By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
On April 18, 1941, bus companies in New York City agreed to hire 200 African-American workers after a boycott by African-Americans led by the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Before the boycott there were no African-Americans employed by the bus companies, which drew their ridership from the African-American community in Harlem, New York City. The Abyssinian Baptist Church is located at 132 West 138th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York City.
While many of us know about the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began in support of Rosa Parks when she was arrested on December 1, 1955 and catapulted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to international fame, not much is known about the Harlem Bus Boycott led by the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
I found several articles about the Harlem Bus Boycott at the “Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture”, a branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL), located at 515 Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem. These articles were all published in the New York Amsterdam News, a weekly newspaper geared to the African-American community of New York City and one of the oldest African-American newspapers in the United States. The New York Amsterdam News publicized the Harlem Bus Boycott and the resulting employment of African-American men, which took place 10 months after (February 1942), the bus companies publicly promised to hire Africans in April 1941.
The selection process for potential African-American bus drivers was physically and mentally rigorous. From information in an article written by African-American journalist, J. Robert Smith, and published in the New York Amsterdam News on May 24, 1941, only 10 African-American men had been selected for training as bus drivers in New York City and one of those men was Edward Gordon, 1932 Olympic broad jump champion and a graduate of the University of Iowa. All the African-American men chosen for training as bus drivers had between 10 and 23 years driving experience and had at least graduated from high school while some were university graduates. The first seven African-American men did not begin work for the New York bus companies until February 1942.
In an article published in the New York Amsterdam News on February 7, 1942 under the headline “Seven Working on Bus Lines: Three Others in Training: More to Follow as Openings Occur”, the information that “History was made here Sunday” celebrated that seven of the 10 African-Americans who had received training in May 1941 were at last hired as “drivers and conductors, bringing to a successful conclusion a fight which reached its climax last Summer”. With such a struggle for qualified African-Americans to gain employment as bus drivers in New York City, it is surprising that the Harlem Bus Boycott of 1941 is not as well-known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
White American historian, Domenic J. Capeci Jr., in his 1979 article, “From Harlem to Montgomery: The Bus Boycotts and Leadership of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Martin Luther King, Jr.”, wrote: “While much has been written about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956, historians have ignored Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and the Harlem Bus Boycott of 1941. The two boycotts were by similar leadership and occurred in decades of despair but in periods of major socioeconomic change. Although it was much smaller in size and more local in impact, a study of the Harlem boycott yields important information on Powell’s leadership before his political career and, more significantly, on earlier protest philosophies and tactics. A comparison of the boycotts reveals both the continuity and unity in Black protest and leadership and the diversity that marks different eras and locales.”
The leader of the Harlem Bus Boycott, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who was the minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, ran for political office shortly after the bus boycott ended in 1941 and was elected to the New York City Council as the first African-American elected to that position. In 1944, Powell was the first African-American from New York State elected to the United States Congress.
White American historians, Cary D. Wintz and Paul Finkelman, in their 2004 Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance Volume 1: A-J, have written about the history of the church from which Powell led the Harlem Bus Boycott: “The Abyssinian Baptist Church is internationally recognized as a symbol of Black spiritual and political power. During the Harlem Renaissance, Abyssinian relocated uptown, after having made several expansive moves from lower Manhattan. The church was founded in 1808, when a group of African-Americans at the Gold Street Baptist Church decided that they would no longer accept segregated pews. Some Ethiopian merchants in the founding group suggested the name Abyssinian.”
Given the history of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, it is fitting that the funeral of Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan, one of the most prolific scholars of African history, was held at the Abyssinian Baptist Church on Friday, April 10, 2015. Dr. Ben, as the pre-eminent Africentric scholar was affectionately called by his admirers, passed away on March 19, 2015 at age 96. Ben-Jochannan was one of the most courageous and inspiring Africentric scholars who unapologetically debunked several White supremacist propaganda/myths as the author of 15 books, primarily about ancient Nile Valley civilizations and their impact on Western cultures.
As evidence of the influence Ben-Jochannan had on generations of African-Americans, there was an overflow of people who went to the wake at the Abyssinian Baptist Church on the night of Thursday, April 9 and the funeral service on Friday (April 10) morning. The lineup of people stretched from the door of the Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th Street around the block onto Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. After the church was full (approximately 1,100 people), admirers of Ben-Jochannan remained lined up on the street throughout the more than three hour service and celebration of the life of this much admired and celebrated African scholar, listening on cell phones and other devices to the live-streamed service. The members of the Fruit of Islam (FOI) were in charge of security and those of us who were not fortunate to be the first thousand in line could not get past the FOI, who were not moved even by tales of how far we had travelled to be at the funeral.
Fortunately after determinedly and patiently waiting for more than an hour, about 20 of us in line did get inside the church to witness the ceremony. Following the ceremony there was a celebration of the life of Dr. Ben on 138th Street in front of the Abyssinian Baptist Church with drumming and dancing for more than an hour (I left after an hour of dancing).
Harlem is considered by many to be the capital city of African-Americans and many of the street names attest to this. From Malcolm X Blvd., Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., Frederick Douglass Blvd. to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., these streets have been named in honour of the contributions of African-Americans.
During this International Decade for People of African Descent, some streets or buildings should reflect the contributions of African Canadians. There are several names from which to choose, including Lucie and Thornton Blackburn, who founded the first taxi-cab business in Toronto in 1837; Anderson Ruffin Abbott, M.D., who was the first African Canadian to become a licensed physician and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, an African-Canadian anti-slavery activist, journalist, publisher, teacher and lawyer. She was the first African woman publisher in Canada and North America; Elijah McCoy invented the drip cup; William Peyton Hubbard was an elected politician from 1898.
We need to advocate for inclusion of some of these names to remind all Canadians that we have been here since the 1600s. Our history is too important to remain hidden!