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Hofstra University Library Special Collections

Diverse Suburbs Oral History Collection

Theme: Civil Rights

Clips from the Hezekiah Brown Oral History Interview conducted on May 5, 2011

Transcript Part I

JL: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I asked the question about involvement in Civil Rights, and the story you told about being a Union organizer, labor organizer, basically, becoming that.

HB: Yeah.

JL: So, in that context, did you see that also as a Civil Rights issue?

HB: Oh absolutely, oh sure. Because the, hmm, let me see how to put this now. The Union had some issues too when it comes to race itself, all right. So, we saw that, and so we decided to do something about it, and so we organized. After I became president, after a guy who is still a good friend of mine who followed my career, I became a federal mediator and then he became a federal mediator, and I went on to Cornell University and then he went on to Cornell University after then, but we were like guys, used to hang out on the corner in the 60s, you know what I mean, in Buffalo, New York.

HB: Yeah. But anyway, they didn't have, you know, enough, I'd say, African-Americans on the UA W staff. So we took them on. We took the UAW, the entire Union on in terms of that itself. And we would go to a convention, and we knew the strategy. You know, if you had one mike and everybody line up behind the same mike you didn't get to speak. So we took over all the mikes at the UA W convention. And when they stopped me from talking I'd yield my time to somebody else, right on down the line. We drove them
freaking crazy at these conventions.

JL: I'm wondering what your demands were and what you accomplished and how successful.

HB: Oh we were very successful, very successful. We got, you know, the African-American people on the staff throughout the...maybe not as many in Buffalo as was other places, but we raised their awareness level about it, you know, so that. But along with the Civil Rights Movement, it kind of coincided with the Union rights, you know, because many of Civil Rights were also Union rights during that period of time. And so we were able to go out into the community and we had funds to go out into the community and do certain kinds of work in the community to support the Civil Rights Movement and so on. Walter Reuther was with Dr. Martin Luther King, you know, in Washington and everyplace else, along with a lot of other Unions. That's where he got his funding from during that period of time.

JL: Let me ask you one more question about the 50s and Civil Rights. Do you remember, besides Little Rock, do you remember Montgomery and Martin Luther King first impressions.

HB: Of course, yeah.

JL: Do you remember Emmett Till?

HB: Yes.

JL: So what went through your head when these things came on to the national sort of into the media. Did you want to join in? Were you happy? Feel like these were ...

HB: No. You know, you wanted to join in, and you wanted to know what could you really do, you know what I mean, to help the situation. And being that I was not in college, you know, to be part of the SNCC organization being that it wasn't that, you know, I used to always feel, "Well, what could I do to help out," you know. But it was, especially when Emmett Till was killed, you know. That was a really, really, really downer because they showed the pictures on television and it was a sad situation, you know. But, how did I feel and what did I do? I figured that what I had to do was continue doing what I was doing at that time. And I think the part of the Civil Rights part of it we were able to, in the UA W plant we were doing, we was able to get more African-Americans into the skilled trades program, more African-American supervisors, because I can recall breaking through in one area with the skilled trades. What they have is an apprentice program. So with an Apprentice program you have to be tested to get into the Apprentice program, and the highest score is the one who get into the program. But we had a clause in the contract that said that was an EIT program, employee in training program. An Employee in Training program was that you did not have to take a test but you had to work. It took you longer to get your skilled trades diploma. It took you eight years to get it. But I found out that in order to, that what they were doing, this was, you remember this, what they were doing was every time an African-American got close to the top they would retest, then someone would score above that person. And had I not been the president of the union, I never would have found this out. But I had somebody inside, happened to be a white person inside who told me, said, "Hez, look. You're bumping your head against the wall. Let me tell you what's going on." And this guy revealed to me what was going on, and I blew the whole thing wide open. And then the other white Union representative, he was in favor of the EIT program because the white skilled tradesmen did not want the other African-American into the skilled trade. So he said, "We got rid of the EIT Program." I said, "How in the hell did you get rid of - it's part of the contract!" So we got them back on track with the EIT Program, and then we made this great breakthrough in supervisor. We didn't even have any African-American in the Special Department. We just got all these things. We got African-Americans in the Inspection program, in the Apprentice program, in the Skilled Trades program. It was a slow process, but it was a breakthrough. So that's where I was fighting my Civil Rights fight. And half the time I didn't know what I was doing, very frankly. I remember that I took these guys on strike one time, and there was a really, really real reason to take them on strike, but I didn't know how the hell I was going to get them back. And that's the one thing I say about Union Leaders today is they to take people on strike. It's easy to do that, but getting them back is the real problem. But we were able to do it in a relatively short period of time.

Transcript Part II

JL: You were living in a mostly black neighborhood in Queens?

HB: Yeah

JL: So you wanted to be in a more integrated neighborhood?

HB: Yes.

JL: Did you say this was a move to the suburbs? Would describe this as that?

HB: Yeah. I wanted to live in, always myself, when we lived in Buffalo we moved in 1967 we moved to a predominantly white community during that period of time just on the outskirts of Buffalo. And so, you know, I just always liked a comfortable house. I could deal with it anywhere but as long as it was comfortable, but wanted my kids to be exposed to more than the African-American experience. I wanted them to be broadened across the board.

JL: How did you know about Hempstead?

HB: Through real estates. I don't know if I told you' this, but when it came to racial steering, you know, you learn all these things. When it comes to racial steering, I didn't understand at the time, but the real estate people will simply say to you, "How much do you want to spend on a house?”: So I'm a negotiator, you know, like most people are or think they are. You don't tell people how much you want to spend. At that time I think I bought this house for $40,500, something like that. But I might have told the guy I had $20,000 or something like that, you know, but he wouldn't take you - We drove through Garden City and I said, "Oh, I'd like to live here." "Oh," he said you don't have enough money to live here." But, I'm just saying, I did experience the racist during that, and I think part of that was how I got to Hempstead too.

JL: You didn't know it at the time?

HB: No, I didn't know it at the time. No, no. I didn't know it. But I knew Garden City looked better than Hempstead.

JL: And then you went and got a mortgage from the bank and it was no problem.

HB: No problem, yeah.

JL: And was the bank, because by the 70s didn't they have that black bank here m
Hempstead that the started?

HB: Yeah.

JL: Is that who you used?

HB: No, no. I don't know if it was there then when I came here or not, but anyway, I would have not been aware there were any moving into the community.

JL: Alright, now I want to go back to you and your wife finding the house. What were you looking for? What kind of house?

HB: Well I was looking for a house, but I was more concerned about the school district. So listen to this how things happen for you. I was concerned about the school district for my kids because I didn't have the money to send them to private school at that time. So the real estate person told me that we were in the Uniondale School District, and during that time Uniondale School District was a pretty good school district during that time, much better than Hempstead. Hempstead was a good school district during that time too, but not as well respected as Uniondale. So where we moved at she said, "You just made it by one block." So I was happy about that. Well until we closed on the house. And then I went to the school in Uniondale to register my kids for school and said, "You don't live in Uniondale. You live in Hempstead School District." Oh my god, we almost flipped out.

.JL: So you were given wrong information or the zoning changed in that time.

HB: Wrong information. She wanted to sell the house, I guess, and maybe she might have believed that it was one street into the Uniondale School District the way the map was configured, you know. But anyway, my kids went to Hempstead. They graduated from Hempstead High School and they did great.