Summary of Interview with Regina Hartfield - March 12, 2009
Key Terms: Lincoln School of Nursing, Jacobi Hospital, Washington Avenue, Crotona, Boston Road, factory worker, Harlem, Cherokee, lighter skin, Tride Stone, Thessalonia Baptist, Advent Senia, Our Savior on Washington Avenue, Reverend Ike, revivals, laying on of hands, speaking in tongues, Holy Spirit, Italian kids, shopping on Arthur Avenue, the “N” word, getting jumped, neighborhood, A Bronx Tale, Latino, Fordham and Valentine, Frank Sinatra, Calypso, Caribbean, Latin drummers, Chorus, importance of music, accents, food, Jewish, accelerated program, bussed to school, Marble Hill, class, Riverdale, snobs, differences
Regina Hartfield won the Carl M. and Netty M. Memorial Award for the best reminiscence article in the Bronx County Historical Society Journal with an article about her mother, Dell Amedee, who was an alumnus of the Lincoln School of Nurses. Her step-father was from Haiti and worked as a cab driver, plumber and framer. Her mother was from Orangeburg, South Carolina and as a child Regina lived with her mother and grandmother, Marie Harper on Boston Road, before her mother married Richard Amedee and they moved to Washington Avenue. Her grandfather had diabetes and had come to New York for treatment but he died when Dell was young, so Marie moved with Dell and her sister to Harlem before ultimately settling in the Bronx at Crotona and Boston Road. Her grandmother was a great seamstress and worked making umbrellas for a time. She left Harlem for economic reasons but the brothers stayed there. Marie was a very strict and religious woman. Her family owned a farm in the South and her family history suggests they had not been enslaved for some generations. Marie had long, thick, black hair – she was part Cherokee – and was lighter, which “in the South … the lighter you were, the better you were”. She attended college for two years and was “highly insulted to have to be working in factories … she had a strong sense of class.” Her grandmother was a strong, exacting character and believed in hard work and education. She has some humorous stories about growing up with her nana. Marie was an observant Baptist but Regina was raised Catholic, even though she went to tent revivals in Harlem with her grandmother. Her grandmother “followed” Reverend Ike until something happened and she “excommunicated him.”
Regina’s step father was Catholic so they attended Mass at Our Savior on Washington Avenue, which was mostly Italian but they “never felt like the black kids.” She attended PS 59 but got released for Sacraments. The neighborhood was very segregated and she was not supposed to “cross 3rd Avenue” as they only went to Arthur Avenue on specific shopping trips. She walked a little Italian girl home when she was about 8 years old and the girl said “I hope you don’t mind my saying so, you’re the nicest nigger I’ve ever met.” That was the first time she was ever called that. It was probably the first time she ever had heard that and she was confused because the girl and she got on well. Her mother discussed it with her, but of course the first response was “why were you over there?” Ironically early on, the neighborhood was mostly Italian. They lived on Washington Avenue in a private house that was owned by an Italian family, flanked by Italian families and they would cook food and share with them. She was amazed at how big the Italian families were. But later in the 1970s her brother Richard got jumped by guys with baseball bats. If more events like that happened in the neighborhood, the adults did not discuss it with the children, but she thinks as more and more African-Americans went to Arthur Avenue to shop, there were some issues.
“The community was mostly Black and Italian, a couple of Irish and a little bit later, a couple of families from Puerto Rico.” She had friends from all over and one of her best friends was Italian, who eventually moved to Fordham and Valentine. When she was in fifth grade the community population changed: “it became more black and more Latinos from Puerto Rico, a couple of Cuban families, a few more Caribbean families, from Jamaica , and … a couple of Haitian families, and Honduras. So, after awhile the building changed, our neighbors went from being Italian, Italian, Irish, black, to Honduras, black, Puerto Rico” but as a child she just saw it as making new friends.
The librarian at elementary school was Mrs. Rutledge, an African-American, who mentored the African American kids and pushed them. She did not feel segregated at elementary school, and in fact felt it gave her a good foundation to meet people from a lot of different communities but there were incidents in junior high that shaped her thinking and her sense of self and confidence. She describes the games they played – jump rope and hand games. For awhile, her step father’s mother lived with them; she didn’t speak English and she was a very traditional, Haitian homemaker. She would make different stews and had different ways of making chicken. Her family was all Southern and if you wanted black eyed peas (“forget collard greens”) you had to go to 125th Street to buy the Southern, traditional dish ingredients, “because you certainly were not going to buy that on Arthur Avenue.”
Even though the neighborhood demographic changed, things stayed the same: the men went to work and in the evening, people still sat on the stoop, people still pulled out their lawn chairs, kids were still running up and down the block, but they were not Italian. They weren’t Irish. They were Haitian. They were Puerto Rican. They were Honduran. And still some Italians and Jamaicans. Her mother was one of the few women that went to work.
The music in the community totally changed and she remembers hearing different accents. “It didn’t matter what ethnicity was predominant. Frank Sinatra kind of went through.” And there was a lot of Caribbean music and calypso. Music was always very, very important in her household. Even in elementary school, the great equalizers were sports and music. So kids had chorus and learned how to play an instrument and that’s where people got a certain amount of respect and acceptance. The commonality was music.
She received a scholarship to attend school out of her area in PS 122 in the Kingsbridge area which was predominantly Jewish, in an accelerated class. There was one other black girl and four black boys. The culture shock was more to do with class because the children were so well dressed. In PS 59, everybody was the same socio-economically. Also the children brought lunch to school in these little lunchboxes, with thermoses so she had to get one! It had to be The Beatles or The Monkeys or something—it had to be the cool lunchbox. Parents picked them up in cars. She learned about kosher diet. Her mother worked in Jacobi Hospital with many Jewish nurses and doctors so she understood the differences. Regina was teased but “it still wasn’t so much about being black, it was a class thing.” The other Africa-American children were from Marble Hill so they were also different from her. The Jewish kids had their own struggle within the Jewish community between “the hippier, more free and open, and this conservative Jewish group.” She discussed “Native Americans and what America did to the world” with her Jewish friends but with her Marble Hill friends “it became more of a black-white conversation; it was
more like, everybody, over there, would be white.” One Jewish girl teased her about Black History Month, “well, you know, that’s why it’s February, it’s a short month, you guys didn’t accomplish much.” Regina retorted, “Well we could talk about George Washington Carver who invented peanut butter for your matzahs.”