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Queens Chronicle

BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Reflecting Back Looking Forward Ground zero for Queens civil rights

How struggle for equality was won right here

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Posted: Thursday, February 7, 2019 10:30 am | Updated: 12:56 pm, Thu Feb 14, 2019.

The story of racial justice and equality in our time is set, for the most part, in places like Selma and Little Rock.

But there are places in Queens that deserve more than a footnote in the history of the civil rights movement.

Places like Rochdale Village, Rosedale, Corona and Flushing Meadows are unmarked battlefields in the fight by African Americans for equal rights.

Queens provided foot soldiers in the fight in the 1960s to desegregate the South and register black voters in states where they had been systematically excluded.

The borough even gave the movement one its most enduring martyrs, Andrew Goodman, a Queens College senior who was murdered along with two others in the summer of 1964 in the infamous “Mississippi Burning” killings.

But that was what was going on far away. Here in Queens, the civil rights struggle also had scores to settle.

• The opening day of the 1964 World’s Fair was supposed to be a spectacular photo op for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Robert Moses and President Lyndon Johnson, who was set to give the opening address. No luck.

The Congress of Racial Equality — which stood out then for being both biracial and confrontational — decided to disrupt the opening as a protest against job discrimination at the fair and elsewhere in the city.

CORE members kept the doors on subways cars on the No. 7 line from closing, stopping trains. Drivers arranged to “run out of gas” in front of the off-ramps of the Grand Central Parkway, blocking traffic for miles.

• In 1964, while Northerners were calling for the desegregation of schools in the South, New York civil rights leaders organized a school boycott here. For one day — Feb. 3 — parents were urged to keep their children out of school to protest de facto segregation in schools here.

More than 450,000 kids, nearly half the school population, stayed home that day.

• The Black Panther Party on the West Coast had a well-earned reputation for fratricidal violence. But the chapters of the BPP in Jamaica and Corona were more focused on community care — especially a breakfast program for neighborhood kids.

The Corona chapter deserves a sidebar in civil rights history for its fight to get a traffic light on Northern Boulevard and 102nd Street, just up the block from PS 92.

Andrew Jackson, the retired head of the Langston Hughes Library, recalls stories he was told about cars speeding recklessly down Northern because it had so few lights. “In the morning, kids couldn’t cross the boulevard to get to school,” he said.

Only after the Panthers organized teams to block traffic on Northern during school hours — and got arrested every day for more than a month — did the city relent.

• Before 1951, Queens College had never had a black professor on its faculty. That year, it hired Deborah Partridge Wolfe, a 35-year-old Ph.D. professor from New Jersey by way of the Tuskegee Institute, to teach in the Department of Education. It was more than a decade before the college hired its second black professor, also in the Education Department.

• The first black family moved into Rosedale in the fall of 1974. Before they could get the furniture in, someone tossed a pipe bomb though the window of the house on 136th Avenue.

When Ormistand Spencer, 35, a supervisor at a photo-engraving company, and his family vowed to stay, scores of residents of the all-white neighborhood marched outside his house, protesting a special police detail that had been stationed there after the bombing. The cops, the protestors said, were needed elsewhere in the area.

• In 1973, a fourth-grader ran away when an undercover cop leapt from his car in South Jamaica. The cop said he’d been looking for someone wanted in a cabby robbery who matched Clifford Glover’s description.

The cop fired. The bullet struck 10-year-old Glover in the back and killed him.

Glover wasn’t the first to be killed in a questionable police shooting, but his age and the cop’s dodgy justification represented a turning point. For weeks, protesters blocked Jamaica streets with trucks and cars. Government offices were picketed until the police officer was indicted for murder, the first for a line-of-duty shooting in NYPD history. A year later, a jury acquitted him.

• York College, the newest four-year college in the City University system, opened its doors in 1967 because the borough’s only other senior college, Queens, was so overcrowded.

But, says Mark Levy, a retired teacher and civil rights activist at Queens College in the 1960s, “The founding of York College was a civil rights victory to me.”

Today, the student body at York is listed as 65 percent black and Hispanic.

CORRECTION

This article originally contained a photo caption that misidentified an official with the Congress of Racial Equality. He is James Farmer. We regret the error.

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