Montclair African American Heritage Foundation trolleys to the past
By KELLY NICHOLAIDES
For Montclair Local
When Betty Holloway planned the trolley tour that highlighted African American history in Montclair on Saturday, June 22, she had a three-fold mission: “to enlighten the community about the contributions of African Americans spanning more than a century; second, to bring to life names of individuals and businesses that had both local and national influence; third, to bring history alive for new and young people in our community and schools. The broader intention, no doubt, was to create a greater appreciation and understanding about the community in which we live,” Holloway said in an email.
The tour, she wrote, validates the contributions of the African Americans who lived, prospered and contributed to the life of Montclair.
“The story of the Montclair African American community is not just a story of people who worked ‘in service,’ but, as well of people who owned property, created jobs, served Montclair and surrounding towns where blacks were not welcomed, from hospitals to pharmacies and hair salons,” she wrote.
Two sold-out tours, sponsored by the Montclair African American Heritage Foundation, covered 41 sites in an hour and a half.
It included three hop-off sites and a Google docs slide show for passengers to view on their smartphones. The slide show was helpful, because the tour went quickly, leaving participants little time to chat.
The Crawford Crews American Legion Post 251 on 210 Bloomfield Ave. which highlights the African American soldier who earned the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor awards, was one of many landmarks dotted throughout Montclair. It was like a school field trip, in a good way: “As a child I rode the train from Glenfield School to Hoboken for field trips,” said Sharon Burton Turner.
“Out of 42,000 African-Americans who served, 1,500 died in the war. They served separately (from white military service members). Crawford Crews was part of the legendary 369th Infantry Regiment and gallantly fought in France where he was killed. They were in the trenches for 191 days, longer than any other group,” said Betty Holloway, who led the tour.
The trolleys were fun, Holloway said, and had large windows.
Holloway did most of the talking, but turned the mic over to art historian Onnie Strother at Martin’s Funeral Home at 48-50 Elm St. The 1857 Gothic Revival house has held services there since 1953, and holds three paintings depicting Biblical scenes, by artist and frame maker Leon Jones. Jones was commissioned to make faith-based paintings for the home.
“We think of the angels as martyrs, which in Greek means witnesses. We’re seeing both witness and martyr in this work. We’re surrounded by witnesses as we run our race through life, and they give us encouragement,” Strother said.
Strother also discussed art work at the Montclair Public Library, the second hop-off site. The Don Miller “Martin Luther King Freedom” mural hangs there, on the second floor, by the African American section. It is a mini-mural of the version that hangs in Washington, D.C.’s National Library.
Born in Jamaica, Miller was interested in the African diaspora and studied at Cooper Union, the Harvard of art schools, Strother said: “He was a hero to us, such a racially conscious artist.” Strother pointed out the mural’s highlights, and discussed the defining moments of the Civil Rights movement and the “street soldiers” who shaped the movement by “becoming martyrs and witnesses to it.”
Back on the bus, Holloway pointed out the black entrepreneurship that fueled the local economy on Bloomfield and Maple avenues and Elm Street. The businesses were owned by and catered to the African American community.
The Makasar School of Beauty Culture, now defunct, trained over 1,500 women of color. Many of the businesses are gone now: Choice Pharmacy (owned by Harlem Globetrotter Wally Choice, for whom the Wally Choice Community Center is named), Tabard’s Restaurant, Calvin Jones Afro magazine delivery, Ernie’s Cleaners, Flower’s Taxi, Hooe Family Newspaper and Tobacco Store, and Mr. Tatum’s produce truck. Today, rather than having produce delivered, people go to farmer’s markets.
A few businesses are still going: S.T. Allen Realty began in 1947, and is still going strong; the tour also pointed out Brantley Tire Shop and the DLV Lounge.
Education, philanthropy, glamor
In education, between 1961 and 1976, community engagement over equal access resulted in parental demands for reform desegregation. Parental demands for reformed desegregation led to magnet programs for Nishuane and Glenfield elementary schools in 1976. Activist Richard Owens and Montclair African American Board of Education President L. Maynard Catchings have a suite named in their honor at 25 Maple Ave., Glenfield Middle School, which had begun as Maple Avenue School, attendees learned.
Orange Road to Elm Street used to be known as Doctors Row, Holloway said. Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver’s doctor, John A. Kenney, was run out of Alabama because he wanted to work in a veterans’ hospital, Holloway noted. A 1930 directory listed him as living in Montclair, Holloway said. “Montclair gained local and national presence through his vision for blacks to have a hospital at the time when black doctors couldn’t practice in hospitals. Dr. Kenney built a hospital in Newark, named after his parents,” Holloway said.
Wealthy black Montclairites gave back to the town. The Gates Manor at 66 South Mountain Ave. was commissioned by Reverend Frederick Gates, a consultant to John D. Rockefeller for philanthropic work. The Charles Manuel “Sweet Daddy” Grace mansion was named after the minister who preached around the country.
“During the Great Depression he fed a lot of poor people and held interracial services, had large baptisms, most by nearby rivers,” Holloway said. “He was very charismatic and painted his nails red, white and blue.”
Gates was not alone in having charisma: Montclair couple Oscar Micheaux and Alice Burton Russell were a 1920s filmmaker and actress couple, who lived on Greenwood Avenue in the ’40s.
The tour concluded with a hop off at Cinema505, the home of Montclair Film, for a two-minute screening of Micheaux’s 1932 film “The Girl From Chicago” complete with popcorn and refreshments.
Lincoln Turner said he’s the fourth of six generations in Montclair, so was eager to learn new things about his hometown. “It’s a trip down memory lane,” he said. “Montclair history is infinite, and this is another link in that chain of history.”
Mayor Robert Jackson agreed.
“For me, it was about nostalgia, hearing the names and stories about the people and businesses who shaped Montclair,” he said.
—additional reporting by Gwen Orel