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Lawrence Otis Graham on Being Black in Westchester

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With Barack Obama this close to moving into the White House, you’d think our society has at last become color blind. But try telling that to the Harvard lawyer and bestselling author whose strolls through neighboring towns sometimes elicit calls to the police.

Lawrence Otis Graham; Photo by Chris Ware

Lawrence Otis Graham; Photo by Chris Ware

“I’m sorry to bother you, but would you mind if my child felt your son’s hair?”

As I waited on line at the small pizza shop in downtown Chappaqua, I held tightly onto my four-year-old son’s hand and chatted quietly with his baby­sitter. “Excuse me, sir,” a voice repeated from behind us, “but would you mind if my child felt your son’s hair?”

At first I hadn’t realized the question was directed at me. I turned to see an attractive woman with wavy blonde hair and clear blue eyes. She smiled at me and waited for me to answer her question.

“I beg your pardon,” I answered while glancing over to the pink-cheeked little boy she cradled at her hip with one arm. She leaned in toward me, bringing her child closer, and in a stage whisper added, “Tommy’s just four and he’s never seen hair like your boy’s. Would you mind?”

As I looked down at my son, I saw his beautiful chocolate-brown skin, bright brown eyes, long lashes, and curly black hair—and I saw my own childhood staring back at me. Gordon had not comprehended the woman’s question, and he had no idea what I was thinking or what a few of the adults in the bustling pizza shop had just heard. It was one of those moments that virtually every middle-class black parent in Westchester and beyond has experienced when living in an affluent white community that remains mystified by their presence. It is a moment that is riddled, not with racial hostility, but with passive bias.

It was hard not to respond the way my Memphis-born parents had responded to similar remarks to them when we were the only black family in our all-white upper middle-class White Plains neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s. But I resisted.

I happen to love Westchester. I have lived here all my life. I love my neighbors in Chappaqua. And I was determined not to receive it as an insult. So I responded with patience. “I’m sorry, miss, but I’d actually mind very much.”

A wave of shock washed across the woman’s face as she placed her child down. He was slightly taller than my son, and he stood just inches away, staring with curious eyes.

“Really?” the woman asked with an air of surprise. “What’s the big deal?”

I ushered Gordon over to his baby­sitter and told them to sit down. “Madam, I’m sorry that your son has never touched hair like ours, but my four-year-old is not a social-studies experiment.”

“It’s just hair,” she declared, suddenly belittling a request that originally meant the world to her, “and you have to admit that hair like yours is kind of different from what Tommy is used to seeing around here.”

I calmly asked the woman how her four-year-old would feel if a feature on his body was pointed out as being unusual and so unique that it deserved a spotlight or a physical inspection by a complete stranger. As we walked out of the small shop with our three slices of pizza, I was rather certain that she still had no grasp of our feelings of alienation.

The African American experience in Westchester certainly could be portrayed in different ways depending on the period, the town, and the racial or socio-economic mix of the community in question.

Although African Americans have lived in Westchester since the 1700s, when they were brought to work as slaves at Philipsburg Manor in Tarrytown, and while there were small numbers of African Americans in the county in the early 1920s (the 1920 Census reported 11,066) with many living in Mount Vernon (1,350), White Plains (998), Yonkers (1,920), and New Rochelle (2,600), the earliest meaningful residential population of blacks did not arrive until the mid-1930s, particularly following the 1935 race riot that occurred in Harlem. Middle-class families, who had their own small businesses, or whose members were physicians, dentists, or worked for the U.S. Post Office, were the first ones to buy homes in Southern Westchester. By 1940, the population of African Americans living among Westchester’s 573,558 residents had tripled to 31,346. Most of these African Americans represented a working class population, with about 20 percent representing the middle and professional classes.

 
Orial Banks Redd; Photo by Chris Ware

Orial Banks Redd; Photo by Chris Ware

Orial Banks Redd’s family arrived in Westchester in 1912. “My grandmother, Julia Griffin, moved to Rye when there were almost no blacks here,” says Redd, who co-owns the 80-year-old African American newspaper, Westchester County Press, with her ex-husband M. Paul Redd. A class of 1942 graduate of Rye High School, Orial recalls that she had not had another black student in her class until she was in the 11th grade. “One of the reasons my parents insisted that I attend a black college in the South,” says Orial, “is that they worried that my all-white experience of growing up in Rye would prevent me from understanding the average black experience.”

The Yellow Lantern Restaurant in Rye, 1932, which served white customers only; Photo courtesy of Orial Banks Redd's family collection

The Yellow Lantern Restaurant in Rye, 1932, which served white customers only; Photo courtesy of Orial Banks Redd’s family collection

Few people realize that during Orial’s youth, some towns in Westchester warmly embraced racial segregation. As was true in the South, certain restaurants in Westchester during that period were restricted to either black customers or white customers. Ironically, Orial’s uncle, Robert Griffin, a black man, owned the Yellow Lantern Restaurant on Purdy Avenue in Rye during the 1930s, and it seated white customers only. “The well-off white people came when the help was off,” she says.

Still, Orial and Paul raised their children in the city, and they did this at a time when Rye’s population was no more than one percent black. “We moved back to Rye in 1957,” says Paul, “and our children became the third generation of our family to attend the Rye schools.” Their son, Paul Redd Jr., today a
senior investigator with the New York State Department of Labor, was the only black student at the Midland Annex School, Orial reports. Thus she insisted that he be transferred to the Midland Main School. “There weren’t a lot of blacks there either,” she notes, “and he was never invited to any of his white classmates’ homes.” Their daughter, Paula, was not only a lead soprano at Rye High School, but went on to perform in all-county, all-state, and national venues. Today, Paula Redd Zeman is the Westchester County Commissioner of Human Resources.

The next wave of middle-class blacks followed after the 1943 Harlem race riot, and it was at this time that the cities of White Plains, New Rochelle, and Mount Vernon built a modest number of public-housing developments to house a new working-class black population. But the largest black population arrived in Westchester following the national civil unrest of the mid- and late-1960s. By 1968, the black community had grown to represent 10 percent of the Westchester population, with most African Americans still living in the four southern cities. Today, 13.8 percent of Westchester’s 923,459 residents are African American.

Things have changed a great deal since 1967 when my parents bought their second house in Westchester, but at that time and before then, it was very difficult for black families to purchase single-family homes in middle-class or affluent white neighborhoods. Real estate brokers were unwilling to show homes to middle- and upper- income blacks, and white homeowners were discouraged from doing so either by restrictive covenants or by peer pressure from their white neighbors. Since no broker would show them houses in the more desirable neighborhoods, Mom and Dad resorted to the classified section of the New York Times. After weeks of looking, they landed on an ad for a house situated on one of the top streets in White Plains. When my father called the owners, an ophthalmologist and his stay-at-home wife, they confirmed that the price was $40,000, as indicated in the paper.

We took the 25-minute drive north from Mount Vernon to the house, which was located on a beautifully lush street, just five houses from the Scarsdale border. Although the house was small, the neighborhood was stunning, populated with red brick colonials, historic Tudors, and handsome Mediterraneans with a few four- and five-bedroom split-levels woven into the mix.

“Wow!” my brother, Richard, eight years old at the time, exclaimed as we stepped out of our green Pontiac sedan and looked at the towering maples, copper beeches, pin oaks, and elms that lined the streets and the country-club property that anchored the neighborhood. “And look, no sidewalks!” Coming from a city like Mount Vernon, where most avenues were built on a simple grid with sidewalks and narrow setbacks, this neighborhood looked like a verdant oasis.

“How can I help you?” the owner asked after my mother rang the doorbell.

“We are the Grahams,” my father answered. “We spoke to you on the telephone an hour ago.”

The man offered a curious expression, and then closed the screen door. He left us standing on the porch, but came back a few seconds later. “Oh, Mr. Graham, I forgot to tell you that the price listed in the paper was a mistake. It is not forty thousand dollars. It is actually fifty thousand.”

My parents rolled their eyes at each other and insisted on going into the house despite this obvious ploy to discourage their purchase.

The husband and wife excused themselves as we sat in the sunlit living room near the fireplace.

“We have a bit of a problem,” the man said as he re-entered the living room. “My wife and I are not really comfortable selling this house to you—even with that extra money.”

My mother asked why not.

“Oh, let me explain,” he said. “We will sell it to you, but we’re not really comfortable doing it.”

My mother persisted. “I’d like to know why you’re not comfortable.”

The man looked at his wife, who was dressed in a plain cotton dress with flowers at the hem. “We’re a mixed couple,” he said.

Although I was only five years old, “mixed,” in my mind, meant black and white. But the man and woman were both white. “My wife is Jewish,” he explained, “and I am not. And because of that, the neighbors have really treated us terribly. But we could really teach them all a lesson by selling the house to you!”

 

We were going to be the revenge on the neighbors: a concept that was too complex for me or my brother (today a White Plains orthodontist) to comprehend. This was my introduction to our new community. After we closed on the house, paid the couple an unfair additional $5,000 (they reduced it from $10,000 after learning that a neighbor was passing around a petition to prevent the sale to the neighborhood’s first black family), we received a very kind phone call from the rabbi of the Jewish Community Center (now known as Congregation Kol Ami) who lived three blocks away and wanted us to know that he and his congregation welcomed us to the neighborhood.

Teenage members of Westchester Jack & Jill, a social group for black youth, in January, 1955, gathering in White Plains on the evening they went to see Marian Anderson’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera; Photo courtesy of Westchester Jack & Jill

Teenage members of Westchester Jack & Jill, a social group for black youth, in January, 1955, gathering in White Plains on the evening they went to see Marian Anderson’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera; Photo courtesy of Westchester Jack & Jill

Many black middle-class families who moved into white neighborhoods during the 1960s have their own variations of this story: local police asking black children what they are doing on the street; candy-store owners following us and our children through the aisles of their stores out of fear of shoplifting; six-foot fences being erected by disappointed white neighbors on moving-in day; complaints to the local realtors about possible losses in property value.

And, not surprisingly, in our desperate quest to fit in, to be accepted, to avoid trouble, to not appear threatening, we devised clever but shameful and near-paranoic life skills that later generations of black Westchester arrivals would surely mock. I remember the rules that my parents introduced to my brother and me just days after we had been “treated” to a summer afternoon visit to a restricted local country club. Before I share the details of that day, let me first share my parents’ new rules:

1. Never leave the yard wearing blue jeans or a shirt without a collar.

2. Never consume food or beverages in the yard or while walking on the street.

3. When buying an item in a store, insist on getting a receipt—even if it is just for a pack of gum.

4. Never play music outside and never dance at school.

5. Never browse inside a store. Go in, make your purchase, and leave immediately.

6. When stopped by a police officer, keep your hand on top of the steering wheel and always travel with a battery-operated tape recorder under the front seat.

7. No matter how hot it gets during the summer, never remove your shirt unless you are in a swimming pool.

8. Never get on an elevator that is occupied by a white woman who is alone.

As shocking as these rules may seem today, my parents—who grew up in the segregated South—were convinced that they would keep us from being arrested, intimidated, or insulted as we grew up in our all-white neighborhood and encountered other virtually all-white settings.

Now, the country-club experience that started it all:

Neighbors who lived across the street from us were a rather wealthy white family who belonged to the Westchester Country Club, an exclusive country club that, at the time (the 1960s), did not admit blacks or Jews. The wife was a well-educated Memphis-born woman and the father was a Yale-educated Manhattan lawyer. Both liberal and outgoing, this sophisticated white couple welcomed us to the neighborhood, encouraged us to play with their kids, and invited us to their country club. Despite my parents’ pleas for us not to visit their club, fearing possible insults, my brother and I went.

I still remember the ride in their large, luxurious Chrysler station wagon over to a part of Westchester that I’d never visited. They drove us through the long main driveway and around the grounds of the main building, overlooking its 18-hole course, and then they drove us to the club’s waterfront beach location. We had hamburgers and milk, changed our clothes in their gleaming white cabana, and then went for a swim.

After only a few minutes in the club pool, several of the children quickly got out of the water, and those who did not get out voluntarily were retrieved by their parents. Richard and I also ran out because we thought there was something threatening in the water. It wasn’t until we were poolside that we discovered that we were the threat. I remember crying; my brother was just stunned and hurt. This was probably my earliest and most memorable experience in feeling like an outsider. It made me feel that we blacks were not only “different” but also “menacing.” It took many years for me to grasp the idea that every white person wasn’t afraid of me.

 

That was the last time this liberal white family took us to the Westchester Country Club (though our friendship with them endured for several decades). Future outings were limited to the very integrated county-run Saxon Woods swimming pool and the very public Milk Maid Ice Cream & Burgers establishment on the south end of White Plains on Mamaroneck Avenue. The family resigned their country-club membership shortly after the incident.

Graham, at home, with wife Pamela, sons Gordon and Harrison, and daughter Lindsey; Photo by Chris Ware

Graham, at home, with wife Pamela, sons Gordon and Harrison, and daughter Lindsey; Photo by Chris Ware

Like my parents, many other black families managed to finesse (and often overpay) their way into somewhat re­sistant affluent white neighborhoods and towns. The members of these black families all knew each other. They were the doctors, attorneys, executives, and educators who populated groups like Jack & Jill, the Links, the Guardsmen, the Westchester Clubmen, the Boule, the Alphas, AKAs, and Deltas. They contributed to the Urban League and the NAACP. Each town had their familiar names: the Branches, Brodericks, Martins and Redheads in Scarsdale. The Greenups, Joneses, and Clarkes in Hastings. The Hyacinthes and Hollands in Bronxville. The Halliburtons, Fields, and Solizes in Rye Brook, and the Eikerenkoetters and Redds in Rye. In New Rochelle, my cousin, Robert Morton, became the hospital’s first black surgeon, and made news in 1963 when he and his wife, Anna, integrated the Long Island Sound waterfront with an expensive home and yacht that anchored nearby. All were fountains of hope for later families.

Graham, at home, with wife Pamela, sons Gordon and Harrison, and daughter Lindsey; Photo by Chris Ware

Most famous of all of these recent trailblazers is Scarsdale’s Earl Graves, whose historic Heathcote mansion continues to be the scene of many charitable fundraisers and gatherings. He was heralded by many when he gave a 1989 speech at a Scarsdale United Way dinner and spoke honestly about how country clubs in the county were still discriminating against accomplished blacks like himself. Many were stunned to hear that local golf clubs would use their racial policies to exclude a man who not only founded the successful Black Enterprise Magazine and owned a Pepsi bottling franchise, but who also had sat on the boards of Chrysler and American Airlines.

Kenneth I. Chenault, chairman and chief executive officer of American Express Company; Photo courtesy of American Express

Kenneth I. Chenault, chairman and chief executive officer of American Express Company; Photo courtesy of American Express

Some of the wealthiest and most powerful blacks in America live here. There is Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, who resides in New Rochelle. Earl Graves raised three sons in Scarsdale who, after graduating from Yale, Brown and Harvard Business School, returned to Westchester to raise their own families. Harold Doley, the first black to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, lives in the 1901 Irvington mansion that was built by Madam C.J. Walker, a black turn-of-the century entrepreneur, who also happened to be the nation’s first self-made female millionaire.

Westchester resident Harold Doley with his commissioned oil painting by Jemu Herrington, depicting famous black musicians

Westchester resident Harold Doley with his commissioned oil painting by Jemu Herrington, depicting famous black musicians

Like any other group, blacks in Westchester are not a monolith. And though there were many families who made us feel at home and became lifelong playmates and friends, bias still exists. I was told two years ago by a local newspaper reporter that my frequent evening walks sometimes elicited calls to the local police. Racial comments today have mostly gone “underground.”

I have had a great life in Westchester. And from this vantage point, I have seen many things change. Several years ago, when my brother told me that he was buying a five-bedroom home on one of the best streets in Harrison, I realized that, yes, the racial barriers that had been put before us when we were almost turned away in 1967 really had been removed.

Yet we have many black friends who tell us that they feel as if they are a curiosity for their neighbors. There are white residents around us who have never shared a meal, or a car ride, or even entertained a black person in their homes. When I ran for Congress several years ago in a 90-percent white district that included Northern Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess counties, residents were continually shocked by my academic and professional background. The most frequent compliment I heard: “You have such great diction and sound so well-educated.” No such words were used when complimenting my white opponents.

When these same people learned that my wife, Pamela, had received her undergraduate, law, and business degrees from Harvard, and was then serving as the president of CNBC, they were surprised that she was an African American woman who’d grown up in Detroit. As open-minded as these voters attempted to be, they simply couldn’t accept that we were unlike their widely held racial stereotype. Interestingly, these supposedly impressive credentials made us victim to other stereotypes: that we were somehow freakish or “uppity.” And this is the challenge of black Westchester residents: to live our lives without being rejected for the very worst stereotypes or being marginalized for the others.

My family’s three-generation love affair with Westchester has had a few bumps here and there, but we wouldn’t trade the people or experiences here with anything in the world.


Lawrence Otis Graham lives in Chappaqua and is the author of 14 books including Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, he is a political commentator on News 12 Westchester and a political blogger for Westchester Magazine.

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