How Queens became segregated : Code Switch School District 28 in Queens, N.Y., has a Northside and a Southside. To put it simply, the Southside is Black and the farther north you go, the fewer Black people you see. But it wasn't always like this. Once the home to two revolutionary experiments in integrated housing, the Southside of the district served as a beacon of interracial cooperation. So what happened between then and now?

How Queens became segregated: Welcome to the southside

How Queens became segregated: Welcome to the southside

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Photo by Cassandra Giraldo for NPR
School Colors Episode 2: Tales From The Southside
Photo by Cassandra Giraldo for NPR

School District 28 in Queens, N.Y., has a Northside and a Southside. To put it simply, the Southside is Black and the further north you go, the fewer Black people you see. But it wasn't always like this.

Once the home to two revolutionary experiments in integrated housing, the Southside of the district served as a beacon of interracial cooperation. So what happened between then and now, and how did it get to be this way? The story of the Southside is a tale wrapped up in the throes of education and housing justice.

A school war over segregation

Although slavery was officially outlawed in New York state in the early 1800s, Black children in Jamaica, Queens, couldn't go to local public school until a separate Black schoolhouse was established in the 1850s. But the people who established this school didn't do it out of the kindness of their hearts. It was built by white folks in Jamaica who saw a growing Black community and wanted to protect themselves from "those" kids.

By the early 1890s, the Jamaica Black school had 75 students in seven grades. They were packed into one room with only one teacher. Black parents weren't having it. In the fall of 1895, Samuel Cisco and his wife Elizabeth led a group of Black parents from Jamaica up to the white school in an effort to enroll their kids. After being turned away, they decided to sue the Jamaica school board, thus starting what the papers called the Jamaica School War.

Photograph of Elizabeth Cisco. William H. Johnson hide caption

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William H. Johnson

For five years, the Ciscos and other Black parents refused to send their children to the overcrowded, understaffed Black school in Jamaica. At the same time, they brought at least 20 different court actions against school officials. They weren't messing around.

Eventually Samuel died in 1897, but Elizabeth kept fighting – all the way up to the state Supreme Court. Although she lost her final appeal, she worked with allies in the state capital to get a law passed that made it illegal to operate segregated public schools not just in Jamaica, but all over the state of New York.

'The poor colored man's Mecca'

At the turn of the century, right as the Jamaica School War came to an end, Queens was undergoing major demographic changes. Overcrowding in Manhattan drove people out of the borough and into Queens, where they could instead commute to work. White ethnics flocked to the area in search of the suburban dream.

After World War I, the southern part of Jamaica started to emerge as a rare haven of Black homeownership in New York City. New York's famed Black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, called South Jamaica the "fastest growing Negro community in the world" and "the poor colored man's Mecca."

Gladys Weaver, a resident of Jamaica at the time, remembered the community fondly and described how, "everybody was like family, everybody looked out for each other [sic] family. There was no such thing as the word homeless in Queens, there was no such word." Black, Jewish, Polish, Italian and Chinese families lived happily side by side as neighbors.

But it wasn't all sunshine and roses. Jamaica was also home to the most visible New York City chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The existence of these simultaneous realities: tolerance and bigotry was not unique for New York at the time, or even today.

A groundbreaking public housing initiative

South Jamaica Houses otherwise known as the 40 Houses in Jamaica, Queens New York. Cassandra Giraldo for NPR hide caption

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Cassandra Giraldo for NPR

Racial hostility was not the only crack in the facade of the Queens suburban dream. Not everybody who moved to South Jamaica could afford to buy a house, and some of the housing stock was in pretty bad shape. In the 1930s, residents of South Jamaica appealed to the New York City Housing Authority to clear the slums and build safe, modern public housing.

NYCHA responded with something revolutionary: the city's first integrated public housing. Opened in 1940, the South Jamaica Houses, better known as the 40 Projects, were groundbreaking for New York City's public housing. Until then, the Housing Authority had clearly built separate projects for white people and for Black people.

"In a humble way, and probably without giving it a thought, the people of South Jamaica Houses seem to be proving that people of different races and diverse nationalities can share the intimate life of a small community," the Herald Tribune reported at the time.

Accommodating a changing landscape

But the 40 Houses wouldn't stay integrated for very long. And when the South Jamaica Houses started to change, so did South Jamaica. After World War II, millions of Black people left the South for cities in the North and West, fleeing Jim Crow and looking for jobs in the Second Great Migration.

To accommodate all these new New Yorkers, the New York City Housing Authority went on a building spree. When they announced their plans to expand the South Jamaica Houses, it was widely assumed most of the new tenants would be Black or Puerto Rican. Preying on the fears of white residents, real estate agents began to buy up houses, warning homeowners that the neighborhood was changing. In other words, they were blockbusting.

By one estimate, the Black population of South Jamaica more than doubled over the course of the 50s and 60s. This is when South Jamaica went from having a Black community within it, to being a Black community. This is when the Southside truly became the south side.

All over New York, mass migrations into and out of the city were making neighborhoods and schools more and more deeply segregated. There were meager attempts at school integration here and there, but in the face of this scale of population change, it was like trying to put out a forest fire with a water gun.

A new dream for housing

The Rochdale Village housing co-op and complex in Queens. Cassandra Giraldo for NPR hide caption

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Cassandra Giraldo for NPR

By the 1960s, white flight in the area was basically complete, but something new in the neighborhood would turn white families in the opposite direction, back into South Jamaica. Facing criticism, the United Housing Foundation – a product of the Jewish labor movement – acquired a piece of land in South Jamaica with a dream of proving they could build an inclusive housing co-op.

That dream, otherwise known as Rochdale Village, was going to be the largest housing co-op in the United States at the time: almost 6,000 apartments and roughly 25,000 people. And it was planned to be integrated. Although the UHF feared it would be difficult to attract white families, in fact, it was the opposite. Working-class Jewish families were eager to move in. Ultimately, when the first residents moved into Rochdale, it was something like 80 percent white, 20 percent Black.

Residents had pride in their community, and spoke of the "natural" integration that took place in Rochdale.

The strike that changed everything

However, in the fall of 1968, a citywide teachers' strike would divide friends and neighbors – and change Rochdale forever. Over in Brooklyn, Black and Puerto Rican parents in Ocean Hill-Brownsville tried to exert community control over their schools. But this experiment threatened the power of the teachers' union. To stop it, the union went on strike citywide, shutting down schools across New York City for seven weeks.

To many supporters of community control, the strike looked like an attack on Black and Puerto Rican families by the union. But the union said teachers were the ones under attack; and most of the city's teachers at the time were Jewish. The strike was difficult in every corner of the city, but especially painful in Rochdale.

Because Rochdale was one of the only places where you had Black people living side by side with Jews, Jews who were deeply tied to the labor movement. The image of neighbors on opposite sides of the picket line was seared into the mind of Rochdalers. There was no going back.

An exodus from Rochdale

After the strike, many white families found it hard to justify staying in Rochdale. Many of the organizations in the community faded away, the politics of the co-op got ugly and frustrating, crime was on the rise. So they moved out. Ten years after opening, Rochdale had already gone from 20 to 50 percent Black. Five years later, in 1979, it was 85 percent.

Not only did the remaining residents feel the pain of their friends leaving, but also the power that went with them. In the '60s, there had been a plan to extend the subway all the way to Rochdale Village. That never happened. One longtime resident even recounted the deteriorating quality of public services and sanitation after all the white people moved out.

What history taught us, and how it is today

A family walks towards Rochdale Village housing co-op and complex in Queens. Cassandra Giraldo for NPR hide caption

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Cassandra Giraldo for NPR

But holding up integration as the ideal can implicitly – and sometimes explicitly – devalue Black communities. The moral of this story is not, "the white people left and Rochdale suffered because too many Black people in one place is a problem." The problem, as always, is how difficult it is for Black people to access the power and attention and resources that tend to accrue to white people.

South Jamaica is still a vibrant place where people live and raise their families and go to school, and continue fighting to get what they deserve. it's a place where many Black people actively choose to live among one another.

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