African American Studies
Summarized by Concetta Gleason
John Braithwaite moved with his family fromManhattaninto theBronxontoKelly Streetin 1945 when he was two years old. His parents learned of theBronxandKelly Streetfrom their friends. Braithwaite’s parents and many of his neighbors were fromBarbados. The neighborhood and schools were very diverse with Italians, Jews, Spanish and blacks (both from the South and the Caribbean), and that did not change until the Cross-Bronx Expressway divided theBronxin half. The family was associated with St. Margaret’s Protestant Episcopal Church. His family has a great love for the arts; his father was a tailor, but painting was his passion, his older brother is an artist, and his mother was a homemaker, but she loved singing. As a child Braithwaite idolized his older siblings and with his older brothers influence his artistic abilities were honed before he even entered school. He also participated in his school’s art program from elementary through High School, but he stopped taking music in High School. St. Margaret’s Church had social programs including monthly dances to keep children supervised and off the streets. On the street stickball was very popular on the block and everyone loved the Dodgers. Musical tastes varied according to what was played on the street and at dances. On the street there would be a mix of Latin, Doo-Wop and bongos, but at dances Calypso would be playing. Despite being much younger than his brothers John would be able to get into clubs, such as 845 and see musicians play live. Other popular music venues were Hunt’sPointPalace,Rockland Placeand Savory Ballroom.
His family owned a three family greystone house with a basement and a backyard.Kelly Streetwas a nice, safe place to grow up where all the parents watched out for the children as they played street games. A&P, Hern’s department store and markets with live chicken and fish were all accessible from his neighborhood. However, the neighborhood was considered a lower middle class on the borderline of poverty. Growing up Braithwaite was also aware of gangs in the neighborhood and the importance of territory. He was also aware of the growing heroin problem, especially when a family friend on the block died from the drug. It was also “a known fact” blacks could not buy property on the Grand Concourse, although he would later buy property there with his wife in the 1970s. His family did not discuss politics too much as he grew up, he would not learn more about it until his oldest brother formed a jazz society and started learning about social mistreatments of minorities. Despite the rough times of the neighborhood there was a measure of respect among its members, especially for the elderly, except for a bad incident in the 1970s when Braithwaite’s uncle was assaulted inside his home. Kelly Streetwas predominately a street with homeowners and was not burned down during the numerous fires of tenement buildings.
When Braithwaite was a teenager his uncle moved into their middle apartment and introduced him to photography. Braithwaite would never become a professional photographer, but he continues to take pictures and win prestigious awards for his work, especially a famous picture he took of two Black Muslim girls playing double dutch that was exhibited by the “Black Photographers Annul” in 1976, Essence’s 20th Anniversary Issue, the Smithsonian and theWorldFinancialCenter. In High School Braithwaite intended to become an engineer, but after attending engineering school he disliked it and graduated from the City College of NY with a major in economics. In 1968 he graduated college and became a caseworker atMelroseWelfareCenter, which was the same time the city nearly went broke and theVISTA program was introduced. VISTA was a program that gave people in the welfare system and had lost their homes due to theBronx fires money to compensate for destroyed items. The program was inevitably overwhelmed and quickly shut down. In 1969, he moved out of the Bronx and intoHarlem. His mother would remain onKelly Street until her death in 1980. He was then hired to work as an interviewer in Brooklyn for IBM for a new program that gave inner city, untrained Black men the opportunity to work and experienced black men the opportunity to managers. He was an interviewer until 1974 and the worked as a techie who fixed software systems for IBM until 1979.
Braithwaite, John. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. Digital Archive at Fordham University.
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Date of interview unknown