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Helen Taylor: a pioneering activist, Kennedy family friend

By Brian Wright O’Connor | 7/2/2013, 9:46 a.m. | Updated on 7/2/2013, 9:46 a.m.
Helen Taylor, a Harlem political activist who broke color barriers in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and worked with several generations ...

Helen Taylor, a Harlem political activist who broke color barriers in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and worked with several generations of the Kennedy family, died June 5 at the age of 91.

A Philadelphia native who moved to New York in 1949 to seek work as a draughtsman, Taylor was active in politics and community affairs right up to the end. She was scheduled to proctor an SAT exam in a local school on June 1 but went to New York Presbyterian Hospital after suffering sharp pains in her side and was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.

“She was still making calls from her hospital bed about getting her home on Convent Avenue fixed and trying to get the developers who owned the neighboring properties to fix theirs,” said her niece, Marsha Saldanha. “She was fighting the whole time. She just didn’t want to go.”

Born Helen Williams, she grew up near the University of Pennsylvania campus in West Philadelphia, graduated from Overbrook High, and studied drafting at a technical school before moving to New York. She scored the third-highest mark in a draughtsman’s exam at the Navy Yard but was not invited to return for an interview.

When a fellow test-taker heard that Taylor had been passed over, she marched into the supervisor’s office with Helen at her side. “He had said to me, ‘We’ll let you know,’ but told several others with lower scores to come back for a physical,” Taylor said during an interview last fall.

“Florence, a Jewish girl who had taken the test with me, said, ‘How can he do that? You had one of the highest scores,’ and took me right in to see him. She told him to invite me back for a physical or there would be trouble. Needless to say, he changed his mind.

“When you grow up being taught that all people are equal and you never see hate, it’s kind of a shock when you come face to face with it,” she said. “I never forgot that and it made me determined to help make sure it wouldn’t happen to others.”

Over the next 20 years, Taylor helped draft blueprints for numerous classes of warships built at the Navy Yard. She also plunged into local politics, working in the first campaign of U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel along with other candidates for state and municipal office.

In 1966, while working as a volunteer for the Democratic candidate for New York governor, she was walking down a hallway with a stack of correspondence, turned a corner and bumped into U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy coming around the corner. “I almost bowled him over,” she said laughing, the years draining away from her small, elegant frame as she described the scene. “Sen. Kennedy asked if I was all right and helped pick up the papers that had fallen off the stack. ‘Did you write all these?’ he asked. ‘Then you should come work for me!’”

So she did, writing correspondence in his Senate office in Manhattan and working in his 1968 presidential campaign. Later, she volunteered in U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s 1980 campaign, which won the Democratic primary in New York. She ushered the senator’s daughter, the late Cara Kennedy, around Harlem, and befriended several Kennedy cousins.

In 1993, she met U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, the eldest son of Robert Kennedy, at a Harlem rally for Mayor David Dinkins. After he left Congress to run his Boston-based nonprofit Citizens Energy Corporation, she helped the company sign up beneficiaries for its fuel assistance program and attended several kick-off events in New York.

For many years, she and her husband Eugene Taylor, who passed away in 1971, lived in a large apartment on 151st Street and moved into the family-owned townhouse on Convent Avenue in 1980. After she retired from the Navy Yard, they owned and ran the Tots to Teens clothing store on Broadway at 151st Street.

In recent years, Taylor struggled to get the developers of adjacent Convent Avenue townhouses to fix their properties because of water leaks damaging her property. Her strong, steady voice and scolding correspondence grew familiar to local housing officials and political aides.

“I just want them to do what’s right,” said Taylor. “These developers want to drive me out, but you know what?” she asked, leaning forward with purpose. “They’re messing with the wrong lady.”