African American Studies
Interviewee: Ms. Genevieve Smith-Brown
Interviewer: Dr. Brian Purnell
Date: April 19, 2008
Summarized by: Estevan Román
Ms. Genevieve Smith-Brown is (was) a resident of the Bronx. She was a very involved community activist, volunteered her time for Seabury Daycare, policy board member Model Cities program of the and President of the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes organization.
Ms. Genevieve Smith-Brown, formerly Genevieve Smith-Brooks was born on July 12th, 1937 in Anderson, South Carolina. In a town where most of the African-Americans were sharecroppers, Genevieve’s parents were one of the few African-Americans that owned a farm in Anderson, South Carolina. This farm was able to be purchased by her parents as a result of her uncle buying land that used to belong to her grandfather and former slave, William Anderson. Her mother was named Birdie Hill and she was seamstress and homemaker and her father, Anderson D. Smith was the farmer. They grew cotton on the farm and raised livestock until she moved out, then they started growing tobacco as their main crop. She never had store bought clothing since her mother was an excellent seamstress and had plenty of food from the farm. Her father would sell the cotton that he grew at the mills. They were devout Christians whose lives revolved around the church, which was built by her great-grandfather, Bedney Benson, also a former slave, when he and other slaves bought the land for the building of the church, named Mountain Spring Baptist Church. Her grandfather William Anderson was also one of the first ministers to pastor the church.
Genevieve was one of four children, all whom with the exception of her attended South Carolina State University. Her uncle, James Ottoheel, received his Ph.D. in Divinity from Yale University and on the Republican Ticket, became the first African-American in East Orange, New Jersey to be elected to the House of Representatives. She talks about having good role models growing up as well as her Christian upbringing helping her focus on the importance of education and to deal with adversity and prejudice.
Genevieve left her home in 1954 at the age of 17 to live with her aunt and uncle, Sylven Hill and Norman Augusta Hill, because her parents could not afford to have her to go college while already having two sisters attending. Once her sisters were finished college, she never went back to Anderson, deciding to stay in Harlem section of New York City, where she attended Combination Business School. Her aunt was a practical nurse at Kings County Hospital and her uncle was some sort of union laborer, she was not sure exactly what he did. Genevieve eventually landed a job at Congo Chemicals as a secretary.
Genevieve then moved from Harlem to the 148th Street between Brook and St. Ann’s in The Bronx at the age of 23, where she met and married her late husband, Herbert Brooks. The neighborhood was predominantly Hispanic, in particular Puerto Rican.
Genevieve moved to 155 Seabury Place near Crotona Park East in The Bronx. She states that her neighborhood was very middle class when she first moved in; her building was mostly Jewish people. She then tells that once several cooperatives were built in the city, such as Co-Op City in The Bronx and Epereard Graving in Harlem, many middle class people of all ethnicities moved out of the neighborhoods and into the developments. According to Genevieve this resulted in landlords and real estate agents becoming frantic to fill in the empty residences, many of them welfare recipients of large families, sometimes too large for the residences. Landlords started to neglect the buildings, people at times didn’t pay their rents, agents who collected the rent instead of landlords, and eventually arson was used to help get many landlords and building owners out of money losing situations all while FDNY and other agencies denied such crimes were happening. Crime increased, insufficient sanitation services and other resources led to urban decay.
Genevieve says these conditions and the lack of help by government agencies leads to get involved in various tenant and block associations and other organizations to help deal with absentee landlords and deteriorating building and block conditions. Eventually she was responsible for helping get various organizations together to acknowledge the needs of the decaying neighborhoods and they founded the Mid-Bronx Desperados. Genevieve believes that her upbringing made her feel that she had to get involved in trying to make a desperate situation into a better one.
Brown, Genevieve. April 19, 2008. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham University.
Click below to download supplemental content.Brown, Genevieve.mp3 (71816 kB)