African American Studies


Valerie Rooks, born on July 29, 1954, grew up in the Sedgwick Housing Projects of the Bronx. Her parents, Helen Eugenia Hagen and Robert Lee Dillard, raised in Connecticut and Georgia respectively, moved into the project in 1952. Rooks recalls spending summers with her father’s family in Savannah Georgia in her preteen years. The Dillards worked several jobs to support their five children. In addition to working for the post office, her father took on odd jobs including cab driving and mechanic work. Her mother too held various part-time positions such as working for the board of elections, the census bureau and the post office. Rooks and her siblings spent much time with their grandparents, who also lived in Sedgwick.

Rooks explains that there was a strong feeling of community and camaraderie within Sedgwick Projects. She describes the population of Sedgwick in the early 1960s as predominantly white, with Jewish, Irish, and Italian residents. There was a close-knit African American community, but everybody got along. Nobody locked their doors, and the adults of the projects, including the housing police officers, communally looked out for the children of the neighborhood. Rooks recalls summers spent in the projects as nonstop fun. Children played in the parks until dark, participating in games such as Johnny-on-the-Pony, Kick the Can, and marbles. In Rooks’ teenage years, the game Run Catch and Kiss was popular. Though everybody got along, Rooks explains that she did see racial division amongst residents of Sedgwick. Her circle of friends was mostly black; however, nobody was excluded from the group because of their race. Many African Americans, including Rooks’ family, attended Featherbed Lane Presbyterian Church.

Rooks attended P.S. 104 for elementary school, Junior High School 182, and Taft High School. From Kindergarten through sixth grade, she was the only black student in the advanced class for each grade. This caused her a sense of separation, as she was close to her fellow students in the classroom, but would not visit their homes, or hang out with them outside of school. Though pushed by her family to become a lawyer, Rooks did not desire this occupation. She went to Lehman College, and worked for the East New York Savings Bank throughout her college years. She married her high school sweetheart and they had one daughter. After separating from her husband, she and her daughter moved to the home her parents and brother had bought in the Northeast Bronx in 1977. Sedgwick Projects had changed. According to Rooks, there was a different quality of people moving into the project in the late 1960s, as several older residents moved to the newly opened Co-op City. New residents were of a lower class, and did not look out for one another.

Rooks and her daughter moved to Co-op City in 1983. Though she has always felt safe in her Co-op City residence, it is not the same as Sedgwick. Rooks questions whether the sense of community exemplified by Sedgwick could ever be recaptured. She has worked for the post office from 1979 to the present, and is actively involved at Featherbed Lane Presbyterian.

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