Crowds of adoring family members, fans, politicians, activists, friends, students, and mentees gathered this past Saturday, July 3, to honor longtime educator and social justice advocate Jitu K. Weusi, formerly called Leslie R. Campbell, with a plaza renaming in his honor at Putnam Triangle on Fulton St. and Grand Ave. in Brooklyn.
Despite the threat of rain, well over a hundred people packed the plaza under large silver umbrellas. Everyone from elected officials to the elderly were decked out in bright, colorful kente cloth dresses, suits, and scarfs for the occasion.
Former Assemblymembers Albert Vann and Roger L. Green, Majority Leader and Councilmember Laurie A. Cumbo, Councilmember Robert Cornegy, Assemblymember Charles Barron and his wife, Councilmember Inez Barron, and Assemblymember Stefani L. Zinerman was among the many elected officials present.
In the background, past the cheerful sounds of people hugging and the kind of screaming laughs that only happen at family reunions, jazz music or rhythmic drumming could be heard.
The program began with a libations ceremony, which is a ritual where a drink and other assortments are poured onto the ground and blessed as offering or tribute. Kojo Campbell, one of Weusi’s eight children, delighted in a call-and-response of “ashe” meaning “be with us” with the audience while another brother poured honey or spat water onto a patch of ground near the front of the plaza.
“And like the broom,” said the performer, “we asking that just how we came out to support Big Black, we ask for everyone to continue supporting our community because once we stick together like the broom we will only bend. We will never break.”
Rev. Elizabeth Butler finished up the ceremony with a prayer before the unveiling of the new plaza sign bearing Weusi’s name.
Weusi, who passed away in May 2013, was a Bedford-Stuyvesant native and icon. He was known by many names, such as “Big Black.”
He began teaching in 1962 when he became dissatisfied with the state of education for Black teachers and students, said family.
He went on to be a founding member of the African American Teachers Association (ATA) before leaving the Department of Education (DOE) entirely in the late 1960s to form the first Black independent private school in New York City, Uhuru Sasa Shule (Freedom Now School), reported Patch.
Eventually, he returned to the DOE in 1985 and retired in 2006, but founded a vast number of organizations including the New York Chapter of the National Black United Front (NBUF), African Americans United for Political Power, the EAST, and co-founded the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium (CBJC).
Organizer Kweli Campbell, Weusi’s oldest daughter, said that this project to get the naming started about seven or eight years ago. She said initially they had asked for a street co-naming, but the request kept being denied. It went back and forth between districts 35 and 36’s community boards since the area is on the cusp of Clinton Hill and Bed Stuy.
“It was a real struggle,” said K. Campbell, “but given the climate now people are recognizing that they want places and spaces named after people they know and honor.”
Cumbo, who is term-limited in office, concurred that this renaming had been an arduous project to get approved. “Seven years of rejection. Every year this street co-naming would come up for a vote and it was denied even being put onto the floor,” said Cumbo. “And every year we had to figure out and recalibrate how this could happen.”
Cumbo said that the application was held up, in part, because Weusi spoke out about Black children and students feeling isolated and suppressed in an education system “with individuals and an administration that looked nothing like the children.”
Nandi Campbell, one of Weusi’s daughters, said in her speech that the plaza was about recognizing community, liberty, freedom, and validating Blackness in the neighborhood.
“What community and my father represent,” said N. Campbell, “is about being here, one, and understanding the love, the education, and every good thing that flows––whether he was your teacher, your cousin, your neighbor, or whether he was breathing down your neck cause you wasn’t doing the right thing––it’s about love and us understanding that Black Lives Matter.”
Zinerman, who attended Uhuru Sasa summer camp as a child, also presented a framed proclamation.
“We are going to hold space in this triangle,” said Zinerman, “because wherever we are our children are safe. Wherever we are they are clear about who they are and how they should walk and teach the next generation. We need to stand together. We need to hold each other, and we need to claim space and rename spaces in Jitu’s honor and all of you who are still here teaching us the lessons. So forward ever, backwards never.”
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