African American Studies
Cyril Degrasse Tyson was born in Harlem in the early 1930’s and frequently moved around Harlem and eventually made his way into the Bronx at an early age. He discusses his family history and when his parents first moved to New York. His parents were both born in the West Indies on the island of Nevis and moved to New York after the first World War. They moved to an area of Manhattan which was referred to as the San Juan Hills at the time. He describes it as a pocket of blacks from the south and West Indies, Puerto Ricans, and some whites. This area was between 57th St. and 64th St. He explains how when he was born his family lived in a cold water flat on 58th St. across from Clinton High School. He goes into detail about the cold water flats and apartments for blacks in general during this time period. He says there were some houses built privately just for blacks and other places like the Phipps Houses which had apartments that blacks could move into, but there was a selection process they had to go through in order to allow blacks to move in. He mentions this going on later as well after his family had moved to the Bronx.
Tyson says his mother was always searching for a better place for their family to move to with better housing, better schools and better community. They were able to do this when a landlord began neglecting his apartment building and the whites living there began to move out, and blacks began to move in. This deterioration of the building was what allowed blacks to be able to live there. Tyson’s family moved to Longwood Avenue in the Bronx after living in Harlem, and later moved to Kelly Street because the ceilings in the apartment on Longwood began to fall in. Black people at the time would have to move from one apartment building that had begun to deteriorate completely to one that was in the process of going from a white building to one that blacks could live in.
Although his parents had a limited education, they encouraged him and his siblings to achieve higher education which had a great influence on him. His parents were also active in the community which also had influence on his later decisions. He went to Roosevelt High School and later transferred to Morris High School where he graduated. He missed his graduation though because he had been drafted into the Army in January 1946. He says he very much noticed racism and segregation while in the Army that he had not experienced in his community in the Bronx or in Harlem. He discussed the differences he experienced in that between living in New York and being overseas in Europe. In Manhattan he knew where not to go to avoid those types of people, but that was not possible in the Army.
After getting out of the Army Cyril DeGrasse Tyson went to St. Francis College in Brooklyn where he began working for the Board of Education at night. Today he is one of the leading figures in New York City education, social service, and urban policy.
Tyson, Cyril Degrasse. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham University.
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