African American Studies
Interviewee: Harrison Cruse, Jr.
Interviewer: Mark Naison
Summarized by Sheina Ledesma
Harrison Cruse, Jr. was born on August 10, 1935 in Morningside Heights, Harlem. His mother’s family was originally from Virginia and North Carolina but decided to move north during the 1920’s after experiencing an increasingly racist and violent climate due to activity by the Ku Klux Klan. His father was African American and Native American and had grown up on an Indian reservation with his mother in Roanoke Virginia. His father served in the First World War and later joined the Northwestern Railroad where he worked for many years. For both parents, education was of the utmost importance. Cruse’s father was well educated and naturally sharp and his mother’s parents had emphasized education from childhood. Her mother was the first member of the family to graduate college and her father Samuel Ashby was a well-known organizer of the Garvey movement in Norfolk, Virginia. This influence was also found in Cruse’s home. As a child, he was regularly exposed to African history, the Garvey Newspaper, black pride, and education.
When Cruse was in second grade his family moved from Harlem to the Bronx. They spent a few years during the 1930’s moving to various neighborhoods in the South Bronx before settling in Lyman Place. Cruse describes Lyman Place as a “wonderland”. It was ethnically diverse and safe. Cruse and his siblings played with children from Irish, Italian, Hispanic, and African American families on a regular basis. Everyone hung out together, played together, and went to school together. Music and art were also everyday elements of life on Lyman Place. Cruse, who was interested in art from a young age, was able to explore his talents through various channels available to him in his schools, church, and amongst his friends, like Emilio Cruz who would later become a famous painter. His schools provided Cruse with significant encouragement in art by making art programs available for gifted students. Programs included activities like trips to museums, learning painting techniques, studying classical music and art history. As Cruse grew older the arts continued to be an influential aspect in his life. The Bronx during the 40’s and 50’s had the advantage of nurturing some of the best talents in music. Cruse and his friends would frequent the nearby jazz clubs like Club 845, drink ginger ale and watch performers like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk play jazz. Elmo Hope was also amongst the musicians Cruse heard play but he also knew him personally since Elmo Hope lived in the next building.
Although Cruse described Lyman Place as being a wonderful place to grow up, it wasn’t without its hardships. As a child, Cruse experienced instances of racism that reflected the tumultuous times he grew up in. For example, when Cruse was around ten years old he and his friend were slapped around and thrown down school stairs by a police officer, which demonstrated the police brutality that was occurring on a greater scale in the neighborhood during that time. Cruse also had difficulty getting accepted into the High School of Art & Design because of the color of his skin. Instead, school officials wanted him to go to Morris High School, a school that was predominantly African American. However, his mother pushed and succeeded in getting Cruse in. He graduated from that high school in 1953.
Cruse also began to observe a change in his neighborhood as early as the beginning of the 1950’s. As vets from the Korean War began to return home from war, the drugs started to come into the neighborhood as well. Cruse remembers vets being addicted to “little white pills” that were given to them by the army and kept them in a state of being high. Troubled by the obvious infiltration of drugs Cruse’s mother and other mothers in the neighborhood did their best to fight the problem by going to the police and local government. This was a losing battle however, and drugs continued to pour into the neighborhood over the next couple of decades.
As Cruse grew older, he never lost his passion for art. After graduating from the High School of Art & Design, he attended Pratt Institute, a college he had dreamed of attending since he was a child. It was there that he fine-tuned his skills while also working as a freelance artist in advertising companies. At the time, advertising was an incredibly difficult field to work in as an African American. Cruse was subject to covert racism on more than one occasion that often resulted in him not getting a job. However, after much hard work, Cruse eventually landed a job with Sesame Street and the electric company doing animation. From there he later got a job with the Army Pictorial Center in Long Island City with the animation department which would ultimately lead him to a career in digital imaging at WestPoint Military Academy that would last until his retirement.
Cruse noted during the interview that he grew up during a unique time in a wonderful neighborhood filled with activity and a thriving youth. He owes much of that experience to the fact that the arts were a part of every child’s life, which had a positive influence on each of them. He also attributes it to the fact that there was a special relationship between young people and older people in his neighborhood growing up. It was a relationship that helped nurtured the talents of the young and protected many of them from the negative influences of the world.
Cruse, Harrison Jr. October 6, 2010. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham University.
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Cruse, Harrison Jr Part 2.wma (34699 kB)