

Harriet McPheeters, who grew up in the Bronx and has remained there more than half a century, was one of them.

“We bought our house in the Morissania community when I was a junior in high school. At that time, this neighborhood was really beautiful. All along the avenues, trees leaned over and kissed in the middle,” she said. “Over the years, I have lost contact with a lot of people who have moved away. This oral history project has been an incentive to research and find people who lived in the area, people who could tell their stories and contribute to the whole process.”

One of the people most responsible for the project’s spirit of engagement with the community is the late Fordham sociologist Joseph Fitzpatrick, S.J. According to Naison, Father Fitzpatrick not only pioneered a model of university-community collaboration -- particularly within the Puerto Rican community in New York City beginning in the 1950s -- but made sure that Fordham nurtured and valued scholars doing this kind of research.

“Father Fitzpatrick was my mentor,” said Naison, who has been teaching at Fordham since 1970. “He was a first-rate scholar, but he was also a community activist who believed that school should be relevant to the lives of ordinary, non-academic people -- and that scholars could learn a great deal from such people. That’s why I always wanted to do something like this, something which exemplifies learning as a two-way street. “I don’t know if you can get much more Ignatian than that.”

Community researcher Leroy Archibile, frustrated 10 years ago in his efforts to document the history of African Americans in the Bronx, is grateful for the work of the BAAHP.

“Fordham is helping us get back a sense of community,” he said. “What they are getting down is waking people up.”