African American Studies
Interviewees: Clara Lee Irobunda, Vincent Harding, and Carmen Givan
Interviewers: Dr. Mark Naison and Brian Purnell
Summarized by Alice Stryker
Before the interview formally beings, Clara Lee Irobunda discusses her role in the transition with Morris High School into smaller schools. The school was getting too large to efficiently teach all of the students and many were “falling between the cracks.” To fix this problem, she designed small separate “schools” within Morris High School.
The interview is concerned with the experiences of a variety of people who grew up on Dawson Street and lived near/went to Morris High School. Dr. Harding is a prominent historian and was a political activist with Dr. Martin Luther King. Carmen Givan is a nurse who graduated from Lincoln School for Nurses, Jean Reyes is a nurse who attended Montefiore Nursing School.
In the 1940’s Carmen claims that Dawson street was a great place to live. Carmen’s family is from the Caribbean and she and her family lived in Harlem before coming to the Bronx. Vincent’s mother is from Barbados and his parents came to the US shortly after WWI. His family also moved from Harlem to the Bronx, and still kept very close to the church they had belonged to in Harlem. He was very close to the members of his church. His church provided outlets for people with talent and cultivated the leadership qualities of their young people. His mother worked very hard and believed in him and his aspirations. She worked as a housekeeper for individuals as well as the Hotel Pierre. Carmen’s father was a carpenter and plasterer and her mother did domestic work occasionally as well. Neither one of her parents experienced racial discrimination at their jobs. Even though both Vincent and Carmen came from working class communities, they desired higher education and both their families and their community supported them. Jean’s father is Puerto Rican and owned a restaurant and two candy stores.
Both Vincent and Carmen talk about their experiences with the Library on Southern Blvd. as well as other libraries near their neighborhood. It was more then just a place to take out books, there were cultural activities going on there as well. Jean Rayes lived in Harlem and went to the Harlem Boys Club.
Carmen went to PS 124 for grade school and they reminisce about the toys they used to play with and the significance of holding pigeons. She said she felt completely safe walking from Harlem to her home in the Bronx at 2am. She also loved to go dancing at the various clubs in the Bronx. Vincent did not do a lot of dancing, which he claims is due to the fundamentalist attitude of his church. They preferred their young people to pay attention to and attend “High Culture” events, which excluded the blues and Etta James. He did however listen to Calypso music.
The interviewees talk about the way they thought about Harlem and whether or not they saw the Bronx as a separate entity from Harlem or not. The consensus is that is was different and better than Harlem.
Carmen was involved with many social clubs like Adahi and Club Piccadilly. Vincent in Junior High became involved with a gang called Comancles Chiefs. He was able to get out though because the pressure from his community.
Vincent had a number of memorable teachers at Morris High School and his experience there was very important in shaping his identity. He got to know the principal very well because of the activities he was involved in. He had a mission to make Morris High School like the UN, meaning very diverse. A biology teacher really had an impact on him as well as a French Teacher. He was encouraged to write for the newspaper instead of playing sports. He feels that his experiences at Morris were instrumental in his participation in political activism.
Jean experienced Morris High School in a similar way to Vincent. She too saw it as a racial melting pot.
Carmen talks about the Lincoln School for Nurses and its history. It was traditionally for African Americans but began to integrate and reflect the multiracial community of the Bronx they three of them experienced.
Vincent then relates some of his academic work to the lives and issues of African Americans today all over the United States.
Harding, Vincent. March 28, 2008. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham University.
Click below to download supplemental content.Harding, Vincent Interview 1 Part 1.mp3 (112413 kB)
Harding, Vincent Interview 1 Part 2.mp3 (61345 kB)