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African American Studies


Interviewer: Mark Naison

Interviewee: Frank Belton (session 1)

Date: No Date

Summarized by Leigh Waterbury

Frank Belton was raised in the Morrisania neighborhood of the South Bronx from the time that he was 9 years old. He was born in Harlem, then later his family moved around a bit before settling in a home on Chisholm Street in 1948. Although he had lived in the city when he was younger, he had his first experiences with Puerto Ricans when he moved to the South Bronx. Chisholm Street had a fairly mixed population, but his schools were mostly made up of Puerto Ricans. He says that this mixing of racial backgrounds did not affect relationships between those in his neighborhood and that there was a strong sense of community and trust. Families did not feel the need to lock their doors back then, and his family did not begin to do this until the 50’s when crime became more of a problem. He talks about people watching out for others children, and the games they used to play, as well as the aromas of the various types of food that was in his neighborhood.

He talks in depth of his experience in the educational system that existed in New York City at the time. Although the community he lived in was mostly Puerto Rican and black, the majority of his teachers were white. Frank had a tendency to curse teachers out quite often and was categorized as having behavioral issues. Because of his behavioral issues, he was placed into a separate class in junior high that was created for uneducable kids. These classes were not so much about learning as they were for maintaining students and keeping them out of trouble. He describes it as a “dumping ground for kids who had behavioral or educational problems”. Of the 29 in his 9.12 junior high class, only 2, including himself, went on to receive a high school diploma.

Frank not only received a high school diploma, but also went on to college at Morgan State College. He says that one of the things that gave him direction and motivation in life was running track. He began running in 8th grade and says it motivated him and helped him develop confidence. He knew he was not going to make it to college based on academics since in high school at Morris High he was placed on the general track due to his being in the 9.12 class in junior high. Like the junior high classes, his high school classes were intended more to keep students in line rather than really educate them. Once he graduated from Morris High, he continued to run for the PAL and attend high school night classes in order to receive education in subjects like math and language that were not part of his curriculum on the general track in high school.

Beyond the school environment, Frank also discusses the change in the neighborhoods and communities that came around with the growing use of drugs, heroin in particular. Once drugs became more of a presence in the communities the dynamics began to change and people had to lock their doors. In other areas in the 60’s and 70’s the buildings began to deteriorate as well. Frank even noticed a change in the attitudes of the Board of Education as well. This is part 1 of a 2 session interview.

Frank Belton was raised in the Morrisania neighborhood of the South Bronx for most of his life. He left in January of 1960 to attend Morgan State College, now Morgan State University, and returned to the South Bronx after receiving his degree in June of 1965. In the first interview session Frank discussed growing up in the Morrisania neighborhood. In this session he talks about his return to the South Bronx and the changes that he noticed.

When Frank returned from Morgan State, he moved only a few blocks from his parents home on Chisholm Street, to Teller Ave and 168th. After becoming a graduate assistant at NYU, he became the interim Executive Director of the Claremont Center. This was the center for the Claremont Village, a low income public housing program built in the South Bronx in the 60’s. It was made up of 3 main sections, the Morrisania Houses, Butler Houses, and Webster Houses that stretched from 168th between 3rd and Webster, to 171st. Frank says that 70 percent of those living in these homes were single-family, single-parent homes. He also described how many of those living in the Claremont Houses were on welfare which is connected to the number of single-parent homes as well. In the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s a person could not get welfare if the father was in the house, so many fathers would quietly disappear, or wound up in jail, or the children were born out of wedlock. He says that this eroded the black and Hispanic families which lead to the erosion of the communities and community housing.

Frank Belton took over as the Executive Director of the Claremont Center in 1974 after an embezzlement and corruption problem with the previous director. This meant Frank had a lot of work to do to fix up the program. He speaks about the decentralization and Johnson’s War on Poverty, as well as the anti-poverty programs that went along with that that were very corrupt. He also served on the Morrisania Planning Board to try to bring additional programs to help out the community. During this time he also mentions again the changes in the school system in the mid 60’s and the emergence of the Black Power image which caused the attitudes of the black students to change. This change in the students also changed the attitudes of the teachers who frequently left during this time. There were 2 strikes in the 60’s that closed down the school system. By working in the community center, Frank was able to directly help the youth to make a difference in their lives and say that he help a lot of kids from the development get into college with scholarships. He also created programs such as basketball and women’s track to give the kids something else to do in their free time. He also created a safe haven free of gangs for the community. He was the first director to serve more than 2 years in the position. While discussing the deterioration of the Bronx, he also notes the changes for the better that occurred in the 80’s after the Bronx received national attention.

This is part 2 of a 2 section interview.

Morrisania, Chisholm Street, Jennings Street, Morris High School, Frame House, New York, Central Railroad, ethnicity, Crotona Park, Seven Crowns, The Bronx Hound News, education, gangs, drugs, CRMD, track, St. Augustine’s Presbyterian, Van Cortlandt Park, Morgan State, NYU, Claremont Houses, Claremont Village, Morrisania Houses, Butler Houses, Webster Houses, decentralization, education, Morrisania Planning Board, Welfare System, Drug System, Criminal System, anti-poverty programs, War on Poverty, Black Power, Urban League, H.U.D., Father Gigante

Click below to download supplemental content.

Belton, Frank Interview 2.mp3 (133316 kB)
Belton, Frank, session 1 Transcript.pdf (104 kB)
Belton, Frank, session 2 Transcript.pdf (108 kB)