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Childhood Memories of Racial Discrimination

In the '70s, she and her mom helped break the color barrier in a New York apartment


In my childhood neighborhood, “moving on up” meant a 1970 move from our New York City apartment on 155th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenues to a three-room apartment in a building on Riverside Drive West, near 159th Street in Washington Heights. The building was part of a six-unit, seven-story, multiple dwelling, facing the Hudson River and New Jersey, with the George Washington Bridge just to the north and clearly visible from the front entrance.

Back then, the building featured apartments for rent, but by the early 1980s, it converted to mostly co-op apartments. I turned 10 the year my mother and I moved in, and we lived there until the summer after my freshman year in college in 1979. Though our first apartment there faced the back and did not feature a “river view,” we were happy with our new home. By 1973, we moved to a larger apartment across the hall with a view of the Hudson.

The building had a variety of tenants — the elderly as well as families with young children. Many of the older tenants were Jewish and had escaped Nazi Germany or other parts of Europe during, or just after, World War II. One of our neighbors was a woman whose concentration camp number tattoo was still faintly visible on her arm. What the building didn’t have much of were tenants of color, like me and my mom.

In the first year we lived there, I noticed that my family, and a few interracial families, seemed to be the only non-white tenants. I also noticed that the building’s management office seemed to want to keep it that way.

Credit: Courtesy of Leslie Hunter-Gadsden
Leslie Hunter-Gadsden and her mother

Fighting Renters’ Discrimination

The year before we moved in, I realized that my mother had viewed many apartments the buildings’ agent showed her, only to be told they’d been rented and were no longer available.

Unbeknownst to the agent, my mother (a public school secretary at the time) had several white co-workers who were teachers living in the building; they always told her when they knew of a vacancy. Finally, after my mother threatened to file a complaint with the New York housing agency,  one of the apartments she had seen miraculously became available.

It was smaller than my mother wanted, but she decided to take it, even if it meant the two of us would share the bedroom. Just prior to signing the lease, my mother was informed by the building management that they “preferred to rent to couples and families” which was basically code for “no divorcees.”  Determined to move in, my divorced mother got one of my father’s brothers to pose as her husband on the day it was time to sign the lease.

Not only did the building’s leasing agent show racial discrimination, but the policy was also anti-female, clearly showing the preference of not renting apartments to divorced women of any ethnicity.

In 1970, buildings on Riverside Drive were beginning to integrate, but some moved much slower than others.  At that time, buildings stretching from 145th Street to 160th Street between Broadway, Amsterdam and Saint Nicholas Avenues already had a significant number of striving African American, Caribbean American and Hispanic tenants and was known as “Sugar Hill” because it was reflective of the “sweet life” north of Harlem.

Conversations in the Laundry Room

During that first year after we moved in to 159-34 Riverside Drive, my occasional job on laundry days was to add coins for an additional cycle in the dryer in the basement.

It was there in the laundry room that I learned how novel an entirely African American family was in my new apartment building.  On one early sojourn, I saw a black woman wearing a maid’s uniform. She looked shocked to see me bopping in with my brown skin and thick pigtails flying.

She frowned at me and stared. Finally, she asked gruffly, “You live in this building?” I politely said, “Yes,” to which she exclaimed, “I’ll be damned.”  I didn’t understand why the black woman seemed angry with me. I described our meeting to my mom when I got back upstairs.

She explained, “That woman was not mad at you, she’s just shocked that you are living in a building that she thought didn’t rent apartments to black people. Her experience has been that the only black people she might meet here were working as housekeepers like she is, or repairmen.”  My mother’s explanation made everything a lot clearer.

During another trip to the laundry room, an older white female tenant initiated a conversation. She said, “You’re such a pretty little girl, where are your parents from?  South America or maybe Bolivia?” I told her that I was born in New York City and so was my mother. I didn’t mention that my father was born in Jamaica, West Indies, because that seemed like more information than she needed to know.

I think I told her that I was a black American, but she kept shaking her head and saying things like, “You are so well-spoken, I’m sure your parents are from another country.”

A Curious State of Affairs

When I told my mother about this exchange, she initially busted out into peels of laughter, and then explained, “Some whites have difficulty believing that home-grown American blacks could be well spoken or articulate. For them, well educated people of color must be from outside the U.S.”

From my almost 11-year-old perspective, this was a curious state of affairs.

Gradually, the building did become more diverse. Growing up in the ever-changing tapestry that was Washington Heights in the 1970s and 1980s meant that I was just as comfortable eating Jamaican rice and peas with plantains, Dominican arroz con pollo or Challah bread and Kugel pudding from a neighbor or local restaurant.

I benefited from my mom fighting the racist management office of my building because I got to live in a nice apartment and meet all kinds of people, and they got to meet me — an inquisitive black girl with family roots in America, Jamaica, Africa and Europe.

Leslie Hunter-Gadsden
By Leslie Hunter-Gadsden
Leslie Hunter-Gadsden is a journalist and educator with over 25 years experience writing for print and online publications.  She has covered business topics for several trade publications and Black Enterprise magazine.

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