African American Studies


INTERVIEWEES: Gwendolyn Johnson and Janet Banks

SUMMARY BY: Patrick O’Donnell

Janet Banks (b. 3/31/1917) was born in Worcester, MA and came to the Bronx in 1942. Up until the time of her high school graduation, Banks was raised by her grandmother. She graduated from high school in 1936, married in 1940, and moved to the Bronx with her husband in 1942, so she could live close to her mother. Banks immediately fell in love with the Bronx and has been there ever since. Although she was raised in the Episcopalian church, she converted to Catholicism in 1948. She is a longtime member of St. Augustine’s Church on Franklin Ave, and is an important part of that parish community. Although Banks was part of a black minority in Worcester, she has never felt explicitly discriminated against. She and her family got along with Anglo-Saxon, Armenian, Italian, and Irish families in MA, and when she moved to the Bronx, she coexisted with Irish, Jewish, Hispanic, and black populations. However, one of the occasions that Banks felt discriminated against was when some of her children were denied entrance to some of the area Catholic high schools under the pretense that her family did not live close enough to the schools in question. Of course, the real reason was that the schools were unwilling to admit blacks. Banks’ husband died in his sleep at a relatively young age, and St. Augustine’s Church was instrumental in providing her with the emotional and financial support she needed in the absence of her husband. She sent her children to both Catholic and public schools throughout New York, and she had a daughter who obtained a full scholarship to Brandeis University.

Gwendolyn Johnson was born in St. Croix, the Virgin Islands. She did all of her schooling at St. Patrick’s Catholic School on the Islands, and was raised Catholic as well. She immigrated to the US in 1946, in order to join her sisters, who had already come over. She settled at Tinton Avenue and became a parishioner at St. Anthony of Padua church in the Bronx. Johnson raised 7 children, three of which went to St. Anthony for school and four of which went to St. Augustine. She recalls that when she was sending her children to Catholic school, the Catholic Church was much stricter in the Virgin Islands. When Johnson was growing up, all the masses were in Latin, and there was not much contact between the clergy and lay people. After Vatican II, Johnson found that the American churches were much more open.

Both women are longtime members of their parish communities, and they recognize that their involvement in their religion and in these parishes is central to their lives. They are also deeply appreciative of the time they have spent in the Bronx, the people they have gotten to know, and the friends they have made.

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