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Historian Illustrates Racial Intolerance In The Northeast In Post-War U.S.


As Ferguson continues to raise a lot of painful questions about the racial divide in America, we're going to take a step back and examine an illusion many Northerners have about how enlightened the North was compared to the South in post-World War II America. The North was often portrayed as a land of liberty for African-Americans fleeing the racism of the Jim Crow South.

Our guest today, historian Jason Sokol, says while there were important differences in racial attitudes between the two regions, Northerners were often blind to patterns of segregation, discrimination and racial violence in their own backyards. In his new book, Sokol focuses on stories that illustrate the complexity of race relations in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Jason Sokol is an assistant professor of history at the University of New Hampshire and the author of a previous book called "There Goes Everything: White Southerners In The Age Of Civil Rights." He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about his new book "All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race And Politics From Boston To Brooklyn, The Conflicted Soul Of The Northeast."


Well, Jason Sokol, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write about Jackie Robinson's Brooklyn. You know, Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Give us a sense of the racial and ethnic mix of the borough of Brooklyn in the '40s and '50s.

JASON SOKOL: Brooklyn was somewhat unique in that it was such a polyglot place at that time. It truly had a smattering of different ethnicities among its white population - Irish, Italian, Jews. And then in the - certainly in the decades from World War II and beyond, it then received a great influx of African-Americans during the Second Great Migration, many of them from the South, also some of them coming from Harlem and coming from Manhattan and moving out to Brooklyn and Bedford-Stuyvesant. And in later decades, it would also gain an influx of Caribbean immigrants as well.

But it was really a mix there in the 1940s and '50s when Jackie Robinson played at Ebbets Field. And it was fascinating to see many people from all different walks of life embrace the African-American ball player in their midst. But there are stories in my book, you know - I found letters of people saying, you know, I'm never going to be a Dodger fan again.

DAVIES: So give us a sense of what race relations were like outside of Ebbets Field in the rest of Brooklyn, I mean, in terms of patterns of segregation in housing, whether African-Americans felt comfortable in all neighborhoods, whether they were safe.

SOKOL: During World War II, there was a series of incidents of white violence against black trolley operators. We often think of World War II as a time when a fragmented nation was pushed urgently together in the fight against Nazism, but it wasn't always true at home. The fact was that African-Americans could only move to a few specific neighborhoods, Bedford-Stuyvesant being the main one due to a combination of realty practices and housing discrimination.

So the interesting thing is that you have that process going on at exactly the same time that Robinson was playing in the ballpark. So you can see what I call the two warring stories of race in the North in one package and one neighborhood, where on the one hand, you have this color barrier broken in Ebbets Field, and on the other, you have these black ghettos forming and growing and creating these islands of poverty in the middle of the city.

DAVIES: This was a time when Jim Crow laws were in effect in the South. And there was no question that a black person in these states could not check into a hotel or eat in certain restaurants or, you know, use other public facilities. What was the situation in Brooklyn? Could a black person travel safely in all neighborhoods, eat wherever he wanted?

SOKOL: You know, it was often difficult for black people to figure out where they could go and where they couldn't. And that's - some African-Americans said that that made it in a way worse, that they never knew where Jim Crow was and where it wasn't, certainly, when they tried to go to places like restaurants, for instance.

Jackie Robinson and Rachel Robinson were always treated well when they went to restaurants together because Jackie was a hero and famous. The Robinsons said, however, that they knew how the normal African-American would be treated at a restaurant when Rachel went by herself, and she was sometimes treated disgracefully. And so African-Americans often had that kind of experience, even in New York, you know, even in the nation's capital of cosmopolitanism and enlightenment and tolerance. So it's important to acknowledge that it wasn't as vicious and as violent and as stifling as the Jim Crow South, but it also wasn't freedom.

DAVIES: Jackie and Rachel Robinson, his wife, decided to move to the Connecticut suburbs after he'd been awhile and had made a good salary as a ballplayer. What was their experience capturing that piece of the American dream?

SOKOL: Their experience was very difficult. Even for a black family with cash to burn, the suburban dream proved extremely elusive. And the Robinsons learned this firsthand. Rachel Robinson describes how she would wait for the Sunday New York Times every week with great zest and pour over those real estate listings. And she would call about a home or she would go and see a home, and as soon as she gave her name or as soon it became apparent that she was an African-American, a number of different ploys would be used. Oh, the house was just taken off the market; oh, the asking price went up; oh, we just accepted another offer. And she would - she got the runaround for years, and this was in the suburbs of Westchester County, New York, as well as Fairfield County, Connecticut.

So that happened for a few years and it - the Robinsons finally started to realize their dream when the Bridgeport Herald - Bridgeport, Connecticut - published an article in 1953 about the Robinsons' experience in the town of North Stamford. So the Bridgeport Herald published this article about how the Robinsons wanted to buy a home, and they were constantly rebuffed. And the citizens of North Stamford became outraged. They were worried about their reputation. They were worried that they would be seen as something less than an enlightened Northern community. And so a couple of people, particularly Richard Simon of Simon & Schuster and his wife, Andrea, invited the Robinsons up. And many citizens in North Stamford rallied around them. And finally the Robinsons found a home in North Stamford, and they moved in in 1955.

DAVIES: And you cite a remarkable provision in the bylaws of the Greenwich Connecticut Real Estate Board's bylaws. Tell us about that.

SOKOL: The Greenwich Real Estate Board prohibited real estate brokers from "selling or renting to any race or nationality that would tend to bring down real estate values" quote, unquote. And then brokers went on to explicitly identify such groups as Jews, Italians and Negroes. So very explicitly this town Greenwich - and it wasn't alone. It was just the one that was publicized in this article and therefore made it into my book - but the one that pretty explicitly prohibited selling property to Jews, African-Americans as well as Italians.

DAVIES: It was in the 1970s that school integration became a huge issue in many communities across the country when, you know, busing plans were ordered to get black kids into white schools, white kids into black schools. Probably the most famous was the one in Boston. Where did the busing plan in Boston come from?

SOKOL: Well, busing in Boston was ordered by a federal judge - Judge Garrity. And he offered his ruling in June of 1974. And Garrity offered the ruling in response to years of obstruction by the Boston School Committee, which was the school board that sort of ran the city's system. Massachusetts in 1965 had passed a law called the Racial Imbalance Act. And it was the only law of its kind in the nation for any state of the nation where it essentially outlawed segregation in schools; that was 1965. By 1974, still the leaders of Boston had not lifted a finger to integrate any school. So in essence, they were in violation of the state law.

So by '74, the black community thought it that it had exhausted all of its options. It had tried to get the school superintendent and city council and school board to integrate the school in any way, shape or form. And because they were met with no results, the NAACP finally filed a lawsuit in '72 in Boston, and Garrity ruled on that lawsuit in '74. And he said you have to use school buses to integrate the schools; that is take white kids from white neighborhoods and put them on buses and bring them to black schools and vice versa.

DAVIES: And what was the reaction?

SOKOL: The reaction was not good. Garrity paired two neighborhoods basically in the beginning - South Boston, Southie, which we all know is poor, white, Irish. And he paired Southie with Roxbury, which was almost all African-American. And white violence broke out. Violence exploded across the city. It was pictured on the cover of newspapers not only in Boston and across the nation, also overseas. Boston became the very picture of Northern racism in '74.

DAVIES: Now, Boston, I guess, was the most extreme example of this kind of contentious violence, but it was happening in a lot of communities across the country. And a lot of the white elected officials said, look, this is not about Jim Crow. We just want neighborhood schools. In fact, Joe Biden, the current vice president, was one of their staunchest defenders in the Senate, right? Give us a sense of their argument and what merit, if any, you think there was in it, this argument that was about neighborhood schools.

SOKOL: That's right. There were few - very few elected officials who would actually defend busing, partially because of the violence it had wrought in by Boston. But even before then, elected officials were very opposed to the idea of taking children out of their, quote, unquote, "neighborhood schools." Mostly this was elected officials catering to white voters, a - you know, majority white voters - who didn't want their kids to go through integration and who didn't want their kids wrested out of their neighborhood schools.

On the Senate floor, you had - many anti-busing amendments were offered through the 1970s. Many of them were offered by Southern segregationists, people like Jesse Helms, for instance, of North Carolina, a famous segregationist. And although the House of Representatives often passed these anti-busing amendments, usually in the Senate those amendments were killed by one measure or another. But it was Biden in 1975 - Joe Biden was a freshman Senator from Delaware. He was 32 years old. And Biden offered these anti-busing bills. And when it was offered by a liberal Democrat from a border state rather than a longtime Southern segregationist - when Biden offered it, it was a lot harder for Northern liberals to oppose. And so Biden actually - his amendments passed the Senate.

DAVIES: Jason Sokol's book is "All Eyes Are Upon Us." We'll continue our conversation after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is historian Jason Sokol. His new book is "All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race And Politics From Boston To Brooklyn."

You write about New York City in the '80s and '90s - I mean, a city that, you know, certainly has an identity that embraces diversity and some really horrific cases of racial violence. You want to just talk a little bit about that and the story you think it tells?

SOKOL: Well, New York City in the 1980s was a place with a series of exploding incidents of racial violence. The first one of those is one that's often forgotten, and that was the killing of Willie Turks. And Willie Turks was a subway maintenance man who worked at the Coney Island rail yards. And he was stomped to death in the neighborhood of Gravesend, Brooklyn, which is an overwhelmingly white, working-class neighborhood. He was stomped to death by a group of white teenagers. And what I say in the book is that Willie Turks's ghost in effect haunted the city for years to come because through that decade, you had a series of famous and infamous episodes, like the killing in Howard Beach, Queens, of Michael Griffith, which was 1986, and 1989, the murder of Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst. 1989, of course, was also the episode of the beating of the Central Park jogger and the ordeal of the Central Park five, who we now know were actually innocent of that crime. And so all those episodes occurred, and remarkably at the end of the decade, David Dinkins won the mayoral campaign.

DAVIES: The first black mayor of New York.

SOKOL: That's right.

DAVIES: And he ran in part on a platform of making the city safer. He hired a lot more cops and then in the end, was replaced by a Republican.

SOKOL: That's true. His landmark program was Safe Streets, Safe City, where he put a lot more cops on the street. You know, Dinkins's tenure is still very controversial. Some people think he did nothing and contributed to the erosion of public life in New York and the increase in crime. But the crime rates actually started to drop through Dinkins's tenure. But the problem was that the Crown Heights riots exploded in the early '90s, which was where an African-American child was killed by the motorcade of a famous Orthodox Jewish leader. And then in response, an Orthodox Jewish man was then murdered. And in Crown Heights, you had several days of violence, and many people in the city thought that Dinkins didn't do nearly enough to stop that violence. And then Rudy Giuliani was able to capitalize. And Giuliani had first run against Dinkins in '89, and Giuliani lost. And in those four years, Giuliani really surrounded himself with a lot of different policy wonks and so forth. And he offered - was able to offer something - a vision much different than Dinkins's. And that vision carried the day in '93.

However, he also did play the race card. There was a famous rally of police officers down in lower Manhattan. And Giuliani spoke at that rally of white police officers who were disgruntled with some of Dinkins's policies. And there was even a sign held up that said, dump the washroom attendant. So Giuliani certainly benefited from that kind of racial backlash in '93.

DAVIES: You know, you write that African-American mayors were elected in a lot of Northeastern cities - Philadelphia, where we are, is one of them - and I'm wondering to what extent you think that the election of African-American elected officials, including a president now, have taken us towards a - I don't know, I hate to use this hackneyed phrase - but post-racial period in which people are capable of judging politicians by things other than the color of their skin?

SOKOL: I don't think the elected officials have taken us to a post-racial place. I don't think we're in that place where Americans evaluate candidates or one another without regard to their race. But I do think that the elections of African-American officials from the mayor's office all the way up to President Obama - I do think that those elections are still meaningful. You know, having an African-American president as a child's first memory of who a president is, for instance, I mean, that's profound. That's a profound change from the entire history of the country leading up to then. At the same time, it doesn't solve the problems of racial inequality that we still have. So I think you've got to understand that sort of duality in order to understand American race relations and I would argue in order to understand the North as well.

DAVIES: You know, we're speaking in the wake of the decision by the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, not to press criminal charges against a police officer who shot an unarmed black teen. I wonder if you have any thoughts about those events and what they say about race relations in the country.

SOKOL: Those events say that we still have a long way to go. We have an African-American president, and yet we have a nation in which African-American men are still brutalized, sometimes by police officers, sometimes, in the case of Trayvon Martin, by George Zimmerman. So, you know, the point is that I think in the 21st century we've come a long way with President Obama and others. The fact that President Obama was the one to address the nation after the news of no indictment - I mean, that's meaningful and try to comfort the nation. But the sad and sobering reality is that there's still all these racial inequalities and this persistent issue of police brutality, which just doesn't seem to die. So I think that would probably give the lie to the idea that we're anywhere near post-racial.

DAVIES: Jason Sokol, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SOKOL: Thank you.

GROSS: Jason Sokol spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. Sokol's new book is called "All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race And Politics From Boston To Brooklyn." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.