Photo by Akintola Hanif

South Ward: Antoinette

I went to Weequahic High School from 1966 to 1970. When I came here, it was 80 percent Jewish. When I left, there was maybe one or two white kids. That was how fast things changed.

I think the school system was totally unprepared for us. We basically just had to figure out how to fit in.  I don’t want to say we were invaders, but we didn’t belong and there wasn’t an open-armed willingness to let us in. There were excellent teachers who taught us and loved us the same way they loved the other students, and there were some who were absolutely racist– some overtly, some covertly. I remember being seated near the back of the class and never being called on when my hand was up, but only when my hand was down, which obviously meant that I didn’t know the answers. And then getting C’s and D’s on tests when that had never happened before. I remember beginning to think that maybe I was a bad student and everyone had lied to me in elementary school and maybe I wasn’t smart. The saving grace was that wasn’t pervasive in the school culture, it was just a few classes.

Something happened during that time that a lot of people don’t talk about – the real estate industry. They swarmed in and did a scare tactic on a lot of the Jewish people here. Some got scared because of the political climate,  and also the drugs. So these houses were sold for a lot more to black families than they actually were worth. I’m not saying that leaving was the right or wrong thing to do, but it did have a big impact on the school and the community. Things would definitely be different if it were integrated.

After the riots, Newark became one of the main heroin drops in the country and you started to hear more about the epidemic and how it reached the lower and middle classes. It was horrible. When I was coming up, a lot of guys I went to high school with got caught up in it and are dead. There were outdoor shooting galleries, where you could see people lined up on the streets. It doesn’t take a lot to put the dots together: There was a whole generation of addicts created at that time and an opportunity for the young guys to get involved in the drug trade.

I came back to buy a house here because I felt comfortable, and this was the neighborhood I wanted to invest in.  There are people who have lived here since the 1960’s, since Black people were able to start buying house in this neighborhood, so the sense of community still exists. My block is mainly homeowners. People take pride because we own the property. We keep our lawns and houses nice. Every spring you see people landscaping, that sense of stability is still here. On the other hand this is also basically a poverty-stricken community. If you walk up a few blocks you’ll see that there is a lot of gang and drug activity that goes on here. Sometimes it’s very visible.

Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, Weequahic, Newark Board of Education, Chair

as told to Deja Jones