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Oral history interview conducted by Amaka Okechukwu
June 02, 2017
Call number: 2016.027.1.16
OKECHUKWU: So, it's Friday, June the 2nd, 2017. My name is Amaka Okechukwu,and I'm sitting here with Ora Abdur-Razzaq in her home in Crown Heights. This is for the Voices of Crown Heights project. So, to begin, could you say your name, your birth date, and where you were born?
CLARK: OK, my name is Ora, last name Clark. I was born in Miami, Florida. Myparents had a separation, and when I was, I guess, about six that my mother brought us here, not to Brooklyn but to New York. And I think it was the greatest thing that she had ever done for us. She was very generous with her children, and she didn't come because she was looking for a great -- a great 1:00monument or anything. She came because my grandfather was here. And my grandfather suffered from asthma. And so, she -- loving her dad, she wanted to come where he was, so we came here. And I had two other sibling-- no, three. I had a sister and two brothers that came with us, and they were -- they were very excited about it too, about coming. And we lived in a neighborhood that was a mixture of Jews; of very few Blacks, but Jews, Hispanics. A lot of people who were very nice. They were very kind. The Jewish rabbis would often, during 2:00Holy Days, want us to light --something for -- something for them. Because of the holiday, they were not supposed to be touching anything. And we would stir the -- stir the food. They rarely asked us to wash anything, but they were very kind. And we had great friendships with the people in the neighborhood. And I -- my brothers also, we look back and think of how like family it was. You were not supposed to touch certain things in a Jewish home, and certain other things, but they weren't rude or anything like that. So -- and our -- most of our friends, we all went to the public schools.
OKECHUKWU: Was this in the, what, Lower East Side, or the East Side?3:00
CLARK: It was -- it was the Lower East Side, but it was, I would say, East 7thStreet. And, and then we'd go into the parks. There were a lot of parks in the neighborhood, so it was quite an adventure for us.
OKECHUKWU: And what was your experience as a young person in school?
CLARK: In school? I liked school because, well, where we came from, I startedschool early, and it was -- I liked it. And because, see, the school before, my mother was -- she wasn't a formal teacher. She wasn't a paid teacher, but what she did was, she all -- she taught all of us. And she would teach me how to read and for a long time; it was really good. And then, when I went to the 4:00school-- I was younger than I was supposed to be-- but the person who registered me also lived in a home where my grandparents lived, and so it worked out for us. It was good. For us, it was like a new world, you know? New everything. But the schools that we went to on the Lower East Side were good, too.
OKECHUKWU: So, you had positive experiences?
CLARK: Very positive experiences with them. And the other young people thatwere in the -- in our block, East 7th Street -- they were very nice too. I remember one day I went to a -- it was around the time where they had to -- had 5:00started having rationing for food. And below, there was a Jewish family that owned the-- one of the local stores. And -- but they were right in the same area where we were, and they would -- I would go down and my mother would send me to get bread and wheat and other kinds of things. And the -- I think, like, one day I was short a quarter or something, and she said, "Oh, no, go upstairs. Don't worry about it," kind of thing. They were really like family. We also were there at the time that FDR died -- was -- died. And so, that was kind of a -- not that we s-- we didn't see him in our neighborhood, but we did know that he -- who he was, and that kind of thing.
OKECHUKWU: So, at some point you moved to Queens, right? Were you still a child?6:00
CLARK: No, I was closer to -- I wasn't a young child. I was, like, I guess youcould say first, maybe second, third grade, or something like that. And we went to public schools. My brothers went to public school. They also would go to special -- like, at school, they had special events so the children weren't running in the street. And it was more like a family with the people in the neighborhood, although we were all mixed ancestry. And --
OKECHUKWU: This was in Queens?
CLARK: No, this was -- this was --
OKECHUKWU: Oh, at the Lower East Side.
CLARK: -- this was in the Lower East Side. And we eventually -- my mothermoved because she said that-- And we used to laugh about it, but it wasn't 7:00funny. It just showed how -- what did I say? -- how she was about people. And she said, "Well, we're going to move. We're going to St. Albans, Queens." And we said, "Why?" She said, "Because they're moving all the Blacks from Harlem," and she wanted to move where there was a safe place.
OKECHUKWU: So, when you moved to St. Albans, was it majority Black? How wasthe demographics different?
CLARK: Well, they -- there -- it had been a lot of-- But they were celebrities,like the baseball players were there. Who else? And some of them had homes 8:00there, so that was kind of fun. And after that, even -- my mother did. She bought a home so that we would have a place to live.
OKECHUKWU: Did you -- you mentioned Lower East Side feeling like a family interms of the neighborhood. Did you feel that same way when you moved to Queens, or was it different?
CLARK: Maybe a little, slightly. You know, people accept you, but it wasn't --a lot of the people had homes already. The homes that were really fantastic and -- were by the athletes and show biz, people who lived, like Lena Horne and other people. So, it was a nice place. It's not that we went to their homes or anything, but they were all friendly, and we liked that. 9:00
OKECHUKWU: So by the time you come to Brooklyn, you're an adult, correct?
CLARK: Yeah, pretty much.
OKECHUKWU: Do you remember why you came to Brooklyn? Why not stay in Queens orbe in Manhattan?
CLARK: Yeah, we -- I never thought of staying in Manhattan, because, since mymother moved, and I had started having children, that I had to have a place for them. And rather than have a -- one of these pompous homes, it would have been better for me to be in Brooklyn with my children.
OKECHUKWU: So when you moved to Brooklyn, did you initially come to CrownHeights, or were you in another neighborhood?
CLARK: I kind of liked Crown Heights. I wasn't overwhelmed with it, but I kindof liked it because of-- At that time, it was also the -- it -- the arguments 10:00about your nationality and that kind of thing. But it was a comfortable neighborhood in the sense that you didn't really have problems with people unless you were just a --I had a bunch of little kids, they might say something. But the other piece is that they did have homes there. There were people who were from Harlem who had businesses and homes in Harlem -- people of color. And when they came, they sort of filled in some of the space that was there. And I had a couple of rows with some of them, but they -- their concern was, why was I 11:00moving to where I was? Why wasn't -- I had children, and, "You can't build a school here. You really need to --" and these were all people of color. "Why were you -- why were you building -- why were you doing a school?" And, "We don't do schools here because it's not -- it's not built for schools." And I said, "Yes, it is, because from that corner there is a building that has -- not only has schools, it has schools who are not well." And it was special -- for children who had special needs, and the next corner, and so on. So when we had started the school, we -- it wasn't a home in the sense that we built a home. 12:00It was just the right size for us, for me and my children. And we -- and when I moved across the street they made the same kind of -- kind of remarks, that you shouldn't be here and that kind of thing. And these were people of color.
OKECHUKWU: This was neighbors?
CLARK: These were neighbors, supposedly neighbors. They were supposed to beneighbors, but they got out of it after a while. So, it was OK.
OKECHUKWU: So before you started the school, or maybe this was around the sametime, you had mentioned when we were talking on the phone Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and being involved in that. Can you tell me a little bit about that, and what your [inaudible]?
CLARK: About Ocean Hill-Brownsville? I think the -- it kind of opened my eyesbecause I never thought -- I thought New York was a great -- was going to be a great place with people who were together and so on, and would welcome children. 13:00But the Ocean Hill-Brownsville piece, I was looking for something last night. I know I have something printed on it, but I couldn't find it. The Ocean Hill-Brownville problem really turned out to be, not just a problem over school, but also as a problem about race. So when we started the school, one of the reasons we started -- my husband used to work with Malcolm X. And in the process, they had a lot of colleagues who were looking into what was happening in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. And the parents were concerned because -- particularly the Black parents. They were concerned because the teachers would come in, sit at their desks with the newspaper and their coffee, never nodded at 14:00the kids. And that was a -- that went for a while. They protested. They would -- parents would put things together so then they could go and speak against what was happening in the school. And most of them were people who were -- most of the parents were people who were really concerned about their children, and would they be able to grow and have good learning by-- But not by a teacher who just never said anything to you, just flipped the newspapers, and that kind of thing.
OKECHUKWU: So, what was your involvement? How did you get connected to that?
CLARK: With Ocean Hill-Brownsville? I got connected in a sense. I didn't havea job or anything like that, but my concern was that if your children were just starting school, you wanted them to have the best that they could get. This is 15:00their foundation. And parents started breaking away and doing something else; picketing, trying to get the teachers to be -- what -- to have some kind of interest in what they were doing. And they weren't doing that at all. And I never saw any books. But my -- I was concerned about my children because when they started the Ocean Hill-Brownsville thing, they were, like, maybe three and four and five, like that. Which meant that they were too young to be left with people who were not paying any attention to them. So, I think it simmered down because of the protests and because of the people -- they weren't rioting, but they were really expressing themselves about what was going on. And there was 16:00some racism involved.
OKECHUKWU: On whose part?
CLARK: It was on the -- some of the teachers. Because they didn't -- I mean,they had this -- they just wanted to be at their desk and read the paper and have their coffee. So, my thing was -- our thing was that, well, you know what? You're going to have -- we're going to have to teach our own kids. And so, that's what we did.
OKECHUKWU: So that influenced -- or one of the things that influenced you tostart your own school?
CLARK: Right. And I think I was-- Way in the back of my head, I remember mymother taking -- teaching us, and it wasn't because it was -- they were in the South, where we were, that they were -- they weren't picketing us, but they were serious about teaching their children. Because the -- most of the teachers were 17:00people of African ancestry, and they -- what they did when segregation was going on and lynching was going on was that they taught their own kids anyway. So, it was something for me to -- you know, to plug into that. So, we bought books. I would -- I would call one of the people -- one of the publishers of books for children, and I would ask them to send me -- what do you call them?
OKECHUKWU: Like workbooks?
CLARK: Say it again.
CLARK: Not workbooks. Some of them might have been workbooks, but I asked themto send me -- those books you get when you -- when you're at school, and you're a teacher, and you can order books.
CLARK: Sam-- they're samples.
OKECHUKWU: Oh, the desk copies.
CLARK: They sent -- so, they sent me a whole slew of copies -- of books. I18:00read them, and the rest is history.
OKECHUKWU: So, you first started off with your own children.
OKECHUKWU: Was it in your home, or where did you --
CLARK: It was home.
OKECHUKWU: And then, when did you start getting other people's -- like, whendid --
CLARK: Other people? Other people -- some people would pick up their childrenand they said -- would say something positive about the fact that the children were together. And there were some other schools that were -- said, well, "If you're teaching your children, could you teach mine?" And they just started bringing them. Some of them weren't really ready, but they -- but they were OK. And there was somebody in a ch-- in a nearby church that would do the same thing, bring their children.
CLARK: And it wasn't like a -- it wasn't really a luxury business, so I could--You know, you'd charge them a little of this, a little of that, kind of thing. But they were always pleased with their children. And I have people now who come -- whose children were maybe second, third grade, who still call and who still always say, "I don't know what I would have done without Cush Campus." So, it was good.
OKECHUKWU: So, what do you think -- what was the, I guess, strength of CushCampus? Like, how was Cush Campus's approach different from other kinds of schools?
CLARK: I think probably because anybody who walked through the door, if theywere somebody's child, they were my child, too. Which meant that I would speak to them and I would speak to their parents: "You can't do this. You can't do 20:00that. And you have to respect people. No fighting, anything like that." Oh, I didn't take out pictures for you. I have pictures of some of the children who were working. My children did, and other children did. I should have asked one of the parents to come here today, but I wasn't thinking that way. But it was good. It was good. I learned a lot from the children. And they learned how to get along, and they -- some of them still communicate, and some of the parents still communicate.
OKECHUKWU: At what point did the school expand? I know at some point you gotother teachers, and I don't know if you went to another space, but at what point did you start to grow where you had to take on other staff?
CLARK: At first it wasn't another staff. At first it was just people who21:00wanted to help, and I think they thought they wanted to teach, but they didn't really have the -- all the -- all the -- all the checks in order to realize what was required. And the parents would bring -- I would tell them to -- ask them to bring lunch, and -- so we wouldn't have to have that, because we started serving food and stuff for kids. But after a while you really needed to have a real meal for them, and not just snacks, or parents just to bring lunch. And I was pleased with them. The parents were supportive. At the end of the year, we would have a closeout for the school, and make sure that they, you know, were 22:00pleased with what the children had, and so on.
OKECHUKWU: Were you -- can you speak a little bit about maybe the relationshipsor the connections that you had to other Black independent schools in the area? So, like, Uhuru Sasa Shule?
CLARK: I think we were all similar kind of people. We might have had the samefaith or -- but they were really -- we really were after the same, same kind of goals for the children: that they were spoken to in a -- in a good way; they weren't yelled at and pushed around. They were good. One year, we all went to Guyana together, and I thought I was going so I could learn what they were doing. And I liked visiting the other schools because they already had some 23:00kind of plans that they wanted. And I wasn't too keen on it. I was really more concerned that the children would learn, learn how to take care of themselves at the same time. And that worked out. And eventually I took my children to a public school, but I took them to a public school that I knew the principal. I knew what was going on -- going on in the school. And anything that I could ask that principal and the assistant principal, we got it. And we had to -- their father had gone to Guyana, and -- looking for properties. And I went to really assess that school. And when I went there, I found out it was really pretty 24:00much like us. It was really a good school. And the teachers -- what was -- Miss Boyce? Yeah, one was Miss Boyce. She died some years after she retired, but she was a great teacher. And they named the school -- they wanted a name for a school, and we all pitched in to try and create a name for a school, and I suggested Philippa Schuyler Middle School for the Gifted and Talented. The reason I suspected -- I decided to do Philippa Schuyler, she was -- her father was a newspaper man. He was a Black man. They lived in his parent -- her parents lived in Philadelphia. And they were very kind, very nice people, and 25:00they were strong people. And I said, name it after Philippa Schuyler because she died in a plane crash with kids she was trying to bring from Vietnam. And, I mean, it was a risk, but she did, and her parents agreed to it, so it was good. Most of the people that I met during the time that this -- the struggle was going on, they weren't really people who wanted to go blow people's brains out. They were really good people, and they wanted the best for their children. And every now and then, somebody would send me a book, and materials for the children, and stuff like that. Watch the little string down there. OK. And it was good. I met a lot of great people, and they were really, really -- they 26:00were for real. They really meant it. They weren't talking about shooting a -- that kind of stuff.
OKECHUKWU: They were trying to build institutions.
CLARK: They were trying to build the institution, and they were trying to buildwhat we believed in, for everything: for the children and that kind of thing. So, it was good. For me, it was a great experience.
OKECHUKWU: When did you decide to change the name from Al-Karim to Cush Campus?
CLARK: The school?
CLARK: When I became a full-fledged school. I wanted the name of somebody whowas good at what they did, and they had the same kind of -- what do you call it? 27:00-- the same kind of desires for the children. Because you can have -- you can have a school and have a whole lot of teachers. If they don't have the, the calling, if they don't have the desire for the children, and they just wanted a job, it doesn't work. And you have to love children, you know? You can't want to slap them around because they were -- they didn't behave. You know, you can call and you can talk to them and tell them why you -- why they're there, and what they -- what did they want to be when they grow up, and so on.
OKECHUKWU: So, was that when -- maybe the '70s? When did the name change? Doyou remember?
OKECHUKWU: From Al-Karim to Cush Campus -- the name change?
CLARK: I liked Al-Karim. I liked Al-Karim because it was the name of a great-- a great -- a great group of people. And they were in the other countries. 28:00They weren't in America. And I liked it because they love one another. They, they really had desires for the fam-- for the African family and for the children. So -- and it gave them a sense of -- they -- not only were they -- people were nice to them, but they had-- The children started believing who they were, and I'd say, "You know, you come from greatness." I said, "You, you, you may not understand now, but one day you will, that you were people who came from greatness. They weren't killing one another, you know? They were fighting 29:00for people to grow and to be able to build for the kinds of schools that they could possibly have." So as a matter of fact, we've been wrestling now with -- somebody suggested changing from Cush Campus. Oh, I have a -- I had something for you about Cush Campus. And then, so, when you have children in schools, you want them to be able to follow, follow the people who were -- I hate to use the word good, but child -- the people who were trusting, the people who would be concerned about you, and would make sure that you got home all right, that kind of thing. And we met people like that. We met people who were narrow, who 30:00wanted to be just their group where they were. And I said no, you know, we can all live together, but you've got to work at it. So it worked for us, and I've erased it a couple of times, and other people have erased it, but I always go back to it, you know? So -- but it was a good experience for me, the school and everything, because I didn't realize I had to be a real teacher. You had to -- you couldn't just, "So, OK, now we're going to learn the ABCs." It wasn't like that. [laughter] And I think the blessing for me was that I had some brilliant kids. They were really good, really smart. And when -- and teaching them, it was -- it was plugging in to what they already knew. You didn't really have to 31:00teach them. They had a base -- some basis for it. And, and after a while, they loved it, and they loved the fact that they were getting grades and all other kinds of things. And our children, we treated them like -- we talked about how great they were. They were from greatness. And that -- when I asked them what they were going to be, what they'd like-- And they'd ask for all kinds of things. So, I think one of the -- I think the smartest thing I did was -- that -- not to keep them in classrooms. You know, after you do your learning and stuff, we'd ask what they wanted to be. They've gone -- been to Europe. They've been to France. They've been all over. And not only that, they were 32:00other places we'd take them. Take them to Great Britain, and you go look at the people who run that country, and other kinds of things. And I think that's something -- I think it did something for them, you know, about -- that it was a real world, and the stuff that they asked -- the questions that they asked, we answered. That it's not just so, "Maybe one day you can go here." It wasn't like that at all. We took them there. And I'll give you one example you might not think is funny, but we went to -- oh, where did we go first? Let's see. We went to Great Britain. We went to -- what's the other one, that starts with a "p?" We went to -- we took a bus, after we got to -- after we got to Great 33:00Britain we took a bus over into another country. And when my daughter said -- I took my, my youngest -- my youngest child, my youngest child -- we took her. She was in first or second grade. And after we got there, we met people who were from America, but they were from small towns. So one day, they said to my -- well, when we got to the, the other place, we, we were on a bus traveling through the country. So, my youngest daughter said to them -- asked -- she said -- they were kids -- they -- adults wanted to touch her hair, see how -- what her hair was like. And so, she said -- I said, "What's the matter?" She said 34:00-- oh, she'd say, "You know, this lady?" She said, "This lady sat by me and asked--" Is this guy talking to somebody? She said -- she sat by a woman who said to her, "Oh, how did you all get here? How did you get the money?" So my daughter said, "Drugs," she just jokes. [laughter] So I said, "Why did you tell that woman that?" She said, "Because it was stupid. Why would she ask what we -- how we came?" And another, another -- one day -- one day at dinner, somebody said the same thing to her, asked her what did -- why -- how did you get to come? Because I noticed, on the bus, most of the people that were there -- most of the kids that were there, they were only about maybe two per, per teacher. 35:00And they didn't have a lot of teachers from their group. But we had a big group.
OKECHUKWU: How many?
CLARK: From our group? Maybe about 20, 22, something like that -- 25. Do youremember, [unintelligible] No? And the other thing they did was, one day -- and this guy was nice. He was one of the people who helped charter it. And he said, "You know, I had some complaints." He said that, "People saying that your group always sits in the front." I said, "Well, I'll tell you what." I said, "That's how they're supposed to sit. But I'll tell you what I'll do." I said, "We get up early. That's why they make it. They get up early. They wash up. 36:00And we go up to the bus." So I said I would maybe save one seat for one of his people, and see what would happen. So, I did that. They didn't say much. They did, when we were outdoors -- would ask my daughter about her hair. You know, it was like this. [laughter] Like it was going to stick them or something. So. So -- but it was. We kind of laughed at it. So, I told him if there's somebody that -- do you feel bad about it, let me know. I'll go up to the person and speak to them. You don't have to answer them. Just tell them, "Please don't touch my hair." Because I don't know what they'd do if you touched theirs, so you don't want to do that. But I think, by giving them experiences, the experiences helped them grow too. You know, that -- how people 37:00act, how they do. So--
OKECHUKWU: So -- at its peak, how big was Cush Campus? How many students?
CLARK: The last time, it was 300-some -- you know how many -- what the schoolwas like for last summer? Because I wasn't there last, last summer. You asked how many students?
OKECHUKWU: Yeah, how many [inaudible].
CLARK: Anywhere from, like, maybe, 340 to 500.
OKECHUKWU: And what grade did it go up to?
CLARK: Well, I didn't take any little ones to Europe, but I -- I did take someyoung ones, but they're weren't little babies. You asked how many?
OKECHUKWU: The age of --
CLARK: The age?
OKECHUKWU: The grades that you have for Cush Campus -- how -- what [inaudible]?38:00
CLARK: When we traveled, we went f-- maybe about four kids to four or fivehundred, because they knew I would watch the kids, so a lot of parents didn't go.
OKECHUKWU: Right, but --
CLARK: But their kids went.
OKECHUKWU: But how -- so, did it go all the way up to high school, or did you-- how many --
CLARK: Oh, it did.
OKECHUKWU: Oh, OK.
CLARK: Yeah, we did. They graduated.
OKECHUKWU: So, you went K through 12 -- Cush Campus went K through 12, oh, OK.
CLARK: Right, yeah. They graduated.
OKECHUKWU: And how -- was it primarily funded through tuition, or how did youstructure it so that -- to fund and support--?
CLARK: Parents paid. Parents paid. And we worked together to raise funds whenwe could.
OKECHUKWU: So, at -- is Cush Campus still functioning, or did you close?
CLARK: It will be, in the fall.
OKECHUKWU: Oh, OK.
OKECHUKWU: OK. All right, so, to transition a little bit, I wanted to ask if39:00there were any --
CLARK: Do you know these people?
CLARK: Oh. [laughter] They keep smiling and -- so I'm trying to figure out, doI know them? But I don't know. Anyway--
OKECHUKWU: Let me get your mic fixed.
CLARK: Oh, I'm sorry.
OKECHUKWU: No, you're fine. [Interview interrupted.] OK. So, on the phone Iasked if you remember Arthur Miller, who, you know, was a community leader in Crown Heights, and who was killed by the police in 1978.
OKECHUKWU: Can you tell me a little bit about what you remember about him, orof that incident? 40:00
CLARK: I mean, he wasn't a -- like a personal friend, but he was known in theneighborhood. And I was shocked when I learned that he had been killed by a policeman. And it was just a kind of -- it just kept you patting your heart, thinking what could -- why? And I don't think it was ever resolved. I think the police said that he had done something he wasn't supposed to do. I don't know what they said, but it was brutal, because he had family and everything. And it was -- people talked about it for a long time. People like those from the -- what they called The East, and some of the other neighbors who had seen him back and forth, get the newspaper, go get other things -- you know, shopping 41:00and stuff like that. It was very sad and very hard to try and figure out -- figure it out, you know, what did-- It's almost something that's starting all over again. And he was -- he was killed. It was -- it was just a sad state of affairs.
OKECHUKWU: Do you remember if there were, like, rallies or protests thathappened in response?
CLARK: Yeah, there were rallies and protests for a while. And are you familiarwith The East?
CLARK: OK, The East and Brother Jitu -- he was living then. And those peoplespoke out. Those are the men that were -- spoke out. So, like, the stuff that's going on now, they would -- they would speak out about -- you know, public. And sometimes it's maybe in front of a bus or something else. It 42:00wasn't always the same place. But they would -- did, did talk about it, and try and put together ways that could protect your family. So--
OKECHUKWU: Around that time -- I think this was the year before, but theblackout happened. Were you here when the blackout happened? Do you have any memories?
CLARK: The blackout from --?
OKECHUKWU: Nineteen seventy-seven?
CLARK: Are you talk-- OK, now, there were a couple of blackouts. There was ablackout from -- there was one from -- really from -- you really -- wasn't just turning your lights on and turning them off, that they were on -- off for a while. And I suppose that was to do, since if people had no lights, they would 43:00stay inside or something. But Brother Jitu Weusi -- oh, some of the others. Jitu Weusi, and so -- a lot of the men in the neighborhood that were connected with Uhuru Sasa were always checking on people, and trying to see if people were all right. They'd knock on your door and say, "Is everything OK?" Particularly if you had a husband that wasn't around -- you know, had gone to travel. They would always pay attention to you.
OKECHUKWU: I heard there was a lot of looting, like on Nostrand, also on Utica,during the blackout. Like, I think it was -- what was it? Syl's, like, the trophy shop? 44:00
CLARK: Syl's? Yeah, he's -- he had his own business, yeah.
OKECHUKWU: But I heard it got looted pretty bad during the blackout.
CLARK: Oh, it did. You know, it -- as a matter of fact, then, I was living onthat side of this -- of Park Place. And we had two, two dogs. And I'm trying to figure out what dogs they were. But anyway, we had two dogs who wouldn't let you come near the door. And the -- I'm trying to think who came. Somebody knocked on the door, and I said, "Well don't, don't kill my dog. Don't do anything. They're not doing -- they're not--" whatever. And I put them in the backyard so that people wouldn't think they were just noisy and they should kill them. And my children went to Florida to spend -- to spend time with my sister-in-law, so that they would not -- we didn't -- I didn't know what it was 45:00going to become. So -- but eventually it quieted down. It usually does, but not before somebody is hurt. And the people who -- Brother Syl's, who had the store, would knock on my door and say, "Is everything OK?" and that kind of thing. So that was good, to have a relationship with people in the neighborhood.
OKECHUKWU: Do you remember any other, like, stores or businesses that may nolonger be here, that were, like, important to the neighborhood, or that you had relationships to?
CLARK: Well, Syl passed away in his-- he was ill, so-- There was a man across46:00the street who was, whose grandson was in the school. And he was a kid that used to run out of the classroom when he first started, because he was -- they were in private school. He was in private school, and his grandfather asked me to take him. I did. And after a while, he had this thing where he would run out of school. So, I said, "You can't do that." Anyway, he came in, say this section -- say this is the back of the school. Of course, the school was pretty much like this, maybe not as long. He came -- he came out with his coat one day. He sat -- he sat on the floor. And I said, "Where are you going?" And he 47:00tried to get out. So, I got him -- flipped him over to his, his belly, and I said -- and I sat on him. [laughter] And I said, "You can't leave here." I said, "Your mother will be worried. Your grandfather will be very -- be worried." I said, "You're staying here, and you're not going anyplace. So, you might as well just relax." He sat on the floor for a long time. And fin-- I said, "If you got out -- if you run out again, I don't know what's going to happen to you." Because one day he did start -- tried to run out. And I tried to run with -- halfway, the -- this block. And it didn't work, because I didn't run as fast as he did, and he would run, and he'd get across the street, and he'd be in the other aisle over there, near the other school. And he'd, he'd 48:00stop running when he saw me. But as soon as I started running, he started running again, which means, "I'm leaving. I'm going -- I'm running whether you want me to run or not." But after all, I finally got somebody in this -- I said, "See that young man down there?" I said, "He's my student, and he can't leave here, so I'd appreciate it if you'd bring him back." So, a brother brought him back. And I took him to his grandfather, and he stopped after a while. So, but he's good too. As a matter of fact, now, he's running some -- a cha-- he ran charter schools in the Bronx, and he runs -- ran another school, I think, here in Brooklyn. But he's doing fine. He's married, has children. Yeah, and he acknowledges that, that, that we did a good thing with him, because 49:00he was a good kid. His mom was -- what was--? She wasn't a lawyer, but she worked in the city somehow. But -- and his father had died in a -- it wasn't Vietnam, but someplace. And he turned out to be a good kid. It's like having another son. He's really good.
OKECHUKWU: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience of change in theneighborhood? As we know, it's -- Crown Heights was one of the quickest gentrifying neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and there's been a lot of different changes.
CLARK: Change -- you mean ch-- a lot of difference, and a lot of change, inCush Campus?
OKECHUKWU: Just your experience in the neighborhood.
CLARK: In the neighborhood?
CLARK: It's changed in the sense that people -- somebody must have had a50:00revelation that we're going to have to do something. Because when we moved on this side of the street, they -- we did get some criticism. And I'm trying to think of what else I want to tell you. We moved to this side. Most of the people, I think they were looking for, for a truth that would tell them that we were wrong, we shouldn't be here. So when I did speak to them, I'd say, "Why?" I'd say we were doing -- this is children. We're working with children. What is the problem? "Well, this church -- this school is not--" I mean, "This 51:00block and these houses were not made for a school. And--" But eventually, they act like they invented us. They -- "Oh, thank you. You did such a good job." They'd say stuff like that, but they -- I think sometimes people just don't have a vision, so you just have to leave them alone and stick to whatever you're doing.
OKECHUKWU: Where is Cush Campus located currently?
CLARK: Currently? In another month, it will be where the schools are, in thearea where they are.
OKECHUKWU: So, still around here?
CLARK: It wasn't -- no, I have to -- it won't be in this block. It will be in52:00another block.
OKECHUKWU: Was it always located on this block, or was it in other places?
CLARK: Well, pretty much it was on this block, but maybe starting someplace andthen moving further up on this block. Because, after a while, people -- I guess people change, because we would do -- what? We'd do fundraising here in the block, and other kinds of things that we would. We'd speak to the people in the block. Sometimes they wouldn't answer you. And it, it turned out all right, because they -- after a while, they acted as though they invented us. So, what can you do? I wasn't going to physically fight them. I just didn't want them in our way.
OKECHUKWU: So when it grew to more students, where did -- where were you having classes?53:00
CLARK: We had a class here. We also had one on, on-- what-- what's--? Oh,it's-- It's on-- What street is -- what's the name of the street First Church is on?
OKECHUKWU: Kingston? No?
CLARK: Yeah, I think it is Kingston. Yeah, we were there, in their building,at one time.
OKECHUKWU: And then you had classes here also?
CLARK: I've had classes here. I have to tell you about -- before you h-- go, Ihave to tell you about the policeman knocking on the door.
OKECHUKWU: Tell me about that.
CLARK: Well, the -- we were talking about the fact that people were notaccepting. Well, the small place that we had was across the street and almost 54:00on the corner of Nostrand. Just a little bit -- not -- but-- And one day, somebody knocks on the door, and he said he was from the Board of Health, and he had to have the names of all the people in the -- in the office. I said, "I'm sorry, I can't do that." He said, "Well, I have to know who the people are in the building." I says, "Well, I'm sorry, I can't do that." So anyway, he -- because when you give people your name, it gets a mess, and I didn't want anybody else to feel that they were -- they were going to be harmed because they were in the school. And so, the policeman came back one day and said -- he handed me something. It was a -- what do you call those things when they want you to go to court? 55:00
OKECHUKWU: Oh, what's the name? I don't know where my mind is at right now, Iknow what you're talking about.
CLARK: Anyway, they -- yeah, they -- anyway, they gave us a -- some piece ofpaper for us to -- we had to go to court. So, the man around the corner whose grandson was running out of school -- I went and talked to him, because he liked us, because his, his grandson was acting like a human being now. So, I went to him and I asked where I -- where could I -- I said, "I need a lawyer." So he said, "Sure." He called his, and they -- we went Downtown Brooklyn. And I was really concerned because there were -- when Mr. Bell, who was the name of the -- that child's grandfather. He was a nice person, but I didn't know what he could 56:00do. So he went to the court and they started leading us, after we got inside, to -- and I kept noticing that every time that we'd pass one of these little places where they have the judges, Mr. Bell's lawyer was saying, "Hi, Sam, how's Mary?" [laughter] I would say, "Oh, my goodness. He knows the lawyers and he knows the judges?" I said, "That's a total loss." So anyway, it did -- after a while, they -- he wrote us up something, and gave it to us. And then I went -- when I went to Mr. Bell again, he said, "No, he's a good lawyer. He'll be OK." And he was. He turned out to be good, because somebody tried -- somebody had 57:00the house before us, and what they wanted to do -- they thought they could put somebody in the house and they'd be rid of this lady with the kids. And so, I spoke to the lawyer, and he said, "No, don't worry about it. You'll be fine." And he did. He was very good.
OKECHUKWU: So, people were that negative that they were trying to kick you off-- kick the school off the block?
CLARK: They wanted -- didn't want us on the block, and they -- it wasn'tanything we were doing. Though -- I mean, we did -- we once did a -- I think, a street festival or something, or something that w-- for the parents, that they could raise some money. And -- but we weren't anything else, because I'd go to bed at night. You know, and your children go to bed when you're having -- they have school the next day. So, it should not have been that way or anything. 58:00But after a while, they'd act like they invented us. They don't -- they don't fuss anymore.
OKECHUKWU: In regards to the neighborhood of Crown Heights, can you speak alittle bit about how it's changed over time?
CLARK: How it's changed?
CLARK: I could. One thing I would -- I'd like to add before that is that CrownHeights also had a growing Jewish community. And -- but they lived on the other side of Eastern Parkway. But they weren't ever nasty or anything. It was the people of color that were -- you know, who would pass you and act as though you were a ghost or something. But, but the -- what I liked was that it had a -- 59:00once the Jews came, it had a lot of people in here that make us -- maked -- maked [sic] us all look like we were -- we were, say, a family. Because, you know, you're moving back and forth. Nobody holds their head down when you pass. And it wasn't really bad at all. The other changes, I guess, were the changes in the housing, that people determined. Like now, we're in a change. And it was good to see neighbors who spoke to you. The only people we may not have spoken to were Jewish men, because Jewish men can be very fresh. They wanted to -- opened their car door and asked you if you want a ride. [laughter] And they know that they would not do that to a Jewish woman. So -- but they, they, they 60:00straightened up after a while. Something else about the houses?
OKECHUKWU: Yeah. I mean, I was going to ask you to continue to elaborate onthat. You know, like, Crown Heights is becoming -- I mean, you're a homeowner. But Crown Heights is becoming incredibly expensive to live in, with the changes that are happening now. I mean, what has been your experience of even just the housing prices and things like that going up?
CLARK: It hasn't really -- it doesn't mean that I have money. It hasn'treally, because this house I got through a -- through the city, when they -- periodically, they have homes that people are not using, or walked off, didn't pay, or whatever. And one, one of the homes -- when my husband moved, went to 61:00Guyana, I went and called the people who handle the homes in, in the city. And I asked if they had -- I said, "Do y -- have you had any sales?" And he said, "Yeah, we have a, we have a--" What do they call it? They do -- they auction off. So I said, "Do you have -- do you have one?" They told me yes, and I said, "When?" Like, Thursday or Friday, and I went down and I bid on it. And I was successful, thank God. And I got that one. And other people do that, too. And it wasn't a whole lot of money. So, and the, the neighbors were not happy 62:00with that either. Yeah.
OKECHUKWU: They seem like they weren't happy with a whole of stuff.
CLARK: Yeah. [laughter] Yeah. Yeah, they didn't do all kinds of things. Onetime, they did -- they didn't speak to me on the street. I used to speak to people who didn't speak to me, you know? "Good morning." "Good afternoon." "Have a good day." Just that stuff. And sometimes-- They didn't curse me, but they didn't-- Then one said it wasn't for this, the buildings were not for families or something. It was for some, some knucklehead idea. It wasn't. And then, some people I passed were just sort of like this. They'd put their heads down. But I'd speak anyway. And -- 63:00
OKECHUKWU: What do you think that was about? How come people weren't speaking?
CLARK: I think it's because I'm not a real -- I wasn't a real neighbor, Iguess. I guess they thought that, since I wasn't somebody they expected me to be-- I don't know, because I had kids, and nobody ever bothered-- You know they were never throwing rocks at anybody's house or anything like that.
OKECHUKWU: When you moved to this block, was it a majority-Black block? Or itwas just White folks on the block?
CLARK: The majority were White, and on that side of the street there were --there were Black and White, but it was, say, like a -- there was a, a schoolteacher on this -- on that corner. And Mr. Bell, who I told you, his grandson was -- he was on the corner of Nostrand and maybe a little block from 64:00where Syl is. He was -- he was there. So, it was alm-- it was [Interview interrupted.] Is everything OK?
F1: I just dropped my phone.
CLARK: You dropped your money?
F1: My phone.
CLARK: Your dollar bills?
OKECHUKWU: Her phone.
CLARK: I heard her.
OKECHUKWU: Oh. [laughter]
CLARK: So, they were like that. And I think maybe they had -- because one timeI was in the backyard, and the woman over there was in her backyard. Said, "I don't know about this house business, because this house was, was for us, because we're a--" What was she telling me? She said, "We're employed." And she never asked me if I was employed. She said, "We're employed, and you 65:00shouldn't be here." I said, "Why not?" And s-- that's how they were.
OKECHUKWU: This l-- was she Black?
CLARK: Yeah, she was Black. There was -- excuse me, there was a doctor acrossthe street -- a White doctor, Jewish guy. And there were two people who were -- I think the husband was a dentist, and he was there.
OKECHUKWU: Do you think -- is it -- was it -- were folks just kind of bougie?Like they just -- they saw themselves as better-than, or something? Do you think that was part of it, or it was something else?
CLARK: I think they didn't have anything else to say. They were looking forstuff to say, you know, that you shouldn't be here. They never said, "Well, you don't have a job." They never said, "You don't have a--" What? "You're not like us. We're special." One woman told me that, "We come from Harlem, and we did this and we did that." [inaudible] Sorry. 66:00
OKECHUKWU: That's OK.
CLARK: She said, "We're -- we worked and then we came here." Actually, Ididn't believe anything she said, but--
OKECHUKWU: Sorry. [Interview interrupted.] Keep talking. She said she was from Harlem?
CLARK: Yeah. She said, "We're --" she was trying to tell me that she was --she didn't say "working people," but business. Something like that. Well, she wasn't a businesswoman, because all she did was stay in her backyard. [laughter] But I think they had to get used to it. I think maybe they thought that they were unique, because they had a house in this block, and nobody -- other black person should be doing that, because they were the wealthy.
OKECHUKWU: Oh, OK.
CLARK: But, but they weren't the wealthy. But you know what? After a while,they act like they invented me, and they invented the school. So I don't know 67:00if somebody talked to them or what, but we weren't going anyplace.
OKECHUKWU: [Interview interrupted.] All right. You could just hold it for justfive more minutes.
OKECHUKWU: So where do you see the neighborhood of Crown Heights in 10 years?How do you think it will be -- what could Crown Heights look like in 10 years?
CLARK: I think they're going to look -- make bougie look like it's somethingnew. I think -- the way the houses are going, I believe that there are more people going to be in here, and they aren't going to be Black. I don't think it's so much of a -- maybe I'm just fooling myself, but I don't believe that 68:00they're going to be people fussing over who has a house or who has that. They're going to have a house, and they're going to have a nice house. They've got some great buildings that they're building, and they're going to be done. They're going to be in here. And if you go down this street-- across the, down Park Place, across the other side of Nostrand Avenue-- they've got little homes mixed up, looking like they're from, from the-- what can I call it?-- from, like, Spain, you know; those little houses with the sliding doors and stuff. They look as though they're people-- don't want a whole, big house. Some of them don't. They're fine with the -- whatever they can get on the other side, and nobody is complaining about it. So I think that there's going to a big spread, with people in the, so -- People who want homes should start reaching 69:00out for them.
OKECHUKWU: Where are all the Black people going to go? [laughter]
CLARK: Coney Island. [laughter] No, I don't know. But if, if, if the moneydoesn't come through -- if these people who are doing that, if they don't have their ducats in place, they may not have a house. So, they should go look now.
OKECHUKWU: Before we close out, are there any, I don't know, places orbusinesses or organizations in Crown Heights that you have particular memories about that you'd like to share?
CLARK: Mis-- well, I really thought Mr. Bell, the young man's funeral I was-- Imean, grandfather. He was very good. He was -- before he passed, he had his 70:00business. He was already there, right next to Syl, with women's knits and clothes and stuff like that. He was a great businessman, and very -- he was very kind to us. And so, I don't-- I think if we wanted the buildings, we should, we should have started last week, and start doing whatever we want to do. And then, you can get a list from the -- from the city of the homes and stuff like that. And they have the prices on, and how you get it. I think now they have one thing where they can -- if you come for a home, the -- there's somebody in the back of the -- of that area where they are -- somebody in the 71:00back who will tell you what's -- you know, what you really need to get it. So I think if people are pushing, if they have -- got a vision, and they saw what was happening, and they jumped on it right away. Because it's -- now you can open a -- one of the news -- one of the newspapers from the city, and you will see that they have things that are still open. They're saying that if you come in -- if you come in like any morn-- in the morning or the early afternoon, have your stuff ready. It may not be in full, but have something ready that you can -- you can say I have -- this is my -- not your bank account, but whatever you have to show them, to show that you have some money. And it doesn't have to be 72:00thousands of dollars, you know?
OKECHUKWU: Is there anything else you want to share before we end?
CLARK: Yes, one more thing. When, when we went down -- when I went down forthe judge -- no, I didn't go for the judge. I went for something else. But the judge said that the children were -- to him, they were doing better than they were doing in public school. So, so that -- that -- I felt good about that. It was good. And they will stop harassing, because what they wanted to know is -- when they knock on the door, the cops -- what -- if they can find out how many kids are in, and you say you have 25 kids in there. Then they'd be ready, probably do something, to tell the parents that their kids can't go in that building anymore. But I never gave their names out, and I never did anything 73:00that would make them feel uncomfortable. Because you don't have to. Because a cop rings your door, you don't have to give him any information.
OKECHUKWU: Have you -- with all the neighborhood change, have you had anyone--?I know that some people who've lived here for a long time have had people knocking on the door asking if they're going to sell their house, because housing is so competitive over here now.
CLARK: They call.
OKECHUKWU: They call?
CLARK: They're more sophisticated now. [laughter] They call all the time, andask, "Oh, are you the -- are you the -- oh, you're the owner? I want to know --" blah, blah, blah. And I say, "I'm sorry. I'm not the owner. I only live here." They say, "Oh." But they -- that's a ploy they use, so that you can tell them. But it's good not to tell, if you have business and you're doing business with people, you shouldn't give their names out. So you just leave it 74:00alone, and it's up to them, up to the cops to go find out who they are. It's not for me to give them information. So -- but it's all good. It's still America, except when Donald Trump leaves. [laughter]
OKECHUKWU: All right, well, thank you so much for interviewing. You can justput that down.
CLARK: If I missed something, you can call me.
CLARK: I probably missed, missed something. I might have missed somethinggreat that you should know.
OKECHUKWU: OK. So this release that we need, so we can archive the interviewat Brooklyn Historical Society. So --
OKECHUKWU: -- you just need to put your name there and sign it, and then I canfill out the rest.
CLARK: Right here?
CLARK: You're a good listener.
OKECHUKWU: [laughter] I do [inaudible].
OKECHUKWU: Oh, you have to sign right here.
CLARK: Here too?
CLARK: OK. And today --
OKECHUKWU: It's the second -- June 2nd, [inaudible].
Oral History Interview with Ora Clark
Ora Clark Razzaq, seventy-nine years of age at the time of the interview, is an African American woman. She began the Al-Karim School, later renamed Cush Campus Schools, in the 1970s as a way to educate her children. Informed by her participation in supporting the community schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhoods of Brooklyn in the wake of the teacher's strike of 1968, she began her Black independent school as an alternative to the public school system which she saw as failing Black children. She was formerly married to Abdullah Abdur-Razzaq (approximately mid 1960s to late 1970s), one of Malcolm X's close associates.
In this interview, Ora Clark (also known as Ora Clark Razzaq) recounts moving to New York City as a child from Miami, Florida. Her family lived in the Lower East Side/Greenwich Village neighborhoods of Manhattan, which was predominantly Jewish at the time. The family eventually moved to the St. Albans neighborhood of Queens. She speaks about moving to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn as a young mother and being involved in actions in response to the teacher's strike in the nearby Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood. She began Al-Karim School soon after, which was later renamed Cush Campus Schools once it began educating a larger amount of students. She first began teaching her children, then the children of others in the community. Clark speaks about the different approach that the school had from others, in valuing the children and taking them outside the classroom; students traveled abroad to places in Europe and Guyana. Throughout the interview, she speaks about neighbors who looked down on her and Al-Karim School; which began in her home on Park Place in Crown Heights, and later functioned out of 221 Kingston Avenue, the Historic First Church of God in Christ. She also speaks about organizer Arthur Miller, the 1977 blackout, and gentrification. Her son, Karim Camara, was also recorded for Voices of Crown Heights oral histories: Brooklyn Historical Society. Interview conducted by Amaka Okechukwu.
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 BHS 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.
CitationClark, Ora, Oral history interview conducted by Amaka Okechukwu, June 02, 2017, Voices of Crown Heights oral histories, 2016.027.1.16; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Al-Karim School (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Clark Razzaq, Ora
- Cush Campus Schools (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Miller, Arthur, Jr.
- Uhuru Sasa School
- Weusi, Jitu, 1939-2013
- African Americans
- Community activists
- Community development
- Electric power failures
- Police-community relations
- Private schools
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
- Eastern Parkway (New York, N.Y.)
- Greenwich Village (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidVoices of Crown Heights oral histories