African American Studies
James Henderson was born and raised in the South Bronx during the 1940’s and 50’s. He attended Morris High School during the 1950’s and graduated in 1957. During these years Morris High School was home to many musical talents who were from Henderson’s neighborhood. Groups like The Chords, a group who later became popular for their hit Sh-Boom, lived around Henderson’s block and attended many of the same classes. Henderson was also influenced by music during his youth. He collected jazz records and went to various popular jazz clubs on Boston Road like Goodson’s, Club 845, and the Blue Morocco. At this time, there was an influx of Hispanic families moving into the South Bronx and a significant amount of families from the Caribbean living in his neighborhood. This diversity was reflected in the type of music young people listened to both at home and in the nightclubs. Henderson remembers most clubs he attended played R &B, Jazz, Latin music, and Calypso on the same night.
After graduating from high school in 1957, Henderson decided to follow the footsteps of many of his peers and join the Navy. Although his family encouraged college, Henderson had neither the grades nor the money to attend. For him and many of his friends, military service was the next best option. Henderson served in the Navy for two years after which, he then worked at a neighborhood liquor store for three years. In 1962 he joined the fire department. Another career choice that was expected since most in his neighborhood, including his father, worked in some form of civil service.
As a firefighter, Henderson worked in a predominantly Irish-Italian neighborhood near Yankee Stadium called High Bridge. For most of his career as a firefighter, Henderson lived in the North Bronx while working in the South. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that he returned to live in the South. As early as the late 1950’s Henderson noticed the gradual demise of the South Bronx, which was mainly due to drugs. As the years went on, drugs became increasingly prevalent, specifically heroin. Communities that were once tight knit and family oriented began to unravel as the family unit deteriorated from heavy drug use. As a firefighter, Henderson also witnessed the wave of arson that plagued the South Bronx during the 1970’s. He explained that in many instances the landlords were the ones burning the buildings however, since many buildings were abandoned, random people would go in and take over. In some cases, these were the people starting the fires. Henderson also noted how the drug problem was exacerbated by outside forces. In most cases, he witnessed cars with Jersey plates drive through the streets, dropping off drugs to be sold by “soldiers”.
Henderson continues to live in the South Bronx and served as a fireman for thirty-four years. When he first joined the fire department there were around 1200 fireman throughout New York City, about 600 were black. Today, he pointed out, there are still 1200 fireman in the city however, only 300 are black. He believes that this is because the fire department does not have the financial support needed to increase their recruitment efforts. Throughout the interview, Henderson focused on his belief that drugs and the subsequent breakdown of the nuclear family were the catalysts in the downward spiral of the Bronx.
Henderson, James. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham University.
Click below to download supplemental content.Henderson, James.mp3 (61338 kB)