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Queens Chronicle

St. Albans: music, but much, much more

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Posted: Thursday, January 9, 2020 10:30 am

As a journalist turned journalism professor, Springfield Gardens native Claire Serant has always wanted to tell people’s stories.

But it was a former student who taught the Brooklyn College, Medgar Evers College and SUNY Old Westbury teacher that there was a book to be written about St. Albans while they stood conversing in a college parking lot four years ago.

“Then I went to the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Carle Place to the local history section,” Serant said. “There were books on Laurelton, books about Jamaica ... I started calling people up.”

Say “St. Albans” and many with a sense of local history immediately gravitate to the Addisleigh Park section, a more upscale neighborhood teeming with elegant Tudor and stone homes.

Fans can run off the names of music legends who lived there: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Milt Hinton and Brook Benton; sports icons Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella; and seemingly even Babe Ruth, there all the time in the days of the of St. Albans Golf Club.

“But St. Albans was always more than jazz music and Addisleigh Park,” Serant said. “When we were growing up in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, there were doctors, civil servants, teachers, lawyers — role models. Children could see their futures.”

Her 127-page work of black-and-white photos captures everything from an early grocery store, old-time Scout trips and church picnics to modern youth football, all mixed in among the entertainment, sports and civil rights luminaries. The book goes on sale Jan. 27.

Serant went through photo collections ranging from that of the Queens Library to the Library of Congress. She spoke with friends and acquaintances, and acquaintances of acquaintances, all in a search for photographs that captured the life and spirit of a neighborhood over decades, and even back to the 19th century.

Some of the most surprising treasures she found were taken at the St. Albans Veterans Hospital, which started construction in 1943 and was completed seven years later.

“They had a regular band,” Serant said, and many of the photos depict marches, parties and celebrations held to keep up the morale of the patients. But there also are photos of Navy sailors — all of them looking young — who had been sent there for treatment in the hospital’s tuberculosis ward.

On a lighter note there are pages of photos from the family of Jacob Kaplan and his Club Ruby, an integrated nightclub that attracted the likes of John Coltrane, Catherine Basie and Mona Hinton.

Serant documents the legacy of the Black Spectrum Theatre Co., founded by Carl Clay in 1970 on a shoestring budget in a storefront at Linden Boulevard and 200th Street.

She learned that St. Albans Life, a weekly newspaper, was published from 1946 to 1952 by Roger Roddy. Serant’s research came across Roddy’s 2005 obituary, which led her in turn to his daughter Linda, who granted her access to her father’s files and photos.

She has photos of W.E.B. Dubois, founder of the NAACP, who married Addisleigh Park resident Shirley Graham; Guy R. Brewer, the civil rights leader and trailblazing politician for whom the long boulevard running from Jamaica to John F. Kennedy International Airport is named; and Jane Nebel Henson, who married Muppet creator Jim Henson.

It was not without work and sacrifice. Serant documents the struggle against race-restrictive covenants that ran with the deeds to houses in Addisleigh Park before the Supreme Court ruled against them; and men and women dressed in their Sunday finest to block construction vehicles heading for the site of Rochdale Village back in 1963, when contractors refused to hire African-American workers.

The book will be available for $23.99 at arcadiapublishing.com or anywhere else books are sold.

‘St. Albans’ book signing

When: Thurs., Jan. 30, 6-8 p.m.

Where: Back Spectrum Theatre, 177-01 Baisley Blvd., St. Albans

Entry: Free (book $23.99). (718) 723-1800, blackspectrum.com

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