Cornell University Library

John Henrik Clarke Africana Library

Circa 1969: Reflections of a Kid from Brooklyn’s Vanderveer Projects

By Eric Kofi Acree, Director
John Henrik Clarke Africana Library

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how personal narratives fit into the larger context of history and impact lives—particularly how my own childhood in the Vanderveer Projects was shaped by the events unfolding outside of the protective concrete walls of my Brooklyn home.

In 1969, I was a happy-go-lucky 9-year-old living with my single mother and sister in Flatbush. There were no drive-by shootings, no drug dealers on the street corners, and no stranger-danger. The Vanderveer Projects, would later be known as one of the most dangerous places in New York—a place where murders were as common as discarded candy wrappers outside of a convenience store, the model of one of the worst federally-funded projects in history—but the Projects I knew were different, they were HOME.

At one point Barbara Streisand lived at Vanderveer, and in the late 60s it housed singer/actress Stephanie Mills. It was the place where I made some of my fondest childhood memories. I remember Halloween nights spent trick-or-treating, playing with other neighborhood kids around a house that we all imagined was haunted and running, for no other reason than to run. In fact, a neighbor once told my mother that my sprinting had Olympic potential. Shoot, the way I ran, I could have been the next Jesse Owens.

Ironically, there was no need to run back then. It was a time when we all felt safe sitting outside on hot summer nights. We listened to the Jackson 5, The Beatles, and of course, The Supremes—and I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a schoolboy crush on Diana Ross. The movie of the year was Planet of the Apes starring Charlton Heston. Later in life, I’d learn that he was a hardcore member of the National Rifle Association—maybe the role he played in that film—a conquering white explorer—should have been a clue.

The Ed Sullivan Show was must-see TV back then, and I got a kick out of impersonating Sullivan “We’re going to have a really big shoe (show).” Later, I would come to understand that talented white musicians, like Elvis Presley, would appropriate the music of blacks on that very show.

I remember man landing on the moon, and Neil Armstrong uttering those now famous words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I also remember, happily, the New York Mets winning the World Series. We even named our dog Art Shamsky (“Sham” for short) for the first met to hit a homerun—though secretly I wanted Cleon Jones to hit that first homer. Back then, even the Knicks and the Jets had championship aspirations.

1969 was also the most cherished Christmas of my life. My single mom used our rent money to make sure that my sister, Valerie, and I had presents to unwrap on Christmas morning. It was, indeed, a wonderful life.

Not all surprises were happy ones, however. I remember that fateful day in1968 when my Saturday morning cartoons were pre-empted by the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr—one of the saddest Saturdays of my life. As kids, we envisioned Martin Luther King as the president of the United States. We didn’t understand racism, nor were we able to answer the question that Nina Simone would ask in her hit “The King of Love is Dead”—Why?

While we didn’t understand racism, it was alive and well in 1960s New York. I remember the confusion I felt as a second or third grader at P.S.198 the day my mother became furious at my teacher for forcing me and my Chinese American friend, Fred, to sit on a wet floor because we were late to class due to a rainstorm. It was my first overt encounter with racism in the New York City Public School System, but sadly, it wouldn’t be my last.

I also remember the sadness and fear caused by the Vietnam War and the evening news with Walter Cronkite showcasing black and white images of soldiers fighting in the war and returning in flag-draped coffins. The sadness hit Vanderveer one day when our neighbor, Mrs. Lightbourne, knocked on our door to tell us that her son had just been killed in Nam. I remember watching as my mother tried to comfort another mother as she grieved the loss of her son. Though I had never met the son who died, I did know Mrs. Lightbourne’s other son, Earle. Earle was really nice, and really tall. He was forced to decide between going to college to play basketball or enlist in the Army. Other Blacks who came from similar neighborhoods would have to make comparable decisions, including a handful of Blacks who decided to attend college in upstate New York and went on to make history in 1969. Their personal narratives would indeed impact the lives of future generations of Blacks—including mine.

Vitullo-Martin, Julia. “A Once Troubled Housing Complex Seeks Change.” New York Sun. 15 March 2007. Web. 9 May 2016.
Mills, Stephanie. “Stephanie Mills on Instagram.” Instagram. Web. 9 May 2016.