Gramercy Park Tells Black Students: "We Don't Want Your Kind"

By Woody Henderson

"They say discriminate. We say educate." "They say discriminate. We say educate." This was the chant that came from a hundred or so demonstrators who encircled Gramercy Park, located on 21st Street, between Park Avenue South and Third Avenue, in downtown Manhattan to protest blatant racism.

Yes, discrimination is alive and well, and living in Gramercy Park. Rev. Al Sharpton and the NY Chapter of the National Action Network (NAN) led the demonstration. A number of concerned citizens joined them. They included members of several other activist organizations including the Center for Constitutional Rights, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, and members of the Association of Black Social Workers. (ABSW). They had gathered in front of the iron gates of Gramercy Park to show support for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in Federal Court against the Greamercy Park Board of Trustees. And, to protest the way two separate groups of Black, Latino, and Asian students were discriminated against, because, they say of the color of their skin.

The suit demands changes in the 171-year-old Gramercy Park Trust, which dates back to 1831, 30 years before the beginning of the Civil War. The lawsuit also charges civil rights violations of the Black and Latino 9th graders from Washington Irving High School, their parents, teachers and chief escort, Mr. O. Aldon James, President of the National Arts Club.

According to Mr. James, who is a key holding member of the park itself, he invited and escorted the students to the park as he had done numerous times before. Only, on those occasions the students were predominately White, this time they were predominately Black.

Mr. James said, "When the students entered the park, they were approached and asked to leave by Ms. Sharon Benenson, the Chair of the Gramercy Park Trust, who said, 'We don't want your kind here.' She also told them if they didn't leave she would call the police and have them arrested, ."

Before the police arrived a teacher tried to explain to Ms. Benenson that the children were there on a school trip to learn about nature, science, and art. "They don't look like a learning group to me," was the reply from the board's chairperson.

The parents, teachers and children were devastated at this obvious attack on the children's character, with racial and demeaning overtones, and utter contempt for them as human beings. When the police arrived on the scene, finding Mr. James there and within his rights as a key holder did nothing.

One student who happens to be Asian, reflecting back on that incident, said she use to walk by the park all the time and admire its beauty; since that incident, she tries, when ever possible not to walk by it any more. She said she still thinks the park is beautiful but somehow it just doesn't have the same appeal after that encounter with Ms. Benenson. She went on to say "Maybe that's what she, (Ms. Benenson) wanted all along."

While the protest was still taking place, one of the owners of a co-op surrounding the park came across the street, not knowing any of the protester; and said, "Why don't you all go back to your own community, instead of coming down here making trouble. Aldon James is using you to try and help himself take control of the park's board of trustees. This has nothing to do with discrimination, the co-op owner said. When told what the children, their parents, and teachers said they heard Ms Benenson say to them, his response was, "She never said that." He was asked, " How do you know you weren't there?" He then said, "I know her. She is too smart to say anything like that.' The people around here aren't racist. There are always Black people in that park and nobody says anything about it."

What he didn't say, however, was that the Black people he was referring to that are always in the park were basically nannies. Perhaps he just thought that these particular Black women, pushing strollers, and walking little white children around in the park were, by some strange stretch of the imagination, having White babies.

Several White people did walk by and say that they supported our cause, and agreed the park should be accessible to all, especially students on field trips, no matter where they came from. The students that are the subject of this particular lawsuit came from Washington Irving High School which is just a few short blocks walk from that park.

Gramercy Park has been home to some of America's greatest achievers - inventors, architects, artists, doctors, and publishers, losing and winning presidential candidates and writers. They include John Kennedy, Stanford White, Washington Irving, and Mark Twain. Some of the most famous people in America have lived here. As for Mark Twain, in his book, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Huck, spoke of how little respect he had for Black people and that he believed they didn't care about their families and children in the same way as White people did. That was and is one of the reasons White people look at Black people as subhuman.

You see, the "Willie Lynch Syndrome" had an affect on White people too. Just as it taught Blacks to hate one another, it taught White people that Blacks were supposed to trust only Whites and that they didn't have the same kind of loving and caring feelings toward one another as White people did towards their families and peers. But, at one point in his book, Twain points out how his main character, Huck, began to realize that Joe, the Black slave, cried every night when he was alone for his children who had been separated from him. It was after hearing Joe go through this night after night when he was alone that Huck came to the realization that Black people must have feelings, too, just the same way as White folk.

Ms Benenson, and some of the other residents in the Gramercy Park area, should take another read of this book by their one time neighbor.

As the chanting demonstrators marched around the gated, fenced-in park, people in the surrounding buildings peered out their windows and from behind partially opened curtains. A number of them actually came down to the street to watch. But not a single one got in line and marched with the demonstrators, which would have been a true sign of solidarity.

After the demonstrators marched around the park for about an hour and a half, much in the same way Joshua had done in the battle of Jericho, they stopped. Rev. Sharpton spoke to the press and the protesters. "In an area of the city that claims to have some of the literary giants, some of the cultural icons of America - to have children of color told that they don't appear to be the studious type and chased from a park is nothing but racial profiling in its most blatant form."

He then said. "We would be here every Friday at 12:00 noon on a weekly basis when people eat their lunches in the park. "We're going to be your lunchtime company," he said. Looking around at the 18th century buildings, which lined the park on all sides, he exclaimed, "Guess who's coming to dinner? If our children can't come into the park, then we will come to the sidewalks around the park until they can."

Sharpton said, "We must stand with Mr. James and make sure he's treated in a fair and equitable manner. "To target the National Arts Club for doing what all New Yorkers should be doing -- participating in the education of young people -- is something we cannot sit back in silence and allow to happen," he said. "We cannot let them scapegoat Aldon James for standing up for our children. Our children must not be made to think that they are so despicable in these people's sight that those who dare stand with them will be treated as though something is wrong with them rather than their being lauded and applauded."

The President of the N Y Chapter of NAN, Woody Henderson, said referring to Ms. Benenson so upset. "Everybody complains about the educational system," he stated. "But when someone steps out of their way, as Mr. James has, to try to help educate children of color and then others object it's obvious that education isn't the objectors' real goal. Perhaps there are certain segments of this society that have a vested interest in children of color not being educated on an equal level to their white counterparts."

He also spoke about the fact that Armed Services recruiters are now going into high schools like Washington Irving and encouraging the students to sign up. "If we end up going to war in Iraq, they're certainly not going to say, 'We don't want Black and Latinos,'" he said.

When Lieutenant Eric Adams, founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, spoke he dealt with his experiences and efforts to keep young Black Men and women from behind bars and imprisoned. He Said "We're here because we believe our children should be allowed within the fences of a park, not within the confinements of a jail."

Long time activist and talk show host "Grandpa" Al Lewis, who is 92 years old and portrayed the character of Grandpa on the TV Show "The Monsters," marched with us side by side with Rev. Sharpton, as he has done many times before. When he addressed the crowed, he talked about how tired he was of fighting against racism and discrimination. He talked about how he had hoped racism would have been eliminated before he passed on, but said, "With things like this still happing, here, in New York City, in this park, in the year 2002, the "Good Old Boys" might out last me. He also said he intended to keep on fighting and marching for equality and fair treatment of all people as long as he lived. no matter what the color of their skin.

Annette Dickerson, who is with the Center for Constitutional Rights, also spoke, echoing the previous calls for fairness. Sharpton, asking for others to join them said they would return on this coming Friday, and every Friday at 12:00 noon until these gates of discrimination are torn down.

For more information on this and future demonstrations contact the National Action Network/NY Chapter (212) 987 5020.


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