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South Bronx is tied to black culture and New York history

NEW YORK — On a recent tour with Fordham University’s Bronx African American History Project, attendees were able to see streets and neighborhoods in the South Bronx that have a strong connection to black culture and the history of New York.

Professor Mark Naison said that after the Great Depression, landlords needed black people to move into communities in the south Bronx. There were a lot of vacant apartments at the time.

“It was a neighborhood that was largely Jewish, but filled with activists, trade unionists, socialists, communists,” Naison said. They were put in the Amsterdam News and shop windows.”

“Middle-class black families who wanted better schools, better housing, better shopping saw these signs and started moving into this neighborhood,” Naison added. They left Harlem, the black Mecca at the time.

“The South Bronx was a place of hope for ascending black families, Caribbean families and Puerto Rican families,” Naison explained.

Longtime Bronx resident Bob Gumbs, who helps with tours, said the South Bronx is called the “Harlem of the Bronx.” The professor explained that this was particularly true for the Morrisania region.

During the tour, the professor and Gumbs pointed out buildings that honor music in the borough. The Melody was a building that was built around the theme of the neighborhood’s musical heritage. And it’s not the only African-American-influenced building in the Bronx.

There’s also a place called “The Bronx Music Hall,” the professor explained.

The Melody, located on Prospect Avenue near Westchester Avenue, has a plaque saluting the music legends that performed in the Bronx and the styles that were created in the borough. He also mentions big names in jazz, including Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis, who have previously performed on stages in the South Bronx.

“Walk down Boston Road from 169th [Street] at 166th Street, and there are six different jazz clubs,” Naison said.

“A lot of musicians who performed in Harlem would come to the Bronx because they had so many nightclubs and places to perform,” Gumbs added. “Like, for example, Club 845, which was founded in the late 1940s, has become the best jazz club in the region.”

And if you didn’t know, doo-wop and harmonizing were huge in the Bronx with black singing groups. The Chords wrote and were the first to perform the mega hit “Sh-Boom”, sometimes referred to as “Life Could Be A Dream”.

“Sh-Boom was the first urban harmonic song to sell a million records in 1954,” Naison said. “They were students at Morris High School.”

Girl group The Chantels, who went to St. Anthony’s Primary School in Padua, had their own big hit in 1958 with “Perhaps.”

Naison and Gumbs wrote the book “Before The Fires”. They said life was good before the 1970s fires that ravaged several communities in the South Bronx.

This life includes churches such as Thessalonia Baptist Church and St. Augustine Presbyterian Church. Churches of various denominations have played a large role in shaping the borough. Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. both spoke at St. Augustine Presbyterian Church.

“Because of Reverend Edler Hawkins, who became the first black leader of the Presbyterian Church in the United States when he left that church, and the first black teacher at Princeton Divinity School,” Naison said. “So the Bronx had this great religious leader with a national reputation in this church.”

On the ashes of the 1970s, housing redevelopment took place with the help of many churches and community groups. And of course, hip-hop was born in the South Bronx and spread all over the world.

With this, Naison showed off her impressive rapping skills. He said it doesn’t matter that he is white and 75 years old; he proudly bears the nickname “The Notorious PhD”.

The professor was floored when a member of the tour started rapping. Lisa Lee was part of the early days of hip-hop in the borough and appeared in “Wild Style” and “Beat Street,” two classic hip-hop films.

And at the end of a good concert, sermon or tour in the black community, it’s time to eat.

Johnson’s Barbecue opened in 1954 and remains a staple of black culture in the South Bronx, serving southern specialties like barbecued ribs, fried chicken, collard greens and candied yams.


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