Given his celebrity and, ah, notoriety, it comes as no surprise that Dr. Leonard Jeffries is cited nearly a million times on Google.
Of course, Jeffries, fondly and widely known as “Dr. J,” has not placed a cursor on any of them, though his friends, colleagues and students keep him informed on what’s being said about him. He’s been told that much of it is negative, stemming in part from the early ’90s when a controversial speech he made in Albany went viral, bringing him unwanted attention and a welter of death threats.
It took the AmNews several weeks to corner the intrepid griot, who had just returned from a Conference of Mayors in the closing hours of the semester at City College, where he planned to meet with some students who had not taken their final exams.
Anyone who has ever had the good fortune of attending one of his lectures knows that to put a microphone in front of him is to prepare for an endless torrent of valuable African-American history and culture, and to think he can be confined to one topic for very long is wishful thinking.
So, as we expected, Dr. J waxed eloquently for a half hour on his family and the early years of his life coming of age in Newark, N.J. His story is so compelling that rather than compress it to one take, we hope you’ll appreciate a series of interviews with one of the world’s most fearless, outspoken teachers, activists and griots-in short, a Nana of the highest order.
Amsterdam News: In preparation for this interview, out of curiosity, I Googled you. Have you ever Googled yourself?
Dr. Jeffries: No, but I’ve been told that there are 950,000 items under my name. But soon, on my 75th birthday, on Jan. 19, I’m going on the Internet and entering so much stuff they won’t know what to do with it. Ever since I was the point man in the curriculum struggle, they wanted to make sure that whenever something comes up about the Nile Valley or the African origin of humankind, or who was involved in slavery, all the negatives come up. You have to wade through all the negatives before you can get to any of the positives.
AN: But, Dr. J, there are a lot of positive items…
Dr. J: The people who started putting up positive things about me were the Black United Front under the leadership of Dr. Conrad Worrill of Chicago. They put up a website of the masters that included Dr. [John Henrik] Clarke, Dr. Ben [Yosef ben-Jochannan] and me. One of my students told me that if you go to Wikipedia, there is a lot of ridiculous stuff on me. What he did was to go to the site and force them to change a lot of it, but they still didn’t get a lot of things right.
AN: One of those items indicates that you were the first African-American member of Pi Lambda Phi, a Jewish fraternity, during your college days at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Is that true?
Dr. J: I was the member of Pi Lambda Phi. In fact, I was the president of the fraternity and you can see a picture of me holding the architectural plans we had in order to improve and expand our place. When all the controversy was raging about the accusations about me being anti-Semitic, a reporter went to one of my fraternity brothers and asked him, “Was he as anti-Semitic then as he is now?” My fraternity brother told the reporter that I was the best of them and that’s why I was their leader. It was the only fraternity on campus that would take me.
AN: This is absolutely astonishing and ironic, given all the accusations of anti-Semitism heaped on you.
Dr. J: This fact may have been a psychological problem for them that I was inside City College, one of their most sacred institutions. I was inside the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity and a leader. I guess they thought I was supposed to be one with them and part of their cover-up, when, in fact, we are the chosen people.
They have to understand that the Biblical tradition they put together comes out of the Nile Valley. They can talk about the Ten Commandments, but the Africans put together 42 commandments…So now every time they see me, I’ve got a new medallion wearing something new and different…They claim I’m part of some secret society. They say this because that’s the way they operate in secret societies.
AN: You being the leader of a Jewish fraternity, the aspect of leadership is something that is practically apart of your DNA, right?
Dr. J: Ever since I was a child I’ve always been a leader. It started in grammar school where I was the president of the class. It was so inspiring to my girlfriend that she became the president the next year. This was in Newark, N.J., where we went to school with Italians, the Irish and Jews. And this was back at a time when Joe Louis was knocking out a fighter every month, the so-called “Bum of the Month” routine. We Black kids were proud of him and his victories. After Louis defeated Billy Conn, that pretty much ended my relationship with my Irish friend.
AN: Now this was in the mid-1940s, right?
Dr. J: That’s right, and not only were we rooting for the Joe Louis, “the Brown Bomber,” there was Jackie Robinson who had just been signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers and sent to their minor league team in Montreal. Jackie had been playing in the Negro League where my father played, so this was the beginning of breaking the color barrier in the Major League. My father took me to see him play in Montreal, in Jersey City, in Newark, where the Newark Eagles of the Negro League played.
Because of this, Jackie was my idol, I became him. I even adopted his pigeon-toed walk with my butt hunched up. For two years, Branch Rickey kept him in a strait jacket; he was told not to fight back but to take all the insults, and they threw black cats on the field and called him all kinds of ugly, racist names. But Jackie took it for two years and then broke out in 1949. And Black Americans broke out too. We felt if Jackie could do, so could we. Plus, Jackie had gone to college at UCLA and back then that was my choice.
AN: What about your family and sports? I know you played baseball but what about your parents?
Dr. J: My father was an athlete and so was my mother, who was only 5-foot-2. We still have all of her medals she won. Not only were we an athletic family, but both my parents graduated from high school during the Depression.
AN: How far back does your family go in New Jersey?
Dr. J: My father’s people left Georgia in 1919. After three years of suffering through the failure of crops due to the boll weevil, one member of my family made it up to Akron, Ohio, and told the others to come on out of those cotton fields. He told them they could make $33 a week. They were part of the Great Migration.
AN: I recall you telling an audience that your grandfather was killed by the Ku Klux Klan. Can you recount that tragedy for our readers?
Dr. J: Yes, they murdered him in 1917 in Georgia. He was born in 1868, the same year as W.E.B. Du Bois. What they did to him was similar to what happened to Blacks in Tulsa and in Rosewood-crackers jealous of Black achievement.
AN: Don’t you think it’s about time you put some of this in a book?
Dr. J: People are always after me to write my story; it has been written and still people don’t believe it. They wouldn’t believe that Du Bois is connected to our family.
AN: But someone is working on a book about you…
Dr. J: Yes, but she had to stop. Let me give you a taste of what I’m talking about. My mother’s great aunt, Pocahontas Foster, became Du Bois’ secretary.
AN: Dr. J, I think that’s a sufficient tease and good place for us to conclude part one.