|a family history|
The house was built in 1899, and our paternal Grandparents purchased it in 1926. Bed Stuy had Germans, Jews, Italians, Chinese, Greeks and lots of Irish cops. We were the first African American family in this area, (likely you won't find another family that has owned their home as long as we have.) Most African Americans didn't begin to arrive until the 1930's. When the others came along later, they were doctors, accountants, professionals and proprietors. Our Grandfather was a WWI veteran, having served a tour in France by the time they purchased the house. There were cobblestone streets, horse drawn sanitation carts, ice boxes, and we heated and cooked with coal. In fact the brick alcove is still in the kitchen. There was no such thing as the A train back then, only the elevated train which ran down Fulton St. from downtown all the way to Bushwick Ave.(My maternal Grandmother was the first African American woman in New York to drive a trolley - she drove the Franklin Ave. line.) There were trolley lines on Putnam, Gates, Rogers and De Kalb Avenues. Records will show that Grandma of this history was absolutely one of the very first African American women issued a driver's license in New York; they were amazed, and they told her so. Grandpa owned the very first car in the block; a Cadillac which cost him $700.00.
People of African descent, born in the states, and the West Indies, were enterprising and hard working in Bed Stuy. The whites moved out, the stores became very inxpensive to rent. They were hasten by a combination of racism and the depression. We opened tailor shops, newsstands, beauty salons, photography studios, shoe shine parlors, a juke joint or two, and the like. Our Grandpa washed trucks at the post office main, Cadman Plaza, and then he used go house to house shoveling coal to keep white folks' furnaces burning. Sometimes Dad and Uncle went with Grandpa to help shovel the coal. Grandma used to wash their shirts and press them with a stove top iron for 3 cents each; (the Chinese laundry did it for 5-8 cents.)Dad and my uncle had to go deliver and pick up. Father Divine not only had churches, he also had barbershops and restaurants in the neighborhood; you could get a meal or a haircut for only 15 cents each. The occaision had to be real special to go to Father Divine's barbershop, cause Grandma was pretty good with her own clippers.
We weren't welcome at the Swedish Hospital on Bedford Avenue unless it was a matter of life and death, so we could always count on Dr. Gilks, Dr. Taylor, and Dr Johnson to make house calls. They didn't all exist at the same time; over the decades, they each were the resident physician in the neighborhood. They all had one thing in common... the effects of time and age. The brownstones had several flights of stairs, there were lots of brownstones, lots of people, and every month had 24 hours to each day. Day and night, emergencies, babies, and just plain wear and tear retired each one of them. Cohen's drug store wasn't receptive of our business, but they would let us buy medicine. In time, Cohens got to know our doctors and they became more receptive to our patronage.
We also practiced our own natural remedies; we wrapped cloves of garlic in a cloth and made necklaces to get rid of colds and sore throats. Grandma would rub the soot from the stove on cuts to make them stop bleeding, and there were healing teas and weekly castor cleansings for the children. We even made our own soap; Grandpa would build a fire in the backyaed to heat a cast iron kettle; Grandma would put all the left over cooking grease, fatback rinds and lye in until it boiled. The children's job was to occaisionally stir the mixture with a big stick. When it was boiled, Grandpa would pour it through a screen and into large trays to cool; the children sliced the tan colored mass into bars of soap. That's what we bathed and washed our clothes with before washing machines. In the winter time, if it snowed, our Grandmother had a recipe to make her famous "snow pudding". She took the purest snow from the backyard and made a special treat for the kids!
Of course at that time, we couldn't stay in mainstream hotels and rooming houses. We used to rent out the extra rooms to all kinds of famous entertainers like the Berry Brothers, the Mills Brothers, and the Ink Spots. Max Roach would come by, Thelma Carpenter the blues singer and Sinclair Rene would meet at our house to play our piano and jam in the parlor room. As a kid, our dad used to sit on the stoop and quite often, watch the Nicholas Brothers rehearse on the church steps across the street; sometimes, you'd see Maxine Sullivan or Lena Horne walking through the block too. Our father even saw John Dillinger driving down Bedford Ave. Father used to be the assistant manager at the Regent Theater on Fulton St; he facilitated nightly public appearances by Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella when they first came to the Brooklyn Dodgers; Dad said they were both really good guys. There were also many prominent members of the clergy and military who stayed with us too. (If you were hungry, down on your luck, and could make it to our house, our Grandmother had a reputation for giving folks a meal.)
Back in the 1930's, our home also provided refuge to Willie Robertson, Eugene Williams and Roy White of the famous Scottsboro Boys case. Nine African American kids were falsely accused of raping a white woman in Alabama. The actor James Cagney paid for their defense by a Jewish lawyer from New York. The Supreme Court found that they were not given due process and four were released after several years on death row. Pastor Thomas Harten from Holy Trinity Church told my Grandmother that the boys needed a place to stay; she gladly made room for them at our house too. They worked at the Apollo Theater doing re-enactments of their trial and incarceration.
Most children dream about being in show business; my Uncle was no exception. Our Grandparents paid for my Aunt to take piano lessons, and violin lessons for my Father. My Uncle was fascinated by the dancers of the day. Everyday, he practiced twirling this broomstick, and as a child developed his act. He was acrobatic, and could twirl it at top speed, and do all kinds of tricks. Before long, Uncle was sneeking off to perform in side shows at Coney Island. He tap danced and told jokes, while twirling this stick; his fingers were exceptionally nimble, and he never dropped it. Uncle became so good, that by the time he was a teen, he had made it to Broadway. Our Uncle also played the famous Palace Theater where Long Island University now stands. My uncle performed on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, the Apollo Theater, the Ed Sullivan Show; opened for and worked with a staggering who's who in entertainment, like Pearl Bailey, Liberace, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, The USO with Bob Hope, Peg Leg Bates, just naming a few. While performing in Germany, a magazine was so fascinated with his ability to twirl his stick, that they did a photo shoot in the dark with special film, and gave him a lighted stick; you could actually see how many revolutions the stick made especially when he threw it in the air. Lively, delightful and friendly, he always had a good joke to tell. Uncle traveled the world; even did a command performance for the Queen Mother of England. He lived and performed in London the last 42 years of his life, and passed away in 2001 at age 75.
A true servant, Grandmother served on both the very first Deaconness Board, and the first Nurses Auxillary established at Cornerstone Baptist Church, which is also located in Bed Stuy. (It also happens to be the largest African American congregation in America.) She retired after 68 years of service, and holds the record for longevity. Grandmother passed away in 1996 at the age of 104. Grandpa passed away long before grandma in 1949, at the young age of 55.
Five generations and 77 years later, times and people continue to change, and the last 12 years have proven to be very difficult in managing and caring for the property from a distance. Our memories are many, some good, some very painful Our souls and roots are here in this community. Our Grandparents, the children of enslaved Africans, beat the odds to establish and maintain home ownership in Bed Stuy; we are proud of their legacy. This house has marched into the 21st century, and modernity. We realize that it is time for the house to be turned over to someone who can take better care of such a wonderful piece of architecture. We hope the next family can appreciate it and enjoy it as much as we have.
The house has just about every original door, including sliding parlor doors, french glass doors and the tall beautiful foyer door. The woodwork above the parlor doors and windows are superb, and very attractive. All of the bannisters are in great shape with a rich patina, with the exception of the lower staircase between floors 1 and 2; it has taken the most wear and tear. The wooden wall moldings are still to the fine detail work of the period.
The original wood floors are covered with tile in some rooms, linoleum in others. The kitchen floor on level one has been replaced, and new tile flooring added as well as new cabinets, sink, and counter. A section of the hallway on the top floor needs boards replaced. The walls are in pretty good shape, and most of the plaster molding details are quite visible. There are archways which are still beautifully scalloped, and maybe one or two are hidden behind drywalls.
The walls are generally in good condition, and in an avoidance of doing plaster work, quite a few of the ceilings were hidden by tiles. Three fireplaces remain in tact; they are made of marble and harth stone, and they are absolutely exquisitely detailed. We stopped using them in the late 1930's and closed the chimneys. There are a few layers of paint on them, but they are unharmed. Additionally, there are 2 cast iron ball and clawfoot bathtubs, as well as a cast iron porcelain sink. There is a skylight in the 3rd floor bathroom, and a skylight above the staircase on the very top floor.
The very top floor is the most modern; it served as a home for many branches as the family grew. The bathroom was added to avoid having to use the toilet on the third floor.