Thomas Webber, author of Flying over 96th Street: Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy

December 16th, 2004

JJM  Did you have musician friends?

TW  Oh yes, mostly singers. Union Settlement House had a wonderful music program, led by Blake Hobbs, who everyone called the “music man.” He taught everyone their instruments, and many of the kids played trumpets, guitars, or drums. But, just like with books, they didn’t have instruments in their homes. From the time I was born, we had a piano in our home, and I learned to play piano and guitar, but the other kids mostly sang and danced. It seemed as if every other kid was an unbelievable dancer or singer. Danny was a natural dancer — he couldn’t keep still — and he wound up having quite a career with Alvin Ailey, and then on Broadway. He actually became quite famous.

JJM  The dream of having a career in sports or music as a way out of this world is well known, of course, and you write about that in the book. Another career choice as a way out of the projects is joining the military. Did you see a lot of kids making this chioce?

TW  Yes, especially those who made it through high school. If a kid was fairly good in high school, no one talked to him about going to college. Instead, they talked to him about going into the military, learning a career, and learning a skill. Then, after that, they might go to college if they wanted to. To most of the kids, the idea of college was not part of their family identity or culture.

JJM  Danny’s brother joined the military. Did he actually go off to Vietnam?

TW  Yes, he did two tours there. When he came back, he was clearly not the same. He became an alcoholic, and asked me for money on the street whenever he saw me. I remember Danny telling me not to give any money to him, that perhaps he had to sink to the bottom before he would determine to pull himself together. He fell asleep in an old burned out tenement one day — the tenement went up in flames and he got severely burned and died. Danny went through an awful lot when that happened. His brother was the sweetest man, and really unfit for the military. I guess what he saw or did in Vietnam destroyed him. He never wanted to talk about it.

JJM  When you were fourteen, your family moved to a new apartment complex that also included other white tenants.

TW  Yes, it was an experiment of the New York Housing Authority, to see if they could comprise a population of one-third black, one-third Hispanic, and one-third white residents.

JJM  Did your friendships change when you made this move?

TW  My older brother Johnny and I were the oldest white kids in the building, and I don’t believe the entire three-building complex was ever nearly one-third white — there were only two or three other white families in our building. We would occasionally see each other and look one another over, but by then I was going to Collegiate High School every day, and I was in my own world. Although we moved, the culture really didn’t change at all — the neighborhood was still overwhelmingly black and Puerto Rican.

JJM  Did you invite your friends from Collegiate to your house? Did they feel uneasy about going because it may be unsafe, or perhaps their parents didn’t want them to go there?

TW  When we first moved, I invited two or three of my friends several times, and they always made excuses about why they couldn’t come, so I stopped inviting them. It was very clear that their parents never went above 96th Street — it was pretty much an absolute rule. 96th Street might as well have been a huge wall that you did not attempt to climb if you were white. On one side of the street, you would see buttoned-down doormen, and on the other side, men were playing dominoes and drinking beer on the street. If you were black or Puerto Rican, you did not go south of 96th Street unless you had a job or a specific place to go.

My brother and I would ride the bus home after school. When we got on, it would be half black and half white. We would make a bet about who the last white person getting off the bus would be. Without fail, that person always got off before 96th Street. My brother and I — and later, when I rode the bus alone — were the only white people traveling beyond 96th. Invariably, some kindly, elderly woman would come up to me and ask if I were lost because there was no other explanation for why a white kid might be traveling beyond 96th. This was the middle of the Upper East Side of Manhattan — one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the world — and on the other side of 96th Street was Spanish Harlem, which was one of the poorest communities, and a place whites found to be very scary. My Collegiate friends and I used to spend time looking for a basketball court to play on, but there were very few to be found south of 96th Street. I would tell my friends that we could go three blocks north of 96th Street because I knew of about ten courts up there, but there was just no way they were willing to go north of 96th. Some of the kids in East Harlem took to calling 96th Street the “demilitarized zone.”

JJM  Concerning the fear whites had of the street, you wrote, “Even when traveling to and from the city, they stick to the West Side Highway or FDR Drive.”

TW  It’s like that scene in Bonfire of the Vanities, where the guy breaks down in the South Bronx. The great fear of many of my white friends and their families is that they will have car trouble in the middle of 116th Street, become surrounded, and not know how to handle it. They may not be wrong, and that is certainly a problem.

JJM   John Kennedy’s emergence as a leader was inspiring to you, but you were ultimately disillusioned by him. Can you talk a little about that?

TW  As I got older, I realized that my father and all of his associates in the parish were working long hours, seven days a week, and despite this, things within the community were not getting better — there were more drugs, more gangs, and schools were just as bad as ever. I believed we needed to change the system, and Kennedy gave us hope for that. Danny and I went to hear him speak, and he talked about the world no longer being divided by rich and poor, and how everyone deserved equal opportunity. His eloquence inspired me to believe that by changing the laws and the politics, we could change the world.

But, as time went on, we became aware that Kennedy frequently put the priorities of the Southern Democrats ahead of his opportunity to speak forcefully about change. I remember how disappointed my mother and father were when he didn’t include the issue of civil rights in his speeches. They couldn’t understand how we could be living in the middle of the civil rights era and have a President who wouldn’t speak out forcibly on issues pertaining to civil rights. I realize now why he had to appease these Southern Democrats, but at the time, we were waiting for someone to be a “voice in the wilderness,” as my father used to say — someone who would passionately speak for the rights of poor people, and for the rights of blacks and Hispanics. There were no national leaders speaking that way, certainly not in the early sixties. The only people standing up and speaking out seemed to be blacks. I then realized that my father had been doing this throughout his life in his own little way, with the people who worked with him in the parish.

JJM  It was during this time that you had a school assignment requiring you to write a biography of a role model to pattern yourself after.

TW  Yes, and I could only think of black people to profile and, for some reason, I wanted a white person. I knew the quotes Abraham Lincoln made concerning how he didn’t especially appreciate slavery, but he would never want his sister to marry a black person, and I knew that Thomas Jefferson and many of the Founding Fathers were slave owners so I couldn’t write about any of them. John Brown was the only man who was somewhat close to what I was looking for, but he was portrayed as such an insane person — I even remember one of my teachers saying that he probably had a mental problem. So, there was nobody left, nobody white left, and I wound up writing about Lincoln and Kennedy together, and how they were basically failed leaders.

JJM Concerning the anger your black friends and neighbors may have felt about the past, you wrote, “I wonder if their anger at slavery, lynching and segregation ever slips over into hate toward white people.” Did you ever ask Danny that question?

TW  Later in life, yes. After he moved from Hollywood back to New York, we had long talks about this sort of thing. He was such a free spirit, and he judged people according to who they were. Perhaps it was because he was gay and he had other challenges to face, but he never got into the racial identity bag that many blacks and Puerto Ricans did. When I came back to East Harlem after college in the summer of 1969, I saw how the world had changed and how it affected the neighborhood and how people worked together. Black pride was everywhere, African garb was being worn, and the motives of whites wanting to help blacks and Puerto Ricans were questioned. Missionary work in general was questioned in the late sixties and early seventies. Because I was white, they wanted me to work within my own community, but East Harlem was my community, and I had to tell them I grew up there.

From the time I was a little boy, the whole idea of slavery haunted me. I was horrified by the idea that a child could be sold away from his parents. I used to hear people in the parish talk about the old days down south, and I couldn’t hear enough stories. It seemed so terrible to live in a society where, by law, someone could take children from their parents. How could such a society exist and call itself a free democracy? It seemed like a huge contradiction to itself. It fascinated me to the point that I eventually wrote an entire book on the culture and history of slavery in the United States, Deep Like the Rivers.

JJM  Flying Over 96th Street is such a passionate and personal memoir. It takes courage to expose so much of your past and so many intimate thoughts, especially when some may not be particularly favorable to members of your family. Toward the end of the book, for example, you wrote about your father, “I realize that my dad will never be proud of me, that what I’ve been hoping for, working for, all my life will never happen. It just isn’t in Dad to be proud of me. Pride’s not part of his vocabulary. Maybe deep inside somewhere he’s proud, but he can’t admit it, not even to himself.” How did your father respond to that passage in the book?

TW  That is a funny story. Before the book was published, just as I was about to give the publisher the final revision, I visited my father to have a talk with him. I told him that there were a couple parts in the book I wanted to make him aware of, and that he may not have a memory of them. As a teenager, I wrote him a letter one Summer that he never responded to. In it I asked him many troubling religious questions like, was there really life after death? I also mentioned that I wrote in the book about how he said he could never being proud of me or of my siblings. How he always said he felt grateful rather than proud, that it is only through God’s grace that anything good happens. I asked Dad if he remembered these things, and he said he did, and in fact he had saved the letter. I asked him why he never responded to it. He said he wasn’t sure, and promptly changed the subject. About six months later, a month of so after the book came out, he called me one day and said, “Tommy, I just want you to know how proud I am of you.” I asked him, “Dad, who put you up to this?” He said that he had received a lot of phone calls, but he said he thought we were using the word “proud” in different ways. I told him that may be true, and that I appreciated hearing it anyway. About three weeks later we were having dinner together, and Mom said, “Tommy, you let him off the hook. You should have made him say he was proud of you to your face, not over the telephone.” That is typical of my mother, who wouldn’t let my father ask her to marry him in a letter. But he said it again at the table, that he is proud of me, and that he is proud of my brothers and sisters.

JJM  I just couldn’t help but think about how difficult it would be to be that honest, but that is essential to an effective memoir.

TW  Early on one of my editors at Scribner reminded me that this is essentially a book about me. It is not about Danny, it is not about East Harlem, it is not about race relations in the United States. Flying Over 96th Street is a coming of age story, and throughout it, in order for it to be effective, I have to talk candidly about my parents, my friendships, and my feelings. They never told me what to say or which stories to write, but they insisted that I write it truly, as authentically as possible.

JJM  You wrote about the residents of East Harlem, “It is a world with its share of saints and sinners, heroes and hustlers, but mostly it is a neighborhood of common people working hard to make ends meet and struggling every day to raise their children the best way they know. It is a world of folks who pray to God and praise Him and, in 1957 at least, still believed in the American Dream.” Are residents of East Harlem less likely to believe in the American Dream today than they may have in 1957?

TW   I raised that question, although I am not sure of the answer to it. When I wrote the prologue — where this quote is taken from — and then later the epilogue where I talked about how much had changed while at the same time how little had changed over the years in East Harlem, I was feeling pessimistic about America’s commitment to providing everyone with equal opportunity, and I didn’t know if it ever would since America is so driven by money, and because the gap between poverty and wealth continues to widen. I don’t think America is as racially divided as it used to be, but I think it is just as much divided between those who have and those who have not.

I have been taken to task by some of my father’s colleagues for the epilogue, for not acknowledging the changes that have come due to their hard work and the hard work of so many others. There have been many great improvements but I’m not sure that a black child born to a single nineteen-year-old mother in East Harlem today has any more opportunity than Danny or anyone else from our time did.  I have to say that it is inspiring and hopeful to meet so many people who continue to hope, who continue to believe in the American Dream. I am amazed at the great strength of black Americans — and to some degree of immigrant Americans — and of their belief that America, despite all its faults, is the best country in the world. I think they may be right, but we have a lot of work to do.

We have certainly come a long way. In 1957, there was no certainty that Jim Crow laws were ever going to change. In most places in America today, few people admit to being a racist out loud, yet in 1957, politicians were being elected on clearly racist platforms. So, that world has changed, but history tells us that there are many ups and downs over a period of three or four hundred years. I no longer see history as evidence of things getting better, where each struggle gets you to a new level. The reality is that each struggle creates another struggle, each victory another challenge; that is perhaps the human predicament.

I have hope for the future because I think there is something in the American psyche about fairness. I think that is the key word. When polls are taken and people are asked if they are for quota systems, they always say “no.” When they are asked if they are for a system that gives blacks or any minority an advantage over whites in admissions, they say “no.” But if they are asked if they are for a society in which everyone has an equal opportunity, in which everyone has an equal chance to attend good schools, have equal access to health care, have an equal chance for a good job, they will overwhelmingly say “yes.” There is something about America that believes that things should be fair. We can use that philosophy to do what Martin Luther King used to urge, “Use the great exalting words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to call America home, to call it back to its best self.” I still believe that America can become a fairer more just society and to a great extent I think poor people also believe that.

JJM  You have anything else you want to add?

TW  One of the things I hope people take away from the experience of reading my book is the idea that friendships among people of great diversity and wildly differing backgrounds is a wonderfully human and spiritually uplifting experience. It is personally empowering and rewarding to have friends who are different than you, to open yourself up to them, to be open to how they think about the world, and to what they value as a result of their own life challenges. It is through such close personal relationships that we become better, fuller people ourselves.
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photo Gordon Parks/Library of Congress

“I’m white, but I live in a Negro and Puerto Rican community.  I’ve experienced something of what it’s like to be poor; I live in a public housing project, pass winos and junkies every day on the street, understand what it is to be an object of hate because of the color of my skin.  At the same time, I attend school with the sons of the rich and the powerful.  I can talk their language, move comfortably in their circles, help them understand why it’s in their own best interest to end poverty, defeat racism, and create educational and economic opportunity.  I can be a bridge between white and black, rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless.  I have found my calling in my own way, on my own time, without God’s assistance.”

– Tom Webber

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Harlem Air Shaft, by Duke Ellington

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Flying Over 96th Street:

Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy

by

Thomas Webber

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About Tom Webber

JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

TW  As a child, I went through several stages where heroes were important to me. The earliest hero I had was the Lone Ranger. He came on the radio every night at 7:30, and my brother and I would lie in bed and listen to the show. I loved the idea that his unknown identity helped him right the wrong and help the weak, and then at the end he would ride off into the dust without letting anyone thank him. It was great.

During the 1953 World Series, I wanted to be like Jackie Robinson. I still remember how he danced off third base, and how he then stole home. I was about six years old at the time, and I would tell people I was Jackie Robinson.

JJM  What was their reaction to that?

TW  They would sort of laugh and look at me — this little blonde, freckled, blue-eyed kid. The world has changed a lot since then. White kids today can say their hero is Michael Jordan without anyone batting an eyelash. It would have been rare in our day for white kids to have a black hero, but today kids have the ability to identify with whomever.

When I was a teenager, my father was my hero, and I wanted to be like him. He taught me that giving back to others and helping those in need is what is important in life. That was his identity. He used to laugh at the idea that people would work solely for the purpose of making money. Who would want to spend eight to twelve hours of their day for that reason? He felt it was more important to be doing something to make the world better, to have fun while doing it, and you will consequently feel good about yourself. He would always say that he was not a minister for some ‘do-gooding’ purpose, but because he enjoyed it, he found it fulfilling and made his life more significant. After having spent all my life working with so-called “troubled” teenagers, I find myself saying that as well.

Later on in my high school and early college years, I went through a period where I rejected the idea of working with individuals — if you did that you would never change the system. So, John Kennedy became my hero for a while during that time. Heroes change as you change. I don’t really like the idea of heroes now. We all need role models, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be anyone’s hero. To be someone’s hero is a pretty heavy burden that I am not sure any of us can carry. We all have feet of clay.

 

 

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Thomas L. Webber is the founder and Superintendent/Executive Director of Edwin Gould Academy, a coeducational, residential treatment school for adolescents in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. He is considered an expert on the needs of so-called troubled youth and on the future of education in inner cities. A graduate of Harvard College with a Ph.D. in education from Columbia University, Webber is the author of Deep Like the Rivers, the acclaimed book on how African-Americans preserved and nurtured their values under slavery. Webber served for seven years as an elected member of Community School Board 4 in East Harlem, the neighborhood where he and his wife raised their family, the neighborhood they continue to call home.

Thomas Webber products at Amazon.com

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This interview took place on December 16, 2004

 

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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with John Lindsay biographer Vincent Cannato

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