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I Sit And Look Out: Restrictive rules in Queens hurt blacks

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I was an evening session student at City College. Most of us had full-time day jobs and squeezed in as many credits as we could at night, in all seasons. There was little or no time for socializing. I had a few passing acquaintances from time to time, but, like many others, I made no permanent friends in college and I didn't see any of them outside the classrooms or halls.There were a number of blacks in my classes, but nowhere near the number there are today. None of us, white or black, had much of a chance to get to know each other. We were too busy with classes and jobs. The day students at CCNY, in my time there, continued a tradition of liberal, if not radical, politics, which they had time for. We night students had no such luxury. I learned from some fellow students that one of the hot topics among the day students was to confront a fellow student and demand an answer to the question, "Would you allow your sister to marry a Negro?" The answer, it seemed, determined the answerer's liberal bona fides. My reply to that, when I heard it, was that I wouldn't dare tell my sister whom to marry, under any circumstances. I don't know what my bona fides would have been for that answer. While at CCNY, I worked for the Queens Post (a predecessor of the Forest Hills Ledger), of which I later became editor. I learned much about Queens on that job. I learned that many neighborhoods had "restrictive covenants" which kept out certain people, mainly Roman Catholics and Jews and most certainly blacks. These were in existence in such places as Jackson Heights, Forest Hills Gardens and Douglaston Manor. I also learned that many of these rules were being scrapped, whether because of anti-discriminatory laws or because it made little economic sense to keep them. As one wag put it, "After World War II, the powers that be in Forest Hills Gardens decided that Jews and Roman Catholics had money, too." Blacks were another matter. Ralph Bunche, who served with distinction in the State Department, was named Director of the Trusteeship Division of the UN in 1946. In December, 1947, he became the principal secretary of the UN Palestine Commission and helped bring peace to that area. For his work, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. From 1958 to shortly before his death in 1971 he was UN undersecretary for special political affairs. When Bunche tried to buy a house in Forest Hills Gardens, he was turned away. He bought a home in Kew Gardens. The first secretary general of the UN, from 1946 to 1953, Trygve Lie, a Norwegian, lived in the Gardens, in a home the UN provided. A friend of ours, whom my wife, Elaine, met in Queens College, was a black scholar who distinguished himself in the study of the classics. Articulate, literate and witty, he managed to work for an advertising agency, but only in such jobs as mail room and research, not in the more creative work that he could do. He demonstrated that by writing opera librettos and helping to translate operas into English for broadcast on NBC, in the days when television networks had some commitment to the cultural life of this country. As I recall, he received very little money for his work. He died too young in an automobile accident on the campus of a small New Jersey college where he was teaching. But, all his life, the color of his skin had kept him from achieving his potential. His friends still talk about him. Much has changed since those days, but, for those who were and are the targets of discrimination-including today so many from Asia and Latin America-the pace has been slow. In the early days of change, some corporations decided that they would showcase "token blacks." I know of one instance of a very large corporation in New York City where a young man was raised to a position in middle management for that very purpose. He was a decent guy, not overly bright, but he was shown off as the corporation's commitment to diversity in the workplace. He was beyond his depth in the position to which he was assigned and he did not last long. To that corporation's credit, it has done far better since those days and is held up, rightly, as an organization which does respect the ability of its workers, regardless of color, gender, sexual orientation or any other discriminatory measurement. A look at slavery in Queens and New York City in the next column.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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