African American Studies


Beatrice Bergland and Harriet Waites of the community church of Morrisania were interviewed for the Bronx African American History Project on October 25th 2004. They began their interview by recounting their past and present experiences with the community church of Morrisania, which was founded by Pastor William E. Thompson in 1956. He, along with community members, purchased a house on Teller Ave. for $10,000 to serve as the non-denominational church’s building which facilitated the needs of the African American community that was developing in the neighborhood and also began the formation of new, warm, active community in Morrisania.

One important aspect of the church was and still is the way it embraces its African-American roots through its own African American history museum and its outreach work within the African American community of Morrisania and the Bronx as well as its mission trips to Africa.

The effort to preserve and embrace African American history is only one of the twenty-three ministries that help to keep the church active and socially conscious. The ministries range from the Martin Luther King Jr. ministry for teens to ministry for elders to prayer groups and other various services focused ministries. These parts of the church help to keep the diverse community thriving and have helped to increase the membership to over three hundred people.

Beatrice Bergland, an active member of the church since 1976, spoke of her experience growing up prior to and after becoming involved in that community. In 1940, her family moved to 1324 Grand Ave. to a house located in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. She attended PS 88 where she was chased home everyday and often singled out for being one of the few African American students in the school and in the neighborhood. Her grandfather, Eddie Jones, also resided in this neighborhood and was brutally killed for having an interracial relationship with a white woman. The family eventually moved to a more integrated neighborhood on 163rd street and Tinton Ave., where Bergland attended PS 23, a more racially diverse school than PS 88. Bergland worked for the lawyer Conrad J. Lynn before she began her work in the corrections department that she would stay involved in for thirty years.

In 1963, Harriet Waites moved to a racially mixed neighborhood in the North Bronx on Laconia Ave., and 219th street. Her children went to PS 135 and then Evander Childs. When she was young, she tried out various churches in the Bronx such as St Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church, St. Augustine’s and Thessalonia before attending the community church of Morrisania in 1975. Amidst her various church visits, she remembers hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak on Stebbins Avenue in the 1950’s.

Together the two women shared their memories of the Bronx from the time when the notion of community was the most important element to when the demographics began to change and crime, specifically the presence of gangs and drugs, became a problem. Morris high school, like several other public schools in the Bronx, had an orchestra, talent shows, and after-school programs for students to enhance their various talents and social skills. However, racial tensions increased and became obvious as segregation became a requirement in restaurants such as White Castle and other public places. Students began to care less about their schools, becoming involved in hooky clubs and then altogether failing or dropping out. Slicksters and Coplans were two of the many gangs that began to establish a presence in the Bronx. In 1955, drugs, particularly heroin, became a dividing issue within the Bronx community. Yet despite the many problems that presented themselves, both Waites and Bergland continued to and still find support and motivation within their church community.

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Berglund Beatrice and Harriet Waiters.mp3 (96367 kB)