112th interview of the Bronx African American History Project
Interviewers: Dr. Mark Naison, Maxine Gordon
Interviewee: Kwame Braithwaite
The interview took place May 17, 2002
Summarized by Concetta Gleason 11-29-06
"Kwame Braithwaite, a longtime activist, photographer and expert on the history of jazz in NYC was originally born in Harlem, and his family moved to the Bronx in 1943 when he was five years old. Braithwaite’s parents are both from Barbados, but they met in Brooklyn. His father was a tailor who owned several Dry Cleaning businesses, which kept him constantly busy, and his mother was a homemaker who sold special Caribbean dishes from her home, such as coconut bread, cucu and sauce (pig’s feet). His family’s house was on Kelly Street between Longwood Ave and 156th, near by Prospect Hospital and St. Margaret’s Church. This was when Black people were just beginning to move into the neighborhood and his family was the third or fourth Black family to move onto the block. His block was made up of mostly privately owned houses except for the buildings on the corners. The Braithwaite family originally rented the bottom apartments to white people. Braithwaite lived on a very racially mixed block composed of Jews, Italians, Irish people, Puerto Ricans and Black people. Some of the Black people were from the Caribbean and the others from the South. The block is still intact.
Braithwaite’s family attended St. Margaret’s Church and sent Braithwaite and his brother Elombe to PS 39, where they became acquaintances with Colin Powell’s family. PS 93 was on the corner of Longwood and Kelly Street and Braithwaite attended from 1st to 6th grade. Fordham University had a “fish lab” in the school, which Braithwaite thinks may have been put there by the Bronx Council. Kwame and his brother loved going to school and education was considered very important by his parents as he grew up. Braithwaite received his political influences from both his parents and his Uncle Lionel who came to live with them for a while. Uncle Lionel discussed the Garvey movement and Kwame’s mother’s first cousin was a Clenem Wickem, a radical who was forced to leave the island. Although the family did not belong to any Barbados or West Indian associations or fraternal organizations, they did go to Church and Community dances. The music they listened to was Do-Wop, Caribbean, the Calypso and Latin music, and at the dances musicians such as Tito Puente, Fats Green, The Orioles and Calypso Rose would perform. The dances were at the Embassy Ballroom, Hunts Point Palace and Rockland Palace (which was in Manhattan). The whites gradually left the neighborhood; Braithwaite has no clear memory of a direct “block busting” strategy by landlords, but concludes that was probably the landlord’s plan. Also, in grammar school Colin Powell called Braithwaite’s brother Elombe a “nigger” during an argument (Powell’s family are from Jamaica and had a “light and dark thing”) and Elombe chased him up the stairs and punched him in the mouth. In the late 1940s and ‘50s he began learning about the issue of heroin by seeing a group of guys nodding at a 45-degree angle, but not falling. Drugs was rarely seen on the block and usually occurred in the tougher tenements. There were also “well known and notorious” gangs from around his neighborhood since his youth, but none on his block.
Braithwaite’s interest in the arts originated from his music lessons in piano and clarinet, in particular his lessons from Prof. Phillips, a black Caribbean teacher whose methods were old and proper, but very effective. The School of Industrial Arts was a great experience for Braithwaite with a very mixed, co-existent atmosphere where spontaneous dancing was the norm during lunch, except for some unpleasant, but amusing antagonism between a French and Chinese student during the Korean war. In 1954, Elombe graduated and went to cartoonist and illustrator’s school, and in 1955 Kwame graduated. Braithwaite entered the Harnett School of Music with the ambition of being a professional musician.. That spring Braithwaite went to school for Advertising art and met David Giddens a friend who came to a jazz concert and took pictures. Braithwaite’s became interested in photography from his friend’s pictures and his uncle’s attendance at the NY Institute of Photography. In 1957, he visited a friend at the School of Industrial Art and saw his grades were good enough to go to college despite the racist misleading of his math and homeroom teacher Mrs. Abrams. He took night classes at Baruch in order to keep some small day jobs he liked and studied business administration. He also bought a camera, began working for the college’s paper “The Reporter”, and became the photo editor in 1959."