Moving against time and the dynamic forces of “gentrification,” While We Are Still Here, a Harlem-based, heritage-preservation organization in collaboration with Truth2Power Films and Jamal Joseph, presents a documentary, “In the Face of What We Remember: Oral Histories of 409 and 555 Edgecombe Avenue.”
Through the recollections of the buildings’ elders, the film brings forth a historic narrative of both dwellings that cannot be found in history books. The richly nuanced stories humanize some of Black America’s heroes, whose struggles, bravery and commitment have rendered them “larger than life.”
This one-hour film tells the story of the two landmarked buildings on Harlem’s Sugar Hill that housed everyday people alongside an internationally renowned coterie of movers and shakers that include Renaissance men W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson and Paul Robeson, in addition to world heavy-weight champion Joe Louis, visual artist Elizabeth Catlett and Grammy winners Count Basie and Cassandra Wilson. Louise Thompson’s Vanguard Literary Salon was instrumental in the Harlem Renaissance, giving scribes such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen a writers’ community within which to share their works.
At 409 there was also the infamous Madame Stephanie St. Clair, gangster, purported inventor of the numbers, race woman and Dutch Schultz’s arch nemesis. St. Clair decried police brutality and corruption and was a colorful presence in the community. Legend has it that to evade Schultz and his henchmen, she would walk across the Harlem rooftops.
Both 409 and 555 are important to the struggles for civil and human rights: 409 resident, attorney William Patterson (who married Louise Thompson), penned the treatise, “We Charge Genocide,” that he and Robeson presented to the United Nations in 1951. It was this document that inspired Malcolm X’s 1964 campaign to seek relief for Black Americans at the U.N. In addition to Johnson and Du Bois, the entire early Black leadership of the NAACP resided at 409. Before he was appointed to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall—Mr. Civil Rights himself—lead attorney for Brown v. Topeka, Kansas Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in public schools,
resided at 409.
Laverne Gaither, an energetic nonagenarian who has lived in the building since she was 7, is a retired educator and musician. She shares vivid memories of Marshall, her neighbor, stating, “When he’d see me carrying my cello on my way to my music lesson, he’d say, ‘You are quite a little bitty girl, let me carry that for you,’ and he’d walk me all way up to the trolley on Amsterdam Avenue. He was the nicest man.”
Jane Wright has lived at 555 since the 1950s. Another energetic nonagenarian, whose sense of style is often a topic of discussion in the building, stated, “Johnnie’s daughter had a pet monkey that she used to carry on her shoulder. It was the cutest thing.” Wright also recalls other jazz greats, such as Andy Kirk, Coleman Hawkins, Erskine Hawkins and Snub Moseley living in the building, adding, “When Queen Elizabeth visited the Jumel Mansion across the street, Snub serenaded her with his horn … and she loved it.”
Then there’s Norman Skinner, who has called 409 home for nearly three decades. He was a “big man” on campus at Columbia, as a star basketball player. He can be found in the NCAA record books as the first college student to score a three-pointer. This son of Harlem went on to receive his MBA from Harvard Business School, but, as the late 1940s had not evolved to the “equal opportunity” stage, he was offered work as a mailroom clerk at Fortune Magazine. His 90 years on “Planet Harlem” give him a special perspective on the many changes that have occurred. He fondly remembers the many nightclubs and eateries, stating “People came from all over the world to
“In the Face of What We Remember” looks at the zeniths of the buildings’ glorious decades as well as the decline. The film traverses the eras of Jim Crow New York style, which forbid Blacks from living practically anywhere in Manhattan, except for Harlem. The film looks squarely at how the national phenomenon of population change threatens to jeopardize the formalized retention of history. Denise Thompson, educator and former board president of 409, stated, “It’s hard giving up the reign. It’s like giving up part of your history to people who do not understand
or respect it.”
The evening’s festivities will include “Saying Something: Voices of 409 and 555 Edgecombe Avenue,” a dramatic presentation of excerpted poems, speeches and song lyrics by residents who included Aaron and Alta Douglas, Marvel Cook, Canada Lee and Judge Bruce Wright. The performance is directed by Daniel Carlton and features three more of Harlem’s greatest actors.
The screening of “In the Face of What We Remember” takes place Friday, April 27, 2018, 7 p.m., at The Miller Theatre, 2960 Broadway (at 116th Street), Harlem, N.Y. Tickets are $20, $50 and $75. Call the box office at 212-845-7799. Visit online at millertheatre.com.
For information about While We Are Still Here, please visit wwsh.nyc.