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Carl E. Roberts
Oral history interview conducted by Craig Wilder
July 22, 1993
Call number: 1994.006.26
CRAIG WILDER: Where were you born?
CARL ROBERTS: I was born in Jamaica, West Indies.
CRAIG WILDER: What year?
CARL ROBERTS: [date redacted for privacy] 1936.
CRAIG WILDER: What would you like people generally -- your friends, youracquaintances -- to know about your home country?
CARL ROBERTS: To know of it is, I guess, to know the people, but to know aboutit would be that it's a nice place to visit. It's comparable to south Florida. It's a nice place to spend a vacation, and they could have a great time there.
CRAIG WILDER: What misconceptions do people have about Jamaica?1:00
CARL ROBERTS: Especially in the last decade or so, you find that there has beena lot of references to the drugs, specifically marijuana, and you find that a lot of the drugs -- marijuana especially -- has been identified with the Jamaican nationals to a certain degree, along with the dreadlocks, etc.
CRAIG WILDER: So more the symbolic stereotypes.
CARL ROBERTS: Yes, symbolic stereotypes, and it's not representative ofJamaicans per say. That could probably be a small percentage of any minority group. That may represent two percent of the Jamaican population in New York. 2:00
CRAIG WILDER: How do you think people or institutions might go aboutcounteracting those stereotypes?
CARL ROBERTS: They could expose the positive aspects of Jamaica in the media. Ifyou really look, you see positive aspects. You see people of Jamaican background that are represented in a major industry. You find that they are noted for excelling in various areas, and if we really want to find it, it's there, but it's up to the public, it's up to the media, it's up to whatever means there is to promote it, to offset the negativity that is there. Many times there is a situation, and before a conclusion has been brought as to who is guilty or who 3:00is involved, somebody will say it sounds like a Jamaican. Then, when you check into it, it was no longer Jamaican. It's just that Jamaicans are identified greatly with so-called posse activity or marijuana and drug activity to a great degree.
CRAIG WILDER: When did you come to the United States?
CARL ROBERTS: I came here in September, 1954.
CRAIG WILDER: By yourself?
CARL ROBERTS: Along with me was a brother and a sister. We came together.
CRAIG WILDER: Why did you come?
CARL ROBERTS: My mother was here, and we came to join her here. In fact, we werestudents at the time, so we had no choice.
CRAIG WILDER: When did you come? I'm sorry, not when but how?4:00
CARL ROBERTS: We flew here.
CRAIG WILDER: What grade were you in?
CARL ROBERTS: I was on the borderline. I had a year to go in high school, so Ifinished up my year here.
CRAIG WILDER: Then you went to college here?
CARL ROBERTS: Yeah, and I did it part time, all the way through.
CRAIG WILDER: Where did you go?
CARL ROBERTS: I started at Brooklyn College, maybe back in 1958, and I spent twoyears there part time, while working full time. Then I served in the U.S. Army. Went in in January 1960, and I got out in maybe April, 1962. To complete my college education, I went to NYU. 5:00
CRAIG WILDER: What did you major in?
CARL ROBERTS: Investment banking.
CRAIG WILDER: Who did your family stay with, or where did they stay when they came?
CARL ROBERTS: My mom had a house in Brooklyn, on Hart Street, 27 Hart Street, soI stayed with her. That's in Bed-Stuy.
CRAIG WILDER: When did you move here?
CARL ROBERTS: She bought a house on Carroll street back in 1958, it must havebeen Christmas, 1958, on Carroll Street, on the same block, in fact right across the street.
CRAIG WILDER: Do you remember the process of how she got the house? Was it an6:00easy purchase? Was there difficulty involved in it?
CARL ROBERTS: There was no difficulty getting the house at that time. Anydifficulty was a financial difficulty, her personal financial difficulty, because I know she tried to get another house on Carroll, down the block, and because of the money, she had certain difficulties, but she eventually was able to come up with the amount of money necessary so that she could purchase.
CRAIG WILDER: She purchased it by herself then. There was no family assistance?
CARL ROBERTS: No family assistance. In those days, if you couldn't do it,somebody would take a second mortgage, and I couldn't say that at that time she had a second mortgage.
CRAIG WILDER: Were there any groups in the area that helped Jamaican immigrants?
CARL ROBERTS: Not to my knowledge, not in those days. I can identify with the7:00Jamaica Benevolent Society. That's Jamaica Ben, we used to call it. That went way back. That's a society that was started up in Harlem, by Jamaicans in Harlem. She knew people from there, so you had members from all over. They supported each other, maybe not financially, but emotionally, spiritually. That kept the group together. These were hard working people.
CRAIG WILDER: What expectations did you have about immigrating to the United States?
CARL ROBERTS: Looking back, I would say basically that I had no great8:00expectations. I guess I still go with the flow. I came up, I did the things that I thought were the things you do. You try to go to school, you try to go as far as you possibly can, and do the best you can. I would say that I have been fortunate.
CRAIG WILDER: Did you have any regrets about immigrating here?
CARL ROBERTS: No, I think this is a great place, and I'm glad I came here.
CRAIG WILDER: The family moved to Crown Heights in '58?
CARL ROBERTS: Yes, my mother bought the house across the street. That's 1346. She bought that house. I'd say it was Christmas in '58.9:00
CRAIG WILDER: So the move to Crown Heights was to get the house?
CARL ROBERTS: Yes, after she bought the house, we moved in with her.
CRAIG WILDER: Did anyone come with you?
CARL ROBERTS: It was the family, my mom, my sister, my brother. That would bethe basic unit. My father was in Jamaica. He stayed there.
CRAIG WILDER: Was there a lot of communication back and forth?
CARL ROBERTS: With whom?
CRAIG WILDER: Well, you father and with other relatives.
CARL ROBERTS: I would say no. Communication with dad was maybe once every sixmonths. The family was not that close-knitted that we had any great communication.
CRAIG WILDER: Who was most important to you when you came here?10:00
CARL ROBERTS: My mother was.
CRAIG WILDER: How big is 1346?
CARL ROBERTS: It's fairly big. Basically, it's a one family, but it's a big one family.
CRAIG WILDER: Same type of construction?
CARL ROBERTS: Same type of construction, brownstone. It's got three floors.Normally the second floor is the living area, with a kitchen. The top floor would be bedrooms, with a bath, and the bottom floor normally would be for professional use. So it's a combination, I'd say, one family with an office are downstairs.
CRAIG WILDER: Who did the family socialize with?
CARL ROBERTS: I would say that the most socializing would be with Jamaicans11:00through associations, different groups. I know that the block here always had a block association, so there was social contact and social gatherings through the block association here, going from way back. Primarily the Black folks who lived on the block were the source. I know my social area-- I attended high school in Jamaica, St. George's College High School. That would be part of my social contact, especially in the '50s where I was a member of that group, and we made 12:00a lot of trips. I remember we made a trip to, I think, Carlton University in Canada, that capitol in Toronto. We made a weekend trip there. When you think of what we paid then, for the bus trip and the fun we had. Through the St. George's College Boys Association, we had a lot of social gatherings, dances at least an annual dance every year -- and that brought Jamaicans together -- not only from that high school, but there were so many other groups. I would attend an affair 13:00with another group and I could name maybe four or five high schools from there that also had their groups going that we could get together, and we could see old acquaintances from way back. We were all going in different directions, working hard.
CRAIG WILDER: What was the demographics of the block like in 1958? Who lived here?
CARL ROBERTS: Back in 1958, even prior to that, you find that the demographic atthat time would be primarily reformed Jews, and there were little patches of the 14:00Hasidic Jews that are here now. A wild guess: Maybe Hasidics were 8%, reformed Jews were probably 60%, and the balance would be Blacks, etc., who were here at that time.
CRAIG WILDER: Was there a healthy Jamaican population in this area?
CARL ROBERTS: It could be a mixed bag, and it would be hard for me to identify,from what I've seen, the earlier groups were probably upper scale Black Americans, who had moved in. I guess it was all based on who could buy in, who had the money.
CRAIG WILDER: Purchasing a house seems to be an important thing. How important15:00was that to immigrant Black people?
CARL ROBERTS: To my mother, to own something was of major importance. She wouldrather own it than pay rent, even though she may end up paying more money in the process. Even from the West Indies, any group you could identify from the West Indies. If you go to a newer group, look at the Haitian population, whatever, you find that they are going to try like hell to buy something. If they have to sacrifice, if they have to have great numbers in the area, in the building, whatever it is, they are going to do it, until things are such that they can branch out or whatever. They work together and help each other. I think my mom 16:00did a tremendous job, because she made it easier down the road, and I could probably make it easier for those who come after me. You look around, and you find that there are groups that are here umpteen years, and they still may be basically homeless. Their concern is to do the best they can to get a hold of property.
CRAIG WILDER: How do you account for that difference? What drives that desire?
CARL ROBERTS: I think it's where you came from, your experiences where you camefrom. You arrive from a society, a background where the hope is limited, and you 17:00arrive here, and you find that the opportunities are much greater. Based on that, I guess you have built-in judgments that some may inherit or whatever it is. It's the culture. The culture is more disciplined. The culture is more strict, and somehow you want to get ahead. You want to be a better person financially, and you find that there are folks who come here, their education background is very limited, but they want to save. They want to save every dime, and they do it. They improve themselves financially. Some may not improve themselves educationally, but financially, and they do it. That could be the measure of success to these people, whereas another person measures success by education or by what they do for others. To these people, their measure of 18:00success is financial, what they can show. Many will go through the process here, live in a sacrificial environment situation, and they will save all their money, send it back home, and eventually buy a fancy house, and ship a car down, and hope to live happily ever after.
CRAIG WILDER: What jobs did you have in your younger days?
CARL ROBERTS: When I came here back in '54, I remember my first job. I worked atMacy's. All full time jobs, schooling was part time. I worked in the Pictures & 19:00Mirror Department as a stock clerk. I took my first job in 1954 and I stayed there until the service time. When I started working at Macy's, I'll never forget it. I started at $39 a week, that was the minimum at that time, a dollar per hour. I stayed there until I was drafted back in 1960. When I got out in 20:00'62, I went back to Macy's and they put me in the Prescription Department as a clerk. I stayed there maybe a year, and then I started to move. I got a job with Chemical Bank, as a teller. I worked with them until 1964. I was promoted to the Training Department. I trained tellers for a year. Just about this time in '65, I made a transition. I was attending NYU part time, insurance class, and this professor always said, "You guys can earn more money selling insurance." So I 21:00decided to make the crossover. That's when I crossed over to New York Life Insurance Company. Even when I got my degree in 1969, it was a torment. What do you do, do you quit the insurance business? I stayed with it, because I developed also a business in tax preparation. At NYU, I took a lot of tax courses. I used to just do it for friends and say, "Don't tell anybody," and then before you know it, they told too many people. I said, "Gee, this is a business. I'd better start charging for it." So my wife would schedule appointments, folks would call in and I'd be in the field. Insurance is not my only activity. I built a tremendous business; it was computer, laser printer. In 22:00February, March and April, this place is crowded, people drop things off. I have a tremendous volume of business, thank God. Keep you going. I've been with New York Life. I am also a real estate agent. I don't have the time to even do much with it. If anybody calls in, I refer them to a broker that I know and we work from there. Because I am with the insurance business, I am also licensed as a registered rep. So that most of this year, I have been doing mutual funds. People are running away from the CD, 2 ½%, so I say, "Gee, I've got a better 23:00plan for you," and they have been happy with it. Folks, in a year or whatever it is, look at the numbers. I feel that I'm needed to present this service to my people or whoever. Many times there is no one to give financial direction. Because of that, they lose in the long run, or there is somebody that will give a bad financial direction, which is terrible, so I try to be there for them. I have been involved in politics too. Do you want to hear about it?
CRAIG WILDER: Sure.
CARL ROBERTS: I could back up and say that I just resigned from the CommunityBoard Nine. Resignation was about a couple of weeks ago. For the past nine 24:00years, I have been a member of Community Board Nine. I'd say, the past six years, I was Chairperson of the Environmental Committee. For the past two years, in addition to being the Chairperson for the Environmental Committee, I was also a Chairperson for the Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony. I would say back in '84, I ran for the New York State Assembly, with the support of the 25:00Jewish community in this area. '86, I also ran and in '88, in fact, I ran against Clarence Norman, Jr., and in '88, I lost by maybe about 70 votes. The only time I would run again would be a situation where it is not an incumbent, or if it is an incumbent, he's got to be pretty badly damaged merchandise, because I have experienced what it is to go through the process, and to lose votes that you may think you didn't lose. That'll give you some background. I am the Chairperson of the Area Policy Board. It's a community board which would 26:00normally vote on the disbursements of funds, or the distribution of funds to agencies in the community. It is a part of the Community Development Agency that the city has. We have approximately twenty members on the board, and this is 27:00where we would be effective in the disbursement of funds to local agencies in the community. I have been President of the Kiwanis Club of Crown Heights for the last three years. I'm glad we have re-election and a new person will be taking over October 1st. I can't pinpoint any specific area as far as background is concerned. I'm involved in, from my business point of view, at New York Life. I have been very busy there also, a member of the Million Dollar Round Table, etc.
CRAIG WILDER: Do you attend church?
CARL ROBERTS: I attend. I go to St. Gregory's. St. Gregory's is a great RomanCatholic church. It's at St. John's Place and Brooklyn Avenue.
CRAIG WILDER: What population does that church serve?28:00
CARL ROBERTS: Mostly Caribbean.
CRAIG WILDER: All different types?
CARL ROBERTS: Yes, various types.
CRAIG WILDER: What's the largest ethnic group there?
CARL ROBERTS: It's all Black now. Initially, you have a mix, but as the areachanges, it's all Black, but I could not give you a breakdown as to what island, etc. Sometimes you look at somebody and you don't know where they're from so I couldn't really say.
CRAIG WILDER: How much contact do people have in Crown Heights with people from29:00other islands, people born here, people born in the South? Is it sort of random?
CARL ROBERTS: It's random. We do not have any great contact, and if you were tonotice, Crown Heights is not like Bay Ridge. In Crown Heights, I'd love to have a decent restaurant. You find that there are no real restaurants to go to, and then if you want to go to a restaurant, you have to leave this community. You find that, especially in this quadrant, where we are crossing Kingston Avenue between Empire and Eastern Parkway, on the weekend, the place is like a ghost 30:00town. So you don't have many services on Kingston Avenue for Blacks. Those that are here have to leave the area to go someplace else. If we want to go shopping for groceries, etc., it's just of late that you can go on Empire Boulevard, or you have to go to Nostrand Avenue. The area here, I'd say between Nostrand all the way up to Utica Avenue is devoid, to a certain degree, of mix.
CRAIG WILDER: When you do your shopping, do you normally use Nostrand or Kingston?
CARL ROBERTS: When I do my shopping, I normally do Nostrand. But then I find the31:00fish store on Kingston is fine. We have a good rapport, so if I were to be shopping for fish, or if I were to be shopping for a convenience item, and it's not Saturday, then it would be Kingston. Milk: you don't jump in the car if you can get it on Kingston.
CRAIG WILDER: How has this community changed? You've been here for almost fourdecades now.
CARL ROBERTS: The change is in the people, and this is where we are coming tothe nitty-gritty. If you'll notice, I said initially that we had Reform Jews. 32:00What happened was that the Reform Jews ran, and Blacks moved in. You find that in the '50s, the change was, after the Reform Jews went, you find Black increased from maybe 30% to 75%. You still had some Reform Jews left, maybe 10% and maybe Hasidim increased to 15%. When I speak, I speak maybe from Empire, Eastern Parkway and I would say New York Avenue up to Utica, to get an idea of the area itself. Then, we started to have pressure of the Hasidim moving in. 33:00From the '50s it went, into the '70s. Hasidim were pressuring Blacks, because they wanted houses in the area, for whatever reason. The Rebbe is nearby, and they want to be close to the Rebbe. That's where the tremendous change came about, whether through money, offering a better price, and I know some Blacks moved out because they were unhappy, for whatever reason. Some moved out because -- it's a normal channel -- they were ready for retirement, and they wanted to sell. My mother passed away back in '83, and we sold the house over there. In 34:00the process, I moved over here, because we got married in 1960, while I was in the service, and when I came out of the service, I stayed over here with my wife and her family. You find ongoing change. It's a tremendous change to more a Black and Hasidic community. Because of the orthodox ways of the Hasidic, you find that there is a greater conflict or less assimilation… There is no assimilation, because the Orthodox do not want to change or adapt or adjust or recognize whatever. It just doesn't happen that way. They will go down and they will want things one way, their way or no way, and that way is based on -- I've 35:00seen letters to the community board, and -- it says Jewish law. In other words, Jewish law has priority over U.S. law or whatever other law, and that has been a problem in the community.
CRAIG WILDER: Was that perception was of the main problems that the communityhas, the perception that their laws are being enforced on everyone, rather than just on the Hasidic community itself?
CARL ROBERTS: The perception also is relationship. It's not perception. It's36:00relationship. People who live in the community, Blacks who live in the community, at some time down the road, will probably say hello, and if you say hello once, and nobody responds, then maybe the second time, you won't do it. In certain situations, you may have people living next door to each other, and they don't speak. They are not neighborly. I can't say that about my neighbors, even though we act in a very reserved -- I wouldn't say distant -- I mean we don't run next door to each other and socialize to any great degree, but I think we say hello and we respect each other. I've got to say that I have a neighbor in the back. There's a driveway between the buildings so the garages are where the 37:00driveway is. I've got a neighbor across there. If she sees my garage door open. This week, she saw it open. She came all the way around -- not through the back -- to the front door here, which I really appreciated, to say that the garage door was open. I'm not saying that any group is all wrong and any group is all right. Within their law, they take great pride in family life. Of course, like being a fanatic in any area, if you are over Christian, and all of a sudden you are reborn and the other person is not reborn, you tend to be overtly critical of that person. So you find there is a lot of criticism that is whispered around from one group to another group, and it's ongoing. It's part of the whole thing. 38:00As a Chairperson for the Racial and Religious Harmony Committee with the Community Board Nine, especially after the so-called riots that we had, back in August, 1991, one of the projects we had was to prepare a flyer like this. In fact, we had posters. Initially, we had really planned to get involved, but the first one is just "Say hello to your neighbors." We tried to bridge the gap. If you just say hello and try to recognize that the other person exists, I think that's part of community living, something that's important. You notice we got a 39:00sponsor, and this is in Jewish or Hebrew, and this is in Creole and this is Spanish, and the reaction is, if you notice at the bottom, they said, "Okay, we'll go along with it. We didn't want to do something like this." The Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, after maybe not getting replies from several phone calls and my going there physically to the office, and they say, "We have no problem with that." That was their saying, "Okay." We started to put some posters up on Kingston Avenue, and as soon as we put them up, the Jews tore them down. For whatever reason, we weren't ready to say hello to neighbors, or it was 40:00not encouraged that we should be more sociable.
CRAIG WILDER: What was your reaction?
CARL ROBERTS: My reaction is why should I knock myself out if there is nomovement whatever. Maybe they hope for a movement on a higher plane, or whatever the goals might be. My reaction was it takes up a lot of my time, especially 41:00when you are so-called self-employed, because in the insurance business, whatever I do is based on productivity. If I spend all week on a project, something for the community or personal or whatever it is, there is no pay down the road, so it hurts. You make the sacrifice, and you find that it is hurting, so what you do is you back off slowly, and that is a part of the reason why I really resigned. In my letter, I would not mention that specifically, and there are other little undercurrents when I resigned, because you find that you do X number of things and when certain basic -- I would not say recognition -- but basic channels really. If someone called about racial problems, I would hope it goes through the committee. You'd find that anything that has to do with harmony 42:00or racial -- if it were something that presented exposure to the media -- the committee would never hear about it. So I felt we were knocking ourselves out, and it's not being run the way it should be run.
CRAIG WILDER: You briefly mentioned the pressure on housing created by thegrowing communities. I mean there's several different growing communities here. There is the rapidly expanding Jamaican/Haitian community. There is a Hasidic community which is increasing over the decades. The pressure from the Hasidim, is it an organized pressure or an individual pressure? Is it a family looking for a house or is it the community looking to buy property?
CARL ROBERTS: The Hasidic community is always looking. They are looking to find43:00property, and they compete tremendously from a money point of view. I don't think the Haitians are expanding in this area, maybe in other areas. I am talking about a community where the Hasidics are involved specifically. I've known folks in the community here. I've seen Black folks stand up and say they will never sell to a Jew. We should try to sell to a Black person, and the next thing you know, a couple of years later, they've sold out. I think they learn that money is going to be your basis. If somebody came to you and he is Black, 44:00and he says, "Okay, I'll give you a $150,000 for your house," and another person came and said, "I'll give you $200,000 for your house," and he's Hasidic, I don't think you are going to think twice, especially if you know what your plans are, and you need that other $50,000. In this area, it's very rare that you see a turnaround from a Black to a Black. Maybe it's the style of the houses, because most of the houses are one family, and a Black person will come in and hesitate, and a Jewish person will come in and grab it right away and think, "I need it, not because of living, I need it to be close to my religious leader, 45:00etc." We've complained about it, but we'll get letters in the mail from Jewish folks, but I thought it was just a part of advertising, where they would maybe stick a note in your mailbox, "If you are selling, please contact me," if they like your house. Or you may get a letter to that effect that somebody is interested, etc. etc. You find that there are many folks who complain about this, but to me, it was just a normal process, especially from a sales point of view. Especially a broker, if he is looking for business, he'll send a letter to 46:00everybody on his mailing list, and say, "If you are selling, contact me." The pressure would be that they're there. If anything is going on, they are there. Word of mouth, you go in the store and you want to buy something and they know you live in the area, they say, "If you know anybody…" They may not come out and say, "We'll buy your house," but, "If you know anybody who is selling, please let me know. I have a cousin who is flying in from Australia." Whoever it is and they need a place. So it's a community with them, because they need the space. That's a big problem with them. Folks will pack it in in Chicago and they'll want to be a part of the group here, and they move in, whether it be 47:00Russian or Jews, or a busload or a plane load coming in, they always seem to have an overflow. They need the space. Because of that, they will be more vocal. They will advertise more. The relatives are involved. The relatives will be promoting more for each other. A lot of these black folks will get up and say they're not going to sell to any Jew and you find that they're the first ones when…
CARL ROBERTS: They're getting a good price for the house. Houses that Blackfolks bought in the late '50s, they might have paid $16,000 for it. Now, they will get $300,000. That's not bad to go to Florida and buy a house for $100,000 and retire. It's a matter of dollar and cents. I wanted to mention that when my 48:00mother passed away, we sold the house across the street, and I was trying to get a Black person to buy. The price of the house was going for $120,000, and the Black folks would come in and say, "The most we will give is $85,000." I probably would have gone for something if they would have upped it to $100,000. Now that you look at the numbers, the place was given away for $120,000. Jews bought it for $120,000. That same house, that same Jewish person can sell it for over $300,000.
CRAIG WILDER: Does that turnover increase the tension, when people see that kindof turnover?
CARL ROBERTS: It shouldn't. I don't think that's relative. What I think isrelative is maybe attitude, individual attitude, not communicating with each 49:00other, respect for each other. That's what creates the tension. I think we still have the same amount of tension we had before we had the rioting, because it's not being addressed. The rioting is probably being used for financial gain by the Jews. They can get more programs in. Whoever will give you more money, that's the bottom line. Attitude, and if I want to use a stronger term, arrogance, low respect for the law. Our law is whatever it is and that's basically it. As long as we do not communicate, it's very difficult. It's very 50:00difficult for an orthodox group to be in a community that is mixed. It would be difficult if they were with a White community, but it's worse if you are in a community with Black folks, because there is a greater impact. I've spoken to White folks and they say, "How can you take those people? We couldn't take it." It's a matter of principle. If we could just communicate more, meet more. I try 51:00to get them to meet, but they've been so mad with that incident, escalating it, that based on that incident, we can't talk. We can't talk until we are satisfied with whatever. That gives a picture.
CRAIG WILDER: You said that the tensions that caused the riot to begin withhaven't been addressed. How do we go about addressing those tensions? How does the city go about addressing those tensions?
CARL ROBERTS: When the police came over and had the ambulance leave with thechild on the ground with the car on him, the crowd, you can imagine, became mad. 52:00They were inflamed. Maybe a lot of folks weren't there, but when they heard of it, they became inflamed. The Blacks here feel that they are not getting the service that the Jews get. They resent it and they feel that the Jews are getting more care, more attention. They have reduced to a certain degree, the coverage that they have on Kingston Avenue and Eastern Parkway. But there is still that bit where the police car blocks the road off when they come out on a Saturday. Even that, it creates a sore eye for Black folks. When church is out, even though the mass is not that great, I wouldn't be surprised if the Jews 53:00specifically walk and fill the street as a group when they get out, because they get out, and the police block traffic. If you were to get a police car to every church in the area to block traffic, I guess the Blacks would be happy about it. To give you an idea about how they feel: They feel that one group is getting more than another group.
CRAIG WILDER: I think that is a very important point. Is it that the Jews are54:00getting more, or is it that the Black people aren't getting enough? I know that is a slight difference, but I think it is an important difference.
CARL ROBERTS: I don't know, I think it's based on what is available. I can tellyou that the Jews are more together. They are more aggressive. So jealousy will creep in, because they will get things that Blacks don't know about. By them getting it, and Blacks are aware of it, they will say, "How come they are getting it and we are not getting it?" Whose fault is it? It could be the Blacks' fault. It could be the Black politician's fault for not passing the word out, how to go about it, how to take advantage of something like that. It's 55:00something that goes on. We've had situations where Jews have a lot of different programs that Blacks didn't know about. The Jews feel that they are not getting as much as they used to get, and politically, it is because of the climate that we live in. So you find that they are going to fight for their ground, and that's what they are doing now. I know there is a weatherization program that the Jews have, and I'm going back a few years. It may still be ongoing, but this was a program that Blacks were complaining that the Jewish people were getting it, and the Jews might have complained that the Blacks were not applying for it. The Jews might say, "It's our program. Let's take care of our people." There is 56:00resentment, and it's passed on to the youth. If you live in a Black house, and there is resentment, they will expound on it, and that will pass on to the youth, and the youth will develop his own views, based on the household and as such, form an attitude. The problems that we had really haven't gone away. If you were to check to see who was involved in the rioting, I would say that 90% were youth. I still don't call it a rioting, because I don't see any places burned down to the ground. They came from other areas. It was just a thing of 57:00the time and the youth wanted to get some excitement, get involved in something that was exciting, number one, and number two, frustration was there. Where they just resented, from hearsay, from rumor, what was going on. I don't think, even with this report, it's not addressing the problem. The problem is a people problem. The Jews get the money, they're going to continue to do what they want to do, they are going to continue to isolate themselves, and the Blacks… Nobody is going to get an even amount of money, even though it may be even. Somebody is going to perceive it as different, especially how you use it. It's ongoing. 58:00
CRAIG WILDER: How would you respond to this? Black communities across thisborough are underserviced. Across the city, Black communities are underserviced, when compare to neighboring White communities very often. Does the presence of a highly mechanized, organized Hasidic community in the middle of this Black community aggravate the tension that would naturally develop anyway? Is it the juxtaposition that makes people look at the Hasidim and say, "Look what they get. Look what we don't get?"
CARL ROBERTS: The Hasidic, as I mentioned before, are aggressive. I also59:00mentioned the Area Policy Board. The Area Policy Board is not in every community. There are lots of White communities that don't have an Area Policy Board because they feel that it's designated as a poverty area in the prospect. The Hasidics are the ones who initially, in this area, went after the funds through the Area Policy Board. This was back maybe in 1975 when this first came about. Blacks in this area wanted nothing to do with it. In fact, I ran into Myrtle Whitmore, if I can quote her name. She's a good lady, too, if you want to 60:00contact her, also. She'll give you another perspective on what's going on. Back in those times, she was and she is Republican, the Chairperson of the Crown Heights group. At that time, she and all of the Blacks in the community wanted nothing to do with the Area Policy Board, wanted nothing to do with money coming in on that basis, because the area would be designated a poverty area. The Hasidics said, "We will take whatever we can get." So initially, the members of the Area Policy Board were all Hasidics. Then the Blacks started to get jealous. Here is a group getting… and in those days, the funds were much greater from Washington or whatever it is. Now it's down to $250,000 a year, to the agencies 61:00in the area. In those days, I think they got as much as $400,000. Now you can get the picture where, here there getting this money and they are using it on-- Their offices are on Kingston Avenue here, and many Blacks, just because they know it's Hasidic, will not walk in for service, even though they should serve everybody. I'm sure they serve a few Blacks, or whatever the numbers are. This created problems because later on, the politicians noticed that they were getting all this money, and the politicians were not really in the background that created it. They just blamed whoever. They come out and say, "Hasidics in the community are 10%," and this is for the entire area, not just the quadrant, and it became explosive and Blacks resented that. They got hotheaded about it, 62:00not fully knowing where it came from, how it started and why. Now we have the fight here where we're taking all the money away from the Hasidics. In turn, they're going to be upset about it, where they're coming from and what they initiated originally. That's also another aspect, maybe a small area that creates the real conflict. Certain areas, no matter how much money you pump in, it's probably never enough, because somewhere along the line, unless Blacks 63:00start -- "Pull your boots up." -- concentrating on helping yourself-- Because if you don't help yourself, you're waiting for money to come to you, and in most cases, it's not going to be enough. There won't be any movement.
CRAIG WILDER: Are there tensions within the Black community itself?
CARL ROBERTS: That's why I haven't been to the precinct council meeting. It'sbeen flaring up. It's been threatening, physical. There might have been something in New York Newsday that shows tremendous conflict in the area here, 64:00where I think the thoughts are pretty much the same as far as service, service from the police since we're in the precinct area, favoritism as far as police to Blacks. Among Blacks themselves, you'll find that they've been having conflict, maybe as to how far certain individuals are going in accusing the police and how great a disruption it creates in the process. That's ongoing. We have our conflict, and if we can resolve it and come together as one unit-- But even if we come together as one unit, if we do not have any rapport, if we don't have any consensus that we can… we will not bridge any gap completely. The Jews 65:00maybe-- I had some ideas that they might start to come around, to want to talk about individuals, talk about people. Forget about posturing. They say, "We gotta find the killer of the Jewish scholar. This is a terrible community, blah, blah, blah." Unless we come together and try to iron out our differences-- I hesitate when I say that because the Orthodox, they don't want to make any 66:00adjustment. They don't want their kids to associate, the little kids to play with Black kids. These guys are innocent. They don't know what's going on. They're afraid that they may lose them in the process, whatever channel they're going through, to get them on that channel, so that they can be a perfect model of who a Orthodox should be, and they want them to be. Between the Jewish law and the community itself, it's an ongoing situation. If we were to have a similar situation like the accident that ignited the riot -- doesn't have to be the same thing -- there would be a flare-up again, and then it might be worse, 67:00because you will probably have more damage.
CRAIG WILDER: What do you like best or what would you tell people if they askedyou what the best thing and the worst thing about this community?
CARL ROBERTS: One of the best things is that I find the community to be safe.It's one of the safer communities and the Jews made it safe. They're around at all times, and as I mentioned before, if my garage door is open, somehow they 68:00notice it, they'll be looking out. So within my area, I would say that we watch out for each other. I would say that there are less cars attacked and stolen within the area because of the activity. I can also say that I know that the Jews have patrols. Last week, I was driving to go into the garage and there were two cars. Sometimes I look in the alley and I see a car parked in the dark, I know it's one of their patrols. I have nothing to hide, so I feel better. In fact, I spoke to the guy and I said, "Hell, you guys are working hard. Keep up the good work." Whereas other people will take it as a no-no. To me, it doesn't 69:00create any problem. I don't feel jeopardized in any way. I feel more comfortable knowing that they are there because I have nothing to hide or nothing that I think I'm doing that could be devious in any way. If they can find time to get out there, and take time out to put in two or three hours -- the young folks -- it's more power to them. Another plus is that the community, the structure, the buildings in the community are better because of that. We may have our share of abandoned buildings, etc., but if we see any in this community, you can't even get your hands on it. Somebody owns it and they have some vision of it down the 70:00road. If you drive through the community and find that the structures are good, there's a tendency to maintain buildings in a good manner. You go through another similar community with the same buildings, you find that the apartment buildings where the corners are shattered, etc. So security and property, I would say yes, definitely. Look across from me, that house across the street? They just put another floor on the top. That's just great. I'd say the bad things-- I wish we could really get together. I know it's difficult because of the Orthodox. Go back to the Jewish law. The Jewish law doesn't want any intermixing. They are afraid if they mix too much it will lead to other things. 71:00At least the kids could drink Coke together. I've been to affairs with them. We both drink the same drinks. Even though the kids don't have to play and drink anything. Along with that, it's respect. Respect of other people for what they are, who they are. I think if we could learn to do that, then we could differentiate who's who, because with any group, you know that there are certain people that are not so great and certain people respect you. I think if Blacks could only respect themselves also and set an example. That would help, too. A lot of the conflicts we have with the rioting was outside, coming in. Now that I 72:00think of it, it was a riot, because they tore up a lot of the businesses on Utica Avenue. A lot of it went on and I didn't know. I was here. I went to sleep and I hear that there's rioting on President Street and Rosenbaum got killed at the corner down here.
CRAIG WILDER: Let me step back a few moments in our conversation and ask you onething because I know, as a historian, some historians can be very interested in this. What did your mother do for a living when you first came over?
CARL ROBERTS: My mother had a beauty parlor. When I came over in '54, she had73:00the beauty shop. I think like so many Caribbean folks who arrived here early, I would say pretty sure that she probably started out in the household initially, to get her green card and to get her citizenship. She did it real fast, and she went to school to get her certificate for the beauty situation and she rented a beauty parlor. That was the basis of her main income. She also dabbed in real estate. She got a real estate license. I guess mom was like me where she wasn't 74:00comfortable working for somebody. Whatever she did, she did to attain her goal.
CRAIG WILDER: Where was the beauty shop?
CARL ROBERTS: Underhill Avenue in Brooklyn. She was there for umpteen years.
Oral History Interview with Carl E. Roberts
A Jamaican American, Carl E. Roberts has lived in Brooklyn for all his adult life. Emigrating in 1954 while still in his teens, the family moved to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. He worked full-time at a Macy's department store, while attending Brooklyn College part-time. His family moved to the Crown Heights neighborhood in 1958. After serving in the Army for over two years, he took a bank teller job. Roberts, an Investment Banking major, completed his education at New York University. He went to work for New York Life Insurance, but also began a tax consultant business in his home with help from his wife. For much of the 1980s, Roberts was a local politician and community activist, serving on Community Board Nine as well as related committees. He ran three times for a seat in the New York State Assembly, but never won.
Carl E. Roberts discusses the misperceptions of Jamaicans and Jamaican Americans; his educational and professional experiences; and his community activism. He speaks directly about the real and perceived rifts between the Black communities and the Orthodox and Hasidim communities in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, and the personal touches that can improve relations. Roberts offers his insight into the changes in real estate ownership within Crown Heights over several decades and how that affects the neighborhood. Interview conducted by Craig Wilder.
This collection contains oral history recordings and transcripts, as well as exhibit materials, from Brooklyn Historical Society's Crown Heights History Project, also known as "Bridging Eastern Parkway." Crown Heights History Project oral histories include audio and transcripts created and collected within the context of an exhibition project undertaken in part by BHS in 1993 and 1994. Three interviewers recorded conversations with over forty narrators. In addition to exhibition product value, the oral histories were conducted as life history and community anthropology interviews; topics of discussion include family and heritage, immigration and relocation, cultural and racial relations, occupations and professions, education and religion, housing and gentrification, civil unrest and reconciliation, media representation and portrayal, and activism. The series of exhibition research materials document the outreach efforts for interviews and materials from the community as well as exhibit scripts and curatorial notes.
CitationRoberts, Carl E., Oral history interview conducted by Craig Wilder, July 22, 1993, Crown Heights History Project collection, 1994.006.26; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Brooklyn College
- Community Board No. 9 (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- New York Life Insurance Company
- New York University
- Roberts, Carl E.
- Rosenbaum, Yankel
- African Americans
- Community activists
- Ethnic neighborhoods
- Home ownership
- Jamaican Americans
- Jewish neighborhoods
- Race identity
- Race relations
- Bedford-Stuyvesant (New York, N.Y.)
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidCrown Heights History Project collection