Mark Naison


African American Studies


Interviewer: Brian Purnell, Princess Okieme

Interviewee: Kathryn Speller

Date of Interview: September 23, 2006

Summarized by Leigh Waterbury, January 31, 2006

Kathryn Speller grew up in what was referred to as welfare island, and then moved to the Bronx in the 1950’s. While growing up in the city, she experienced the racial segregation that limited what areas she was allowed in. She described the racism she experienced in not being allowed in certain places or having to enter buildings through the servants entrances.

While looking to move into the Bronx, Kathryn experienced a lot of difficulty in finding apartments available to her as an African- American. She moved into the Mott Haven neighborhood at 346 139th street between Alexander and Willis. She described this area as being predominantly black and not the nicest apartments, but it was what she was able to move into. While living in the Bronx and raising 5 children, she moved from various jobs while still relying on public assistance. After a string of smaller jobs she began working for the Health Department as a Union rep until she was laid off around 1970 when the city had its first major city layoff. In the 1970’s when school integration came about, she pushed for her children to attend the integrated schools because they could receive a better education. She recalls the white picketers outside of the schools protesting the enrollment of the black students. She describes her feelings towards whites at the time as not loving them, although she has no resentment towards them today.

Kathryn and her children moved from their apartment on 139th when areas of the Bronx began burning in the 1970’s. Her apartment was not burned, but she witnessed first hand friends and neighbors having to move due to burnouts. She then moved to 92 West 174th into the Morris Heights area of the Bronx which at the time was a predominantly Jewish community. She commented on how once the Jews and whites moved out of the area, the buildings began to deteriorate and burn out. This was a common trend she noticed and still questions why this occurs.

After moving to Morris Heights, Kathryn became involved in the Morris Heights Neighborhood Improvement Association in the 80’s, and later Community Board Five, which both worked towards community development and revitalizing the economic development of the Bronx, especially in areas that had deteriorated because of the burnouts, the blackout in 1977 which resulted in widespread city looting and rioting, and the drug epidemic that deteriorated many areas as well. She began her involvement in the city and civic services as a way of fighting for the rights of her children and these associations were a way of revitalizing the Bronx for all.