African American Studies
Assemblyman Michael Benjamin was inspired to work in public service after hearing that President Kennedy had been shot and killed; he found it interesting that a person would be involved in public service and they could lose their life. His youngest brother, Vernon, suffered from lung ailments and his mother wrote Mayor Wagner. She got an application back from the Mayor’s office for public housing and in 1965 they moved into the John Adams’ houses. The area was made up of working-class, two parent families. There was a communal feeling there and the building and amenities were new and safe. The people were mainly African-American and some Puerto Rican. The police were friendly and involved with the neighborhood. He admits that the situation was not like that in general in the Bronx.
He attended elementary school at Abrahams Stevens Hewitt School, which was also a new building. The school ran summer programs and encouraged community activities like the Boy Scouts. His mother went to work at school as an aid under the paraprofessional program and became a math teacher. His father was a union carpenter working in Brooklyn. It was unusual for three boys to attend private universities from his background. His aunt was the school librarian and he loved reading. He remarks that it was unusual but he had black teachers too. One white teacher had a developmentally disabled son but he attended mainstream school with Benjamin in third grade.
He was entered in a program for intellectually gifted students when he was in fifth grade. There were two programs in school district 8, one in the South Bronx portion where he lived and one at PS 138 in the Castle Hill section of the school district. His mother wanted to send him to PS 138, which required taking two buses to go to school in a white neighborhood but in an IGC class with African-Americans, Hispanics, Irish, and Jewish kids - his first integrated experience. He got on well with the other students, 12 boys and 18 girls. His best friend was Chinese-American. The fifth grade teacher was interested in current affairs and encouraged the students to perform skits which were perhaps critical towards President Johnson or Candidate Nixon.
He mentions the difficulty of informing his constituents and how apathetic they are and how closed off from other cultures the Bronx can be. There is often competition for power in his area between the black and Latino population and the Latino population is rising. The West Africans in the Bronx often feel outnumbered or under-represented in the area as the Latino population has grown and they have more political clout. Cunningham and Friedman may have used the competition between the groups to try to gain an advantage. The West Africans are trying to assert their cultural identity and have Muslim holidays recognized. Often the mosques are organized by immigrants from particular African countries and with a distinct language but they are uniting on certain issues. He wishes to work more on school issues and on re-entry for young adults. His constituents are socially conservative on some issues but he wants to bring all communities together. Many of the community leaders and elected officials in the Bronx have a Caribbean background.
Benjamin, Michael. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. Digital Archive at Fordham University.
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