This is a chapter from his new book, A
Newark Childhood: A Memoir available at DavidHugoBarrett.com
After graduating from the sixth grade at Burnet Street Elementary
School, I entered Webster Junior High School at the age of 13 -
a proud, brand new teenager. Webster would prove to be a dichotomous
experience for me – a source of promise and pain. Personally,
it gave me a chance to ditch the name Hugo. At Burnet, I had had
about all of the taunting and teasing I could stand over that name
and Webster gave me a chance to start anew. Forsaking my uncle,
I would be David, henceforth.
I would never feel the sense of physical and emotional security
at Webster that I had felt at Burnet. First, Burnet was only a quarter
mile or so from the Baxter Terrace Apartments – a predominantly
colored development. Second, at Burnet, though colored kids were
a minority, they were about one third of the student body. Moreover,
the white kids were not just white as the colored kids saw them;
they thought of themselves in terms of their own particular ethnicity:
Polish, Italian, Irish, etc. These groups had among them, their
own contradictions and they sometimes found themselves in conflict
with each other. When there was a fight between a white and colored
boy, it rarely had anything to do with race. Each boy had friends
among the various groups cheering him on. Friendship trumped ethnicity.
So, these two factors – a heavy colored presence and the
diversity among white ethnics mitigated any significant acts of
The dynamics at Webster were completely different from those at
Burnet. The school was ensconced just inside Little Italy, about
a half mile north west of my tenement. So, the anxiety I had about
going to a school in a neighborhood that had been the source of
terror for me was somewhat reduced by the school being relatively
close to home. Unlike Burnet, Webster was overwhelmingly Italian
and the colored students were in a small minority. Until I started
attending Webster, I had come in contact with Italians only when
I had to go to the swimming pool or Boys’ Club. But now I
had to be rubbing elbows with them and be taught by a faculty that
also was largely Italian. One teacher was even named Mrs. Italiano!
My physical education teachers added to my discomfort. During my
very first gym class, my classmates and I were lectured to by two
first-year physical education teachers, Mr. Lombardi and Mr. Godfrey.
They were explaining why the Negro and the Italian were best suited
for certain sports. “The Negro, because he is tall, athletic
and of slender build, makes the better basketball player. On the
other hand, the Italian makes the better football player because
he has a stocky build necessary for a game of strength.” I
reflected on these remarks, wondering about the other sports. It
seemed to me that speed could be a competitive advantage in football.
No matter how strong and stocky you were, if you couldn’t
catch the man with the ball, what good were these attributes? Why
hadn’t they discussed other sports? Who was best suited for
track, baseball or tennis? I was not slender or tall. What sport
should I participate in? These were the thoughts churning through
my head as they spoke. I wondered what my classmates were thinking.
I also wondered about the non-Italian white people and where they
fit in all this naïve anthropological analysis being so freely
The Italian intimidation factor, combined with the newness of the
junior high school experience - a different teacher for each subject;
having to change classes and walk through the halls, unsupervised,
to reach them; and using lockers (with locks whose combinations
I had to memorize (8 18 0!) to store my books and personal property;
girls who wore makeup, popped chewing gum and bled once a month
- would force me to grow up in ways that I had not imagined.
Among the colored and Italian students, there seemed to be an unspoken
agreement that they could get along as long as they all respected
the others’ space. The problem was the Italians were the ones
who defined the space. It seemed that the cafeteria was, by default,
one of their spaces because few if any of the colored kids ate there.
On the first day of school, I ate in the cafeteria where the only
colored kids I saw were seventh graders like me. This was easy to
figure out because the students sat in sections according to grade.
I asked one of the eighth grade girls who lived on Clay Street where
she ate and she told me about Pop’s, a store on the corner
of Crane and High Streets and directly across the street from Webster.
At Pop’s they served pizza, meatball sandwiches and a variety
of cold cut sandwiches as well. The most popular sandwich was the
Italian Hotdog. The hotdog was placed in a deep-pocket roll and
smothered with thick French fries and bathed in ketchup. For this
nutritious treat and a bottle of soda, I paid fifty cents.
Eating lunch off school grounds was not new to me. We did that
at Maxie’s when I was at Burnet. But Pop’s had a juke
box. It featured music by R & B artists such as Fats Domino,
The Clovers, Coasters, Heartbeats (who later changed their name
to Shep and the Limelights), Clef Tones, Nutmegs, Frankie Lymon
and The Teenagers and The Five Satins. Among this selection of colored
artists were Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Pat Boone, Elvis Presley
and some lesser known white artists.
I liked Sinatra, but I would not dare play one of his records in
this environment. My friends would have ridiculed me. I got my dose
of Sinatra weekends in the privacy of my apartment.
A popular DJ named William B. Williams used to often play him on
his Saturday morning show, The Make Believe Ballroom, on WNEW AM.
I listened to William B., as he called himself, when I could no
longer stand the insulting, dumbed down commercials on Newark’s
WNJR, which seemed to blast the commercials with greater frequency
on Saturdays than any other day of the week. Williams is credited
with giving Sinatra the moniker, Chairman of the Board. He also
referred, respectively, to Duke Ellington and Count Basie as The
Duke of Ellington and The Count of Basie. He was a suave dude who
had high regard for the intelligence of his audience and his approach
to disc jockeying seemed to elevate it to an art form; indeed, I
once heard him refer to himself as “no mere disk jockey but
a radio personality”.
After Lena Horne and Peggy Lee had become grandmothers, he would
occasionally inform the radio audience that we were now going to
hear from (grandchild’s name) grandmother. I didn’t
have the vocabulary then to describe what he was doing by presenting
us with these seemingly inconsistent images of grandmother and sultry
songstress; but I got it - irony!
I remember the day I learned the word “obligatory”.
It was one Saturday while I was listening to Guillermo B. Guillermos,
the Spanish translation of Willie B.’s name, that he was fond
of using. He informed his audience “It is obligatory that
you tune in to this station every Saturday morning.” Like
the popular Symphony Sid, a jazz disc jockey airing on WLIB AM,
and a fixture at Birdland, William B. was not only cool but, he
was also, sophisticated. In fact, these two cats were the hippest
white guys I knew.
We kids crowded into Pop’s, had our lunch and tried to dance,
which was nearly impossible to do in the available, tiny space.
So, the sexually suggestive grind was all we would do. There was
no room at Pop’s to do any other kind– not even the
two-step - because we were packed in like sardines, which, ironically,
made the brief, lunch-time gathering more exciting. Most “respectable”
girls would grind only at parties under the dim glow of a blue light,
but never in the middle of the day in broad day light. The grind
was a dance in which a boy and girl embraced, pressed themselves
into each other and swiveled their hips in time to the music. A
vulgar variation of this dance was called the sandwich where the
girl represented the meat and the boys the bread. One boy faced
the girl and the other embraced her from behind. I had known only
one girl who would do this dance. I met her at a party in the Dayton
Street Housing projects, where she showed her stuff. Boys stood
in line to dance with her.
None of my friends from my neighborhood was in any of my classes.
What was worse, I was the only colored person in them – that
is, until second semester when a girl named Delores, a transfer
from somewhere down south, was placed in my science class. “Now
we have a girl for Barrett,” I overheard a classmate named
Sal (He became a Newark detective.) remark, while Delores was checking
in with the teacher. Delores was a big-boned, tall, deep chocolate
complexioned girl and average looking. I had not yet grown out of
my intra-group color consciousness - prevalent among colored people,
but only quietly spoken of - and considered her too dark for me.
Seeing her brought to my mind a popular song at the time whose first
line was “I don’t want her, you can have her. She’s
too fat for me.” I would substitute the word “dark”
for “fat”. I didn’t know it at the time, of course,
but I had internalized a mocking disdain for dark skinned colored
girls for consideration as girlfriends. I had friends of both genders
who came in all hues; but a friend was one thing and a girlfriend
quite another. In this attitude, I was not alone. Most of the other
cats were right there with me. “I want a girl with long hair
and light skin because I don’t want no dark skin kids.”
This was the sentiment, or some version of it, I had been hearing
in my neighborhood for years and seen reinforced with images in
Ebony Magazine, the movies and on television... “If you white,
you alright; if you yellow, you mellow; if you brown, hang around;
if you black, stay back.” It also explained why I had been
infatuated with Olivia for so many of my elementary school years,
suffering silently and not even looking at anyone else. It never
occurred to me that she might have thought I was too dark for her.
It did not take me long to adjust to Webster. I had begun to make
some friends among the colored students and I got along with my
other classmates. One of them was a first- generation Italian boy
named Aldo who had come to this country from Sicily. Aldo spoke
no English so, my English teacher, Mr. Tampany, had to assign someone
to work with him. He chose me. I wondered why Mr. Tampany had selected
me. Virtually every other kid in the class was Italian, so it seemed
to me one of them would have been more effective. It never occurred
to me that I was selected because I was simply smarter than my classmates.
My father suggested that Sicilians and Italians (He pronounced
it “Eye-talians”) did not get along because the dark
skinned Sicilians were considered the “niggers” of Italy.
The Italians had never forgiven the Sicilians for being overrun
by Hannibal and letting his soldiers impregnate their women. “They
left a lot of black babies in Sicily.” he said. This made
no sense to me because, as I figured, since they were all white,
what could be the basis for the intra-group hostility?
I got along so well with all of my classmates, that on one occasion
I forgot who I was. We had a substitute for art class one day. A
short, rotund, bald man who was probably about fifty years old;
his name was Mr. Milano. He had a raspy voice that did not project
well and was difficult to hear. When he raised his voice, it sounded
as if he was straining and to my thirteen-year-old way of thinking,
it was amusing. Well, my classmates began to act all wild, constantly
talking, walking around the room and ignoring everything Milano
told them to do. They weren’t going to learn anything about
art that day if it killed them. I had never before witnessed such
a display of disrespect. But that didn’t keep me from joining
the crowd. The antics escalated to such a point that I got up the
nerve to do something I would not have done under any other circumstances.
Mr. Milano had a straw hat that he had placed on top of the file
cabinet, out of harm’s way. I got a bottle of red paint, walked
casually to the file cabinet, turned his hat upside down and poured
some of the paint into it. While everyone else thought it was funny,
Gus, the tallest one in the class, came over to my seat in the midst
of all the confusion and told me “David, you shouldn’t
have done that. We’re supposed to be just having a little
fun and that should not include destroying his property.”
Gus was by far the most mature of any of us all. He had already
decided what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I want to be
a dancer”, he shared with the class during the second week
of school. This pronouncement met with some snickers. Who had ever
heard of somebody dancing for a living anyway? Moreover, any boy
who wanted to be a dancer was suspect. Gus had always been nice
to me and I respected him, so much so that such criticism coming
from him hurt my feelings and I felt ashamed of what I had done.
It affected me so much that I never misbehaved again when I had
a substitute because the image of me pouring the ink into Mr. Milano’s
hat would linger over me like the shadow from my past that it was.
Fifty years later, I can still see the anguish on Mr. Milano’s
face when he saw the damage that had been done to his hat. In fact,
from that time forward, I would take the unpopular stance of being
an aggressive advocate of showing respect to our substitutes and
more often than not, my classmates listened.
When I became a teacher in the Newark School systems myself some
ten years later, I told my classes that if I should ever be absent
and they were disrespectful to my substitute, there would be consequences
they would never forget. On the two occasions I was absent, the
subs left me notes praising the behavior of my classes.
My time at Webster came to a premature end as a result of a misunderstanding
I had with an eighth-grade boy. One day when I was on my way to
Mrs. Grasso’s science class, walking alone as usual, a kid
brushed by me and tapped the shoulder of a stocky boy, who was walking
just in front of me, and quickly ducked out of sight, into the boys’
bathroom. Naturally, the boy who had been tapped turned around to
see who had done the tapping. He looked at me and loudly demanded,
“Did you touch me, man?” I resented his belligerent
tone and responded in kind, “No, I didn’t touch you.
I don’t even know you.” He glared menacingly at me and
ordered me to “move on then.” “I’ll move
when I’m ready”, I forcefully responded. I figured I
had to say something because since I was already headed in that
direction, I did not want it to appear as though I was moving because
I had been ordered to do so. A small crowd had begun to gather to
see if anything was going to go down – I imagine there were
some even hoping so. The belligerent boy dramatically gave his books
to his pal and balled up his hands into fists, as he began to move
counter-clockwise in a small circle while saying “Oh you wanna
tro some hands, you wanna knuckle samich?” “I’ll
stuff your knuckle sandwich down your throat if you take one step
in my direction you block head mothahfuckah”, was my defiant
reply as I dropped my books and prepared to defend myself. The boy
was holding his hands waist high and I thought he was going to try
a roundhouse. So, I was prepared to block it and respond with a
left hook to his nose (My father again,) I was willing to take the
chance and let him swing first because I didn’t want to be
the one named as the starter of the fight; but he seemed to be stalling
as he just kept circling, trying to sell me a wolf ticket and not
even acting as if he even wanted to throw a punch. In the interim,
Mrs. Grasso, , who was on hall duty, noticed all the commotion and
came running to the scene. Recognizing me, she shouted “David,
David, what’s going on?” and stepped between us. She
grabbed me by my hand and pulled me into her classroom, all the
while shouting “What are you doing, what are you doing? I’m
surprised at you.” While this was going on, my adversary shouted,
“After school, Sambo.” I thought, “How could she
be surprised before she even knew what had happened? Was she automatically
blaming me? Didn’t she hear what he had just said?”
I remonstrated, “I wasn’t doing anything. He accused
me of touching him. I didn’t do it. Some other kid ran up
behind him and then ducked into the bathroom.” She told me
to sit down while she went to get my books, but one of my classmates,
who apparently had witnessed the incident, had already picked them
up and, books in hand, met Mrs. Grasso at the door. “Are you
looking for these?” he said. “Are they David’s?”
“Un hunh” he said as he passed them to her.
It took Mrs. Grasso a while to settle the class, as they were all
a-buzz with what had just happened. From the looks on their faces,
they seemed amused that I had almost gotten into a fight, my Clarke
Kent image shed. I felt a sense of pride rush through my body. That
pride was to turn into abject fear before the day was over.
During the next period, one of my classmates motioned to me to
look at the doorway. I turned to look and saw a group of Italian
boys directing menacing stares at me and shaking their fists. My
heart jumped into my throat as I thought of Emmett Till and also,
closer to home the legend about a nameless Newark colored boy who
had fallen on his head and died after he was shaken from Webster’s
playground fence by a group of angry Italian boys and men; and I
feared for my life. For the rest of the day, I kept looking over
my shoulder thinking I might be attacked from behind. I knew these
cats did not fight fair. There was no way they would let me and
my tormentor fight without somebody jumping in. I went to the library
during lunch period. Going to Pop’s would have been too risky.
I knew they would be looking for me there. I searched my memory
for a helpful lesson I had studied in my Christian Science Sunday
School classes - one that would not only give me the courage to
face my enemies but, also, to prevail in battle just like in the
movies and David and Goliath in the Bible. The Twenty-Third Psalm
came to mind. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow
of death, I shall fear no evil…” I was a Christian Scientist
and they were Roman Catholic (as opposed to regular Catholic –
I didn’t know the difference.) If God could deliver the Jews
from the grip of the Egyptians, surely He could, if He would, deliver
me, the David of Clay Street from the Italians. When I finally made
it to homeroom for dismissal, I began to wonder how I was going
to get home. Then, as fate would have it, the class started to get
unruly and the teacher gave us detention! “I’m dead”,
I thought. Just then, my friend, Larry, who lived with his parents,
grandparents, uncle, aunt and three cousins in the second floor
apartment directly over mine, appeared at the door. I read his lips
as he motioned that “they” were waiting for me on the
High Street side of the building. They had apparently thought I
lived on Stone Street, a little colored island ensconced in the
middle of Little Italy, just west of High Street, where a number
of colored families lived. I thought this was so stupid. Why didn’t
they cover all three exits? I concluded it was probably because
they didn’t have enough guys to form a gang large enough at
each door to ensure victory. After all, I had not backed down and
even called the boy a motherfucker. They probably didn’t want
to take any chances; thinking, apparently, I was badder than I was.
I was grateful for Larry’s warning. I knew that was the best
he could do. I did not expect any of my friends to help me fight.
The stakes were too high.
When the class was finally dismissed, I went stealthily down the
staircase on the Webster Street side of the building. I slowly opened
the door to the street, looking north and south. Once I was convinced
the coast was clear, I took off running toward 7th Avenue, turning
left when I reached it and right onto Broadway, not even stopping
for the traffic lights. I did not stop running even when I reached
the relative security of Clay Street. When I reached my building,
I took the stairs of the stoop by twos and ran up to my apartment
door where I paused to catch my breath before entering. My mother
was at home and gasping for breath, I told her what had happened.
I could see the concern registering on her face as she listened
intently. When I finished my story, she asked me what I wanted to
do. I told her, I did not want to go back. “They’ll
kill me like they did that other boy, Mom.” She must have
seen the terror in my face because she took only a few seconds before
she said, “Alright, I’ll walk with you to school tomorrow
and we’ll get you a transfer.”
Serendipitously, around this time, Burnet had added two grades
- 7th and 8th - after I graduated. So, that was the school my mother
had decided I would transfer to. I thought, “Oh no, I’ll
have to be Hugo again.” But I also thought that was the least
of my worries at that point.
The next day, my mother called the school and told them I would
be late; that she would be accompanying me and that she wanted to
meet with the principal when we arrived. We took a casual and determined
walk to Webster and arrived l about 9:00 AM. We had not been waiting
very long when a secretary announced that Mr. Servin, the principal,
was ready for us. My mother led the way into his office and he offered
us seats. Calm and deliberate, my mother wasted no time recounting
my story and letting him know she wanted her “son out of this
school right now.” Servin seemed taken aback by her directness.
He pulled out what turned out to be my school record. White haired
and ruddy complexioned, Servin rubbed his broad chin, grunted, then
said; “Your son is a very good student. We hate to lose good
students. Are you sure you don’t want to reconsider? His friends
might think he is a coward if he should run away from his battles.”
“If I thought for one minute, it would be he and the other
boy fighting, just them, I wouldn’t be worried. But I know
the minute David gets the better of him, and I know he will, they
will gang up on him. They’ll kill him for sure. I’d
rather have a live coward than a dead hero.” Her referring
to me as David sounded strange. I had always been Hugo to her. She
had locked eyes with Servin during his little speech and held her
fixed gaze as she responded. I was proud of her. I had witnessed
her speak so forcefully to a white man only once before.
It was in a butcher shop on Mulberry Street in downtown Newark
she had taken Melvin and me to. It was a place my father had introduced
her to during one of her weekly trips to meet him for the grocery
money. The only way she could be assured we would get the money
was for her to meet my father on payday at the Novelty Bar and Grill
on Market Street. Otherwise, he just might have spent it all buying
rounds of drinks for his drinking friends and playing poker. Since
we were downtown anyway and the butcher shops on Mulberry Street
offered a wider selection of meats than the shops on Broadway in
our neighborhood, my mother had taken to buying our meats there.
She bought the rest of the groceries at the neighborhood Acme or
A & P.
My father seemed to take great pride in being on a first-name
basis with white people -even those with whom he had only casual
association, including the butcher. My mother, on the other hand,
was very formal with everyone except her closet friends. Moreover,
she thought that white people who took the liberty of calling her
by her first name, without her permission, were being disrespectful.
Black people never took such liberties. But it was more than just
that. She told me on more than one occasion that THEY think colored
people are not worthy of having a handle in front of their names
and it hurts them to have to use one. She recalled that in the South,
THEY would call you Uncle or Auntie rather than Mister or Miss.
If she couldn’t command respect, she was going to demand it.
When we entered the crowded butcher shop, with its sawdust-covered
floor, I could tell by the expression on his face that one of the
butchers had recognized my mother. When it was our turn, he addressed
her. “What can I do for you today, Ann?” My mother crossed
her arms and stared right into his eyes the way she did when she
was stone serious. Then without blinking, she stated “You
can start by calling me Mrs. Barrett.” The butcher seemed
startled for a moment, but recovered quickly as he realized she
was not going to say any more until he corrected himself. “Yes,
Mrs. Barrett, how can I help you?” I had watched this exchange
with keen interest-and some trepidation. Though I was only about
eleven at the time, I had the sense that white people were in charge
of everything and that they didn’t have to do anything they
didn’t want to when it came to colored people. It was for
this reason that I considered of particular significance, my mother’s
display of dignity and resolve in the face of this representative
of the “omnipotent white race.” After all, she was “only”
a powerless, colored woman and could not possibly have conveyed
with her tone that she would cause him harm in some way, if he did
not do as she had demanded.
Later, as I reflected on what had just happened, I came to
the conclusion that colored people didn’t have to take shit
from white people. We just had to be dignified, unrelenting and
serious when we took a stand and willing to face the consequences
whatever they might be.
Mr. Servin could see my mother was dead serious and offered no
more resistance. He agreed to process the paperwork for the transfer
and assured my mother, since there was only one week of school remaining,
I could go home with her and there would be no penalty.
Having gotten the outcome she desired, my mother lifted herself
from the chair and I instinctively followed her lead. She extended
her hand to shake his, revealing for the first time her oversized
extremity – a permanent reminder of her mastectomy, years
earlier that resulted in her edema. Mr. Servin rose too and he extended
his hand to meet hers. “Thank you for understanding. I could
tell you were a good man the minute I laid eyes on you.” She
smiled as she spoke. Servin grinned and thanked her for coming in.
On the way home, I asked her how she could tell that Mr. Servin
was a good man. She said, “Sometimes you have to say things
to make people feel good about what they have done, even when they
should have done it anyway. Cooperation should never be taken for
granted even if it is forced out of someone.”