BRONX AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY PROJECT
INTERVIEWER: Mark Naison
INTERVIEWEE: Robert Seymone
SUMMARY BY: Patrick O’Donnell
Keywords: African-Americans in show business during the ‘40’s-60’s, show business family, Bronx gang culture, drug use in the ‘60’s, mixed race family, gang conflicts between boroughs, urban poverty, CORE, Nation of Islam
Robert Seymone (b. January 22, 1951) is originally from the Bronx, the son of an African-American mother from Little Rock, Arkansas and a German-Native American father from Pennsylvania. He is a theater, film, and television actor by trade, although he also has an informal background in music and dance. His mother was a dancer and performer who was heavily involved in show business. She was in the 1945 black film Big Timers, which starred Stephen Fechit, as the exotic dancer Tarzana. Robert’s mother frequently performed as character throughout New York, and she was backed by an all-female African-American band. She performed for both black and white audiences, and was managed by an African-American man. Seymone’s father worked a series of jobs, from railroads to restaurants, and was a private entrepreneur in his own right. Robert attended PS 63 in an almost universally black neighborhood. There were few white children in his class, and most of the white members of the community were store owners and businessmen.
From a young age, Robert was determined to get into show business and remain in the limelight. He was a natural in front of an audience, and there was nothing he liked more than having an attentive audience with which to share his imitations, recitations, and songs. He would make money by hustling on the subway, doing dances and playing the bongos along with one of his brothers. Sometimes he would simply work the sidewalk, reading poetry, singing songs, and dancing. His mother encouraged his early efforts, from dancing to singing to local acting, and Robert found in these performances a way to surpass the hardships of his lower middle-class neighborhood. Gang violence and drug use were common in Robert’s neighborhood, although the street scuffles and covert heroin use of Robert’s youth pale in comparison to the rampant gun violence and open drug trade that plague certain urban neighborhoods today. Robert himself rose quite high in the ranks of his local gang, the Disciple Tots. In fact, Robert became something of a mediator between different gangs, and he would decide whether or not the peace could be kept between a number of neighborhood gang leaders. He recalls that there were tensions not only between Bronx neighborhood gangs, but between Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn gangs. Unlike today, most gangs were largely affiliated with certain racial groups and cultures—there were black, Italian, Irish, and Latino gangs which controlled different areas of turf throughout the city. Despite the tough nature of Robert’s neighborhood, there was a genuine sense of community. Everyone looked out for each other, and even the hustlers, such as the numbers men, were kind and courteous to even the most vulnerable members of the community.
In addition to his gang activity (which was frequently community-serving rather than violent), Robert got involved with CORE. He organized and participated in several anti-segregation protests. In addition, he learned martial arts, and for a brief period was a member of the Nation of Islam. He taught martial arts to many of their recruits, and he himself was recruited because of his skill. However, he left soon after and began embarking upon a serious acting career. He began studying at the National Black Theater, and his film debut came in 1968, in a film called Cotton Comes to Harlem. He stayed involved in theater and film, and he continues to make his living as an actor to this day. All in all, Robert finds it miraculous that he managed to succeed as well as he has, considering that many people in his old neighborhood succumbed to alcoholism, drug use, injury, or extreme financial and social hardship.