Dr. William McKinney was thrilled when he heard the news that his neighborhood, Addisleigh Park, would be officially recognized as a historic district. On the first day of Black History Month, the honor was bestowed by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission on a community that was once home to some of the best and brightest creative people and intellectuals ever assembled in one place.
A cozy, picturesque enclave of predominantly black St. Albans, in southeast Queens, Addisleigh Park became home to scores of uniquely talented African-American residents. World-famous entertainers, history-making athletes and high-achieving professionals in a variety of fields overcame the racism of the time to create rich lifestyles despite the fact that they were not wanted, and by doing so, they turned a page in the history of blacks in the city.
The landmarked area — which to this day maintains its architectural integrity and charm — comprises 422 neatly landscaped English Tudor homes and other classic designs. The community is most celebrated for its "history that illuminates African Americans' struggle for, and achievement of, the basic civil right of homeownership," according to LPC Chairman Robert Tierney.
The historic district is a roughly 80-acre (less than one square mile) triangular area in a section of Queens long dominated by African Americans, who have been joined more recently by people of Caribbean background. The St. Albans Congregational Church, located at the western corner of the historic neighborhood, opted out of the landmark designation.
Landmark status is meant to preserve the community's unique architecture by requiring the LPC's approval of major exterior alterations. While the new rules worry some residents, old-timer and jazz aficionado McKinney is unfazed. He bought his home more than 50 years ago from legendary heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, and considers the designation a "great honor, damn it, and I want my name in there."
McKinney, a retired dentist, spent many an hour at the bar in the basement of his home, talking music and sampling his collection of thousands of jazz albums with tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, who lived down the street. Louisiana-born Jacquet was the first jazz musician to serve as artist-in-residence at Harvard, in 1983. But he was more famous for his solo on "Flying Home," whose honks and grunts inspired R&B musicians. "He used to stop by all the time," said McKinney.
From Harlem to the Middle Class
In the late 1940s and early '50s, Addisleigh Park was a mecca for black entertainers, iconic athletes and upscale professionals. But despite myths to the contrary, the majority of families living there were middle income and included teachers, beauticians, salesmen, contractors and a variety of civil servants. Six-figure-a-year bandleaders and vocalists socialized at home with $1,500-a-year salaried employees.
Perhaps the most sparkling talent in the neighborhood was Lena Horne — singer, actor and star of movies, Broadway and television — who was blackballed in the 1950s and prevented from working because of her political views and civil rights activism. She overcame the injustice to reach new heights during her remaining 30-year career.
There were so many greats: Milt Hinton, the master bass player, as well as iconic vocalists Billie Holiday (Lady Day), who popularized the protest song "Strange Fruit"; Ella Fitzgerald (the First Lady of Song), winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom; and James Brown (the Godfather of Soul), who arrived in the 1960s, singing, "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud."
Before living in Queens became fashionable, "all the musicians lived in Harlem," said Arthur Barnes, chairman of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. "If you were prominent, if you had made records, there was no place else to live, especially if people knew you as a star. Then you had to have what stars have: a big car and a nice place to live."
But for most, those aspirations were not easily — or usually — attained. "We value these musicians as American cultural icons: Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie, which is appropriate," said Michael Cogswell, director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens. "But in their day, many of them were striving to achieve middle-class existence."
Overcoming the Racism of Restrictive Covenants
As time went on, Harlem's population swelled while its real estate stock deteriorated, and pressure grew for people who could afford it to leave Manhattan. The strongest attractions were to parts of Brooklyn and Queens, including Jamaica, St. Albans and Addisleigh Park, according to Roscoe Brown, who heads the Center for Urban Education Policy at the City University of New York.
But gaining entry to Addisleigh Park in the 1940s was difficult — if not impossible — for blacks of all incomes because developers initially limited sales to whites. In addition, some homeowners introduced restrictive covenants to bar the sale of property to blacks, said Greg Mays, a leader of the Addisleigh community's efforts to gain landmark designation.
Artist Brent Baylor, a second-generation owner, remembered stories about the white neighbors' response to his father's purchase of a home in 1948. His father, Lloyd Harding Baylor, was a labor arbitrator and the only black member of the National War Labor Board during World War II. "The people on the block voted on whether to allow us to move in, and of the 24 families, only one voted in our favor," Baylor recounted. "That family became our best friends."
Later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (Shelley v. Kraemer) the restrictive covenants unconstitutional, officially lifting a legal — if not the only — barrier to equal opportunity for blacks in housing. "Even before the decision, white owners and black buyers were making deals in defiance of the covenants, and as more blacks moved in, 'white flight' increased," said percussionist Bill Jacobs, whose father, Clarence Jacobs, was a public school music teacher and a singer in his youth. They arrived in 1950.
The victory in the Supreme Court was attended by mounting activism among African Americans and their allies for equality in all aspects of American life. Several leaders in the struggle resided in Addisleigh Park, notably W.E.B. Du Bois, the most influential intellectual and activist on behalf of African Americans in the first half of the 20th century, and his wife, Shirley Graham, a writer and composer.
In sports, Jackie Robinson needed the patience of Job to endure racism while breaking the color barrier in baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers; Roy Campanella joined the team soon after. Both settled in Addisleigh Park.
Psychologist Regina Meacham's late father, the prominent Harlem attorney Thornton Meacham Jr., moved his family to Addisleigh in 1952. She fondly recollects her childhood as peaceful and protected, insulated from the racial storms swirling around the country: "The struggle wasn't over in the North, and probably not even in New York," she said. "But it was over for us in Addisleigh Park."
Emile Milne, a native of Queens, N.Y., now lives in the Washington, D.C., area.