African American Studies
BRONX AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY PROJECT
INTERVIEWER: Natasha Lightfoot
INTERVIEWEE: Hugh Beckford
SUMMARY BY: Patrick O’Donnell
Keywords: Jamaica, agriculture, Trelawney, Kingston, public education, dancing, reggae music, soul music, Kiwani, Bronx, Fordham University, Jamaican politics, Episcopalian church, Catholic ministries, Catholic Charities, drug trade, Caribbean American Family Services, immigration policy, Carribean-American community, US naturalization, US citizenship
Hugh Beckford is the director of Caribbean American Family Services, an organization that he established in 1991. He is a 1985 graduate of Fordham College, Rose Hill, where he studied theology and sociology. Beckford was born in Trelawney, Jamaica, and was raised by his grandparents because his parents divorced when he was young. He was locally educated in Jamaican public schools and attended St. George’s College in Kingston, a boarding school. As a young man he was considered one of the best dancers in Jamaica and occasionally appeared on national television. Although not a musician himself, he was very interested in the Jamaican music scene, which featured both local and international acts.
Beckford became involved in the Jamaican political scene in the early ‘70s and became a member of the Kiwani service club in 1974. He worked at the William Isaacs paper company in Jamaica. He obtained a scholarship to study in Canada for a while, and while he was there he worked at the Wyers paper company. Unable to handle the Canadian winter, he returned to Trelawney and began to work as an accountant while managing a small agricultural store and cattle ranch. In 1980, Beckford was sent to California as a Kiwani delegate, and he stopped by to visit his father, who had emigrated to the Bronx a few years before and was working as a triple-A serviceman in the South Bronx. Because of the unstable political situation in Jamaica, Beckford’s father compelled him to stay in New York, and Beckford enrolled at Fordham University in 1981. Through his Fordham contacts, Beckford began working for Catholic Charities, and he was given the opportunity to create a preventative service program which supervised former inmates’ transition from prison to college degree programs. The basic model of the project is still in use on Riker’s Island. During the early ‘80’s the Bronx was a diverse but troubled place: Beckford mentions a widespread drug trade, urban blight, and squalid housing. Through Catholic Charities he worked as the education coordinator for NYC and Greater Westchester and eventually moved on to the Child Welfare Administration. Unhappy with the position, Beckford moved to preventative services, and became especially interested in providing services for Caribbean immigrants.
Turning down a top-level position at preventative services, Beckford established Caribbean American Family Services in 1991. After obtaining approval and initial funding from the state, CAFS provided a variety of services at first, including after-school programs and specialized tutoring which was designed so that the children of recent immigrants would succeed on entrance exams at places like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. Largely a volunteer-run organization, CAFS gradually focused on immigration policies, naturalization, and citizenship. Working in tandem with Caribbean Immigrant Services, CAFS offered fingerprinting, applications, and classes which would prepare applicants for the US Citizenship test. Beckford began appearing on local radio and advertised his organization’s services through grassroots methods. By forming coalitions with local politicians and city services, to date Beckford’s organization has helped over 40,000 people become citizens and has enabled an additional 20,000 to secure their green cards. Nowadays CAFS has extended its clientele to include Hispanic, Eastern European, and Russian immigrants.
Beckford, Hugh. Bronx African American History Project. By Natasha Lightfoot. Fordham University Project, April, 2015.
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