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Morris Britt

Oral history interview conducted by Obden Mondésir

January 10, 2017

Call number: 2016.027.3.02

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MONDESIR: OK. Today is Tuesday, January 10th, 2017, and I am Obden Mondésir from the Weeksville Heritage Center, and I am with Morris Britt, and we are at PS 243 at the Weeksville School on Dean Street and Troy Avenue, in Crown Heights. This interview is for the Brooklyn Historical Society Voices of Crown Heights. So would you please introduce yourself by giving your name, birthday, and where you were born?

BRITT: Morris Britt, [date redacted for privacy] 1952, born in St. George, South Carolina, Dorchester County. [Interview interrupted.] -- to get different artifacts, whatever relics that were there, that came from right across the street over here, where those houses are now. But when I first came here, the 1:00houses, well, naturally, weren't there. It was a vacant lot. It was a vacant lot. There were no houses. Now, as close as you came to what was I guess considered housing was here was, like, a block over between Albany and Troy. There were some older houses there. That transit yard has always been here since I've been here, that yard there, Bergen, Troy, Albany. That has always been here since I've been here. What was here before, you used, could smell, like, Tasty Bakery, was-- They were -- there was a bakery right over here, right across -- I don't know, I guess right on Atlantic Avenue. And they -- you could smell bread. You could -- like, when I first started, Long Island Railroad, you 2:00could hear the trains rumbling along, they -- you know, like, in the evenings, 'cause I -- when I first started work, I started -- I was working from 1:00, 1:00 p.m. to 10:00. That's when Mr. Butler -- no, that's mine. That's-- [Interview interrupted.] Like, when I first started, like I said, yeah, I worked at night. Mr. Butler and I --

MONDESIR: Herman Butler?

BRITT: Yeah. We worked at night. He used to have another job, and he worked at night. We used to work at night. He'd work part-time. It was really not much going on, I mean, as far as, you know, like-- I mean, there were things going on during the daytime, but by the time I got here in the afternoon, in the evening, I saw all the, you know, like, say, the politicians and the Shirley Chisholms and all those people like that. And you heard Ms. Derico talking 3:00about the -- this Dr. Thompson. She was really big into all that, you know, everything that was political, education, all those kinds of things. They were -- she was involved with stuff like that. Community. But you asked me a question earlier about the -- about the Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and I said I only vaguely know of it, but I don't really know of it in a -- on a personal nature.


BRITT: Probably more so what I read. Mm-hmm.

MONDESIR: What did you read about it at the time, and what did you think?

BRITT: I was 18 years old when I first came here, and I probably didn't have -- probably should've been more concerned, involved, but I, I wasn't.


BRITT: Yeah.

MONDESIR: So could you describe when you moved to New York, and when you 4:00started working here at Weeksville?

BRITT: OK. I-- Yeah, I graduated high school 1970, and I came here-- Actually, I had a job. I came from South Carolina -- St. George, South Carolina. And I guess it was always my inspiration to come to New York, 'cause I was of the-- I was not very fond of what the South was all about when I was growing up, like the '60s. It just wasn't for me. I didn't dig the racist, you know -- racism. My father -- my father passed when I was 15 years old. My father was 39 years old, and that was in '67. Died 9/11/67. So 9/11 has two meanings to me. But when I first came, I had a job. I had a job in the South. 5:00I had a job working at a children's apparel, where they manufactured mostly girls' clothing. You know, as a matter of fact it was called Carolina Girls Gort Wear, G-O-R-T. And they sold to Macy's and Kmart and all the stuff up here. My uncle got me the job there. And I came to New York in hopes of coming to stay, but since I had already been working, I came -- I was here for two weeks, and I hadn't -- didn't get a job, I was getting ready to go back, because I was used to working. So my cousin Henry DeLea, he was a person who -- he was a -- he was the fireman before Mr. Butler. So he called me. I was living with 6:00the uncle who had raised him. It was my uncle, too, but it was my mother's sister -- her sister's husband who I lived with. She had passed previous. And I lived with him for -- like I said, I was there for two weeks, and I was getting ready to go back. I had already told my mom. I said -- 'cause she was still in the South -- said, "I'm getting ready to come back home." He called me whatever day it was. It was near the end of school. I started work here June 27th, 1970. So I graduated high school, it was May 31st. We used to have Sunday graduations. And I came to New York, and I said, I'm gonna come and do whatever. And, like I say, I spent the two weeks. I worked here for the 7:00summer. And it was work that I could do. You know, it wasn't, you know, difficult. It was basically cleaning, the same thing I do now, it's just probably not as sophisticated, if there's such a thing. But the guy who hired me, he -- I have to put this part in 'cause he told me afterwards -- he said I weighed 135 pounds, and I was the, the same height. And he says instead of a job, it looked like I needed a meal. [laughter] He says I was the thinnest person he had ever seen be called a man. But I was a basketball player. I loved to play the game. So I just really wasn't that big. But that's what got me here, and, like I say, after I -- the summer, I worked the summer, and then 8:00I-- Well, actually, what happened was I was more or less laid off from after the summer -- you know, after the summer work was done. Then I ended up working at Mays department store. I worked there for, say, maybe October to I guess it was March. It was like the Easter vacation 1971, and that's when I came to work, and I've been here ever since. I had three weeks, takeaway-- I don't know what year it was. I was a subway conductor for three weeks. I thought I wanted to -- you know, 'cause back then the job, as it still is now, it's almost a job 9:00that -- I think they said when I first -- my -- the guy who hired me, he thought -- he said, "You'd be a custodian," but they wouldn't give that test. It was civil service test. A lot of nepotism going on. It was people -- they hid their tests. I think they -- it took 'em nine years after I was here before they gave the first test. I took classes. I did everything that it was asked to be done. But -- and I would pass the test. But what would happen is, you -- you know, back then -- this was after the Vietnam War and stuff like that -- people got preferential treatment. You got the veterans' bonus of five points; if you were physically challenged, well, you got ten points. And these were usually the smarter guys, so these guys started out with 100, so now you got 110, five, whatever. And so, you know, the guy says, "Well, you keep studying 10:00and whatever." But the test, it would go from 80 question to 100 questions. And I never could -- the best I've ever done is, I think, I did 77. And I just said, well, it just probably wasn't meant for me. So this job has been pretty good for me. You know, I've learned a lot from just being around people. I said the only thing that they've changed: The children are -- the parents, some of them are even grandparents, of children now who are -- these are the people-- I just saw a lady outside. She was coming to pick a child up. And now they just look at you and say, "You're still here." And I always say, "Well, until I 11:00find a better place to go, I'll be here." So this is essentially it. I mean, as far as the Weeksville stuff, it was very, very involved. Like, say, 25 years ago, there was a lot of stuff. Even before they changed the name of the school -- I don't know if anybody told you, you know, when the change took place.

MONDESIR: No one could pinpoint it for me.

BRITT: I can't either. [laughter] I really can't. All I know is it was the Isaac Newton School when I came, and I guess when it was changed it was probably -- Joyce Washington was probably the principal then. But I guess it would be -- it had to be in the '70s. You know, it had to be in the '70s, but I just can't -- '76, '79. It happened before '80. And-- 'Cause I remember, like I said, 12:00even the, the signage outside. I just -- I don't remember it being any dedication service or anything like that. You know, I, I, I just don't remember. But, like I said, at the time the people that were involved, you know, like administration was -- it was different, meaning the same Ms. Washington, Joyce Washington. She -- like, I came here, like I said, '71 when I first got to be a union member. So she came -- she used to work with this program called Bank Street, Bank Street College. And she used to come -- 'cause I remember I used to open up the door for her. I used -- I've swept floors, different floors at different times. And she used to come by -- she was like a 13:00consultant at the time. She would come by, like, a couple days a week, and what she did I have no idea. But, you know, she would come by. And back then, like I say, she was involved with just that. She became the principal, and she was the principal for like 25 years, until she retired. Now, I know a lot about her, only because she, she lived in Harlem. She lived in Harlem around 139th Street. Back in, let me say, the '70s, she, she was the first person I heard of -- well, Richard Nixon had something called phlebitis. I have no idea what it is. I know that it's a circulation problem, dealing with your legs. She had that, and Mr. Butler and I rotated picking her up for two weeks. I would drive 14:00up there every morning to pick her up. No, which way did I go? I would go pick her up in the morning, and he would take her home in the afternoon. We did this for two weeks. And she very-- She was married to Booker T. Washington's, I don't know, grandson or something like that. But his name was Booker, too. But she was very -- what do you call 'em? Educationally -- you know, she was into the -- to the educational aspect. I mentioned Ms. Meggs; Elmen Meggs. I think I told you about her. She was PTA president when I first got here; very 15:00influential, meaning she was downhome. She was of Jamaican heritage, but she didn't take no crap. She didn't take no crap from anybody: Principal, superintendent, you know. But her thing was always about the children, and for that I respected her. I went to, you know, to her, you know, funeral. She even did some things -- she used to look at me, and her hair was, like, very white, from an early age. She was, like, in her fifties, and it was, like, you know, silvery grey. And back when I first came here, that's when the afro was coming into play. We used to braid our hair, and braided hair. She'd look at me, and she said, "Look at you. You're supposed to be setting an example for these children, and here you go--" And she didn't tell me to take it out, but I never 16:00wore it again. I never -- as, as -- you know, wearing it during work.

MONDESIR: So you just shaved your head afterwards?

BRITT: No. I just wouldn't do the braiding.


BRITT: Yeah. I -- my hair was still in an afro, but I just didn't-- You know, what we used to do -- people do different things now -- we used to braid your hair up, and then you take it out. You had a little clip in it, and you had a big, bushy afro. [laughter] But that was -- she was that person. And her kids went to school here, I know. Like, I, I tell people now, I probably know thousands of kids that in, you know, different capacities, you know, I see 'em every once in a while, and they'll go, "You still work over at 243?" They'll ask, "Well, where is--?" I said, "Stop. There's only two people work there that you know." And I said, "That's Mr. Butler and me." [laughter] Used to be 17:00one other person, but -- there's a woman. She used to work down here. She is-- She still works in the system, and-- But I said, "As far as I am concerned, like I said, as far as the--" You know, just, I mean, now, my, my son went to school -- my son went to school here. As a matter of fact, this was his first classroom. This used to be a regular classroom.

MONDESIR: The room we're in right now, which is the --

BRITT: Yeah.

MONDESIR: -- museum?

BRITT: Yeah.


BRITT: See, in the beginning-- See, they've done this museum -- it's almost done, and then just -- they had some good stuff in here years back. This is more just like a, a replica of what the real museum was. I remember, you know, like I say, bringing this little stand, and the thing's heavy. I don't even 18:00know where it came -- it was donated to somebody by somebody, and I remember bringing it in here, 'cause you can't really move it too much. All these things in here, these pictures of stuff, like I say, I don't even really know who's done most of this stuff that -- these things. I remember the quilting stuff. That was afterwards. That is a replica of the houses. Well, you're probably familiar with the one that's over there on Hunterfly Road over there. You said that's where you worked, right, the museum?


BRITT: Now, I think I told you the last time -- see, the guy, picture behind you, he, he was the Boy Scout leader. That's his brother to his -- well, to your right. And that little thing here is, is what this is.

MONDESIR: Oh, the sifter?


BRITT: Mm-hmm. Now, exactly where they are -- all I know is just across the street. And like I said, but when I first came here, see, they would do this on Saturday. That was like a Boy Scout project. So I -- you know, it's just -- I wish I knew more, but it's just that, like I say, at the time, I've been here, you know, just in the capacity where I am, not that you choose to forget, it's just that you forget it just because, you know, you've lived long enough to forget.

MONDESIR: Yeah, if you don't recall something --


MONDESIR: -- often enough --

BRITT: Yeah, yeah.

MONDESIR: -- it doesn't really hit you quickly.

BRITT: But, but that's -- you know, that's mainly what it is. And, and I maintain just like that these houses are here, that I wish I knew more history 20:00than I did. I wish I had the time to do more history. But, you know, people over there don't even know why -- you know, the meaning of Weeksville. They're just living in houses 'cause it's, it's there. And I live -- well, you saw where I live. It's more historic now than it was. You know, I mean, I lived in this area. I've lived in this area since I've been in New York, really. I live, well 169 Lewis. I used to live one-three-- I used to live over -- there's another school over there. I forget my address. Three eighty-one? Might be 381. I lived on Halsey Street. I lived on Halsey Street. I've lived on Jefferson. And just around here. And I used to -- I never rode the bus until recently.


BRITT: Yeah, 'cause I, I always walked. Now, eight minutes is eight minutes, 21:00and so what if it costs $2.75? [laughter] But, but like I said, but the area itself-- well, you could kind of see what has changed in the neighborhood-- but as far as people living here, I knew all the kids. It's like, right across Troy Avenue, all -- see, there were large families when I first came here. Albany Houses: They had eight, ten, 12, 14 kids in a family. You know, they'd have two, three apartments, and a lot of people then. And what I was saying about my son, my son went to school here. He was here for four years. I said I'd let him come here. I didn't make him. He was not Morris, Mr. Britt's son. As a matter of fact, when he got to the fourth grade, his fourth grade teacher didn't even know he was my son. [laughter] Because I said, "If they allow me to let 22:00you be here--" And he didn't have no problem with that. But once he got to be so familiar with everybody knew who he was, every time something happened I had to know about it. He broke this kid's lunch bucket, or she says he broke it. Her aunt bought her this lunch bucket, and it cost six bucks. And I told her -- I told her, I said, "I'm gonna buy you that lunch bucket, but it's -- you can't -- he can't play with you anymore." I said -- I told him -- I said, "Because--" Not that I knew what it was that happened, but I just couldn't-- Same kid right in this room right here! They get into a shoving match, he and another little boy. [laughter] This is four years old. His tooth came out. Lady wants 23:00me to pay 50 bucks for a four-year-old kid whose tooth was gonna come out anyway, and she says it was because of him. So at the time the principal, Miss Washington, she said -- she called me down to the office, and she says that she called the teacher and she said, "What happened?" She said, "There was a push," and, you know, whatever. She said, "That's it." But see, now you can't do stuff like that. You know, everything has to go through channels, and process. So, and I say -- I say to kids now, I says, "You can't even-- You can't even argue anymore." You know, like I said, if-- I don't know what-- [laughter] I've seen you come by, but gosh, this cafeteria; they had 150 kids in there, and you just would not believe the stuff that just goes on where they're just running 24:00around and playing, where 20 years ago, 25 years ago, you had three lunch periods with at least 300 kids. We split down in that cafeteria, at times we've had as many as 30 tables down, meaning 15 on either side and coming up the middle. Now they got 16 tables for -- and they don't even use them all. There are more kids involved with that program upstairs. That's where all the usage is. But the kids, I don't fault the kids, but it's just that I just don't like it the way it is. Like I say, I had a boss that was saying -- he says, "My son went to private school for two years." And he said, "Why do you send your son to private school? You pay all your taxes in the public school system." And you know what? He was -- he was right. And it's not the school itself; it's 25:00what you put in the school. I had a daughter who lives in, she lives in Dallas, and she's-- But she was always the student who always wanted to be that person. Matter of fact, she was in the room next door. She never went to school here, but it was a summer program here. And they didn't even really have any kids. And because she wasn't a student here, they wouldn't let her go. And she cried. Oh gosh, I had to go take her, and she couldn't understand it. And so I just told her, well, you know, whatever, whatever. And we probably got over it, and I'm sure she doesn't even remember this now, but, like, I was telling her-- She used to go to 308. It's another school, up near where I live. And she 26:00[laughter] went there for kindergarten. And I told her -- as a matter of fact, the same bus that used to pick her up that many years ago still does. And she says -- I said, "Missy" -- we call her Missy here; her name is Victoria -- says, "Missy, do you remember the buses?" And she says, "Dad, really? I'm supposed to remember something, [laughter] you know, when I was in kindergarten?" So, it's her -- we talk two or three times a week. We talk two or three times a week. She tells me what's going on there. We have very good adult conversation. It's not the latest in clothing or stuff like that. It's 27:00basically -- she's a levelheaded person, and she's my daughter, and I'm proud to say it. So -- my son is, too, for the most part, but he aspires to be a hip-hop artist. He still does a little somethin' -- he got a little somethin' on the side. And I tell him he ought to get a real job, and he looks at me like, say--? In due time. So they are 29 and 32. She's lived there now for, like, three years. And she probably -- I'm trying to think as far as the neighborhood and stuff. Well, they have lots of friends that were, you know -- 'cause she was a part of that Jackie Robinson Band. That was something that came in here. That might've been the first -- well, it was the real first afterschool program that was here. And it sort of served all the children. My daughter plays a 28:00trumpet because of that Jackie Robinson Band.

MONDESIR: Could you--? What, what was the Jackie Robinson Band, and when did it come around?

BRITT: It was a program -- let me see, if she-- As a matter of fact, she got in -- if she's 29 now, she'll be 30 this year, she joined when she was seven, so that's 23 years ago. She -- you were supposed to be eight, but she got in there, and she learned. It was a lot of activity. They -- as a matter of fact, I don't know if you've ever heard, they -- the marching band. They did the Macy's maybe about the last year of her -- she might've been high school. They did that. She went to California, or they appeared on the Tonight Show for New 29:00Year's Eve.

MONDESIR: The Weeksville, or the Jackie Robinson?

BRITT: No, the Jackie Robinson.


BRITT: Yeah, the Jackie Robinson. But it was always affiliated with the Weeksville -- like I said, the-- Well, the Jackie Robinson, the whatever the organization is, it, it did -- the band was the biggest thing. They had -- you know, they had classes in, in probably -- it was like work study, you know. Like, basically, like this thing here that they have here, it's a certain amount of time that's dedicated to schoolwork, classwork where you're supposed to do your homework. And they usually stay here from, say, five to about eight o'clock. They used to be here till into the night. But the band was the biggest thing they did. The band was the biggest thing. They taught you to 30:00play instruments, and, like I said, a trumpet. The reason that Brandy -- well, she played the trumpet because before where she got to high school, she, she wanted-- Well, she went to Murrow High School, and she was accepted at John Jay, too. Not John Jay. What's the school down on-- the big school down here, on-- the old building? DeKalb Avenue, around there; near the park, near the hospital.


BRITT: No, it's-- But that's the LIU area.


BRITT: The --


BRITT: -- the school, school, high school. But her mother wanted her to go 31:00there, and she wanted to go to Murrow. So [laughter] I was just really stuck there, so I says -- I told her, I said, "Look, you gotta let her go where she wants to go." So we ended up going -- she did there. She did -- from there she went to Quinnipiac, up in Connecticut, and she finished down here at Hunter, here at Hunter. But, but like I say, levelheaded, for the most part. But a lot of these people around here, she, she knows of the people in the neighborhood. She probably knows more about it [laughter] than I do right now. I always just say I probably forgot more than, than I've known. But like I say, this area, I 32:00can go anywhere in this neighborhood. I have always been able to, because I'm just that well known around, you know. Never made no enemies, to speak of. There have been some good times, bad times, and, and I've seen -- I'll just say overall it's been pretty good to me. You know, the whole school, the experience, dealing with people. I've learned more dealing with people, just being here, because you see so many things. You know, there's so many things that, personality-wise, the people that I've worked with, like I say-- Teachers; when I first came here, mostly all the teachers were Jewish. They were mostly all White. There were three Black teachers when I came in here.


MONDESIR: In 1970.

BRITT: In 1970, there were three Black teachers. And you got along well with 'em. But again, you're speaking -- I'm speaking from an 18-year-old point of view. And I just wanted to be somewhat successful. And, though, if I didn't achieve all that I said I wanted to do, I think I probably ended up OK.

MONDESIR: What--? So you mentioned that there were only three Black teachers in the school. What were the demographics like for the students when you first started?

BRITT: They were all Black. It was always all Black. You had some Spanish. There was some Spanish. It was the neighborhood. It was the neighborhood. This 34:00is -- they all came-- They didn't even live in Brooklyn. Most of the teachers lived in Long Island, or out of Brook-- out of, like, Brooklyn. They were -- nobody lived on Flatbush Avenue. No-- everybody lived away. Everybody lived away. And, like I say, you had-- But it was, say, 75% African American. The rest were Spanish. You had nothing else in here, really.

MONDESIR: When did you start noticing the change in the teachers, at least?

BRITT: You know, that might be-- OK, the major -- I call it two times, two periods where at one time when, like, when most of the Caucasian folks left-- 35:00[Interview interrupted.]

MONDESIR: When the Caucasians left, you said?

BRITT: Yeah, when they left, they were -- most of 'em were retired. So, OK, we had the same Ms. Washington, when she was here. All right, they brought a lot of younger African American teachers, which I thought was a good thing. That was in the '80s. So, say, '81, 2, something like that, they started bringing people that they were all younger, you know, more -- I don't know, like, the schooling aspect. But they were mainly younger people. I thought it was a good thing, because I thought it gave you something to identify, you know, the kids to identify, you know, the people who were teaching them were of the same ethnicity, whatever. In some cases it was good, others it wasn't. And to this 36:00day it's basically the same way. It kind of-- I don't know, it's like a mentality that I've always treated-- I was -- I've never been angry at -- like I told you about coming from the South, I know I probably had to be here in order to exist, because it just probably wouldn't have worked for me there. So I -- my boss was an Irishman. Most of the people, the custodians there, they were Irish. But this school, the staff was always Black. It was always African American. And as far as the teachers, they kind of -- you know what I really think happened? Maybe towards the late '80s, that's when certification became a 37:00priority. And a lot of those people could not muster that. So they had to move on to something else. And I can remember hearing and reading stories about teaching, you know, you need more teachers, you need more teachers, but what they meant was they needed -- they needed certified teachers. So figure '80 to '90, that's when you had them come in. And I remember -- I don't know when Miss Derico came. I remember, like, she might've been in that wave, you know, where the people came in that were of -- the sameness is -- I'll put it to you like that. And -- but they were very good teachers. They were spot on; what 38:00children needed, they were there to give 'em, you know, that instructional stuff. See, what has happened now, everything is your computer, you got to do studies, you know. That's the biggest problem I hear. I talk to all these teachers here, 'cause this is the floor I sweep. They get so frustrated by having to do the paper stuff, you know. Well, paper in a sense of you gotta do this report, this, that, and the other, and everything has to match up. And you al-- it almost leaves no time to teach the children. And that's just my own opinion. I, I have always -- I've always paid attention, you know, to school, 'cause I said it makes no sense for me to be, be -- you know, to be in school, 39:00work in and around school, and to not gain anything from it, you know. I've always prided myself on the fact that as far as the, like, the children go, like I said, I, I tell people all the time -- people, "Oh, bad children!" There were always bad children. But they grow out of it. [laughter] You know, lot of times I know kids, they were so -- because, like I said in the beginning, I was close in age, so I, I could've been, like, the enemy, but I always told 'em, I was not afraid of you. And they used to say, "I'll get my big brother, and I'll--" I said, "I got brothers, too." I never said that I was the oldest, [laughter] but I just said, "I got brothers, too." And as far as just them growing -- some things -- I know people who are bus drivers. I know people who-- people who do 40:00work in, in other capacities around in the community. And it's one thing I always said about me. And, like I said, because I didn't actually-- People go, "Man, I can't believe you have the same job." And I say, "Well, they never offered me a better job, so that's why I still have this one." So as far as, you know, the community, the neighborhood, yeah, it has changed, but I kind of go with it. I change with it. I don't have a problem with anybody. The people who I live with, very nice people, but I go in and out. [laughter] That's basically what I do. And this year, I -- well, like I say, as a matter of fact, I just moved there. I used to live over on Park and Franklin, Park Place and 41:00Franklin Avenue. Now, that is a place that is just totally White now.

MONDESIR: So one question I was going to ask is when did you start seeing -- or when did you feel as gentrification was more visible?

BRITT: I know, but I'm trying to put a year to it, because I remember probably in the last, like, 15 years, for the most part. You'd noticed it 20 years ago, but 15 years it became -- it's for real. And I used to ride the Shuttle, you know; the Franklin Avenue Shuttle between, you know, the trains here. And you would see more, like, from Fulton Street coming this way towards Eastern 42:00Parkway, you would see them, you know, in groups. You know, you would see boys and girls, you know, six, eight, ten of them, and they all traveled together. And I remember, then police became more prominent in the neighborhood. And I remember speaking to this woman, and, and I still maintain that. You know, I says, "People talk about police, whatever, as good, bad, but you need them, as opposed to not needing them." So we used to say -- well, what she and I had the conversation, was -- so she says, "So what do you think about our extra police protection?" I said, "Well, they have to protect us, too. They have to protect us, too." So that was maybe the first time anybody ever brought it up. I 43:00remember saying to my brother-in-law, who still lives over there, and, and I was telling him, I says, "Oh, man, these folks are coming this way." And they were coming from, like, Flatbush, coming in this -- in this area. "Oh, no, it'll never happen. They're gonna come to Washington Avenue and they're gonna stop." So anyway, I saw him, like, two or three years ago, so I said, "Dave, what happened?" He says, "Well, the property value, whatever, you know, it started going up." And what happened is -- it happens in all the neighborhoods -- my -- people of my generation, they get old or retire, or they die. Children don't want the property. They sell it. These people got cash. They buy the house. 44:00They buy the whole house, the whole whatever. And I used to always tell my sister and brothers, too, I used to say, "Just because we don't have money don't mean somebody doesn't have--" See, they have that money, wherever it comes from. They could just put money down and -- not put down, they could just flat out buy the house. And my wife, her family had a house on the same block. She and her brothers, they squabble over the, the division of the house. Two people -- two wanted to sell. She didn't want to sell. And I remember going to the real estate agent with her. I went there to be her support. And what the guy wanted to do -- but she was playing politics, too [laughter] -- what she said 45:00was-- They bought the house. It was $340,000. They sold the house for -- and it was just a shell, really. It was just a shell. Should see it now. But anyway, she says, "I'll pay -- I'll-- Let me buy the house from you." But they wouldn't do it. So -- but what they wanted to do was buy her out, and she was trying to play the old, "Well, why don't you let me buy you out?" And they wouldn't have it. But she ended up getting more money out of this deal anyway, but -- because she played hardball. The brothers, they sold out.

MONDESIR: When did-- When did this transaction occur?

BRITT: Probably about three or four years ago. Just recently. Because it was just before my daughter moved, and she's -- this'll be her fourth year she's 46:00lived down in Dallas, so. But they've renovated the house and all. Like, it was her parents' house. They passed away, and then nobody wanted to live in the house, and they let the house go down, and it became available. Now, I won't even go there. The last time I went there, the per-- the house that I lived in was, like, near the corner. I lived over there for 30 years. Lived there for 30 years. And the lady, like, Jamaican lady, she was the tough lady, you know. She didn't take no scrap from nobody. But she and I got along great. But after she passed, see, then they get the itchy fingers, too, you know, the children, 47:00and she had a sister involved, too. So now everybody want their own piece of the pie, so that got me and I got -- not kicked out, but I was sort of just pushed over. But it was time to move on anyway. It was time to move on.

MONDESIR: And this is the place on Franklin and Park?

BRITT: Yeah.

MONDESIR: So you were on Franklin and Park for 30 years, and then --

BRITT: Yeah.

MONDESIR: -- eventually you moved over to Lewis?

BRITT: Lewis, yeah.

MONDESIR: Oh. Wow. So, I mean, that's one way gentrification has affected the neighborhood. Has it affected the education in any way, or have you noticed that?

BRITT: You know what I see here, what I've seen is-- on a personal level, I don't know anybody who has children, really, but everybody-- charter schools. Charter schools are what this whole system is about now. They are part of every 48:00school building. They are seeking more and more facility space, and that's what I -- that's the biggest thing I see. You know, just the, the charter school aspect. And what I was saying about the teachers who are a part of the system-- the old -- you know, the old school deal-- they look at it like it's just too many rules and regulations, I think. You know, do I really know what it is? I'll just have to say no. But just by hearing and listening to them, I kind of think they know what they're talking about. There were people who kind of -- the computer was not very kind to a lot of people. You know, you got to be a teacher, and then all of a sudden everything has to be online. Like I was 49:00telling about my daughter, her classes, you, you went to class, and you did your papers online. That's how you submitted papers. You probably did the same thing. [laughter] You know, you never really had to-- I mean, you'd be there, but, you know, the official part was email. So, but that's the biggest thing I see as far as the schooling part. What actually happens in a class? I -- I'll just have to say -- I'll just say no. I don't -- I don't know whatever. I like to think I know, but, you know, on a -- an official point, I probably-- I have to just say I don't know.

MONDESIR: Well, I mean, I know you work this floor, and all the others --

BRITT: Yeah.

MONDESIR: -- and you know how the classes go along here. Why is it different at the charter school? Or do you not work at the charter schools?

BRITT: No, I, I work there -- I do sub work up there. Well, I think they have 50:00more focus. I mean, I see, just by being in the rooms, it's an agenda. I'm not saying that it's not here, but it's more -- it's more recognizable, because the children are -- like, you're talking about sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. So these are things that -- where they might be looking for philosophy, how do you feel. I don't know -- they have upstairs -- they have outside of each door they have the name of an Ivy League school -- Brown, Yale, you know. I don't know if these are goals for the children. I don't know. I hear -- but see, when you hear the stuff you don't know what to believe, so, "Well, they're not really learning anything, either." But I can't say that, because, like I say, I 51:00don't know what anybody's learning anywhere. But I see the potential, if they apply themselves, I actually think it could work. Whether it's for better or worse, I look at it like this: Where children -- I grew up in the South, and I pretty much got what was going on there. I had the ability to learn, probably could've learned more, but as you got older -- and this is what happens here with these children. They have more distractions. Everybody's got a phone, a laptop, and a tablet, and whatever. Didn't even have a phone. Didn't even have a phone at the house until, you know, in the later part of high school. So our biggest social stuff was going to school. Going to school, when you got to be 52:00older, mom would let you go out, you know, as long as you behave. And that was social. Here, everything is Facebook, YouTube, whatever. So to answer the question, if I think I can, I, I think its potential for more. I wish they applied themselves, because I actually think things could go on up there. I really do. I don't know about all of them, but, like I said, but my daughter went to private -- I mean, to public school, and I thought she picked a good choice in schools to go. She wanted to, just to go to college, she wanted to just fill out all these applications. Says, "Well, where do you really want to go?" And at the end of the process, the only place that she wasn't accepted 53:00that she applied was -- what's the Black school down in Atlanta, for girls? For the women?

MONDESIR: Spelman?

BRITT: Spelman. And she got a nice written letter. It was written and signed by-- Because they had reached -- it wasn't an academic thing; it was just that they had reached the point where however many students that they were going to be taking, and she wasn't there. And that was her biggest disappointment. So she said, "I just wanted to be accepted at all of 'em." That was her thing. So, meanwhile, it was costing me 25 bucks [laughter] for each application for her to say, you know, "I just want to be-- somewhere." This thing is driving me crazy about the school down, downtown. [laughter] Like I said, I know the 54:00school she went to, but it -- Brooklyn Tech.


BRITT: That was the school. I was getting ready to say "technical" and then the word came out. Brooklyn Tech. But that's where her mother wanted her to go to, but she wanted to go to Murrow. And --

MONDESIR: Edward R. Murrow --

BRITT: Yeah.

MONDESIR: -- where--

BRITT: It's, it's not Sunset Park. It's Bay Ridge or so. It's not even that far out, 'cause you take the bus, 'cause I remember by that time she could take the bus to go there, 'cause I did all the driving to and from school for them, you know, before they got to be teenagers. I did all the -- I drove them to school, all their afterschool activities. She did band. She did this. Like I 55:00said, with him, he did -- he did a lot of stuff, like, working with -- he still works with young people, my son. He likes to fashion himself a mentor, you know, trying to-- the little program they had here. He was working here. He has a cooler demeanor, you know, working with the kids, and kids identify with that sometimes, and sometimes they try to be a part of-- Nobody wants to be the bad kid, if you got, you know, a guy who's trying to talk in his voice, very seldom gets above this. Where I, on the other hand, might go up here sometimes, or I might give you the stare, and it means the same thing. Means the same thing.


MONDESIR: OK. So with what you experienced in the South, and your eventual move to New York, was there -- I guess you're really happy about what was happening at the Weeks-- well, with the dig, and Weeksville, and, like, what those children were learning.

BRITT: Yeah, mm-hmm.

MONDESIR: So could you discuss any programs that came out of that?

BRITT: Not really. Because, like I say, I know the Boy Scouts -- the Boy Scouts, it was, I think the troop number was 342, because it was basically the same numbers as the school here. They, they might even -- I don't even know if anybody is a part of that anymore. Because like I said, mostly everybody, just like the guy there, everybody used to live in the Albany Houses, and they had -- used to have the little -- the little room, the little rec room downstairs. 57:00That's where they did most of their -- [yawns] excuse me -- meetings and stuff like that. That was-- everything was held d-- I, personally, I can't say, no, be honest with you, 'cause I really don't know that many people-- Like I said, the ones that did, it had nothing to do with Weeksville in itself. It was more or less like, oh, you pursued your-- whatever-- career endeavor. And there were some people who had, like I say, at the time a bus operator was a big deal, subway motorman, conductor was a big deal. So the ones that came through-- You know, and I probably know some people who are kind of prominent, but [laughter] 58:00I just can't think of them. Yeah, I just can't think of them. Because like I said, there was a young teacher where; she was a teacher here -- she's a principal now -- but she was one of those spirited persons. She was -- when she came, she was young. She was a demanding teacher, a strong voice. But she was a person who-- she could get across the children. She could get across the children without yelling at 'em. And sometimes now I'm looking at kids, you talk loud, "Why are you yelling at me?" You know what I'm saying? Now you can't even talk loud to the children anymore. So what really has happened, or has changed, for the most part, I'm seeing now -- I'm kind of visualizing some 59:00of the children that I've seen. I didn't realize some of these children right now -- I didn't realize their parents were -- their parents who they are, you know. [laughter] I said, "Oh, that's your -- that's your mother, or your whatever, your father?" Kid; he's at the charter-- I had something last week-- he was mumbling something to me when I was doing the bathroom, and then I go outside to the store and I see him, and I -- and they both start smiling. So I said, [laughter] "You think -- you think now-- You know--" I said, "Now I know two people of the same family. Now, the younger one, one I know. Well, what do I know about the older one?" And the older one said, "Now, is he being OK over there?" I said, "Sometimes he is." I said, "Sometimes he has a little more 60:00mouth than he should, but now that he knows I know you, I'll get a little more respect out of the deal." Yeah. But it's just that -- I just wish they -- the children themselves -- I just wish they respected one another more, that I see them going. I don't know why everything's got to be a challenge. A joke is a joke. The same guy, you see, now, we shoot the bull all the time, 'cause that's just who we do, you know, who we are. But sometimes they just take it too -- they take it too far. Like I say, what you're talking about now, this program, there should be people coming out of the woodworks to explain, express, and there might be something about that. [laughter] I just don't know where they are, you know. That's my only problem here. I just don't know where they are. 61:00Not to say that they're not there, it's just that I don't know them. And teachers -- there's one teacher who I speak to occasionally, but she left here about four, four years, coming up on four years now. A lot of people just become disgusted, disgruntled, and they just leave. They have -- and that's the sad part: that you have African American people, people who can teach, and you get washed out of the system because the system makes it all dingy, and you just get out while you got your dignity. You get out while you got your dignity.

MONDESIR: So you mentioned that this is, like -- this museum room is more like a replica of what it used to be?

BRITT: Yeah.


MONDESIR: So could you describe what it was like before? And also when it fell out of prominence, and eventually was rediscovered, I guess?

BRITT: You know, what they really -- what they changed-- I'm trying to think where the original room was. It was upstairs, first. It was upstairs. And the last place that I think I know where it was was, like, maybe 221. You always had to have a space, but, like I said, but what they started doing -- they really started junking it up. And when it was in its heyday, when it was in his -- in its glory, I almost can't tell you what it was. You know, it's just that it was so many things. I remember the rifle stuff. I think there's a rifle 63:00somewhere in here. Yeah, that was there. The little harness for the horse, and the pump, and, like, the same Dr. Thompson who I have not been able to find -- No, but I actually saw a pump like this in the South, 'cause they still had pumps [laughter] when I grew up. So there were pumps. So there -- yeah, it was no big deal. But it's more or less like a display. This is more or less like a display-oriented replica of what the museum was. And like I say, just forgive me, [laughter] 'cause my memory just does not do the museum any justice. Honestly, it doesn't. And -- but like I say, but, this is more or less like a showcase. I recognize the things that are there, but this was not what I 64:00remember the, the museum being. It was a lot of stuff. You know, you had broken-- Because they had pieces of, you know, like the artifacts and stuff. They had the jar. Let's see if -- let me see if there's anything around here. No, I don't. Those old lanterns, that wasn't there. Like I said, you probably could buy that from one of these stores that sell--

MONDESIR: Antiques?

BRITT: Yeah. So that's not really that. Somebody really did build that little house there, but I don't remember when it was, but the little, little sticks there. But I don't know what it was and when it was that it was actually built. These -- like I say, these pictures of stuff, they're authentic, the pictures 65:00are, but it's just that that's not what I remember about this. Somebody would've had to take pictures some years ago, and, and I don't know anybody who did.

MONDESIR: So you don't think anyone took a picture of the museum?

BRITT: No, yeah. Like I say, the girl right here, I remember my son -- they had a picture-- He's in the picture, my son. He's-- They had the children dress up in what was supposed to be the garb of the time, you know, of Weeksville. I don't even know what these pictures--


MONDESIR: [inaudible]?

BRITT: Yeah, let's see-- See, this is the Boy Scout troop I was telling you about. They were the ones who were -- the ones who were doing the dig. And this is Miss Meggs, I was telling you about, the lady with the grey hair right here. Uh-- Let me see, I don't know where they got that from. That's not part of it. [laughter]

MONDESIR: Oh, the guitar?

BRITT: Yeah, I don't remember that being-- That's just an old radio. The-- Dr. Thompson, she used to have an instrument -- I've forgotten the name of it, but she used to play it. It was like a string -- like a -- what do you call it?


MONDESIR: It was like a harpsichord?

BRITT: Yeah, something like that, yeah. And she had different types of little things you could blow. You know, I guess they were a kind of replica of what Africa was. Say, like, earlier heritage. Let's see if I can see anything in this picture. I was really looking for a particular picture, but I don't see it. And I have no idea. Like I say, some of this stuff has probably got tossed, 'cause people have no real sense of --

MONDESIR: History?

BRITT: -- history.


MONDESIR: Well, I mean, when all this was happening, it was at a time where, like, Afrocentric education was becoming more prominent, after this --

BRITT: When these people were here-- you know, like the, the Dr. Thompson, this woman, Miss Meggs, see-- when they were here, they were culturally in tune with the time, the transition period, and trying to make it possible for us to understand, or -- yeah, for the children, really -- for them to understand what the, the period was -- is, and trying to make it understandable. But, like I said, whether the children actually-- Like I said, I wish I had a picture. I'm going to see if I can't get my son -- if he can-- It was a picture-- And that 69:00was a real nice picture, too, because it was two -- like I said, this girl right here, she was one. In case he talks to her -- well, email, whatever, her -- from time to time. This girl could be about 30 or so now. She could be about like that. But it's just that-- This is just written stuff here. But as far as the, like, all these people I know, I'm trying to see-- I don't know who they are. Um-- No, these names don't mean anything. This is the celebrity thing here.


MONDESIR: Yeah, I noticed that there were a lot of people who came to visit.

BRITT: Yeah. Markowitz used to come every year for graduation, Marty Markowitz. I remember Ben Vereen when he was here. Al Vann used to come often, 'cause-- Like, the politicians: What they would do is they would come, you know, for the graduation, they would come. If they no more than stayed three minutes, or in later years they would send a representative, somebody from their office, Velmanette McGee (sic)-- this is she-- Howard Golden. Trying to see, I 71:00still can't tell whether this thing was -- the Weeksville School bill came up here. I wasn't here the day Bloomberg came here. I was off that day. [laughter] And I almost hate to say this, but this is-- How do you make this up; this whole museum thing here? They threw away all the good stuff.

MONDESIR: Were you here when Shirley Chisholm came, or--?

BRITT: I was here, yeah.

MONDESIR: What were your opinions of her?


BRITT: You know what? I saw -- see this lady here, June Douglas? At the time, like-- I just saw something on TV. I don't know what it was, but a documentary type thing. It was about her being the first, you know, real African American running for president, back in '72. And her positions, her stated goals were just as viable now as they were then. You know, she was talking about equality, and-- See, OK, here's what used to happen when somebody -- a celebrity came. It's just like if you were to go to, say, a big show now. You could only see for a glimpse of, you know -- like, there would be so many people around her -- 73:00I remember they did her -- I think it was in the gym, and they had the, you could look but you couldn't say anything, you know, that kind of stuff. So I thought it was, you know, big time, and she did, too. So as far as the -- you know, the celebrity aspect of-- See, that's why people would make more of, but I thought Dr. Green -- he was the superintendent -- the, the chancellor -- he's the guy that died. He died in office, really. And because that was, showed you then -- see, that chancellor's job was a very powerful job, you know, in New York City power. That was a powerful job. And I think he died of a heart attack. And -- but see, there you could've seen, maybe direction, change 74:00could've been a possibility. But, again, I look at school now, the children, and, and I still look at it the same way. This is one of the greatest systems in the world, and we don't always take advantage of it. You know, you spend billions of dollars, you know. We have all this stuff. Children don't have to buy lunch. You don't have to do-- All you gotta do is show up. I go upstairs. You're talking about going upstairs. It got so ridiculous, kids -- nobody has a pencil, a used pencil anymore. At least when I went to school we used the pencils. Every day, new pencils; those little dispo-- well, they're not disposable, but they're little Bic-type pens. I bet there are 50 a day you sweep up. Teachers don't pick 'em up. I pick 'em up. What am I going to do 75:00with them? I put them on a desk, tomorrow they're right back on the floor. So I don't bother with that. It's waste, my tax dollars, just like everything else, but I have to do-- I can't still be all day counting pencils. [laughter] I just can't do it.

MONDESIR: I mean, were you here when Nelson Mandela also came to visit?

BRITT: I don't remember. I don't remember Nelson Mandela coming here. I was here, like I said, when all these people-- Like I said, I don't remember seeing David Dinkins here. I know Lena Horne was here, because that was my sweetheart. [laughter] Lena Horne was always my sweetheart. She was-- I used to tell the 76:00wife when we were together, that would've been my, my dream girl. I just loved -- just loved Lena Horne. Like I say, everybody was here, but what would happen is, again, they'd have so many people, and then you would have -- like, OK, say if you had a celebrity come in, well, so many other people would come, you know, from the outside: You know, politicians and whatever. So that almost meant you only just got a glimpse of-- So if Lena Horne was going to come, everybody who was a Lena Horne fan or a local politician -- so it was an extra 100 people in here. Back then, you might've had a thousand kids here. So forget about them. First of all, they don't even know who Lena Horne is, and they couldn't get a chance to see her anyway, you know. But, see now, people are just more -- you 77:00know, because you got all the social stuff, they get right up on it. You know, you see things.

MONDESIR: So-- [Interview interrupted.]

BRITT: But, OK, here's the way, OK, the same woman that I was telling you about, Miss Meggs. She always called us Crown Heights, and that's what I always identified it as being. Even where I live, it's still considered -- it's like a-- It's a combination deal now, but it's still, like, precinct-wise, as far as police goes, it's Crown Heights, where Franklin and Park Place deal. Now, like I said, they've added something else to it. To show you just how divided this is-- and a couple of the guys [inaudible] here-- if I take my phone out on this side, I'm in Bed-Stuy. If I go out the back of the school I'm in Crown Heights. [laughter] You know, like the -- your weather, you know, it'll say, you go out 78:00the back, you know, it identifies neighborhoods and area. You know, you go to this place, you're Cypress Hills, you-- Wherever you are, it identifies you. But I was just saying, I says -- you know this is just in December -- I was saying -- I said, you know, I'm in Crown Heights, but I'm in the front of the building, and then I'm in -- no, Bed-Stuy, I'm in the front of the building, and I'm in Crown Heights when I'm in the back. But it's -- to answer the question, I've always considered it Crown Heights, but now Bed-Stuy sounds more fashionable. [laughter]

MONDESIR: So, so back in the day there wasn't a real difference between Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights?

BRITT: Bed-Stuy really was considered, like, ghetto. Like, you know when, when they first started -- 'cause I don't even know if they call, like, where I live -- I don't even know if they called it Bed-Stuy there. But now, that's what 79:00they call it when I open up my phone. It's called Bed-Stuy.

MONDESIR: Yeah, I guess I've been told that if you're north of Atlantic Avenue you're in Bed-Stuy.

BRITT: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But, again, it's just-- And Crown Heights, because, like I say, it used to be -- what was the border -- I think it says Grand Avenue or something over there, 'cause see, now, I used to live -- when I first got married, I lived on Carlton. I really liked that place over there, but it was a little, small place, right off of Flatbush Avenue. This was even before there were just, you know, White folks were there. You had the big old houses. And at that time there were probably-- Say, if you had eight houses on the block, four were owned by Blacks. They were older Blacks, but, you know, once they 80:00sold that, folks came in, scooped it right up. But like I said, as far as the neighborhood, now, like I said, my son, he hangs out in Williamsburg. So now, you know, that's, like, upscale, you know, Williamsburg. And I can remember, like I said, being in Williamsburg, that wasn't really that popular. It was more just like a Jewish, you know, kind of -- you had the Hassidic Jews in that area up around -- right around where Brooklyn--Queens Expressway, when you ran all the way, you know, going towards the Williamsburg Bridge. But this, like I say, you wanted it to be Bed-Stuy when you wanted to sound tough. I don't know if you've listened to -- I'm sure you have -- Biggie Smalls. Whenever he starts 81:00talking about, you know, Bed-Stuy and all like that. So it had something, not negative, but it was not the prominence that it has now.

MONDESIR: I heard he's actually from Clinton Hill.

BRITT: Yeah.


BRITT: Yeah. [laughter]

MONDESIR: As a fan, I'm not going to say anything, but that's what I've heard before.

BRITT: Yeah.

MONDESIR: So how do you see Crown Heights changing in the next ten years?

BRITT: Probably more of the same. I mean, it's just going to be-- I think what really keeps-- The houses over here, the Albany Houses, I have -- you know, like you see, like, there's a building right down here on the other side; Bergen Street has-- Like, OK, there's a factory right up in that block, right up here 82:00that has -- it's a d--

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Morris Britt

Morris Britt is a sixty-three year old man, originally from St. George, South Carolina. In 1970, after finishing high school, he moved to New York in hopes of finding work and eventually found himself working as a janitor at PS 243. Married and a father of a son and daughter, he remained employed at the Weeksville School at the time of this 2017 interview.

In this interview, Morris Britt recalls that he moved to New York because of the racism in the South and his realization that he could not "exist" in South Carolina. He talks about living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn since 1970 and how he found himself working as a janitor at the Weeksville School at eighteen years old. Britt recounts how PS 243 changed its name from the Isaac Newton School to the Weeksville School. He discusses the politically and culturally involved faculty members that worked at the school, such as Marguerite Thompson, Joyce Washington, and Parent-Teacher Association president Elman Meggs. Britt reviews how the school and neighborhood have changed from 1970-2017, touching on what it was like to have his son attend the school. He also considers his first dealings with gentrification. Interview conducted by Obden Mondésir.

This collection includes oral histories conducted by Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), Brooklyn Movement Center, and Weeksville Heritage Center beginning in 2016 and collected and arranged by BHS in 2017. Each organization's interviews form a series within the collection. This oral history is one in the Weeksville Heritage Center series. The assembled collection was part of broader programming efforts by the three organizations to commemorate and examine the transforming Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn a quarter-century after the August 1991 conflicts and unrest sometimes called "the Crown Heights riot." The oral history collection features a broad range of narrators; educators, community organizers, activists, entrepreneurs, artists, bloggers, and longtime neighborhood residents, who describe the changes they have observed in their neighborhood over decades.


Britt, Morris, Oral history interview conducted by Obden Mondésir, January 10, 2017, Voices of Crown Heights oral histories, 2016.027.3.02; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Britt, Morris
  • Butler, Herman
  • Derico, Jean L.
  • P.S. 243 (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
  • Washington, Joyce


  • African American neighborhoods
  • Charter schools
  • Community development
  • Community identity
  • Education
  • Exhibitions
  • Gentrification
  • Public schools
  • School children
  • Teachers


  • Bedford-Stuyvesant (New York, N.Y.)
  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)


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Voices of Crown Heights oral histories