Local elders will share their memories of life in Brooklyn’s historically African-American neighborhoods on Sunday in an event that will tackle the issues surrounding gentrification of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill head on.
Called “Voices of the Elders,” the oral history showcase is the finale of a year-long “Black Brooklyn Renaissance” series, organized by Kay Turner, the folklorist at the Brooklyn Arts Council.
“Over the years I met artists from the diasporic community in Brooklyn and it seemed so rich,” said Turner, who was motivated to organize the Renaissance after deciding that Harlem’s African-American arts scene was attracting all the attention while Brooklyn’s was relatively ignored.
One of the elders participating on Sunday is Jitu Weusi, a life-long teacher, activist, and resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant who now helps run the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium.
He can recall being one of 19 black students at Fort Greene’s Brooklyn Technical High School in the early 1950s.
“I lasted there two and a half years,” Weusi said. Though the school didn’t charge tuition, his family was destitute, and couldn’t afford the supplies that the school constantly asked its students to purchase, he said.
Moreover, the “social atmosphere” at Tech made Weusi uncomfortable.
“New York City as a whole was insensitive to the plight of blacks at the time,” he said.
He went on to study history and education at Long Island University on a basketball scholarship, where again he was one of few black students.
When Weusi was growing up in Bed-Stuy in the 1940s, the community was just emerging there as black families, outpriced from their previous homes near the Brooklyn Bridge, began moving in. At the same time, whites were moving out.
“I despise gentrification, because I remember the speed with which whites left out of here,” he said.
While working as a social studies teacher in Bed-Stuy and exploring black culture in Harlem, Weusi developed a long-standing commitment to black culture and history, which he used to keep his students engaged.
Ever the skeptic, Weusi criticized the upcoming oral history event that he’ll participate in on Sunday.
“This comes from people who grew up next to black communities and now feel like they missed out on that culture,” Weusi said.
But he added that the event could help black people realize the importance of their contributions to American culture.