Saturday, July 6, 2013

My Experience with Frederick Douglas High School

Sam Walton was a strong community advocate for the Harlem Youth.  As a youth himself, here is just one of his experiences that shaped his beliefs.  

Frederick Douglass High School was four blocks from my house in the middle of Harlem.  On the first day of school, I had mixed feelings about being there; I was happy and fearful.  I was happy because I was leaving behind all the bad experiences of my elementary education, and I was hoping my new school would help me forget some bad memories.  I also liked the idea of it being an all boys' school.  The school was going to represent a challenge - we were going to see if we could "save face" .  Could we survive the hazing?  That school had a reputation of bullying new students.
      I heard stories of many fights at Frederick Douglass High School.  As time went on, things were not as bad as I heard.  The administration had stopped most of the bullying by the time I arrived, and was, in fact, trying to make gentlemen out of us.  They accomplished this in a number of ways.  Some teachers were very tough in drilling into our heads the concept of being gentlemen.  We had to wear ties, clean shirts, and pressed pants.  The tough dean enforced all the regulations to keep us mannerly.
      In grade school, teachers stressed we were only children; now our task was to become young gentlemen.  However, in the classroom, there was always chaos.  I can remember one teacher who looked like the three stooges - Moe.  While "Moe" was on hall duty, we always threw books at each other and sometimes chairs.  When he came into the classroom, we would calm down for only a minute and then start back up again.  When the dismissal bell rang, we all ran out like wild men. I went to this school three years, and finally the system was changing a bit.  New teachers were coming in who didn't share the same values as the older teachers.
     On a serious note, Frederick Douglass High School taught us NO black history.  This was a shame because it would have solved some of  the discipline problems and promoted self-identity.  In early 1963, some new neighbors moved into the building where I lived.  They were a group of black and white students who identified themselves as the Harlem Education Project (HEP).  They told us they received a small grant for their project.  One day, one of these boys, who was dressed in overalls, was washing the windows outside their apartment.  I stared at him for a moment and then started a conversation.  He said his group was there to do whatever the community needed them to do.  It was refreshing knowing someone had come to help the community.
      At this time, my friend and I was fourteen years old.  Despite being young, the boys at HEP invited us to their storefront office.  They told us each day they held a meeting, and they were interested in us.  They listened to our problems, our ambitions, and our interests, big and small.  They let us hang out in their office and use the typewriter. 
      This was one of the many experiences in my youth that made me want to be an advocate in my community for other youths, so they could learn their past and appreciate the experiences of their elders who came before them.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Genevieve Doyle & Sam Walton

Genevieve Doyle had a tremendous impact on Sam Walton's life.  She helped Sam with his studies, she helped him improve his abilities to read and write, and positively influenced Sam in all aspects of his life.  Sam had once told me a story of Genevieve and her unwavering bravery of the times (the 60's and 70,s) in Harlem.  Genevieve wasn't afraid of much at all.  Sam had told me of the time when he and a friend of his, Sam Gaynor, walked quite a ways through Harlem, with Genevieve in the middle of them both.  See, Genevieve was white.  She insisted she could walk by herself, but Sam and Sam had none of it, and escorted her anyway.  That's the kind of man Sam Walton was - generous to everyone and giving back to his community of Harlem.  I came across an old letter that was written to Genevieve many years ago, and here it is in its entirety:

Dear Sister Doyle,

It was great talking with you a few days ago.  I am getting back to you to tell you more about the projects I mentioned. 

We are grateful for the contributions you have made for the Dr. Mamie Clark and Ella Baker memorial.  You are one of the earliest - and longest - of our supporters.  It was due to you that the project was such a success in our early celebration.  We were able to get Dr. Kenneth Clark and his family to attend.  By spring, the city will have started refurbishing the square.  Then we will add the benches, the trees, and the plaques as symbols of those two great women so that they will remain in our memory. 

In addition, for the last five years we have been working on the Community History Project.  It has been a struggle to get a proper focus and to raise the money.  We know this project will be of great value to our community.

You have been a pioneer in your work in Harlem.  Coming out of an elite Catholic Order, you built a bridge to our community.  You did fantastic things for the children and for the adults.  You brought hundreds of people to the theatre who had never been there.  We want to record your interactions in Harlem.  You are one of our heroes.  We want to save this contribution for others to learn about.  I am looking for someone to interview you for our oral history.  Do you know someone there who can do it?  Later, we will bring you back to Harlem to put it on visual tape.  I would also appreciate any of the photographs you may have that will help document that experience.  We really need them.

I will follow this up in a couple weeks so I can discuss this further with you.

From Sam, with love.