A Newark Childhood: A Memoir

by David Hugo Barrett


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 racially hostility.

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 dispensed.

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.”


Email this memory to a friend.
Enter recipient's e-mail: