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Berger’s Burg: An African-American heroine in Brooklyn

Women, in general, have always had a strong and lasting impact on American history. And African-American women, in particular, have always had a strong and lasting impact on Black and American history. February is Black History Month and time to remember a personality many of you probably never heard of. Nonetheless, she left a major imprint on a community, a time frame, and me.This lady was born in New York City in 1885. Her father died when she was 9 years old. At 15, she left school to help support her mother and two sisters and worked at Bergdorf-Goodman for 40 years. This part of her rich life is not the major crux of my story. It was in her later years that she rose to become a strong spokes for the African-American children of Brooklyn. She was Rosetta ("Mother") Gaston. The year was 1976. A young manager was assigned to supervise a vast housing project in Brooklyn. He arrived at his desk bright and early, ready to assume the managerial position. Little did he know that this lady was eagerly awaiting his arrival. That rookie manager was me.I had been particularly concerned about replacing a popular and experienced black manager who had been promoted. He immediately advised that a call to "Mother" Gaston would be an appropriate start. "Just a disgruntled resident," I thought, as I dialed her number. "Hello, is this Mrs. Gaston?" "Yes," came the firm reply. I was somewhat surprised by the strong voice on the other end of the line."My name is Alex Berger and I am your new housing manager. It is a pleasure speaking with you." I hastily said, hoping to make the call as brief as possible. "If there is anything I can do for you, don't hesitate to call.""Berger, is that with an e or a u?' No matter. I want to see you right now," she said. "I have great difficulty in getting around and there is something very important I must discuss with you." This was not what I wanted to hear."I am afraid that is impossible, Mother Gaston. This is my first day on the job and IÉ""Nonsense. You must come," she insisted in a most persuasive manner."All right, but only for a few moments."As I reached for my coat, I felt like a schoolchild being called to the principal's office. Expecting to see a large, middle-aged woman judging from her booming voice, I was surprised to find a small, frail, elderly woman in a housecoat sitting on her sofa. "Sit down, Berger," she insisted. "We have lots to talk about."She then proceeded to fascinate, entrance and move me with her life story, replete with aged photographs and newspaper clippings. She had led a pioneering life as one of the early female proponents for "Negro" rights, beginning in the 1920s."Berger, that part of my life is over," she said. "I now spend my days helping the youth in the community," she said. "I consider them all my children. I never had my own. We must teach them because they are the future. Berger, promise to do your best to help our youth. Say that you will." "I will," I replied.She rose slowly, looked me straight in the eye and said, "Berger, I know that you will." I left with the realization that I was about to be transformed into a much different person than the one I was before I knocked on her door.From that day forward, via telephone and visits to her apartment, we worked together on social, educational, and athletic programs for her "children." I listened and I did my best to fulfill her many innovative ideas. Talk about meaningful learning experiences, I never dreamed that I could be drawn into such a close and respectful relationship with this bold, bouncy, brilliant, bundle of energy. The telephone calls and the personal visits went on for several years until the day I was transferred to another project in Queens."Mother" Gaston summoned me to her apartment, her booming voice now a whisper, looked me straight in the eye again, and said, "Berger, I am going to miss you." I promised (and sincerely intended) to return to see her in the near future, but it was not meant to be. This special lady died before I could keep that promise. All of Brooklyn mourned her death. A community center and an avenue were eventually named for her."Mother" Gaston, I remember the telephone calls and the short walks to your apartment those many years ago. They made me a better manager, a better person, and a friend. Sleep well.

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