…and Mistakes Made Along the Way, an excerpt from a memoir

by Fred Beauford

Chapter Four—Black folks

One day, after about five years into my years in the Bronx, something life changing occurred. I was fourteen. That day, when I walked into my homeroom class, there was a black kid sitting there, the first one we had, besides me. There were five other black kids in my junior high school, but until now, none in my homeroom, or in my grade.

His name was James Johnson. I don’t remember being shocked, or having any emotions at all at seeing him. He was just another new kid.

However, in a few weeks I was in a state of wonderment as even more black kids started arriving, and even a few kids we called “Spanish,” who were really mixed race people from Puerto Rico. What was this? Where were all of these kids coming from all of a sudden?

My older brother Richard first discovered what was going on. I learned from him that a large, low-income public housing project, The Edenwald Houses, had recently opened some ways from where we lived, but close enough for the kids from the projects to attend my school.

Richard was soon in hog heaven. He didn’t like whites the way Robert and I took to them. In fact, he didn’t like them at all, and called then dismissively, “fay boys,” “patty boys,” and “jive-ass squares.”

Now, I can see that all of those nights in snowy Buffalo, sneaking out of the back window at The Home, and hanging out in the streets, had given him an education about being black that both Robert and I lacked. At last, for him, there were now low-income, fatherless, dancing young black people just like him (although he took after our mother, in that he was far lighter in complexion then any of us). Edenwald Projects quickly became his home away from home, as he rarely came home to Carpenter Avenue anymore.

I noticed right away that these students were somehow different than the ones I had become use to. Like most public schools in New York, our junior high had a three-tier system. The top tier, with the special classes, was mainly Jewish, including two black kids. The middle tier included Italians and a few Irish, and the other three blacks, including me.

Then there was the lowest tier, for the “retardos,” as we called them, for the slow learners and mentally retarded. No one wanted to end up there! I soon noticed, however, that many of the kids from the projects ended up in this lowest tier even though they didn’t appear retarded to me.

Certainly James Johnson wasn’t retarded. We became instant best friends. He was a bright, talkative guy who later introduced me to the world of reading books, while simultaneously introducing me to the exciting world of black people, a world of which I knew very little.


Edenwald Projects, at 225th and Laconica Avenue, was quite a walk from my house on 219th and Carpenter Avenue, a half-a-block away from the Bronx River Park, and the famous river that ran through it. But James had invited me over to his place after school for the first time, and I couldn’t wait to visit him. When I arrived, after making the long walk, I noticed that the Edenwald Houses consisted of many large buildings, interspersed with three story smaller structures.

I thought the place was beautiful. It was well spaced with trees and greenery everywhere. James lived on the 12th floor in one of the high-rises, and it was the highest I had ever been in my life.

We decided on that first day of my visit, to go to the playground. As we walked in, we noticed a large commotion coming from the baseball field. We ran over and watched a group of young kids, around the same age as we were, surrounding a white man. The white man had his shirt off and was short and well built. I noticed a deep scar on his right side.

“He was a Marine. He got a big knife stuck in his gut during the war. See the deep hole on his side?” James excitedly informed me.

The ex-Marine was soon laid out on the ground, as one of the kids suddenly struck him from behind with a baseball bat. The kids then started kicking him, and cursing and calling him names. Some adults finally ran over and stopped the kids from potentially killing the unfortunate white man.

I was in a state of total awe and shock. James Johnson, or JJ, (as he asked me to call him), on the other hand, was taking all of this in stride, almost as if he was merely watching a movie, or something on television, or an event he had witnessed time and time again.

All I saw was a man almost being nearly beaten to death by a bunch of kids.

I had never witnessed this level of violence before. With my Italian friends, there was always an undercurrent of violence I could barely detect, lurking silently in the background. They seemed to posses knowledge of things that non-Italians like me should never know. I could catch little exchanges that suggested to me that there were people they knew that I was to be very afraid of: like those guys with big necks that sat in front of candy stores during the summer, and sold us fireworks during the Forth of July holidays.

But wise guys whacking each other, as those whispers suggested, was one thing, and was done out of sight. This was in broad daylight, with many people watching. This was a rude awakening to the world of the projects.

What caused the black kids to initiate such a savage beating on the white ex-Marine, I never discovered. The unfortunate man had no doubt bravely faced down America’s armed enemies all over the globe, as his deep scar demonstrated, but never faced anything quite like this, in what he called home.

The kids that committed such a brutal act ultimately became my friends. Richard had laid down the law to both Robert, and me that we should stop hanging out with patty boys, but instead hang with the Negroes, as we were called back then, in the projects.

Robert promptly gave him the finger. He saw no need to abandon his friends and walk miles out of his way just to hang out with people he didn’t know.

Richard didn’t need to tell me more than once, however. Unlike Robert, I loved the projects immediately.


There were several contrasts between the whites in my neighborhood and the blacks in the projects. The first thing that I noticed was the music and the dancing. Almost every day after school, we would end up at someone’s apartment, and the music would come on, and everyone danced. There was a slow dance at the time called “The Grind,” which was really just dry humping to the music. But afternoon, after afternoon, was “grind em’ up” time!

It was the first time in my life that I was ever so close to a girl, and I absolutely loved it. With my white friends, we talked about girls, but kept far away from them. I couldn’t imagine them in an apartment, unaccompanied by adults, pushing young girls up against the wall, grinding to the music.

They hated dancing, and so did I, up to that point. I can still see us in the rec-room at P.S. 113, as the dance teacher tried to match us up with some little girl, then forcing us to make awkward movements around the floor.


But I loved the ‘grind em’ ups.’ This was the first time I had experienced music and dance as an integral part of just existing. At The Home in Buffalo there was no music, only a mean, sadistic bitch scaring the pants off of us. Here, it wasn’t a big deal. It was just something that was done, and done for great enjoyment.

In many ways, this was much more exciting than the violence.

Still, sex and violence were the main undercurrents I felt in the projects beginning with the first day of seeing that poor ex-marine almost pummeled to death. Many of the mothers, like my mother, worked full time. Those mothers that didn’t work sat around all day, often with one of the projects’ “sweet men,” and drank, talked, and played cards all day. There were only one or two fathers, and they only made an appearance now and then.

This was the biggest contrast between my new life, and my old one. Fathers was a big part, if not the most important part of the lives of my white friends. Their mothers were typically friendly and loving people, ever hovering quietly in the background. But Pop was always the main actor, especially among the Italians. With the Irish, Pop was often the drunk seen staggering home after work, like Dennis’ father.

For the Italians, it was always: “If Pop catches us, we’re going to get it good.” Or, Pop said. Or, Pop did. Always back to good old Pop.

For James Johnson, and his two younger brothers and sister, Pop had stayed in the South Bronx where he owned a little record store. For most of the others, like me, and my half-brother Richard, we didn’t know who, or where Pop was.

The end result was that as our mothers worked hard to put food on our plates, or flittered the days away in a drunken haze, we kids spent most of our time unstructured and unsupervised.

So, what do 13, 14 and 15-year-old teenagers do when there are no adults around? Well, for me and my new found friends, we smoked dope, had sex, drank wine, played cards, played loud music, danced non-stop, and fought with each other at a drop of a dirty look, or a misspoken word.

Like Richard, I had suddenly landed in hog heaven.

Now, I couldn’t stay away from the projects, despite the long walk. My former best friend, the only Irish kid on our block, Dennis McCreary, looked sad and hurt as I quickly walked by him one day, as I was headed to an amazing world he could never enter.

He had been a great friend, but I had a new best friend; and this new world James Johnson presented to me had proven to be irresistible.

I spent so much time at James’ apartment, that his mother, Mrs. Johnson, started considering me part of the family. I sensed that she also thought that I was having a good influence on her son, in that I didn’t come from the projects, and seemingly did not have that mean edge most of the kids in the projects had.

Still, the mean, hard-edged kids accepted me as one of them from the very beginning. No one messed with me and that gave me what inner city black kids today would now call “street creds.”

I discerned, however, without ever really acknowledging it, that the real street creds were what my older brother had in spades.

Again, “Rabbit,” Richard’s new name because of how swift of foot he was, quickly established himself in Edenwald Projects as someone fearless, unpredictable, fast with his hands, and who could, and would, do wild and crazy things. He could out-drink; out-fight and out-fuck everyone.

So, once again, I hid behind his long coattails, and stuck my tongue out at anyone I didn’t like, knowing full well that to deal with me also meant that you had to face Richard. And Richard had made it clear to everyone, that to mess with me, meant they had to deal with him, and no one wanted to deal with someone as crazy as he projected himself.

For my new adventure in the Edenwald Projects, it was good to have a mean older brother that everyone was sacred shitless of.


Robert, on the other hand, held steadfast. He remained wary of the projects, and saw no reason to abandon his friends on Carpenter Avenue, just because they were white. (Looking back, I can see this is perhaps why he was the only one of us to graduate from high school, while Richard and I both had our sorry asses thrown unceremoniously out into the streets, as almost all the kids in the projects, soon as we reached sixteen.)


I now know one of the major reasons why I took to the projects so quickly was not just the smell of sex in the air, or how quickly violence could flare up, but because of the sense of camaraderie I felt with the black kids, far stronger than anything I felt with the white kids.

I had learned quickly to give a wider berth to the truly angry, and the truly mean, although I knew I had a 1,000-pound gorilla standing over my left shoulder.

What really drew me back, day after day, was that no matter when I arrived at the projects, there were always some kids standing around outside. There was always a friend somewhere. This was 1954, New York City. By then, as has been captured in many books and films like West Side Story, the entire city was carved up by teenagers of all races and ethnic groups into street gangs.

Even today, I have a mental map of New York City divided by “Bishops,” “Chaplains,” and “Fort Greene Stompers,” in Brooklyn; “Sportmen,” “Seven Crowns,” The Golden Guineas,” “Fordham Baldies,” and “Italian Berettas,” in the Bronx; and “Enchanters,” “Redwings” and “Hell’s Angels” in Manhattan. Some of these gangs were multi-borough, and alliances shifted and turned, and it was often hard to tell who was at war with whom.

I joined the Edenwald Enchanters, which had three branches. The mother club was in Harlem on 113th street while the other branch, which was mostly Puerto Rican, was in Alphabet City in the East Village.

Each branch was divided into seniors, juniors, tots and debs. Richard was obviously a senior. They were the guys who really ran things. I was a junior. Tots were pre-teen, but we had none of those. The debs were the girls, whose main duty was to carry the weapons the few times we went on a real “rumble.”

We considered ourselves the baddest of the bad, while other gangs were just a bunch of jive-ass chumps and sissies. (Well, perhaps the mighty Chaplains in Brooklyn, and the white Redwings in East Harlem deserved a little respect, but everyone else was not to be taken that seriously).


I was still very naive in this world of blacks. The first thing that James Johnson did was to teach me how to walk. White boys just walked, black guys bopped. There was a huge difference. I followed James’ lead as we walked down White Plains Road, with me trying my best to bop away.

“No, no, you got to move your head up and down like this, and your body has to bend a little,” he instructed me.

He artfully demonstrated the walk to me. I then tried it his way.

He smiled widely. “Yeah, that’s it.”

I can see now that we were doing a modified version of the famous, wildly funny scene between Richard Pryor and Gene Wider in the film Stir Crazy. But James did manage to teach me to bop walk, and I kept bop walking, until the US Army bopped it right out of me.

(As I wrote this, as a much older man, now in his 60’s, I was sitting in the brand new Santa Monica Public Library at one of the computers, out of a bank of 50, glad to be sharing myself with the other silent, intense computer users.

I was writing my memoirs. Who knows what they were writing.

As I walked out of the fancy new building into the bright, warm Southern California sun, I suddenly remembered what I had just written. Strangely enough, I then wondered if I could still bop walk.

I threw quick, furtive glances all around, quickly looking up and down the quiet streets, and saw no one. I smiled quietly to myself, and tried several bop steps, never quite getting it right.

It was clear that I could no longer bop walk, but it was a pleasant memory, nevertheless, but ultimately a foolish attempt at trying to recapture something that had been so important to me, so many years ago.)

What I noticed as a result of this incident of bob walking, and many other similar incidences, was that the blacks in the projects were extremely race conscious, much more than the white kids I knew. Perhaps if they were WASP, with a longer American memory, like the black kids obviously possessed, it would have been different; but for them, being Italian, Jewish or Irish informed their inner essence, more than their white skin.

For the project blacks, it was race, and they worked hard at defining themselves as different from whites as they could, unlike the handful of blacks that I knew in my area. In fact, the two black kids who lived the nearest to me, two light-skinned brothers, who even wore modified “duckasses,” were members of the Golden Guineas.

My new friends had very clear ideas about what was right and wrong for a black to say, do, or wear, and especially what music to listen too. They sent out a clear message to me, telling me who we were as a people, which was quite new to me.


This was also an exciting time for African American music. Each week brought something new, which topped that which came before it. Myself, and the young blacks in the projects couldn’t wait to hear what was next. Doo Wop was clearly the most popular, but there was also this hot thing someone had labeled rhythm and blues. My new friends in the projects lived for this exciting new music, and now, so did I.

No more Eddie Fisher for me! Suddenly names like the Harptones, Ruth Brown, The Orioles, Big Joe Turner, Clyde MacPhatter and The Drifters became important, far more important than Eddie Fisher had ever been.

And most importantly, I had a chance to hold the young, pretty project girls-- who I thought were absolutely wonderful-- even tighter, as we slow danced to the great voices of the Doo Wop groups:

“Life is but a dream, OWWW WEEEEE.”

Great stuff.

I also witnessed a profound, revolutionary change take place during this period, which, ultimately, would soon help liberate America. But before I go into that, I will let the highly esteemed, former Associate Professor, Fred Beauford, the Media Historian, who has taught the subject at UC-Berkeley, the University of Southern California (USC), Cal State Northridge, and SUNY Old Westbury, take over this discussion briefly, and set the stage:

By now television was the primary form of visual entertainment, surpassing movies. When television first started gaining audiences and improving its programming, many thought that this was going to be a great boon for black people, that they would be included, unlike the movies, which, by and large, either ignored them, or held them up to ridicule.

The Eastern European Jewish moguls that had boldly seized control of the fledgling motion picture industry from Thomas Edison’s Trust in 1914 by moving it to California, and making real movies complete with storyline—proved to be just as dismissive of African Americans as the old, ham-fisted, artistically challenged WASPS.

This brand new thing called television started out promisingly enough. William Paley, of CBS in the late 40s bet his entire strategy against rival NBC, then the most popular network. He enticed the two white men who created the black characters of The Amos and Andy Show, the highest rating show ever, to jump from NBC and sign up with his network, giving CBS the rights to the show, which would eventually feature real blacks.

In fact, by 1952 all three networks had at least one all black show. However, starting with the 1953 season, all three networks removed all black shows, and blacks were not to appear on network television, except occasionally in sports, the news, or a guest spot on a variety show, until 1967, with the exception of the short-lived Nat King Cole Show.

But while African Americans were being summarily banished from television, and America, the next year, they were about to begin an amazing journey to not to just say we are here, but to take center stage in American life.

In 1954, a disk jockey from Cleveland by the name of Alan Freed brought what was known as race music, or rhythm and blues, to radio station WINS in New York City. He had renamed the music “rock and roll.”

It was soon all the rage in New York; and a year later, this magical, contagious music would become the rage all over the country after the release, in 1955, of the movie The Blackboard Jungle, which helped make Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” the first rock and roll record to become number one on the Billboard charts.


Amen. Thank you Professor Beauford for your enlighten words. Lord knows we need them.


If we are to believe Professor Beauford, It seems as if the entire country was saying goodbye to poor, unfortunate Eddie Fisher! And African Americans artists had just been given a far larger American spotlight then they had ever experienced.


The professor was quite right. I saw it unfold first hand. One afternoon, while I was walking by P.S. 113, I heard a noise coming from the large rec-room that opened onto the street, I looked in and couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Here were all these white kids, most of whom were my former friends, actually joyfully dancing to the exact same kind of music I was listening to in the projects. The stiff moves we once had to endure during dance class were now long gone.

They almost looked like my new friends in the projects.

At first, the powers that be tried to put a white face on this music by having stiffs like Pat Boone cover black artists (imagine someone like him trying to cover a crazed Little Richard, of all people!). But young whites would soon have none of that pap, and wanted the real thing now that it was available to them by simply turning the dial on their radio.

Television may have dictated that blacks didn’t exist, but those young whites I watched shaking their little butts off that afternoon after school at P.S 113, said otherwise.

This rock and roll era, which shoved a righteous finger in the face to the Bill Paley’s of the world, lasted until the early 60’s, and was once again a time when and black and white kids all danced to the same music.

Return to home page