Red Carpet for 'Syracuse's 15th Ward and Beyond'

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 05/25/10More articles
Richard Breland, featured in the new documentary, “Syracuse’s 15th Ward and Beyond,” walks the red carpet on his way into the premiere on May 22nd. Photo by Stephen Sartori, © Syracuse University, used with permission.

FOR SOME PEOPLE, there will be something familiar about Richard Breland. Tall and elegant, a native of the old 15th Ward and a long-time photographer, Breland contributed some of his own photos and was interviewed for “Syracuse’s 15th Ward and Beyond.” In fact, he and his brother Manny grew up alongside another photographer, Marjory Wilkins, in a neighboring flat at the same address on East Adams Street. All three attended the new, hour-and a-half documentary screened for a packed crowd of over 250 people last Saturday afternoon at Syracuse Stage’s Storch Theatre. The reservation-only event was full two weeks in advance. The catered reception at one o’clock had live music by Ronnie Leigh and a Hollywood-style entrance for cast members, who arrived by limo at the red carpet amidst applause and flash bulbs. Richard Breland has graciously welcomed Central New York cinema patrons for years at various theaters – he’s currently at Regal Cinemas Shoppingtown – and he seemed particularly to relish walking the red carpet himself.

Inside, Breland said he’d just returned from Washington in time for this. “There were 3,000 people there,” he said. “We were there from the Peoples’ Action Network to protest what the banks have been doing. We were there for three days.”

He laughed, “No, there wasn’t much coverage!”

After a beat, Breland confided, “One time we went to Chicago to protest a bankers’ meeting and I infiltrated. I dressed up in a suit like a banker and went right in like I belonged there and no one challenged me. I talked right along with them. Some of our group were thrown out – Rich Puchalski was – but they didn’t bother me. I stayed right there and I even took pictures of our group being thrown out. I said, 'Oh dear'” – he mimicked genteel disdain – “'let me get a picture of that.'”

THERE WERE cascades of memories all afternoon as well as much laughter, on-screen, in the audience and in easy conversation among those present, many of whom had grown up in the old 15th Ward and gone on to leave their indelible marks on Central New York life. Late last October, Syracuse University’s South Side Initiative and the Syracuse Black History Preservation Project – after holding a first round of workshops and classes to teach oral history methods and preservation of historic documents and photos – together with project partners from Onondaga Historical Association (OHA), Onondaga County Public Library, and the City’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, organized an old fashioned, day-long bus tour of the old 15th Ward.

Some 30 people, mostly 15th Ward natives and a few guests and facilitators, traveled to sites of importance - or more often the spots where they once were – and reminisced about growing up in the vital, vibrant, multi-ethnic neighborhood that was largely demolished by 1960s-era Urban Renewal. (Folklorist Dan Ward, who’s now chief curator at the Erie Canal Museum, told me after the bus tour that he learned more about Syracuse in that single day than on any other since he first moved here years ago to work for the Cultural Resources Council.) Videographer Courtney Rile of Daylight Blue Media caught the day and the interviews and, seven months later, has fashioned the documentary from her own video footage of the bus tour, clips from a March 2009 meeting at the Dunbar Center that outlined the project, contributed photographs and documents, and a 1927 map of Syracuse that suggests the roots of the Urban Renewal disaster run much earlier and deeper. Rile used public domain music clips from old radio shows – expensive music permissions are the bane of many an indie film budget – including Louis Armstrong, saxophonist Paul Quinichette of Count Basie’s band and, at the end, Billie Holiday.

In her research Rile crossed paths with Lori Covington, who’d already written a history of the photographer-filmmaker Aldo Tambellini’s connection with the 15th during the years 1948-52, when he attended Syracuse University. Rile’s film opens with that 1927 map – “I totally lucked out on finding that!” she said at intermission in the top row of Storch from which she managed projection – and Covington’s voice-over. Covington explained that in the 1920’s the City’s political structure was based on neighborhoods. There were 19 Wards and each had a seat on the Common Council, the school board and the County Board of Supervisors. In 1935 a new City Charter abolished that system of neighborhood representation and created Districts,what was supposed to be a more efficient, stream-lined system of combined wards with fewer elected seats.

One detrimental consequence of this new system, says Covington, was that it forestalled election of Black and Jewish candidates. Black and Jewish voters were concentrated in those years in the old 15th Ward. Covington notes that no Black or Jewish councilor would be elected again for almost four decades (and many of the people interviewed in this film related the concerted efforts of local real estate agents and banks during 1960s Urban Renewal to channel their re-location into other very specific, concentrated areas of the city).

Urban psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove’s book “Root Shock” chronicles just how widespread were the urban core redevelopment schemes that swept the nation in the 60s. They caused massive displacement – some 10, 000 people from the old 15th for the construction of Pioneer Homes II, according to one former resident in this film – but the groundwork for such disenfranchisement was already established. Besides the 1935 City Charter change, Pioneer Homes I, the oldest public housing project in the U.S., started in the 1930s. Besides launching the displacement of the old 15th Ward neighborhood through demolition, Pioneer Homes was initially segregated except for a single block, then two. And Rile, one of whose earlier Syracuse history projects was a hundred-year review of Syracuse University’s undergraduate campus paper, “The Daily Orange,” says the 1930s was a crucial decade of racial complaints and incidents on campus that echoed national tensions.

The campaign to justify bulldozing the old 15th Ward hinged on a battle of definition between the one-dimensional label of “urban slum” versus vibrant, diverse community. Just before the film started, former County Legislator Clarence “Junie” Dunham also sat down in the theater’s last fall's bus tour, commented that Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor “had a lot to do with this film happening. She has been willing to do things differently. I remember when 81 was being built and SU wanted ‘their’ exit ramp [at East Adams Street] so that students could drive right to campus and not even go through the city. That attitude persisted for years.”

“WE START IN FIVE MINUTES!” said Karin Franklin on the way into Storch. Several women were coming back out, against the crush of bodies. “I run a tight ship!” laughed the local television journalist, who acted as MC for the event. A few minutes later as the last few audience members were getting settled, she looked up at the steep bank of seats and recalled from the low stage her own arrival in Syracuse.

“I came here in the late 60s, early 70’s,” she said. “I had a talk show and you welcomed me. Some of you called me and said, ‘Girl, you shouldn’t wear that anymore.’ You grounded me. And when they about trying to take my show off the air, you supported me.”

Franklin noted that two of those in the film have died recently – “Syracuse’s 15th Ward and Beyond” is dedicated to Donald “Peewee” Caldwell, who passed at age 82 on March 16th, and to Emanuel “Emo” Henderson, who was 90 when he passed on April 22 – but that Caldwell’s granddaughter and Henderson’s wife were both there.

Then the South Side Initiative’s Linda Littlejohn spoke briefly about the Syracuse Black History Preservation Project’s goal of a “virtual museum” online by 2013 and the next stages in that effort: SU faculty Joan Bryant will repeat her course in oral history method and on Saturday, October 23, there's a Digital History Fair at the Beauchamp Library at South Salina and Colvin.

“We are not taking anything from you,” said Littlejohn. “We will be scanning your photos and documents and newspaper clippings, so you can take them home again. Our tag line is, ‘Your story is our history.’ We will schedule a time for you so the day can go smoothly and we can collect more material.”

The thing that had surprised Littlejohn the most about the bus tour, she said, was the way that participants elaborated on each other’s stories.

And then the film itself, some old jittery footage of teh city overlaid with jazz, that huge 1927 map and Covington’s voice...

“THERE IS A CONCERN that our children no longer know our history,” said Littlejohn from a podium at a meeting last March held at the present-day Dunbar Center, in the clip that follows Covington’s introduction and frames the documentary the group then undertook with the fall bus tour. “And that this history would be helpful to their confidence, to their self-confidence, now.”

The Dunbar Center meeting, to which Rile returns a number of times in the film, provided the occasion to videotape interviews with Liz Anne Paige, now retired as a social worker but still conducting fishing trips, and Kitty Rice, both members of the Black History Preservation Project.

“We come from ancestors who struggled to get here,” said Paige, showing a newspaper clipping featuring her grandfather, a former slave. “He worked as a coachman and in 1887 he helped found Bethany Baptist Church. My mother was from Clinton, Mississippi. Her father owned property that was stolen because they thought there might be oil on it.”

Paige was involved in efforts by the Syracuse chapter of CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) to halt the destruction of the old 15th Ward. Now, she and Rice had involved themselves in this project so that, as Rice put it, “Our young people have something to be proud of. Many of the core values that existed then are still here.”

ABOARD THE BUS, Junie Dunham and Vernita King acted as guides, pointing out landmarks and asking questions. Dunham said of growing up in the old 15th, “Older people looked out for the younger people. If you went over to the west side or the east side and messed up, your parents knew about it before you got home.”

The film is divided into chapters that organize the material but also loosely follow the bus tour’s route. Recalling the old Washington Irving School, alum Manny Breland recalled that he eventually retired from that school as an administrator. He and his brother Richard recalled favorite teachers – Beatrice Riley and Mrs. Slone – and their divergent styles of support. The old Croton School is now the Martin Luther King School and Annette White recalled that her doctor, Dr. Washington, lived next door. Junie Dunham said he’d only gone to Croton School for one year, “And then they sent me to the ‘crime school,’ Madison.” Marjory Carter, the first Black teacher in Syracuse, who graduated from the old Cortland State, added, “I started teaching in 1950 at Charles Andrews School on the east side, just before LeMoyne College was built.”

The first Dunbar Center was located on South McBride Street and was planned, said Delores Morgan Brule, by women at Plymouth Church to “help Southern Blacks adjust” to moving to Northern cities during the “great migration.” Dunbar was a place many children went to right after school. And there were dances and plays there – photos of a young Richard Breland dancing and then acting flashed on the screen. His family arrived in Syracuse in 1935 or 36 and the old Dunbar was “right in our back yard.” June Dixon said she learned to sew at Dunbar, which became her occupation. “It molded our lives,” she said. “A lot of us could’ve gone astray.”

Manny Breland agreed. “Dunbar changed my whole life,” he said. “I learned basketball there and Ike Harrison told me to take a college prep course in high school. My guidance counselor told me he’d give me something ‘easier.’ Mr. Harrison said, ‘Don’t capitulate – tell him you’ll bring in your parents.’ So I went back and reluctantly he put my name for college prep.”

Breland's basketball game took him to Syracuse University, where he became the first Black student on scholarship from Central New York. “If I didn’t have the right classes, though, the scholarship wouldn’t have made any difference,” he added.

Marshall Nelson noted that other upstate cities of the era also had similar organizations. “We traveled to them and had games and learned to network and we learned social things. Really it prepared us for life.”

Shirley Rowser, who heads the City’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, said, “Dunbar gave me my first part time job in the summer and then they had me back after school, and they gave me a referral to Carrier. I worked there for 35 years and retired last year, and now of course, I work for the City.”

Others had similar stories about the importance of education in the old 15th. Liz Paige said that her father went back to school “when we were in college.” Annette White said, “Neither of my parents could read or write very well and I was in the 10th grade before I realized it. I guess they could make out the grade letters on my report card, which were all A's. So then I taught my parents to read and write. But my father could calculate!”

Former Common Councilor Charles Anderson, now director of 100 Black men in Syracuse, recalled that such habits of support continued. He came to Syracuse because his brother Frank, the first Black guidance counselor in Syracuse, had arrived in 1964.

“I was in the Urban League then,” said Anderson. “We took the first group of Syracuse Black students to the Atlanta complex – Spelman College. Morehouse and so forth – that was the beginning of Black college tours for Syracuse young people.”

About two thirds of the way through, the film allows for a short intermission, after the lengthy catalogue of old 15th Ward businesses with owner-operators and the lunch stop at OHA, where director Gregg Tripoli, a steady supporter of the project who often downplays his own efforts, spoke about the importance for the entire community of involvement in this project.

THE SECOND HALF of the film picks up some in pace, progressing to the turmoil of the 60s. There are aerial views of the demolition and construction of Pioneer Homes II and footage of what are now called “riots.” Some were organized demonstrations against the demolition – many recalled the “D-5” that was stamped on houses condemned – and others were more spontaneous escalations.

“These things happened all over the country,” says Junie Dunham in his discussion on-screen. (Next season, the August Wilson play at Syracuse Stage, "Radio Golf," will address that parallell history in Pittsburgh.)

Manny Breland recalled, “I was appointed a civilian police officer, with Herman Edge and Billy Gilbert” – Gilbert became the first Black police officer in Syracuse and Edge joined the force too – “and in August, some kids were playing football. The cops tried to break it up and they roughed the kids up. Rothschild’s on East Genesee got some windows broken, someone tossed a Molotov cocktail. And the cops came out of State Street in a riot line. This was ’67-’68.”

The second half of the film also turns to later housing problems, as old 15th Warders tried to move elsewhere in the city and were often directed in the Southside, away from other neighborhoods. Marshall Nelson noted that between 1964-68 the NYS Division of Human Rights had “hundreds of housing complaints.” Junie Dunham said, “I got married and I’d call up to ask for an apartment and I would say on the phone I was a Negro and they would say, ‘No no no no no, we don’t have anything for you.’” Some, like Peewee Caldwell, lived in an unheated tenement with kerosene lights and electricity called “the Block,” which occupied part of what is now Armory Square.

Then the bus trippers got to talking about the movie theaters downtown and the department stores and progressed to the “after hours” clubs. Emo Henderson recalled one fight that got so bad “that I crawled under the tables to get out.” Delores Morgan Brule recalled the club called Hole in the Wall and the Porters' Club “where good girls never went and where bad girls like me always were.” There was talk of red light districts and running numbers and how the Republican Party controlled voting, and Emo Henderson recollected a woman named Lucille “who sat in the window on Washington Street and she had a young man and he had the best clothes and the best car in town,” but one night he made an ill-advised trip to King Ferry... Someone else had a grandmother who worked as a cook in the red light houses and was on a first-name basis with the local politicians who frequented them.

There was talk of Black Syracuse “firsts” too – first Black lawyer (“he only lasted a year”), first Black undertakers (Ben Garland on East Fayette and Tucker on Almond, then J.B. Dorsey), first Black Ward supervisor. And Father Brady, who established the Brady Faith Center first on Forman and Genesee in 1946 and remained there until he died in 1978. Marshall and Mary Nelson were one of three couples Father Brady married, and Brady went with Marshall Nelson to Atlanta for King’s funeral.

Rile intended the film to be about an hour long, but it's an hour and a half, even tightly edited from the rough early version she let me watch last month on her computer. Rile has used a light touch with music, just the right balance of photos, and mostly has let people tell their own stories (she added Covington's intro to provide a context, an excellent solution to orient viewers beyond actual participants). It's a rare convergence, as much a gift back as that she was given to work with.

“And that’s the truth,” as Karin Franklin said at the end, adding for emphasis – Emo Henderson-style – “T-R-U-T-H.”

A version of this article appears in the May 27, 2010 print edition of the SYRACUSE CITY EAGLE. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

NEXT SCREENING: This Thursday, May 27th at 7:00 PM at ArtRage Gallery at 505 Hawley Ave., as part of the closing party for “A Tender Record: Marjory Wilkins, Early Black-and-White Photographs.” ArtRage opens at 6:00 PM for those who want to get seats early. Filmmaker Courtney Rile and OHA director Gregg Tripoli will be at this event. The SBHPP meets Wednesday and may be able to announce additional screenings by Thursday night.

MORE SCREENINGS: Film excerpts also screen on Friday nights in July at the outdoor South Side Film Festival in Key Bank parking lot across from Beauchamp Library on S. Salina St. AND a fifth night of screening will be added to this schedule so the documentary can be seen in entirety. Watch for dates.

TO PARTICIPATE: "Syracuse's 15th Ward and Beyond" is part of a project to create an online “virtual museum” of Black Syracuse history. The project still seeks oral histories, papers and photos. To participate and be part of the all-day DIGITAL HISTORY FAIR at Beauchamp Library on Saturday, October 23, or for more information, call 443.1916.

TAGS: 1Syracuse's 15th Ward and Beyond' documentary, Syracuse Black History Preservation Project, South Side Initiative, Onondaga Historical Association, City of Syracuse Office of Multicultural Affairs, Syracuse University, Linda Littlejohn, Margie Gantt, Courtney Rile, Clarence
EDITION: The Eagle

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