TWO COMMUNITIES: ELIZABETH, NJ USA AND CALI, Colombia

Elizabeth NJ has a substantive and growing population of residents from Colombia, South America. One member of that community, Yamil Avivi, a graduate of New York University and a Fulbright scholar, became interested in the distinctive features of the two Colombia communities: one in the US and one in Colombia, South America.

His Fulbright scholarship took him to Cali, Colombia where he interviewed residents who had immigrated to the United States and returned to their homeland. What exactly were the gains and losses of this experience?

In Cali Avivi learned that recent returnees from the United States had bought substantive residences and land that they could not possibly have afforded had they stayed and worked in their homeland. In a graphic presentation to Elizabeth residents Avivi’s slide photographs provided evidence about how substantially Colombian had improved their status and their quality of life by their American experience. Features of these immigrant patterns bear analogy to both past and present transnational dynamics.

Avivi ‘s research examined the issue of drug violence and danger associated with Cali.
Why would people return to such a place fraught with the threat of death? His findings suggest that familial, economic and cultural ties were stronger. However, the price of the American experience and return to Colombia seemed to require no political participation in either country, not in the United States nor later in Colombia after they had returned. However, in both areas their civic organizations provided an operational social order.

The gains and losses of these choices form the focus of Avivi’s ongoing research.

However, he was able to present his evidence and his questions to an interested audience of Elizabethans on January 19, 2001 at the Historical Society’s Inaugural Elizabeth Forum. His work set a standard for subsequent Elizabeth Forums: exactly what are the unprecedented features of the American urban experience? What do the new immigrants contribute differently to American culture by contrast with older immigrant experiences? What does the process of “assimilation” mean now, that it did not mean at the beginning of the 20th century?

 

 
   
<top>
SEPTEMBER 11:
Perspective From a Community
Monday, March 25, 2002
Shortly after the attack on the World Trade Towers, the Municipal Society of New York City initiated an organizational effort to reimagine New York City. The starting point of this effort was to recreate town meeting situations in which a cross-section of citizens throughout the metropolitan region could register their anxieties and suggestions. The Municipal Society extended their effort to New Jersey, especially the New Jersey Historical Society (and its director, Sally Yerkovich) and the Historical Society, Elizabeth NJ Inc among many other groups. The first such meeting in New Jersey took place on March 25, 2002 in the Peterstown Community Center, sponsored by the three above-named organizations. The event became the Historical Society; Elizabeth NJ Inc’s Forum II: "September 11: Perspectives from a Community."

The multiple ethnic and racial voices at this meeting not only listed to the Historical Society’s co-presidents, Orlando Edreira and Nida Thomas, they received words of welcome from Mayor Chris Bollwage (especially his earlier career which involved work in the Twin Towers), Freeholder Angel Estrada and the full participation of city dignitaries like the City’s Fire Chief, City councilmen, and other representative leaders. After these focused remarks, the entire group re-organized into multiple (and several bilingual) break-out groups for close discussion. After a period of time the entire group reassembled as a whole to listen to each break-out group’s spokesperson. The effort was to provide multiple summary viewpoints.

Among many sentiments people registered their sense of loss, not simply of lives and property but of a lost sense of conception and understanding. Some people expressed the need for decisive reaction but were not clear where or how; others felt the need for discussions with neighbors and relatives whom they now felt were more precious than ever; others felt the importance of engaging non-American cultures , especially as America’s military and economic might registers itself internationally. Still others felt the need for greater personal and national security.

NJ Historical Society Director, Sally Yerkovich, and Elizabeth Historical Society trustee Paul H Mattingly attempted some concluding remarks by noting the importance of historical societies in times of confusion and crisis. Historical knowledge provides no panacea or facile clarity but it does orchestrate facts and experiences which contextualize new phenomena and invites discussion which permits citizens to gain their bearings. Historical societies are not simply passive storage houses but are at their best educational resources and activist clearing houses; they respond to the question, how have we come to this particular place or impasse. The orchestration of historical knowledge is always the first step to new clarity, even in the face of something as disruptive and overwhelming as the September 11 disaster.


<top>
NEW JERSEY ASSESSES THE WORLD TRADE CENTER MEMORIALS
by
PAUL H. MATTINGLY

TRUSTEE, HISTORICAL SOCIETY, ELIZABETH NJ
11/23/03

The afternoon of November 21, 2003 found a gathering of New Jersey residents poised to discuss the World Trade Center Memorial sites for New York City. Imagine NY is a product of the Municipal Art Society of New York City, which has an ongoing commitment to the social-cultural impact of the 9/11 attack on New York City. They want to know how people have reacted after the event and later, now two years later, to the event, how we have changed and their consequences. Their outreach has created a metropolitan cultural network to respond, first, to 9/11 and then the public’s later reactions.

During the afternoon of November 21, 2003 The New Jersey Historical Society and the Historical Society of Elizabeth, NJ, two organizations in the ImagineNY network, sponsored the only state-wide New Jersey event responding to this metropolitan exercise. They arranged a discussion of the proposed memorials and registered citizen reactions to the recently released designs for the former site of the World Center. At Elizabeth NJ’s beautiful Peterstown Community Center, fifteen New Jersey citizens, ImagineNY’s specified limit on critique sessions, assembled to register their reactions. The sponsors viewed the audio-tape of the selected designs and discussed the eight proposals in detail.

In the course of the three-hour discussion citizens made clear that the memorial was not to be cemetery-like, over-particularized in terms of the victims (esp the time-line biographical specifications of one proposal), or overly complicated in terms of the technology of some designs (busy light displays etc). In general, they favored open-space presentations adaptable to different celebrations, maintenance-free constructions, respectful conceptions of national values – no differentiation between victims or victim groupings, no differentiation of memorial access (victim families vs ordinary citizens), accessible public walkways and street enhancing promenades.

Two designs received special approbation: LOWER WATERS by Mattias Newman and Bradley Campbell and INVERSION OF LIGHT by Toshio Sasakui. In the first design, citizens applauded the access from the street, the exposure of the slurry wall which showed the engineering ingenuity of the original conception, the outside wall of names with prairie grass and sense of open space. The citizen sense was at once acceptance of the place, accessibility to the existing neighborhood, adaptability to tourist interest, accommodation to museum values and exploration of the causes of the disaster.

THE INVERSION OF LIGHT design was another favorite for its simplicity and elegance of design, adaptability to multiple publics, openness to the elements – earth, air, light and water – subtle presentation of victims names – etched on 2-inch fronted glass with water flowing behind – plaza effect in central square with accented lighting.

The citizen discussion addressed the multiple demands of the site – memorial to the victims, icon for the nation, expression of international networks. In some ways, the order was descending, with a primary concern for the victims but with a sense that the memorial implicated the entire nation. Much discussion went to the maintenance problems, the accessibility to the names and the center of the structural event where deep respect became intimate, the durability of the designs compared with other memorials less technologically sophisticated but solid like the pyramids. Citizens took particular care to dismiss cemetery designs and to privilege those that favored "living memorials" with a sense of present appreciations and use (an urban park) not to mention future adaptability.

The facilitator of the event was Sally Yerkovich, President and CEO of The New Jersey Historical Society, who prodded the discussion and noted reactions on static-sensitive wall charts. The charts will be sent to the Municipal Art Society for collation into the other metropolitan area reaction-group reactions. The Historical Society; Elizabeth NJ co-sponsored this event, the only one in New Jersey, to insure a ground-level reaction to 9/11. Once again Elizabeth’s Mayor, Chris Bollwage, personally endorsed the event, recognizing its regional importance as well as Elizabeth’s contribution to the emergency and to its memory.

New Jersey is now two years away from the 9/11 tragedy, a distinctly metropolitan experience. The state’s role in the healthy economy of metropolitan New York is too obvious for comment; what needs further emphasis is the role New Jersey constantly plays in the region’s multiple structural supports, not least of which is its emergency operations like those activated during the 9/11 crisis, where so many NJ police and firemen and other emergency workers served beyond the call of duty. ImagineNY, The Historical Society of New Jersey and The Historical Society; Elizabeth NJ, working together, underscore this metropolitan view, not only looking backwards but also in working toward our collective futures. We hope the museum constructions at New York City’s 9/11 site will make clear the full import of a metropolitan operation, in peace and in crisis.
<top>
         
     

ELIZABETH FORUM – MARCH 22, 2005

Sponsored by
Historical Society; Elizabeth NJ Inc at Halsey House, Elizabeth High School

"CRISIS IN AFRICA - WHOSE PROBLEM IS IT ?"
by US Congressman Donald M. Payne

The Historical Society together and the Elizabeth High School, courtesy of Principal Michael Scarpato, sponsored an Elizabeth Forum with an international scope. US Congressman Donald Payne addressed a substantive Elizabeth audience in the auditorium of the high school’s Halsey House. In his welcoming remarks Principal Scarpato noticed Mayor Chris Bollwage and Council members Patricia Perkins August and Bill Gallman among other distinguished attendees. The Principal also began the evening with a presentation of the colors by the Junior ROTC unit of the high school. [(picture on right) Congressman Donald M Payne and Elizabeth High School Principal Michael Scarpato with the Jr. High School Color Guard]

Historical Society trustee Paul Mattingly then introduced Congressman Donald Payne, a native of Newark and graduate of Seton Hall University. The introduction noted especially highlights of his career that included his work as a public school History teacher, Essex County Freeholder and later executive for Prudential Life Insurance Company. But more important for this evening his long-standing labors for the YMCA where he served at many levels, including the national presidency, the first African-American to hold the position. This work laid the foundation for the Congressman’s personal investment not only in issues related to Africa, his congressional specialty, but many problems with a global scope. [(picture top left) Congressman at the lectern in Halsey Auditorium, Elizabeth High School]

Congressman Payne began by noting his recent trip to Chad in Africa where refugees from the genocide in Sudan have gone to escape government-sponsored rape, pillage and murder. His concern was more than offering an overview of this international dilemma; it was to make the point to his American constituency that this seemingly distant problem has consequences for Elizabeth NJ itself. First, the separation of international and local issues arises from misconceptions of America’s relations with overseas especially African nations.

Whatever happens in Africa, soon happens everywhere. It behooves America to be a good neighbor and to work to forestall issues that have practical remedies. Congressman Payne sought a new perspective on Africa itself as a groundwork. Africa, he reminded his audience, is an area of eleven million square miles, larger than the US, China and Europe combined. It contains over one thousand languages with their distinctive cultures. It is, to put it simply, a vast continent and the most diverse in the world. It is also the birthplace of human beings and all now living, DNA research has documented, connect to Africans 150,000 years ago.


Part of the explanation for Americans misperception of Africa stems from a history of European nations – first Portugal, then Britain (who exported more than 2.5 million persons as slaves), then Belgium and Spain et al – exploited the African people with their colonial structures. The natural resources of the country – diamonds, timer, oil, agricultural goods etc – did not benefit its indigenous people and were exported. This colonial exploitation received the legitimation of 14 European countries who met and apportion the African continent at the Berlin Conference of 1885.

Only recently have African countries begun to achieve independence. First with Ghana in 1957, probably a function of agitation derived from the American civil rights movements and its leaders, down to 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Democracy is young and often still operates under many practices begun by colonial powers and their corporations. Some forms of corruption and graft become reasons for US to withhold support from these countries. Some Americans object to aiding foreign powers when much needs to be done at home. Many Americans, however, don’t realize that a scant one-tenth of one percent of the US budget goes to all foreign powers – Egypt, Israel, Columbia etc including Africa. Much more should be done given our past and present interactions with this continent.


Actually America during the Cold War supported many African dictators like Charles Taylor in Liberia and Mobuto in Zaire, who had devastating impacts on their own people. America ignored these internal damages, preferring to cite these countries as allies against the Soviet influence. In addition, democratically elected officials, like Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, who cultivated the Soviet influence, not only received no support from the US but actually became a target of CIA covert assassination squads. American complicity in the Angolan civil war in which 300,000 Africans were killed has left the country riddled with landmines and has contributed to Angola having the highest rate of amputees on any country in the world.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has begun one constructive African initiative by prodding the G-8 industrial countries to forgive $12B in debt to African countries, largely incurred by undemocratic dictators before independence. The pattern should follow the US forgiveness of Iraq debt, incurred under Saddam Hussein. In addition, US pension funds need to withdraw their investment in countries that flaunt undemocratic practices, like we once argued about South Africa and which now needs to be directed toward Sudan. NJ public pension funds – police, firemen, construction trades and teachers – could have a marked impact and should not want any association with nations practicing genocide.

Two other items that would markedly aid African nations – a largely agricultural continent – would be to endorse fair trade practices. The US, the European Union and Japan need to curb their farm subsidies that make it cheaper for some African farmers to buy a Perdue chicken in his own country than to invest in feed, fertilizer etc to grow his own poultry. Subsidies keep prices artificially low and raise the cost of agricultural products elsewhere, eliminating a major economic opportunity for "independent" African nations. Secondly, in areas of health HIV, TB and malaria – the biggest killer of Africans today – medicines need to be cultivated and made available to individuals where current daily wages would be insufficient to sustain official pharmaceutical costs of appropriate pills and treatment.

President George W Bush’s recent pledge of $15B to Africa over 5 years is a great improvement over past meager outlays. But the problem is large in Africa where 25+ million people live with AIDs at the end of 2004 (1.9 of them children under the age of 15). Congressman Payne urged the audience to consider that the Elizabeth High School, the largest in New Jersey, cost $36 million dollars to build. The daily cost of military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan is equivalent to the costs of building 30 such schools every day. War is necessary sometimes but we need to keep our perspectives on it economic as well as its moral impact on our country and not enter into it lightly.

Sudan is roughly the size of France and Darfur, sheltering individuals who are Christian and animist, has engaged in a 40 year war with Kartoum in the North (Arab and Muslim). Two million people at least have died in this struggle and an additional 4 million have been displaced. Recently the government in the North has expanded its hostility against Muslims themselves who are African rather than Arab. A practice of bombing defenseless villages, then sending troops to rape and pillage, killing the livestock which represent the central value of most communities, and finally exhorting nomadic militias called Janjaweed, to execute any stragglers, has resulted in genocide. The Congressman’s bill the Darfur Genocidal Accountability Act (HR 1424) – seeks to establish a no-fly zone for Sudan planes like the US created in Iraq, troops to protect innocent villagers, and attention to infrastructure problems like permanent buildings (not tents) in refugee camps as well as forecasts for water needs in the face of diminishing natural supplies.

Americans need to reflect on the plight of Sudan, to develop priorities and procedures for addressing widespread overseas conflict as it is happening (and not after the fact), and to understand how implicated American dynamics are and have been in the fate of African countries. Every American citizen needs a global perspective.
[(picture on left) HSE staffer Jackie Gonzalez,Congressman Donald M Payne, Principal Michael Scarpato, HSE Trustee Paul H Mattingly, Congressional District Director Adrienne Sneed Byers]

 

ELIZABETH FORUM – MAY 5, 2005
Historical Society; Elizabeth NJ Inc – held at the Historic Elizabeth Train Station

"VISIONS OF AMERICA; VISIONS OF JUDAISM: JEWISH IMMIGRANT COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT, ELIZABETH NJ 1900-1950"

AN INTERACTIVE DISCUSSION WITH PHILIP WOLGIN

On November 21st, 1944, the members of Elizabeth’s Young Men’s-Young Women’s Association (Y.M.-Y.W.H.A.) and the Elizabeth Jewish Council met with the members of the Jewish Educational Center (J.E.C.) at the J.E.C.’s new headquarters at 330 Elmora Avenue. The discussion at hand revolved around the future of the Jewish Educational Center and its place in Elizabeth. The J.E.C. marked a radical departure for the community – a synagogue and community center based on a traditional-orthodox approach to Judaism.

Congregation
Holche Yosher

Orthodoxy had its roots in Elizabeth since the late nineteenth century, but the J.E.C. marked the first time that an orthodox synagogue and community center combined into one, rivaling the power of the established secular center, the Y.M.-Y.W.H.A. Even its location in the Elmora section of Elizabeth was controversial: the majority of Elizabeth’s Jewish immigrants first settled in the downtown Elizabethport area, almost an hour’s walk from the J.E.C., and had only recently begun to move up to Elmora.

Speaking for the Y, Abe Weiner stated "there is a service organization in the form of the Y which takes care of many of the purposes of the J.E.C. as expressed in [its] Constitution. There would be 2 Centers created in Elizabeth, one strictly Orthodox [the J.E.C.] and another for Orthodox, conservative and reformed [the Y]." Even as these two centers appeared to address to two separate populations, the Orthodox, and everyone else, Weiner stated later in the meeting that "there can be cooperation by both groups for the good of the community." The J.E.C. had been operational for a few months when these two groups sat down, but this meeting spelled a public articulation of the final split between the two groups.

The split itself, and the language used to characterize it, raises a number of historical issues. If the Jewish population of Elizabeth in 1944 divided itself between two distinct structures and philosophies, how could these groups speak of ‘the community’ in the first place? If one community had existed, what changes brought about the division of the population, and what ultimately caused its bifurcation? How did Elizabeth’s ‘community’ develop in the first place, what role did religious ideology play, and how did that role change? The inherent dilemma sheds light on the historically distinct American-Jewish community and the marked role of religious ideology in community formation and Americanization.

Elizabeth’s Jewish community development divided into three stages: At its peak, Elizabeth contained a Jewish population of 10,000. German Jews came to Elizabeth in the middle of the nineteenth century, but by 1880 only twenty-five families had settled. With the immigration from eastern Europe, the Jewish population grew rapidly, reaching 550 families in 1905, and 10,000 total members by the mid 1930s. While some Jews settled in Elizabeth by the 1860s and 70s, the vast majority arrived closer to the turn of the century, settling in the Port area of downtown Elizabeth, and so the early stage starts with the rise of Jewish immigration, and continues until 1920.

By 1920 immigration had stopped, yet the population continued to increase with the birth of an American born generation. By this point the Jewish community had begun to make inroads into the middle class, but still found themselves stuck between the immigrant and American cultures. This second period runs until the mid- to late 1930s. By the late 1930s the Jewish population increasingly had entered the middle class, and by the 1940s had started to move away from the original area of settlement, towards the more affluent Elmora section of town – about an hour’s walk from the original Elizabethport area.

Library Hall
1897

During the first stage, the dominant concerns of Elizabeth’s Jewish immigrants revolved around immigrant needs such as finding capital, settling into American life, and assuring proper burial. (While these are not necessarily immigrant needs per se, they are some of the first things that any fledgling community must deal with.) Thus during this time, the nexus of community revolved around a series of charitable, fraternal, and philanthropic institutions which served these immigrant needs. By serving the common needs of the immigrant, these organizations became a way for the Jewish population to ally themselves to acculturate into American life and society. In doing so they also became an important method of socialization, and places like Elizabeth’s Library Hall, a meeting house opened in 1897 in the downtown Port section, became one of Elizabeth’s early Jewish community centers. In this first stage, the idea of one Jewish community formed in Elizabeth, when pressing needs came before a discussion of religious ideology in the community. Here the functions of synagogue and community center were by and large separate, with institutions playing much of the later role.

R. Mordechai Pinchas Teitz, founder of the J.E.C. and his wife Basya Preil

Though a discussion of religious ideology had been absent from Elizabeth’s institutions during this first stage, as the immigrants began to move into the middle class, they realized that their old practices would not translate to their children. With growing middle class status, the needs of the immigrants shifted to the needs of their children, and here two different visions of how to synthesize Jewish and American arose. One the one hand, Temple B’nai Israel’s constituents updated its practices towards a more progressive form of Judaism, ultimately joining the United Synagogue of the Conservative movement, while on the other Holche Yosher and its constituents began to modify Jewish education and practice to stress traditional practice in American life. In short two visions arose in Elizabeth, one which sought to adapt Jewish practice to American life, and one which sought to adapt American life to Judaism.

During this time Elizabeth’s Jewish institutions responded to the growing changes in the community and in the world outside world, (with the rise of anti-Semitism, Hitler and Nazism,) by combining into larger alliances that dealt with communal as well as international issues, but as the need to synthesize America and Jewish became of paramount importance in the community, synagogues, rather than charitable and philanthropic institutions, formed the centers of community.

The J.E.C. at its dedication in 1947

By the late 1930s and early 1940s two main synagogue centers – community centers that combined a synagogue and community center – emerged in Elizabeth, Temple B’nai Israel and its affiliate the YM-YWHA, and the Jewish Educational Center, the successor to Holche Yosher. These two synagogue-centers personified the visions of an American-Jewish community that had developed during the intermediate stage, solidifying the visions into community centers. Here Elizabeth’s Jewish population split between two centers and two differing religious ideologies.

At the end of the 1940s then, Elizabeth held two Jewish populations, loosely united through certain shared structures such as the Y, or burial societies such as the Gomel Chesed Cemetery Association, but in actuality split into two denominations and philosophies. Yet while these two groups split, breaking the notion of ‘a community’ in Elizabeth, both populations had settled into the American religious community. Questions at home, with the rise of an American born population, and questions abroad with the rise of anti-Semitism and Nazism threatened existing notions of Jewish practice, forcing the immigrants to interpret and define their American-Judaism. This reinterpretation came about during a religious revival in the U.S., especially during WWII and afterwards, when religion and religious difference became a way to understand differing groups, and also to understand America’s place versus the atheistically perceived Soviet Union. In this sense the process of Americanization in Elizabeth had as much to do with settling into American society as American religious society, and by the 1950s, although the population had moved much farther apart from each other, they had become a part of the American religious community, as American- rather than immigrant- Jews.


Phillip WolginPhillip Wolgin comes from an Elizabeth family with roots that go back to the turn of the twentieth century. (In this picture, taken at the Elizbaeth Forum, his proud parents, Lawrence and Evelyn Wolgin are first and third from the left, with Phil between them). Phillip recently graduated from New York University Magna Cum Laude in History (His History mentor, Prof Paul H Mattingly appears on the right in the snapshot). He was a member and president of Phi Alpha Theta, the National History Honor Society, and Phi Beta Kappa. During his time at NYU, Phillip also served as president of the undergraduate History Society and editor of the undergraduate journal, Historian. He plans to return to graduate school to pursue a PhD in American History and to have an academic career.

 

WHOSE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD?
A DISCUSSION OF CATHERINE/WILLIAM STREETS NEIGHBORHOOD
JUNE 11, 2005 – BONNELL HOUSE, ELIZABETH NJ

NATIONAL ORIGINS

NATIONAL ORIGINS OF HOUSEHOLD HEADS
CATHERINE/ WILLIAM STS - Elizabeth, NJ 1910-1930

 
1910
1920
1930
Europe
Germany
14%
9%
7%
Ireland
10%
6%
4%
 
No Europe
4%
6%
5%
East Europe
2%
6%
5%
So Europe
1%
3%
3%
 
Total Europe
31%
30%
24%
Total United States
69%
71%
74%
 
United States
Northeast
3%
3%
2%
Middle States
62%
55%
50%
 
NJ
41%
38%
35%
NY
13%
11%
11%
PA
8%
6%
4%
 
South
2%
12%
20%
West
2%
1%
2%


HOUSEHOLD HEADS OCCUPATIONS
B. OCCUPATIONS OF HOUSEHOLD HEADS, CATHERINE/WILLIAM ST NEIGHBORHOOD, Elizabeth, NJ 1910-1930

 
1910
1920
1930
UNSKILLED
24%
24%
38%
SKILLED
44%
40%
32%
MANAGERIAL
19%
15%
13%
PROFESSIONAL
4%
4%
4%
UNKNOWN
9%
17%
13%

The question, Whose Old Neighborhood?, itself documents an important transition: someone who remembers a neighborhood well and likely for a long time perceives a challenge to established patterns. The question points to a major feature of most 20th century neighborhoods: they change and one group who once took ownership for granted sees not only changes but ignorance and misinformation about the incoming dynamics of well-loved places. Whose Old Neighborhood is part of a larger discussion about Whose Tradition will receive ongoing respect and remembrance. The questions are basic features of any effort to create a new urban narrative, a major objective of the Elizabeth Historical Society.

This morning we are going to focus on the Catherine and William Sts Neighborhood, in part, to get our own bearings. The Historical Society took ownership of Bonnell House, where we have gathered this morning, in September 2003 but we are latecomers to both this area and to Bonnell House’s history which began before 1682, 313 years ago. In that span of time how many "Old Neighborhood" memories have come and gone?
Let me begin with some early 20th century patterns of this neighborhood that we have documented from the US Federal Census records. The Catherine/Williams St neighborhood, like the Elizabeth Train Station north of it, had a sizeable group of native New Jerseyans for the whole period under scrutiny: 1910-1930 (from 41 to 35%). However, probably because of its proximity to the Train Station, the William St
residents in particular, contained substantive numbers of household heads who managed businesses or who served as skilled labor in local oil refineries, wire manufacturing and of course Singer Sewing Machine Co. Williams St in particular housed a number of individuals who registered their occupation as "machinists."

1074 William St

This neighborhood also registered householders who were unskilled – chauffers, porters, watchmen, gardners etc – from a quarter to a third of residents. But many more of its residents – native and foreign – held skilled, middle class occupations like Fred Sang – a 1920 resident of 1074 William St , where Norman Harris lives today . Sang was a native of Germany and a bookkeeper for the Gas company. There is a long standing middle-class respectability to this neighborhood, which several interviewees characterized as "open and friendly."

Perhaps most important of all – the most dramatic change in the Catherine/William St neighborhood was the rise of residents born in the South, almost entirely African-American: 2% of this group in 1910 became 12% in 1920 and 20% in 1930. The majority came from the Carolinas with a smaller contingent from Virginia; very few from the Deep South (Georgia, Alabama, Florida). These numbers represent Elizabeth’s participation in the largest internal migration in American history to that date. Some 1 million African Americans poured out of the South between 1915-1925 and an additional 800,000+ from 1925-1935 concentrating in northern industrial cities. (One should note an additional million migrated north from 1935-45 to take advantage of industrial jobs during World War II).

For this city’s part, the period 1910-30 has special importance because the newly arriving African-American group with their skills and resources created an infrastructure for subsequent waves of migrants.

1086 E Grand St

Perhaps most important here were the churches – still to this day a central anchor of both religious, social and cultural activity – represented in 1920 for example by Rev. Lilburd C Hurdle – born in Va of a father from North Carolina – and at age 37 pastor of Union Baptist Church. Hurdle resided at 1086 E Grand St with his wife Martha and son Lilburd Jr, a NJ native. He shared a two family structure with George and Edith Reed, an African American couple. George Reed was 22 and a Virginian who was employed at Singer Sewing Machine Co. Important here too is that none of their immediate neighbors were African Americans but rather a heady mix of New Jerseyans, Germans, Irish and a lone Canadian. Early on African Americans did not cluster, like the Italians in Peterstown or the Jewish community moving northward and together out of South Park St in Elizabethport. What did this non-cluster pattern signify?

173 Madison Avenue

As important as the anchoring church for new African-American migrants was health. In 1920 Dr. Jeremiah G. Brown, an African-American physician, and his wife Lavinia, ages 33 and 34 – he from So Carolina, she from Virginia – resided and likely operated out of his home at 173 Madison Avenue. Brown still resided at this address in 1930. Though many of his immediate Madison Ave neighbors – none of whom were African American – registered themselves as "New Jerseyans", their parents often came from Ireland, Germany and Norway. It is interesting too that in neighborhoods south of Catherine and William Sts – closer to the Singer Sewing Machine Company, sizeable groups of individuals from

1062 William St

Eastern Europe – Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary etc – resided. Very few of this group – many of whom held "unskilled" manual labor positions - lived in the William St Catherine St area. Residents of William St who worked for Singer in 1920 and in 1930 were more likely to be like African-American Robert Powell, a native of Virginia (1062 William St), who worked for Singer as a "Moulder," a very physical but skilled brand of work.

952 E Grand

In 1930 African-American George Williams
(952 E Grand, just outside our neighborhood but on Powell’s route to Singer
) also had employment at a Moulder at Singer’s.

Another key component of a nascent infrastructure was housing. People of course rented space where they could but before long, those who could rented or bought larger spaces in order to accommodate boarders and lodgers as an income strategy. In 1930 Andrew Wilson, age 48, a North Carolinian and a construction laborer – lived at 1019 William St -

1019 William Street

[ Today 1019 William Street is an empty lot. One witness testified that the missing domicile differed from houses on either side]directly opposite where Mattie Smith lives today - with his wife Hessie and son Andrew (a New Jerseyan) – rented to four boarders – all African American, all Southerners, all in their 20s.

1019 William Street

This strategy was not distinctive to African-Americans but was a strategy that often gave gainful employment to women. A boarder, unlike a lodger, required more than shelter. Laundry and meals usually went with boarding and required a presence on location. So very likely Hessie Wilson, age 48 from North Carolina, played the pivotal role enhancing her family’s income.

Bonnell House

On might note that this strategy was one used in 1920 by the owner of Bonnell House itself: Susan C Barber. Born Susan Chet field to a prominent Elizabeth Lawyer and niece of one of the city’s 19th century mayors, she married William Barber, a descendant of Francis Barber who at the time of the Revolution was headmaster of the Elizabeth Academy.

Elizabeth Academy

Ann Barber
Francis Barber

In 1776 he joined the NJ militia with his student Alexander Hamilton. Before his death during the Revolutionary war Francis Barber had married (sequentially Mary 1752-1773 (d age 21) and Ann [1758-1825] died age 67– both buried in First Presbyterian Ch graveyard) two daughters of Robert Ogden, a resident of the Belcher-Ogden house across East Jersey from Bonnell. Barber’s descendants later sold his 1045 East Jersey house but in the middle of the 19th century William and Susan Barber bought it back. The couple raised their family here. By 1920 her family is gone and her husband is deceased and Susan Barber takes in two Lodgers, likely as much for companionship as for financial stability. In 1920 Susan Barber is 75 and she lists no occupation. However her lodgers Elizabeth Barrington, 22 , a NJ native, worked for the Red Cross and Catherine Spraugue, age 45, also a NJ native, was self-employed as a dressmaker. Just ten years earlier Susan lived in Bonnell House with her son Henry, a 30 year old bookkeeper, and her 28 year-old daughter, Mary, who had no occupation. The household was also served by an 18 year old African American servant, Sadie Tucker, a NJ native but born of parents from Virginia.

In 1910 only 2% of this Catherine/William St neighborhood represented African-Americans from the South. Except for Sadie Tucker, the only African American family in the 12th Ward in 1910 was Louise Simmons who exercised the boarding house strategy at 1085 Lafayette St. She was a 47

1085 Lafayette St

year old Virginian with four daughters. Her boarding house lodged not only her daughters but four boarders, all under 10 years of age. Her daughters clearly helped family income with one working as a music teacher and the others working as domestics in local private homes. But the boarders all have different surnames and are not listed as Simmons’s relatives. In 1920 Simmons still resides at 1085 with her daughters but now she has one lodger David Scott, a 30 year old Georgian and a chauffer – and seven boarders all under the age of nine, all African-American and all born in NJ. Louise lists her occupation as "caretaker of children." What is the bigger story here?

By 1930 there is a sprinkling – two and three houses together, some of them two family – of African American households, esp on E Grand, William, Lafayette and Catherine Sts.

For those with extensive residential roots in this neighborhood there is no sense of racial rancor. If racial incidents occurred, they were recalled as little different than the affronts that affect ordinary domestic routines. However, by the end of the 1930s, in Elizabeth as well as in the North more generally, African Americans formed a critical mass. By 1940 African-Americans had expanded their ranks in New York City,

Nesbitt Funeral Home

for example, from roughly 3% in 1900 to 10% in 1940. The ferment that had resulted in the formation of the NAACP in 1910 impacted Elizabeth in the early 1940s with the formation of its local branch, headed by Bravel Nesbitt, proprietor of a local funeral home.

The articulation of distinct African-American priorities as a part of Elizabeth’s city-wide landscape had reached a new turning point, the shift from a local neighborhood culture to political organization and a public advocacy for the civil rights of all its citizens. Aspects of Jim Crow resistance in

Winfield Scott #2 – 1941

theatres and other public places, as Nida Thomas has testified, had become increasingly intolerable, "neighborhood" traditions. However it is bracing to note the testimony of several neighborhood residents that in public schooling – witness here a 1940 image of Winfield Scott’s Summer class – seems to have escaped the pall of Jim Crow prejudice.

It is however an important and bracing reminder that the rise of civil rights, one of the pre-eminent citizen-driven movements in America’s 20th century history, rested abjectly on informal domestic patterns that preceded activist organizations. Most importantly they rested on ordinary routines of average citizens who drew upon their locally grown strengths to argue that some aspects of the "old neighborhood" needed replacing in the 20th century. When we ask "whose old Neighborhood" it is imperative to acknowledge that every ethnic and racial tradition will likely have a different answer. It will be incumbent upon us all who explore the question to reconstruct each neighborhood, making a place for the multiple perspectives that an aged Bonnell House and an aged Elizabeth NJ always reflect. What we have tried to demonstrate today are select, documentable features of a neighborhood history rather than a definitive perspective on its past. Our history is an ongoing process. How we register and incorporate our knowledge, how we keep ourselves open to traditions not yet registered, will determine the authority of a new urban narrative. Here we conclude this tentative approach to the history of the Catherine/ William Street neighborhood and hope in the subsequent discussion we can enhance our story with your reactions.

Before discussion begins the Society would like to extend its sincere thanks to our Community Treasure interviewees:


MARGUERITE ROBINSON MATTIE SMITH NORMAN HARRIS
REV. RUDOLPH GIBBS HELEN BOSTIC LEWIS BOSTIC

<top>

Continue to Forum 2006 >>