By Bryan Greene (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
I was born in St Albans, Queens, in 1968, a few months after the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act would have opened up this neighborhood to my parents had they encountered resistance when they moved there the year before. Indeed, when my parents had inquired about houses for sale in other Queens neighborhoods, real estate agents asked, “Greene? Is that a nice Irish name?” But they purchased our house from a Black woman—Mae Barnes, a popular jazz singer and dancer, credited with introducing “The Charleston” on Broadway in 1924. Barnes matched the profile of many homeowners in St. Albans: middleclass African Americans who had distinguished themselves in politics, activism, music, sports, law, and letters. The most famous of these lived in the Addisleigh Park section of St. Albans, literally across the railroad tracks from our modest house. A September 1952 issue of Our World magazine ran a 12- page spread on this enclave, calling it, “Tiny Addisleigh, [the] swanky suburb [that] is home of the nation’s richest and most gifted Negroes.” So, how did St. Albans become the address of America’s Black elite (and many hardworking regular folk like my parents)?
First, New York is unique. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was indisputably the home of the world’s cultural and intellectual elite, of all backgrounds. Second, when it came to housing, affluent Black New Yorkers, like wellto-do Blacks elsewhere, had few choices of neighborhood if they wanted a yard, and a place to park a big car. Still, what made St. Albans that middle-class neighborhood where an African American could lay his or her hat and call it home?
It happened, in part, by chance; in part, by will and activism; and, in part, by dint of a close social network among the Black elite, but especially among celebrated jazz musicians who migrated there from Harlem. These migrations, starting in the 1930s, transformed the borough.
As you might expect, St. Albans was not founded as a Black community. Named after the city in Hertfordshire, England, the neighborhood had fewer than 600 residents at the end of the 19th century. Development took off after the opening of the St. Albans Long Island Railroad (LIRR) station on July 1, 1898, the same year the five boroughs consolidated to form New York City. Forty years later, St. Albans had a population of 30,000. The area saw its greatest growth in the 1920s with mass transit linking the area to the larger city, and the rising popularity of the automobile.
The leafy Addisleigh Park enclave, planned and developed at the start of the 20th century, was central to the development of St. Albans. Edwin H. Brown, a retired lawyer, laid out the original plans, modeling the community on the English garden suburbs, with wide streets, large landscaped lots, and English Tudor and Colonial homes set back 20 to 30 feet. Brown also built the LIRR station, and the St. Albans Golf and Country Club, which drew the rich and famous to the area. The New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth golfed there and rented a nearby house in the summer months. The U.S. government later acquired the golf course for a naval hospital. The golf and country club helped establish the exclusivity of Addisleigh Park. Other developers, like the Rodman & English Company, built on Brown’s plans and marketed the homes in newspapers and brochures with restrictions. A 1926 New York Times article states, “Addisleigh, together with the St. Albans Gold Club was laid out under the personal direction of Edwin H. Brown, and the land carries a land and house restriction of the highest type.” While this all appears to be code for racially-restrictive covenants, historians say it was not until the late 1930s, that the community established covenants that expressly prohibited the sale or lease of property to Black people.
Jazz pianist Fats Waller may have been the first African American to buy a home in Addisleigh Park. Legend has it that a white policeman, working a Harlem beat, sold his home to Waller in 1938 to get back at a neighbor with whom he was feuding. Over the next few years, a couple dozen Black families bought homes in the area, among them, jazz legends Count Basie and Lena Horne. Many whites feared this influx. In 1946, the Long Island Star Journal described Addisleigh Park as “a mixed Negro and white neighborhood, where Negro homes have been pelted with rotten eggs and vegetables.”
In 1942, white Addisleigh Park residents successfully sued a homeowner to enforce a racially-restrictive covenant. Residents sued again in 1946 when Mrs. Sophie Rubin tried to sell her home to Samuel Richardson, a “Manhattan Negro merchant,” in violation of the 1939 agreement she signed prohibiting the sale, lease, and gift of property to “Negroes or persons of the Negro race or blood or descent” until 1975. The case illustrates the national civil rights battle now joined over restrictive convenants. The NAACP saw Kemp v. Rubin as a case it might take to the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the practice nationwide. National civil-rights groups, religious organizations, and unions filed amicus curiae briefs challenging the covenants. Groups included the American Jewish Congress, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild, the American Veterans Committee, and the Committee of Catholics for Human Rights.
The American Jewish Congress was particularly active in opposing racial covenants. In 1946, its Commission on Law and Social Action (CLSA) reported in its newsletter, “In New York, CLSA is preparing for a test case in an effort to reverse the trend of lower court decisions upholding such covenants…CLSA’s interest in a suit to enforce a race restrictive covenant in St. Albans, Queens, has attracted wide attention in New York over recent weeks….” CLSA stated that if the judge granted a temporary injunction against the sale, “CLSA will seize the opportunity for retesting New York law and will seek to intervene and file a brief similar to that submitted in Chicago.” CLSA’s brief in the Chicago restrictive-covenant case laid bare the perversity of racial covenants in communities like St. Albans, where even the best and brightest African Americans were barred:
“A bare recital of the immediate effects of the covenant in this case is shocking in its brutality and falsity; any white person, whether he is a criminal, sadist, wifebeater, or moral degenerate, can buy this property and occupy it if he so desires; no Negro, whether he is a philanthropist, scientist, or philosopher may do likewise.”
But the New York Supreme Court sided with Mrs. Rubin’s neighbors in 1947, plaintively concluding that, “Distinctions based on color and ancestry are utterly inconsistent with our traditions and ideals, at the same time, however this court is constrained to follow precedent and govern itself in accordance with what it considers to be the prevailing law.” It also observed that Addisleigh Park, by 1947 had 48 Black families out of a total of 325 households.
In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Shelly v. Kraemer, invalidated racial covenants nationwide. The roll call of talented African Americans moving into Addisleigh Park and St. Albans over next decade is dizzying: Ella Fitzgerald, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, John Coltrane, Percy Sutton, Archie Spigner, Illinois Jacquet, Earl Bostic, Mercer Ellington, Milt Hinton, Lester Young, Billie Holliday.
So many jazz luminaries lived in St. Albans that the Queens County government in the 1990s published a “Jazz Trail Map,” providing addresses for a couple dozen of the celebrity houses. Around that time, I offered an Australian friend, a novelist and jazz aficionado, a tour of these homes, which meant more to him than any tour of movie-star homes in Beverly Hills. Little did I know at that time that some of these jazz legends were still living in the area. One was Illinois Jacquet, tenor saxophonist in Cab Calloway’s and Count Basie’s bands (and who, like his neighbors Fats Waller and Lena Horne, appeared in the 1943 ensemble film, “Stormy Weather”). He lived in Addisleigh Park from 1949 until his death in 2004. In a 1999 Associated Press interview, he recalled the heyday of Addisleigh Park: “Count Basie was living out here before me. He told me it was a nice neighborhood and I better get in while I can…I was delighted when Ella moved here. I could go up to her bar at the house and drink up all of her whiskey, and then go through somebody’s yard and go home. That’s what it was like back then.”
Milt Hinton, bassist for Cab Calloway and known as the Dean of the Bass, remained in St. Albans till his death in 2000. It’s said that Hinton has played on more recordings than any other musician in the world. In 1998, when he was 88, he and his wife Mona sat for an interview with the New York Times, in their two-story Tudor home. They bought the home in 1950 to raise a family. “I was raised in Sandusky, Ohio, a small town,” Mrs. Hinton said. “I just couldn’t imagine raising a child in the city.” They socialized with the Basies down the street. Count Basie, and his wife Catherine, were known for their garden parties. They had a swimming pool and a yard that filled an entire city block. Mrs. Hinton, recalling her friend Catherine, said, “She always gave parties for her charities and social events. They had a fence up, and they had roses covering the whole fence.” A January 1959 issue of the NAACP’s Crisis Magazine carries a photo from one such “gala garden party given by Mrs. Catherine Basie,” for the benefit of the local NAACP. In addition to raising $500, she signed up 250 new members to the organization. One can find online a small trove of pictures of the Basies relaxing at home in St. Albans. They lived in their home from 1940 till 1982.
It wasn’t just jazz musicians in Addisleigh. No assemblage of the gifted Black elite would be complete without the purveyor of the phrase, “The Talented Tenth,” to describe this set. W.E.B. DuBois lived briefly in St. Albans. In 1951, at 83, he married author and playwright Shirley Graham at her Addisleigh Park home. They lived there until 1952, when they moved to Brooklyn.
We also should not conclude that the invalidation of racial covenants in 1948 meant that African Americans lived happily ever after in St. Albans. During this time, several activists (Charles Collier, executive secretary of the City-Wide Citizens Comittee on Harlem; John Singleton, a member of the NAACP Board of Directors; and dentist William H. Pleasant) received notices from the “Klu Klux Klan, District of St. Albans” [sic] stating, “Warning to Negroes entering St. Albans. Beware…” Jet magazine on October 3, 1952 reported a cross-burning near Jackie Robinson’s home, “an area of expensive homes owned mostly by Negroes…The cross—six feet high with three foot cross arms—was lighted on a vacant lot near the home of one of the few remaining white residents who recently had offered his $40,000 house for sale. Said Mrs. Robinson: “there are five Negro and five white families on our block and we get along very well. As far as I know none of the white families on the street plans to move away.”
Mrs. Robinson’s sanguine prediction notwithstanding, St. Albans was becoming a Black neighborhood, as whites fled to Long Island, and other Queens enclaves.
Retired General Colin Powell, in his autobiography, describes a changing area when his family won the lottery and purchased a home at the edge of St. Albans in 1959: “The house was a three-bedroom bungalow in a neighborhood in transition, the whites were moving out and the blacks moving in. My folks bought from a Jewish family named Weiner, one of the few white families left…Our new home was ivy-covered, well kept and comfortable, and had a family room and a bar in a finished basement. Pop was now a property holder, eager to mow his postage-stamp lawn and prune his fruit trees. My father had joined the gentry.”
Lani Guinier, Harvard Law Professor and briefly President Clinton’s pick to head up the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a 2011 New York Times op-ed that when her family moved to St. Albans in 1956, “[T]he neighborhood changed with our arrival. When we first moved in, Italians, Jews, Albanians, Armenians and Portuguese lived in small, tidy, two-family attached houses on both sides of the street. By 1964 there were almost no whites still living on our block except my mother.”
Guinier also shared her experience as a biracial student attending a largely white school. Prior to junior high school, she described herself as “interracial.” “In junior high school, I became Black. I attended Junior High School 59, a magnet school that attracted Jewish students from Laurelton and Italian kids from Cambria Heights. The white students were friendly during the school day, but it was in riding the bus home with the other Black students that I felt most welcome. We rode the bus together to an increasingly segregated St. Albans neighborhood. And it was in St. Albans that I felt fully accepted.”
Writer, musician, and 2013 National Book Award-winner James McBride provides a similar account, as a biracial child growing up in St. Albans. McBride, in his best-selling memoir, The Color of Water, describes his family’s move from Red Hook, Brooklyn to “the relative bliss of St. Albans” in the early sixties. It’s during this period, as he is starting school, that he realizes his mother is white. The only other white faces he saw in his community were the teachers at nearby PS 118 (which I also attended for a few years a decade later).
McBride paints a vivid picture of the Black militancy that took hold in St. Albans as the sixties came into full flower. He said, “In 1966, when I was nine, Black power had permeated every element of my neighborhood in St. Albans, Queens. Malcolm X had been killed the year before… Afros were in style. The Black Panthers were a force…” In another passage, he describes how the alteration of a familiar landmark in St. Albans, which remains to this day, came to be. “A few blocks from our house was an eightfoot-high stone with a plaque on it that commemorated some civil historic event, and one morning on the way to the store, Mommy noticed the rock had been painted the black-liberation colors, red, black, and green. ‘I wonder who did that,’ she remarked. I knew but I couldn’t say.” McBride reveals to the reader that his brother was the culprit.
It was during this period that the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, moved into tony Addisleigh Park. By the 1960s, this Gold Coast neighborhood, like the rest of St. Albans, was largely Black. In a 2016 NPR interview, McBride, who wrote a book on Brown said, “His house was across the tracks, on the good side of St. Albans. Poverty & Race • Vol. 26, No. 1 • January-March 2017 • 11 I used to sneak over, across the Long Island Railroad tracks, and me and my friend Billy Smith, we would stand outside. A bunch of us! Because the rumor was that he would come out of the house, and if you’d promise you’d stay in school, he’d give you money.”
I, too, grew up hearing stories about James Brown’s time in St. Albans. Brown was still a popular figure in the 1970s and his music more accessible to me than jazz. He lived in St. Albans from 1962 through the early 1970s, during his peak as a recording artist. The records he produced during this period were in heavy rotation in my house: “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.” While living in St. Albans, Brown also recorded what would be the unofficial anthem of the Black Power movement, “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” What James Brown was saying and doing at this time was in sync with what was happening in the community around him. He enjoyed a reputation as a man of the people. While he lived in a house that looked like a castle, Brown, my parents and others said, used to open up his pool to area children. So, the rumor McBride heard that he’d give kids money is plausible.
On NPR, McBride continued, “That was the rumor. It never happened. [Laughs.] And so kids would stand outside his house all the time, and then one day, my sister Dottie did something that no kid I ever thought had the guts do do: She just went up to the front door of this beautiful house, and just knocked. And she met him! And so she came running home and said, “I met James Brown.” And we asked, “What did he say?” “He said, ‘Stay in school, Dottie.’” And that became the clarion call of my sister for a long time.”
I recall a St. Albans, in the 1970s, where the schools were still good, but increasingly under-resourced, compared to schools in Queens’ white communities. My parents bused their three children to schools in white areas after we reached the third grade. As time marched on, economic disinvestment, official neglect, and the social ills disproportionately borne by Black communities, exacerbated the educational disparities. On a demographic dot-density map, all of Southeastern Queens appears dramatically as 90+% Black, with the borough becoming progressively whiter as you travel north to the Throgs Neck Bridge. School proficiency inversely tracks Black population density.
Some years ago, New York City renamed my childhood elementary school the Lorraine Hansberry School for Literary Excellence. Hansberry, the first Black woman to write a play performed on Broadway, is a fitting role model. But Hansberry’s magnum opus was “A Raisin in the Sun,” which was based on Hansberry’s family’s own experience fighting racial covenants in Chicago. In her book, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, Hansberry describes the litigation:
“Twenty-five years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation’s ugliest ghettos. The fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house.”
She also remembered “being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school,” while her father took the legal battle to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won a Pyrrhic victory in Hansberry v. Lee. In that 1940 case, which helped establish an important precedent for civil procedure, the Court held that previous challenges to a Chicago covenant did not bar Hansberry, who was not part of that litigation, from contesting it. Today, that Chicago neighborhood, like St. Albans, is overwhelmingly Black and segregated.
St. Albans and other areas of Southeast Queens were among the hardest hit by the subprime foreclosure crisis a decade ago. Many affected were longtime homeowners who had built up decades of wealth in their homes. In fact, it’s precisely St. Albans’ history of stable Black homeownership that made it a target.
Milt Hinton in his 1998 interview with The New York Times summed up what Blacks were seeking when they began moving to neighborhoods like St. Albans in the 1940s: “Colored people like us were just looking for a decent place to live, a quiet place to raise children.”
It begs the question Langston Hughes asked in the 1951 poem that inspired Hansberry: “What happens to a dream deferred?”
Bryan Greene (greenebee@gmail. com) is a civil rights practitioner living in Washington, DC.