The Harlem Oral History Project

NAACP Documentary

The biggest problem I have, is people think they know what Harlem is… Willie Suggs, Realtor

At the request of the NYC Chapter of the NAACP, We Care Media Arts and Storyville Films are joining forces to produce a documentary film to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of The Crisis magazine. The film will involve the participation of High School student interns from We Care’s 2009-2010 Leadership / Media Workshops.  It will feature the latest interviews recorded for – The Harlem Oral History Project – and other inter-generational We Care activities that introduce teenagers to Harlem’s rich cultural and political legacy and help them become more involved in the community.

In 1910, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois founded The Crisis magazine as the premier crusading voice for civil rights. Today, The Crisis, one of the oldest black periodicals in America, continues this mission. A respected journal of thought, opinion and analysis, The Crisis was and still remains the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and is the NAACP’s partner in the struggle for human rights for people of color. The Crisis seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues that continue to plague African Americans and other communities of color. For 100 years, The Crisis has chronicled, informed, educated, entertained and, in many instances, set the economic, political and social agenda for our nation and its multiethnic citizens.

What is Harlem, today? As one longtime leader in Harlem has put it. “The question a decade ago was “Can this neighborhood be brought back from the dead?” A different question faces us today.   Amid the many signs of vital life in the months following the election of the first African American President of the United States, that question is:  ‘What is life going to be like, in the future, for this quintessential American community?”

Up and down along and between Lenox and Seventh and Eighth Avenues, Harlem was like some Technicolor bazaar… New York was heaven to me. And Harlem was Seventh Heaven!

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X

In the past decade, leading up to the recent financial downturn, Harlem has seen a burst of economic development after years of high unemployment and a deteriorating infrastructure.  New businesses, housing renovation and construction have all been on the rise. But one-third of Harlem’s residents live below the poverty line and fewer than 32 % of all Black male students in NYC graduate. Many attribute the area’s failing schools and poor social services to indifference by the city. There is no question that lingering effects of a century of racism and neglect continue to plague Harlem.

All of Harlem is pervaded by a sense of congestion, rather like the insistent, maddening, claustrophobic pounding in the skull that comes from trying to breathe in a very small room with all the windows shut.

–  Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin

Today Harlem is undergoing a process of White middle-class gentrification.  It is in the midst of a conflict over identity – the most open conversation about race the city has witnessed in decades. This film will be a dynamic look at the collision of interests being played out before a backdrop of Harlem history, a legacy that continues to inform today’s dramatic cultural transformation.

WE CARE interns will participate in the filming of interviews with the following longtime Harlem residents and experts on the struggle that faces the community today, as it tries to reconcile its complicated past with the pressing demands of its present.

  • Roger Wilkins is the former Assistant attorney general in the Lyndon Johnson administration.  Leaving government in 1969, he worked briefly for  the Ford Foundation before joining the editorial staff of  the Washington Post. Along with  Carl Bernstein, Herbert Block, (“Herblock”), and Bob Woodward, Wilkins earned a  Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for exposing the Watergate scandal that eventually forced President  Richard Nixon’s resignation from office. He left the Post in 1974 to work for the New York Times.  In 1980 he became a radio news commentator, work he still does today for  National Public Radio (NPR). Wilkins was the Robinson Professor of History and American Culture at  George Mason University  until his retirement in 2007. In addition, he is the publisher of the  NAACP’s journal, The Crisis, and is the nephew of  Roy Wilkins, a past executive director of the NAACP.
  • Esther Cooper Jackson has worked since the 1940s as a social worker, editor, and social activist for African American rights
  • Geoffrey Canada is a social activist and the author of Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America. Canada is president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an organization committed to increasing high school and college graduation rates among students in Harlem. Canada advocates the funding of schools and day-care centers and after-school programs, but also directly addresses the problems of inadequate parenting and the “cultural disadvantages of a ghetto home life.” Canada’s program combines educational, social and medical services. Operating on the principle that a child will do better if all the children around him are doing better, Canada takes a child from the time he or she is born and follows the child until college. He sends his recruiters door-to-door to find participants, offering prizes and free groceries to parents who enroll their children in his programs. Canada has vowed to create a safety net that’s so tight there’s no way another generation of Harlem’s children can slip through it. He calls it the Harlem Children’s Zone.
  • Dr. Muriel Petioni, ninety-five-years-old, has been a mainstay at Harlem Hospital and a community leader for over sixty years. Petioni came with her family to Harlem from Trinidad in 1919.  Following in her father’s footsteps, as a doctor, she at Harlem Hospital Center in 1937 and has been associated with the hospital ever since. In 1950, she set up a private practice in the same office her father had used for his, and has tirelessly served the Harlem community ever since. An educator and community activist, as well as a doctor, Petioni has worked tirelessly to ensure that underserved communities like Harlem receive proper medical attention and equal access to healthcare. Dr. Petioni currently sits on the board for Harlem’s Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone; her remarkable energy, passion and dedication are undiminished, despite her age. Recently she participated in Community Board and New York City Council meetings to look out for Harlem’s interest in the debate over rezoning 125th St. but countering those residents who rejected the plan, outright. She has performed a similar function in the negotiations with Columbia University over their planned expansion into Harlem. She insists the “new prosperity” can help the neighborhood’s residents if there are strict guidelines protecting its economic and cultural interests.
  • Dr. Thelma Dye is the director of the Northside Center, which has ben providing services for young people in Harlem for over 50 years

The film will also include excerpts from videos being produced by the Hgh School students in the program about conditions and issues they want to address in present day Harlem. These topics, which follow in the tradition of The Crisis, in its concern for human rights and the African American community include:

  • David MoralesThe Apollo Theater — what it means to me and to the Harlem Community in the 21st Century. People get discovered there!  For decades, Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater, has given people the opportunity to perform on stage for the first time in front of a live audience. My idea is to film the performers to show their background story, their excitement the minute they get on the stage and how they felt after their performance.
  • Kathleen TolentinoImmigrant Workers – My idea is to make a documentary about how immigrants are treated and get paid lower wages, because they do not have a degree from this country and they do not know English.
  • Keenan Andrews & Saadia Hammond – Teen Violence –  Our documentary topic is teen violence. We want to film families it has affected, those involved in teen violence personally, and people in the community where it exists. A main character is a friend from school (Elzinna) who was in a fight, that would require her to serve time in a juvenile facility. We will also show the problems that families face when their kids get involved in teen violence.
  • Marc CummingsHarlem Harlem Harlem…. My idea is to have a compilation of all the different answers you can get to the question “What’s the first thing you think about when you hear the word Harlem. This film will show different answers and stories from a diverse set of people. It could get the good, bad, ugly and funny thoughts that people have about Harlem.
  • Timothy JacobsColumbiaville My idea is to tell the story of Columbia University capitalizing off of Harlem.  Columbia is working on an on-going project that would redesign the whole area from 125th street up until 133rd street from 12th avenue to Broadway.  Columbia owns 61 out of the 67 buildings in this seventeen-acre development zone.  These buildings include gas stations, commercial buildings, small restaurants, McDonalds, car repair shops, and more.  Columbia has taken over many buildings from about 110th street up to 130th street.  They also own buildings in the 160s and 170s. Columbia is trying to turn this area into a major medical center.  Their plans would result in wider sidewalks, more light, a new high school, new commercial development and a new place for the Science and Health facilities.  Looking at these plans they look spectacular, and seem like they could bring new life to the area.  I would interview people that work at these places, people who owned some of these buildings and surrounding residents to see what they thought about it.


This documentary will be presented as a series of cinema verité scenes intertwining our main characters/storytellers.  The film will also present some remarkable visual documentation of Harlem — in photographs and spectacularly rare archival footage that will visually evoke the Harlem of the storyteller’s voice – from the early days of the 20th century until today.

Perhaps most important, this documentary will capture the legacy of a generation that will soon to be gone, a group who hold, in their stories and their memories, a cultural legacy that we cannot afford to lose.

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