No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America
The first home I recall living in as a child was at 1863 Broadway. The year was 1980. I bounced around the modest two-story brick row house in South Camden like a typical four-year-old not yet blessed with the company of a horde of cousins who would eventually come after me, taking the place of the imaginary friends I conjured in my mind. My maternal grandparents, Jean and George, had purchased the house in the late 1970s using their meager income.
My grandmother, whose beige skin was dotted by dark brown freckles, tripled as the primary caretaker of the children, student at Camden County College, and instructor at the nearby Mt. Olive Day Care Center, where I was also a pupil. She graduated with an associate’s degree in elementary education. My grandfather, whose dancing brown eyes drew you in to his cocoa-colored face, was a custodian at the Beta House in Camden and at Bancroft Inc. in the suburb of Haddonfield, New Jersey. Both were organizations serving people with developmental disabilities. But outside of the hard manual labor he did over the course of long days, he was also a poet. His love of words, however, was veiled. I didn’t know that we shared this passion until, many years later, I stumbled upon his elegiac verses in a scrapbook. I only remembered the graceful way he moved around our house, much like an artist scanning the world for inspiration.
We didn’t have much in that house aside from an overabundance of furniture. Too many faux porcelain plates in the honeycomb-brown armoire with glass doors and ersatz silver handles. Too many slightly chipped knickknacks and magazines and pieces of mail sitting alongside the usually empty faux-crystal punch bowl on the matching buffet table. Too much wallpaper peeling, showcasing paint and, like a palimpsest, yesteryear’s scribble on tattered walls. Too many people, which meant there was too much love and there were too many arguments, which made our house a hospitable and electrifying communal space for family and friends despite its humble conditions.
Our family of eleven made do in the three-bedroom house. The few concrete steps and tiny, cement backyard were our havens for play and gatherings. My grandparents slept in one room, “the girls” were split between the two remaining rooms upstairs, and “the boys” slept in the basement. The names of my mother, aunts, and uncles—Diane, Ruth, Arlene, Ella Mae, Barbara Jean, Lorraine, Stephen, and Mark—were often yelled throughout the day, followed by a command to clean up, cease bickering, or walk to the neighborhood store. I was the eleventh member to be added. My nickname, Nelly, would be called out just as often.
Our house was located near the city’s shipyard and walking distance from the county’s trash incinerator plant and Camden city’s waste management facilities. The stench of overcooked trash in Camden, our roughly ten-square-mile hometown of an estimated 87,000 people, was normal. South Camden smelled like a steamy concoction of about half a million residents’ shit and weeks-old rotten food shipped from the suburbs to the county trash incinerator in my neighborhood. If Camden smelled, it wasn’t the fault of city residents. The trash incinerator was built in Camden because it was a predominantly black and Latino city. It not only polluted the air with a nauseous smell but also contributed to asthma and other illnesses. It’s simply what we had to endure.
Camden neighborhoods, like those of many Northern cities, were once highly segregated. Italians were the dominant community living in our neighborhood. The Whitman Park neighborhood was home to a mostly Polish community. Jewish residents lived in the Parkside and East Camden sections. North Camden was home to Irish, German, and Italian residents. And German residents lived in the Cramer Hill neighborhood. By the time I was born, the city was mostly black, but remnants of its past segregation were palpable. In the 1980s, Camden residents still used clichéd nicknames when referencing neighborhoods. The Fairview neighborhood in South Camden was called “White Boy Fairview,” and Whitman Park on the west side of the city was known as “Polack Town.” When I was growing up, Camden was stereotyped as a black and Latino ghetto infected by an ostensibly pathological strain of blackness. But that’s not how I understood blackness as a child. In my home and on my block, the sounds of giggling black youth and the smells of late-summer barbecues in my black neighbors’ backyards lessened the impact of the ruckus and the putrid smell that might have impeded the black joy we channeled.
The dance battles my mom and aunts held in our living room, for example, were as lively as any on Soul Train. As music blazed from boom boxes, the six black girls would shake and lift their skinny legs, cloaked by wide-legged jeans, with deliberate rhythm. I would watch and imitate their moves with precision. As they slid across the floor with twisted smiles and sweaty foreheads, the teens probably forgot about the woes that came from collectively raising the family’s first baby or the times my Aunt Arlene would lead a few of her siblings to the supermarket and steal enough food to fill a shopping cart. To this day, whenever I hear the percussive opening of Sugar Hill Gang’s 1981 party-starting hip-hop anthem, “Apache (Jump On It),” I still remember the happiness and the spirit of unbreakable kinship present when they danced together hard enough to strain a bone. My family members had a home and each other, if nothing else. But beyond our home in South Camden, I did not know my family had put down and then lost roots in other parts of the city as well.
THE THIN LINES ETCHED across her forehead and circling her eyes, which were as russet and deep as the rivers of the South Jersey Pinelands, were evidence of the lessons that had made her stronger and wiser over the course of her many years. I didn’t know much else, including her full name, as a child. But I knew that my great-grandma, Elpernia Lewis, preferred the company of her children and grandkids, and sodas.
As a kid, I traveled alongside my mom and aunts, skipping a few steps ahead, as they talked in the kind of secretive manner teens feigning adulthood tend to perfect. We would stop into a corner store, stocked with minimal goods, where they purchased 16-ounce glass bottles of Sunkist orange sodas to give to Elpernia. Shopping at corner stores had to suffice because there wasn’t a supermarket within walking distance.
When we finally entered her government-subsidized townhouse, complete with white furniture and lightly painted walls the color of eggshells, we would encounter modesty. Her house was clean and bare, smelling of simple living and the hair grease my mom and aunts would use as they pressed her long silver hair. Outside her house were brick-laid housing projects, liquor stores, and black churches. In the 1980s she lived in a housing complex named Allen Nimmo Court because the home she once owned was lost to foreclosure.
As a child, I always found her silence indecipherable. But I suspect now that her forlorn disposition as an elder had much to do with the atrophy of all she and her family had worked so hard to accumulate over her many years. My family mastered the art of locking away secrets. I searched digital archives to learn my great-grandmother’s maiden name, the names of her parents, her date and place of birth, and the date she lost her home. I searched because I wanted to understand my family’s history—my history. Stumbling through the present unaware of the people and circumstances from which I came was like walking in the dark. I know my life began at a particular point in time, in a particular place, but I was not aware of the path my elders had traveled to get me there. As I researched, I studied the signatures of three generations of family members on military registration cards and marriage certificates. Every curve and fracture spotted in their handwriting resembled an inkblot, giving hints about the disposition of the people who existed in the world I had often imagined but never traveled through. The contexts in which they survived were complex and inspiring. The racism, economic exploitation, misogyny, and political disenfranchisement that tried to suffocate their hopes and block their passage to realized freedom were present, but the forces did not always succeed. And even when they did, our family’s unmatched love seemed to always triumph.
Elpernia was born in 1907 in Spotsylvania County in northern Virginia. In the early 1920s, she traveled to Philadelphia with her mother Julia Johnson Lewis, who had been born in 1887. Back in Spotsylvania, Julia was a cook who had not attended school but still learned to read and write. Her husband, John Henry Lewis, born in 1877, was a carpenter and farmer. John’s death in 1917 is still shrouded in mystery, but it is the reason Julia and her daughter Elpernia left Virginia and the superficially serene southern way of life they were used to—a world where careful speech and rigid rules of courtesy only amplified the lurid racism, racial segregation, and Jim Crow laws restricting black freedom and well-being.
Some of my great-aunts believe John was killed in a coal-mining accident in Virginia, but his death certificate lists pneumonia and influenza as causes. Either explanation is plausible, given the influenza pandemic that tore through the nation in 1918. And it was equally possible that white business owners who did not value John’s life and labor could have covered up the accidental death of a low-wage working black man in Virginia in 1917. John’s premature death is one example of how fragile black bodies can become when overworked and undervalued. Forty is too young to be buried. As a forty-year-old, third-generation grandson of a black man who died without seeing his children grow up or his dreams fully realized, I know this to be true. Knowing he had died so young, having left so much behind, at the same age I was when I first learned his name and stared in awe at his signature on legal documents, shook me. His early death was a reminder of the unpredictability of black survival in the United States. I spent many days believing I would never live past twenty-five, let alone forty. But I did. I wonder if he thought the same.
Digging into my maternal family’s history provoked questions. I wanted to know how Julia and Elpernia experienced their movement from the miles upon miles of green pasture in Virginia to the blocks upon blocks of narrow brick row houses they would encounter in Philadelphia. While researching, I discovered the mother and daughter initially found lodging at Miss Berty’s Boarding House, but I wanted to know more about Miss Berty. Was she black? Was she a fair landlord? Did she pound on their door at the start of each week or month demanding rent? Julia remarried in 1922 and had three more children, but I imagined Elpernia’s face, that of a black woman whose eyes blazed with confidence, focused on her new father figure with a glare of youthful suspicion. I imagined Elpernia moving about the home the growing family moved to after they left the boarding house, looking like her granddaughter, my mother, with glossy cocoa skin, hair dark and shiny as onyx, and a face lit by a calculated smile. When I met her in her early seventies, she moved about as if she were a mystery—never physically commanding and talkative, but always fully present and spiritually prevailing. Her quiet presence intrigued me; there was so much I wanted to know about her. I had questions. Why, for example, did someone code her race as “mulatto” on the 1910 census when she was a three-year-old living in Virginia, but code her race as “negro” on the census of 1940 when she was thirty-three, married, and mother to four kids, including my maternal grandfather, George, in Pennsylvania?
During the 1940s, Elpernia was employed as a domestic worker. According to her 1940 census records, she worked sixty hours a week. Twenty hours more than I am required to work at my job today, Elpernia labored to feed her children and create opportunities they may not have had otherwise. During World War II, she worked at the Philadelphia Quartermasters Depot, where clothing and flags were made for the US military. She, like her mother before her, worked long hours in domestic and other low-wage, high-performance positions over many years, all while caring for children sometimes with, and without, partners. The same would be true of the many black women in my family who would follow them, my mother included. But Elpernia’s lot changed for the better when she arrived in Camden in the 1940s—at least temporarily.
Elpernia had saved her money, and she used it to purchase the home she later lost at 662 Randolph Street in East Camden. Learning my great-grandmother owned a home in Camden was instructive. Homeownership was a rarity among my immediate family. Most of my family members rented homes and apartments, as did the majority of the black residents in Camden. Those who owned would end up losing homes they had worked hard to purchase, like Elpernia. Years later, the home my mom’s parents purchased in the Walt Whitman neighborhood of Camden was also lost after my grandfather, George, died in 2001.
A legal notice announcing a sheriff’s sale of Elpernia’s home was published in the local newspaper, the Courier-Post, on January 20, 1977, almost exactly a year after I was born. Dismayed, I reread the announcement several times. It was the only time Elpernia’s name had been listed—not because of the good reasons I expected like a marriage announcement or a fantastic tale of a life crafted into a glowing obituary announcing her death in 1983, but because of the profound forfeiture of a home my great-grandmother worked hard to purchase. Hers was a tragic story of a flattened American dream.
The Federal National Mortgage Association stated that Elpernia owed $15,630.32 on her home. It is impossible to know the precise reason my great-grandmother fell so far behind in her payments or taxes. But it is no surprise she ended up losing her property. She was a black, working-poor woman living in Camden after its booming industrial mushroom had imploded. However hard she worked to keep up her payments, much was stacked against her, from the banks that refused mortgage loans to black buyers like her, to the speculators who took advantage of that lack to charge inflated prices for homes, to biased municipal property tax systems that charged more in black areas.
Knowing fair housing was not necessarily fair for everyone as a fact of history is one thing. It’s something else entirely to discover that economic exploitation was the reason my family had to survive through poverty. My great-grandmother’s loss was significant. The estimated $15,000 of negative equity she had accrued by 1977 is equal to about $61,000 today. Instead of building her wealth, her purchase of property sank her into debt. And there is no question that restrictions on where she could buy contributed to that tragedy. In my great-grandmother’s case, as for so many other black Americans, the two were intertwined.
My great-grandmother’s story is as much about the plight of black Americans in urban cities like Camden as it is a narrative of black survival amid deliberate repression. I needed to know how a black woman who taught herself to read and write, who at some point in her life managed to work sixty hours per week, care for children, and save money to purchase a home, ended up in the newspaper as the subject of a legal notice and not a story centered on audacious endurance. I needed to know how she had gone from owning a home to leasing a townhouse in a subsidized public housing development in Centerville. My great-grandmother’s arrival in Centerville happened as the neighborhood was being strategically and securely contained as black, far before the projects were overly inundated with black and Latino residents who lived in inadequately built and mismanaged buildings. I only ever saw black residents walking along the narrow streets connecting the many public housing developments in Centerville. I didn’t know white people were some of the first, and primary, residents of the rectangular-shaped brick buildings sprawled out across Centerville and other neighborhoods in Camden when segregated public housing was first introduced in the city in 1938. I needed to know why white people were imagined as bodies existing outside the bounds of public aid and housing. I needed to learn more about the expansive history of Camden and the ways black people were dispossessed of property, opportunities, and hope. I wanted to know more about the predominantly black city where so many of my family members and neighbors made do and thrived despite dispossession. This was the history untold in public schools I attended in Camden. It was history my family was aware of but did not talk about. Anyone who grew up in a city-turned-ghetto knows something about calculated calamity, even if it’s hard to pinpoint the culprit. What I learned while writing this book are the reasons Camden became desperate in the first place.
TO CLAIM LOVE FOR a city so denigrated by the US media is to contradict every idea Camden residents have been socialized to accept. News reports during the first decade of the twenty-first century centered on 2000 US census data, which touted Camden as one of the poorest cities in the United States. Around the same time, Camden was also named the most dangerous city on a list generated by a widely criticized ranking compiled by Kansas-based Morgan Quitno Press, publisher of the annual “City Crime Rankings.”
Far before experts began to crunch data in the early 2000s to validate others’ assumptions about the mostly black city I learned to love, Camden residents were already used to being caricatured as spokes attached to a punctured wheel going nowhere quickly. We no longer lived in the “invincible city” Walt Whitman sermonized. Parts of our city smelled like shit. On October 27, 1980, the headline on the front page of the Courier-Post read, “In Camden, the Residents Live in Terror.” The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article titled, “Violence, Delinquency Flare Among E. Camden Students” on March 10, 1985. According to the media, this was the Camden I was born into.
I loved the streets I grew up on despite the potholes, shells of buildings, and decay I was exposed to during my childhood. The many connected two-story brick row houses. The tiny homes that lined the corridors of alleyways. The community parks left deserted, and storied abandoned properties that reminded residents of a city that was once a booming center of commerce. Trash-lined corners, vacant lots, graffiti-tagged buildings, crack cocaine, and a downtown full of the ghosts of its former splendor. I loved them because they contained traces of our family histories and struggles.
The negative portrayals of Camden and the black people who lived there, which pointed to the problems that seemed to undermine any potential for good in Camden, always upheld the black and Latino inhabitants as the source of the violence and poverty plaguing the city. But that is a misguided and ahistorical idea. We were never the problem. The entrenched, interlocking systems of antiblack racism, economic disinvestment, and political exploitation ravaging Camden and its black and Latino residents were the sparks always smoking, and they preempted the eventual flames that would drastically shift the state of our city.
Camden was on fire in the summer of 1971. I was born into its aftermath five years later, in the winter, when it was still smoldering.
On July 30, 1971, Gerald E. Miller and Warren L. Worrell, two white patrolmen from the City of Camden Police Department, stopped forty-year old Horacio Jimenez (also known as Rafael Gonzalez). Horacio was talking to a younger friend when the officers demanded he return to his vehicle and move along. He complied, returned to his station wagon, and parked a block away on the corner of West and Benson Streets, where he continued his conversation.
The officers, both twenty-five years old, each stood nearly six feet tall and weighed about 190 pounds, according to an account published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 29. Horacio was six feet, four inches tall and weighed 200 pounds, but was cast as unnaturally large in the same article. “Jimenez is a big man, especially for a Puerto Rican,” one reporter wrote, implying that he was freakishly large, innately brutish, and inhuman.
The officers approached Horacio on Benson Street and demanded he put his hands on the car. Reports from eyewitnesses tell an all-too-common story of police abuse in the United States. They beat him with nightsticks and fists. He was keeled over in pain when he was taken to the nearby Cooper Hospital. Shortly after his arrival, he was belted to a hospital bed after complaining about stomach pains. Bloodied, bruised, lacerated, and under police custody, Horacio fought to live despite his critical condition. No one knew at the time whether he would become a living reminder of the pervasive impact of police misconduct on the lives of black and Latino residents in Camden or a martyr for Puerto Rican liberation.
But Horacio was more than a symbol of institutional bias and disorder, liberation and justice. He was the husband of Ruth Jimenez. Ruth and Horacio lived in a bungalow on a quiet street in Penns Grove, a suburban town about twenty minutes away from Camden, the city he once called home. He and his wife didn’t have kids, but they kept chickens in their backyard. He had a family and was a construction worker.
He underwent surgery for a “rupture of the small bowel” and was treated for numerous cuts and bruises. He had a second operation on August 7 for “closure of wound breakdown.” Horacio’s deteriorating condition, and the pressure stemming from the public demonstrations led by Puerto Rican community leaders, were the reasons Miller and Worrell were charged with “atrocious assault and battery” on August 12. The officers were moved to “off-street” duty.
Horacio’s condition did not improve. He suffered aspiration pneumonia, followed by heart failure connected to a general infection he developed from his wounds. He fell into a coma.
News of Horacio’s worsening condition began to spread throughout the city. Puerto Rican residents, joined by their black comrades, began organizing. Residents rebelled against the city’s silence. The Camden police reacted. The streets were covered in a fog of tear gas. Outnumbered police encountered infuriated and disheartened residents armed with bottles and rocks. Several buildings blazed across the city, including El Centro, the former church that was the main headquarters for Puerto Rican leaders. No one knows who started the fire. The local Woolworth’s store downtown was looted, while other businesses, like the popular Broadway Eddie’s record store, were left untouched because small red flags were hung outside, signaling solidarity with the Puerto Rican community.
My mother and her siblings lived with their parents a short distance from the center of most of the unrest, in the house on Woodland Avenue my grandparents would eventually purchase. My mom, who was eleven at the time, and her younger sister remember placing a red, black, and green unity flag on the outside of their home during the uprising, which lasted a few days. They remember the fear permeating their home and city, as well as the rage. They knew, too well, why it was necessary to fight back. My mom, aunts, and uncles, as black youth, were potential targets in a city where police abuse was common. Horacio’s unresponsive body was a consequence of a state instrument working as it should, in the way that most law enforcement bodies do—functioning always as a tool of white supremacists’ desires to protect white property and patrol nonwhite bodies. Black residents, like my mother’s family, were intimately familiar with the injustices often brought upon them by those sworn to protect them.