Richard Cooke was born in Newark in 1935 to a homemaker mother from Alabama, and a Buffalo-born auto mechanic father whose family originally came from Raleigh, North Carolina (where his grandfather was a minister). A retired schoolteacher at the time of his interview, Cooke described himself as a proud product of the Newark public school system to which he returned to teach for 35 years. He noted that, as a student, he had not had a Black teacher in either Newark or East Orange Public Schools. After completing a BA in English and Speech from Shaw University and an MA from NYU, Mr. Cooke was drafted into the Army, serving 28 months. He then began teaching at Bruce Street School for the Deaf.
Throughout the interview Mr. Cooke describes the Newark neighborhood in which his family lived on Camden Street, including the popular commercial district on Prince Street and discriminatory practices of merchants downtown. An active member of Bethany Baptist Church since 1948, Mr. Cooke recalls doing a reading of William Ashby’s book there. He also recounts his admiration for Amiri Baraka and recollections of other notable African American Newarkers such as Irvine Turner, Ken Gibson and Judge Harry Hazelwood. Mr. Cooke’s family would eventually move from Newark to East Orange in 1950.
Martha Gaynor was born in Irwinville, Georgia in 1916 and came to Newark as a girl in 1926. She traveled for three days by coal powered train in and recalled black passengers being seated near the engine because it was dirty and having to give up their seats to white passengers when transferring in Washington. Her father was a sharecropper growing peanuts, potatoes and tobacco. She and her brother would carry sacks of cotton for her mother who she remembers could pick 300-400 pounds in a single day.
Whereas in Georgia all children were educated in one classroom, in Newark she was put in the 1st grade and was such a diligent student she worked her way through 3rd grade by the summer. In high school she opted for night school at Barringer Evening School while working days in a factory manufacturing children’s clothing.
E. ALMA FLAGG
Dr. E. Alma Flagg was born in City Point, Virginia in 1918 and first migrated to Newark with her mother in the 2nd grade. Her father, who died when she was 12, was born in North Carolina while her mother was from South Carolina. Dr. Flagg would return to Newark in 1943, after graduating college and time spent teaching in Washington, D.C. She spent the rest of her forty-year career in Newark, where she would distinguish herself as the first principal of an integrated school before ultimately becoming Assistant Superintendent of Newark Public Schools in charge of curriculum.
She recalls life in mid-century Newark, remembering Newark and New Jersey editions of the Chicago Defender and Afro American newspapers, as well as WNJR radio, as being trusted sources for news and information in the African American community. She offers a pointed definition of “integration” as being the, “Arrival of the first Black to departure of the last White.” Dr. Flagg was an active member of the NAACP, League of Women Voters and Weequahic Community Council in addition to her work with the Newark Preservation Landmark Committee through which she fought to save the Historic Plume House from being razed for Interstate 280.
ANNIE ROSE JOHNSTON
Annie Rose Johnston was born Annie Rose Moses on December 1st, 1911 in Burke County, Georgia. Growing up as one of thirteen on a farm, she learned to pick cotton as a child, despite being blind, and could pick upwards of 150 pounds in a day. Both her mother and father were also born in Burke County and each had a fourth grade education. Mrs. Johnston came north by train with her family in 1922 and lived in two rooms in a boarding house. The first year her mother and brother both suffered with pneumonia and she was sent to a residential school for the blind in New York.
Mrs. Johnston worked as a teacher under the Works Progress Administration both in Newark and in Cedar Spring, South Carolina where she taught at a school for the deaf and blind. Upon returning to Newark in 1944 she got a job in a factory and stayed there until 1947 when she went back to school for her Masters degree. She later went on to become a darkroom technician at Martland Hospital where she worked for nearly 33 years.
Owen Wilkerson was born in 1943 in Halifax, Virginia. He was four years old when he came to Newark. The family’s first home was on Barclay Street. His position at the time of the interview is in the Office of the City Clerk. Wilkerson was also a reporter for both The Afro-American newspaper where he covered the 1967 uprising and the Newark Evening News until it went out of business. His civil service included working with Newark’s Board of Education. He later became aide to Assemblyman Eugene Thompson, working on tenants’ rights’ issues.
Mr. Wilkerson at one time lived on the same street as Redd Foxx, on Hillside Avenue. Mr. Wilkerson reminisces with great detail about the various neighborhoods where he lived. Wilkerson’s first paying job after graduating from Weequahic High School was at Cooper Sportswear on Sherman Avenue in 1961. After that he went to college wherein his next job was in the summer at the Newark post office where his salary covered a semester’s tuition. He remembers High Street as an important site of pride and a model of living for Newark’s African Americans.