The story below is one of those stories that my father intermittently told my brother and I while we were growing up. We loved the idea of gangs as protectors, of clubs organized around mutual survival, and I loved the idea that feuding factions could find common cause and move forward. This time in the re-telling of the story my father started with a description of the ethnic borders in his neighborhood.
I don’t know if I have done the ethnic thing but it was weird. We started with the west side, Morningside Heights where Columbia University is. That was predominately Irish but when you come down the hill, Morningside Park, Manhattan that was definitely Irish and it stayed solidly Irish to 8th Avenue. Then it was a little mixed with all kinds of folks. Then it was a mixture of Blacks and Jews starting at about 117th and St. Nick and then it was Blacks and Jews and an occasional Puerto Rican to 5th avenue. After that it was Blacks, not so many Jews and Puerto Ricans and that went to 5th Avenue. 5th Avenue is where the train is and also underneath was the Public Market. Then from there on East was solid Italian.
When I went to high school I ended up going to school at Benjamin Franklin which was 116th and Pleasant which was as far East as you could go then. We (Black students) had to go through Italian territory and that was kind of difficult.
Of course there were all kinds of gangs. The biggest (Black) gang in New York at that time was the Socialistics. There were a bunch of clubs and they were kind of aligned with them but they were rivals too. They fought each other. They battled and what not.
Now, there was this guy, he was a friend of mine. His name was Counts and Counts was another one of these ideal people. He was a big man, he played basketball. I was just starting to learn bass fiddle. I played bass and he played bass. At that time I was around 5’1“and he was about 6’2” and I think that is approximately the difference between our abilities to play the bass. So Counts went to school at Benjamin Franklin and was in rehearsal. When he came out of rehearsal someone put an ice-pick in his head, killed him dead and left him right there.
We were having this hassle anyway between the Blacks and the Italians, us being anti-Nazi. But over and above that, Mussolini is messing with Ethiopia. So when we went to school we were laid under siege. I didn’t know what was happening. I had some friends and when I was coming out of school I found out about Counts and whatnot and one of these Italian kids pulled me into a deli next door. I stayed in the back and they waited until everything was over and then they (his Italian friend and one of the store owners) put me on the bus. All of us were catching hell. They kicked ass.
How old were you?
I was in high school so I was 15, 16. (1942,43) We were just under siege. And what would happen was we’d go to school but we’d bunch up. We’d try to walk across the city. We’d get by as long as we were in big bunches. Any small group their asses were shot. And we stayed under siege. We called the police, we did a whole bunch of stuff, but nothing happened. So we went to school and then we were having fights. I was with my folks and told them, “These Italians are trying to kill us.” And they were like, “You get your ass to school.”
So I went to school this particular day and when I came out the front door all I could see was Black folks. A sea of black folk. Every club in Harlem put on their jackets and walked to my high school. This was noted in the papers also. They were just as efficient as they could be. Some of those guys of course went to Franklin, but not very many.
That’s a lot of organization a lot of different groups showing up at the same place, at the same time.
I have no idea how they organized themselves, none, but they showed up. They stood in front. They took over because they were ready to kick ass. They wanted to kick ass. They came out to kick ass. They divided us into two groups. Those of us who took the cross-town bus and those of us who walked. I was one of the walkers. We had a bunch of club members and we all took off at the same time. That happened for two days. On the third day the police were there.
So then you had no more problems after that?
Right. That was all. Just as an aside, but it’ really interesting just in terms of ethnic politics, we used to fight the Irish too. But we never knew when we were going to fight with the Irish. We’d go over to Morningside Park and we might play basketball or we might fight. And I got to say that the claims the Irish make about being near Black was a part of my youthful experience.
Shortly after this was the “riot” of 1943, my father leaving home and his being forced to join the military.
To read about my father’s experience with the 1943 New York “riot” click here.