Boss of Black Brooklyn: The Life and Times of Bertram L. Baker


Product Details

Fordham University Press
Publish Date
6.3 X 9.1 X 1.1 inches | 1.1 pounds

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About the Author

Ron Howell is a journalist who has written extensively about the Caribbean, Latin America, and New York City. He is an Associate Professor of Journalism at Brooklyn College and author of One Hundred Jobs: A Panorama of Work in the American City.


Today generations and children from now on will know that it was Bertram Baker who broke the color line in Brooklyn . . . Let the record of history show that I owe a debt of gratitude to Bertram Baker and that I acknowledge Bertram Baker for his greatness and his vision. May today be, not only a recognition of his greatness, but a sign that we will try our best to memorialize those who opened doors for me and others to take seats in legislative bodies and other offices, in Brooklyn and throughout New York State. May God bless him. May he rest in peace.--Letitia James, former Brooklyn City Councilwoman; first black woman to hold any citywide office when she became New York City Public Advocate; candidate to be first black, first woman New York State Attorney General
Crucial reading for anyone interested in the political history of New York, The Boss of Black Brooklyn provides us with a deep understanding of ethnic and racial urban politics of the early and mid-twentieth century. Howell skillfully traces the life of Brooklyn's first black elected official following Bertram Baker's start in politics, to his election to the New York State Assembly, to his appointment as chairman of the State Assembly's Education Committee, Waiting for Stuyvesant. An inspiration for the next generation of black politicians.--Clarence Taylor, Baruch College, The City University of New York
Boss of Black Brooklyn is a story about politics in early twentieth century Brooklyn, but it is much more than that. It is also a story about the hearts, minds, and spirits of the Caribbean people.--Kirkley C. Sands, Ph.D., Dean of Faculty at Codrington College in Barbados
Bertram Baker's story is about Brooklyn politics in the early 1900s. But, it's also about how blacks fought to break down barriers keeping them out of all-white tennis competitions in the early twentieth century. During the Great Depression, and all the way through the 1960s, Baker headed the American Tennis Association, the all-black organization that nurtured Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. Baker helped make history when, in the 1950s, he negotiated to have Althea accepted into white tennis matches like Wimbledon and what's now known as the U.S. Open. Baker believed there was something in sports that strengthened the character. And there was something about Baker that helped Althea focus on winning while navigating racial and gender issues on and off the court. He not only encouraged blacks to play tennis, but he also started baseball leagues for boys in his Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood. As Baker's grandson and biographer, Ron Howell reports, Bertram Baker believed that life itself was a game.--Yanick Rice Lamb "Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson "
Boss of Black Brooklyn is a story about an extraordinary man. Bertram Baker, an immigrant from the then British island of Nevis had joined other West Indians, and American Blacks in the 'Great Migration.' Baker became the first Black elected to political office in Brooklyn. In Baker's era, Blacks began demanding their fair share of the patronage pie, such as civil service jobs. Baker had weaknesses and high ambitions. Part memoir and part history, Howell tells the story of both Baker's wins and losses, crafting a unique story of the American dream.--Jerome Krase, Ph.D. "Race, Class, and Gentrification in Brooklyn: A View from the Street "
This warm, insightful, and deeply researched study of Bertram Baker, arguably the most important black political leader in Brooklyn's history, reveals how Afro-Caribbeans contributed centrally in the rise of black political influence in New York City. Both a biography of the author's grandfather and an autobiography of growing up as a third generation immigrant in Brooklyn today, Howell makes a brilliant contribution to understanding how our city came to be as it is.--John Mollenkopf, Director, Center for Urban Research, The Graduate Center, CUNY
We, the Brooklyn Oldtimers Foundation, held our first meetings half a century ago, when Bertram Baker was leaving the political stage. We are retired police officers, firefighters, social workers and teachers. We are proud of Ron Howell for writing this book about his grandfather: Boss of Black Brooklyn: The Life and Times of Bertram L. Baker. In December of 2016, we gave Ron a plaque that said, 'A son of Bed-Stuy, you never forgot your roots. Your outstanding journalistic skills have been a breath of fresh air, shown in your published articles.' Using Ron's book, we will teach our youngsters what it means to be from black Brooklyn and how they should be faithful to it. Over the years we have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to college-bound students from our community. 'Bed-Stuy, do or die, ' we used to say back in the day. We will fight today's onslaughts and try to keep black Brooklyn breathing. The Boss would want us to do it.--The Brooklyn Oldtimers Foundation
Boss of Black Brooklyn is a story of hope. Howell sheds light on Freudian conflicts that have wreaked havoc on black families over the course of the black presence in the American hemisphere. Bertram Baker is a contradictory model for how to live and how not to live. Dead over three decades, Baker's story shows us we can achieve great things despite our weaknesses. We can claim to be righteous and bold, but we must learn that compromise is one of life's most valuable skills.--Raymond T. Diamond, James Carville Alumni Professor; Jules F. & Frances L. Landry Distinguished Professor, Louisiana State University Law Center
Through his powerful rendering of one irascible and determined political boss from first hurrah to last, Ron Howell uncovers the untold history of America's largest black community. It's a deeply researched story of strivers and failures, high hopes and backroom deals, of fighting racism and working the system. But most of all, it's a song of love: for Brooklyn, for its people, and especially for the author's gruff grandfather, his 'Daddy B.'--the Hon. Bertram Baker, 'the Chief.'--Paul Moses "An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians "
A fascinating book on Bertram L. Baker, the first Black representative elected to the State Assembly from Brooklyn, New York, in 1948. As an author of New York's first housing anti-discrimination bill, Baker became one of New York 's most important legislators. As the author's grandfather, however, the intermingling of Baker and Howell's lives revealed generational divides that cleaved through American society during that pivotal decade of the 1960s. Baker, the immigrant striver, embodied respectability and rectitude. Howell, the American born, Ivy league educated militant, embodied rebellion and resistance. These tensions remain important aspects of African Americans' and the entire nation's history. Howell's strengths as a journalist, his honesty, care, and humor, mixes memoir and biography, personal reflection and scholarship into a book that is informative and exciting.--Brian Purnell "Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn "
Bertram L. Baker could not have had a better biographer than Ron Howell, a gifted journalist and truth seeker. Howell's mesmerizing description of his grandfather's life and career also paints an indispensable portrait an entire borough, city, and nation. Following in the footsteps of another politician from Nevis--Founding Father Alexander Hamilton--Bertram L. Baker was a pioneer whose untold personal and political story is brilliantly depicted by a virtuoso and gifted writer who is well suited to revive him for all of us.--Edwidge Danticat, author of Breath, Eyes, Memory (an Oprah's Book Club pick)
In Boss of Black Brooklyn: The Life and Times of Bertram L. Baker, journalist Ron Howell not only shares his grandfather's impressive personal story, he also illuminates a fascinating era when West Indian families left their native islands, entered the U.S. through Ellis Island, and settled in Brooklyn.--Brooklyn Daily Eagle
"[A] valuable addition to New York history, Howell, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, writes about his grandfather Bertram L. Baker (1898-1985), the first black person elected (in 1948) to represent Brooklyn in the New York state legislature. . . The author paints a complex portrait of a young, ambitious immigrant, influenced by Booker T. Washington's political moderation, who worked to pass antidiscrimination laws, including the 1955 Metcalf-Baker Act, which made housing discrimination illegal. By the time Baker retired in 1970, he had served as assembly majority whip, been a key member of the American Tennis Association (which was instrumental in black tennis legend Althea Gibson's career), and paved the way for future African-American politicians, including New York City mayor David Dinkins and representatives Charles Rangel and Shirley Chisholm.--Publishers Weekly
Humorous, informative and fast-moving, this book is a treasure trove of knowledge which will reward all who read it.--Our Time Press
. . .A clear-eyed biography of the political powerhouse.--New York Daily News
Research like Howell's helps us to better understand the present day political successes of individuals like U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries, City Councilmember Jumaane Williams, or Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.--New York Amsterdam News

Bertram Baker was a pioneer we must never forget. His voice still speaks to us from the first decades of black political power in New York City. He was a model in the New York State legislature for many of us who later went on to historic achievements of our own in New York City politics.

I followed Bert Baker into the State Legislature, as did Charlie Rangel, who became the most significant black Congressman New York City ever sent to Washington; and as did Percy Sutton, who preceded me as Manhattan Borough President; and as did Basil Paterson, who joined with Bert Baker in the 1960s to make the voices of Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant residents heard throughout the city. Basil Paterson later became the first black Secretary of the State of New York. We were all youngsters when Bert Baker entered the political arena, and we all stood on his shoulders.

I have no doubt that when I became New York City's first black mayor in 1990, Bertram Baker was smiling with satisfaction from heaven. I am certain that Bert Baker is still watching, and we still have much to accomplish.--David N. Dinkins, 106th Mayor, City of New York
A gift from the island of Nevis to Brooklyn and the rest of America. Howell tells the story of Bertram L. Baker, who emigrated from Nevis in 1915 and became Brooklyn's first black elected official in 1948. Later, Baker served in the New York state Assembly and continually paid tribute to another Nevisian who had served before him--Alexander Hamilton.--Everson W. Hull, Ph.D., ambassador for St. Kitts and Nevis to the Organization of American States
Boss of Black Brooklyn: The Life and Times of Bertram L. Baker is a potent reminder that history isn't very old... What makes this biography all the more powerful is that as Baker's grandson, the author Ron Howell... offers a personal prism on a transplanted West Indian family and political ascension.--The New York Times