Park Tells Black Students: "We Don't Want Your Kind"
By Woody Henderson
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.
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.
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
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.
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,
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
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Benenson, and some of the other residents in the Gramercy
Park area, should take another read of this book by their
one time neighbor.
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.
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."
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
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."
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."
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.
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."
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
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.
more information on this and future demonstrations contact
the National Action Network/NY Chapter (212) 987 5020.