African American Studies
Interviewee: Dr. Earle Alexander
Interviewers: Dr. Mark Naison, Dawn
Interview took place February 6, 2006
Summarized by Concetta Gleason 12-20-06
Dr. Earle Alexander is a distinguished psychologist born in Harlem and raised in the Bronx. Alexander’s mother immigrated to the U.S. from Trinidad and his father from Grenada. His parents met in New York and had three children together; Alexander is the middle child of an older sister Elma and a younger brother Dawn. As the Harlem education system deteriorated, Alexander’s parents decided to move the family to the Bronx in the mid-1930s. The family lived on Washington Ave, and he attended P.S.42 on Claremont and Washington Ave. The family was Episcopalian and St. Paul’s Church was nearby their house. However, there was a “gentleman’s agreement” between Father Borough at St. Paul’s Church (the white church) and Father Best at St. David’s Church (the black church, ten blocks away) that whenever a member of the opposite race came to their church they would send them to the other congregation. The superintendent of the Sunday School sent the Alexander children back home three times in a row with a note directing them to St. David’s Church after Alexander’s mother repeatedly sent them to St.Paul’s, the Superintendent even accused their mother of not knowing how to read the third time they returned. Alexander’s mother had a discussion with Father Borough of St. Paul’s, and was informed of the agreement between the two priests. Her response was “I am not a gentleman, so I have nothing to do with your agreement” and promptly took a taxi to the Cathedral of Saint John to see the Bishop from New York, Bishop Manning.
She knew Bishop Manning from All Soul’s Day in Harlem, and she explained her situation. Bishop Manning and Mrs. Alexander then took his limousine to the Church, and the next Sunday Alexander and his siblings were attending Sunday school at St. Paul’s. Years later, after Alexander’s father had a stroke working in Chicago and Father Borough became Episcopal Bishop of Chicago the family and the Bishops’ paths crossed again; the Bishop gave communion to Alexander’s father and asked Alexander’s mother for forgiveness. The family would be members of St. Paul’s Church until 1960.
Alexander’s mother was previously a nurse in Trinidad and later attended the Lincoln School of Nursing when her children were growing up. His father was an accountant in Grenada and when he came to the U.S. he applied for a job at the New York Times, but the Paper could not hire him because he was black. His father eventually became a public porter to support his family. His mother was very involved with the neighborhood and eventually became the president of the local Parent Teacher Association. Because of his father’s job on the railroad the family traveled to many different places such as, Maine, Montreal and Chicago, which Alexander loved in particular.
Both Alexander’s parents heavily emphasized education and politics. Earle attended PS 55 Junior High School and his sister initially attended Juilliard Prep School, but her mother transferred her to Rose Prep, which Alexander later transferred into from Dewitt High School. Although Earle was a less motivated student compared to his brother and sister, in Prep school he received more attention and he improved academically. His father was a Garveyite, member of the Blood Brothers and the local Democratic club. His father brought home many magazines and newspapers and quizzed the children about world events, such as the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and even showing his children pictures of the Pope blessing the troops’ guns that were used to kill Ethiopians. A level of interest and knowledge about International and domestic issues was expected in the Alexander household.
As a child Alexander played the violin, his brother and sister both played the piano and his mother owned a phonograph. The kids took music lessons privately and Earle would go on to play in the High School orchestra. Earle had a speech impediment as a child therefore, music was his only means of self-expression. The children sometimes snuck away to the Apollo Theater to see musical acts like Vinny Epstein. The parents did not mind rhythm and blues and popular music because of their own Caribbean background. The mother was more rigid than the father concerning rules, and the father was more heavily involved in the Caribbean culture. Alexander’s father played Caribbean music at home and was a member of the Trinidad and Tobago Benevolent Association. The association held dances and carnivals, which his father insisted upon attending. All of his parent’s friends are Trinidadian and the family constantly traveled to Brooklyn to visit them. However, their meals and his mother was generally more Americanized than his father. Earle was not interested in jazz until later, after his sister and brother had become interested, but he would attend dances at the Savoy Ballroom with his Sister. In High School Earle would attend parties in the West Indian communities of the Northern Bronx and Brooklyn.
His neighborhood contained great schools and was composed predominately of Jewish families. The Black families there were mainly from the Southern States with some families from the West Indies. Some white people lived in the buildings, but they eventually moved out. There was not any tension between different racial groups in elementary school; Earle had friends from both Jewish Polish and German families. However, the St. Paul’s Church at the time was predominately white and the family, particularly the parents’ experienced bigotry there. The neighborhood and Crotona Park was relatively safe where he played outside as a child. The street games he played included marbles, stickball and Earle always ran track or rode his bike. He also played tennis in McCooms Dam and would later join the tennis team in college. He would go to St. Augustine’s Presbyterian for basketball and youth sessions because they offered more programs than St. Paul’s Church.
When World War II broke out the neighborhood began to change negatively and many families, including the Alexanders moved away to a higher quality building that still resided in the Bronx near Boston Road. However, this area would eventually deteriorate too from poor maintenance. In the early 1940s, Earle was in High School and gangs began to become more prominent. It was dangerous to be out at night and his brother was mugged for watch once. Earle also heard about drugs during his time at Clinton High School, which contributed to his decision to transfer to Rose Prep.
Medicine runs in the family on his maternal side and his uncle was a physician. Earle followed his uncle’s footsteps academically by attending St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina despite his parent’s fear of racial discrimination in the South. However, they eventually allowed him to go because the school was Episcopalian. A class distinction occurred among the black community dependent on what school you attended, especially if you went to college. Despite living in the segregated South, the school was very self-contained and contained a class of upper crust black professionals, such as Earle’s uncle whom previously attended the school. There were debates and luncheons between the black and whites schools in the College’s seven schools, however there were no dances. He never had any fear or contact with the KKK or violence from white supremacy fanatics. Earle also felt more comfortable in the South because, “you knew where you stood in the South.”
After Earle graduated St. Augustine’s College, he was drafted into the army. Earle was 21 years old and integration just beginning among conflicting racial tensions. He was in the army for two years and his time was mostly pleasant because he and his other black soldiers were treated well. After Earle was released from service he moved back home, began a job running a railroad postal in grand central and went back to school. Upon a former professor’s suggestion, Earle completed his medical degree in Germany at the University of Hamburg. Earle had learned the German language from his friends and neighbors as a child and kept up an academic interest in the subject throughout school, and he spent five to six years in Germany. Studying in Germany was a lovely experience, which focused more on the academics of medicine rather than the practical work. Alexander became interested in psychology in Germany and later attended NYU Bellevue for psychiatric training.
He concludes his experiences growing up in the Bronx gave him an extended international experience by all the different people he met, “I never felt uncomfortable or more uncomfortable only with blacks or uncomfortable with whites.” However, his old neighborhood no longer exists, “there’s nothing left…they were just deteriorating.”
Alexander, Earle. February 6, 2006. Interview with Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham.
Click below to download supplemental content.Alexander, Earle.mp3 (112644 kB)