African American Studies
Basil and Ishma Petersen were born in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Ishma was born on February 24th 1925, and Basil was born on March 7th, 1924. Ishma’s father was a navigator, in charge of bringing the ships and the pilot boat into the harbor, while her mother sold fruits and vegetables. Basil’s father was a fisherman who wanted his son to continue in his footsteps. However, Basil decided from a young age he wanted to do something different. As a young boy as Basil was sweeping water off a captains car, the captain noticed him and offered him a job, upon which Basil began working on the captains ship. Eventually as the deckboy got sick, Basil was hired and began his first venture, and eventually became the sailor he had aspired to be.
In 1942 the navy was recruiting in St. Thomas, but space filled up quickly, so Basil traveled to Puerto Rico to join. Despite being too young at the time to join, he quickly doctored his birth certificate and got into the navy. He went for training as a gunnery loader. Because everything on the ship he worked on was decided based on seniority, race was not usually a factor. When it came time to decide which sailors received the top bunk, Basil recalls that this seniority came into play, not race. However, Basil recalls that very often the black sailors got much dirtier work to do than the white sailors. In the mess room, blacks and whites segregated themselves as this created tension between the men. Basil eventually became a merchant marine instead of a corporal, a position in which he stayed for 22 years.
After the death of her parents, Ishma moved to New York where her aunts were living on Fifth Avenue and 116th street. She got a job working in Peekskill, New York, cooking for a family. She did not enjoy this job and eventually left to take a job in a hospital where she prepared formulas for babies. Ishma describes the neighborhood in which she lived at the time as a mix of Puerto Ricans and blacks.
Basil and Ishma knew each other from school in St. Thomas, but reconnected after moving to New York. They got married in 1949 and moved to 50 West 112th street. Neither Basil nor Ishma recall political conversations in their houses growing up, and neither had any idea what America was like previous to coming to the country. Basil experienced segregation for the first time after coming to New York. They moved to the Bronx in 1951 and moved into a three-bedroom apartment in the Bronx River Houses with their three children. The housing was a mix of whites and blacks, and they recall everyone getting along well. They recall the experience of living there fondly, as a safe place that was strict but clean. After living there for nine and a half years, they were forced to move out, as their incomes got too high.
Ishma eventually got a job working in food supervision at Coler Memorial on Roosevelt Island. Although the people with whom she worked were of the same skin color, they felt that she shouldn’t have come to get a city job that was rightfully theirs. Basil and Ishma both remember that other people of the same skin color did not see them as the same as them because they were from the islands. They felt racism was prevalent even at their church, St. Andrew’s. After the old minister left, whom the Petersons believed to be a racist, the new minister, Father Harvey, caused all the white people at St. Andrew’s to leave. Following his arrival, the Petersens felt more welcome to join activities in the Church, and they recall Father Harvey and these activities as having a positive effect on the community.
Eric, the son of Ishma and Basil, went to Dewitt Clinton High School and then SUNY Morrisville in Morrisville New York. He remembers his public school experiences positively; “as long as you were open to learning, you were fine.” However, he recalls that as children he and his siblings faced racism. Some parents didn’t want their children playing with him as he was black and most of his school was white. It was also difficult for them to buy houses in certain neighborhoods because people didn’t want black people there. When he returned from college, the area of the Castle Hill Houses where they had been living had changed drastically; he described the neighborhood as having more “dark faces” than before. Eric was eventually drafted into the army.
Petersen, Basil, Eric, & Ishma. 23 February 2006. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham.
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Peterson, Basil, Eric, Ishma Pt 2.mp3 (56678 kB)