Calvin West

Calvin West, 1966 (Photo: Al Henderson, Newark Public Library)

Calvin West was born November 13, 1932, in Newark and grew up in the city’s old Third Ward. He attended Newark public schools, first attending Charlton Street School before graduating from South Side High School (now Malcolm X Shabazz). West had a relatively comfortable upbringing, but he recalled his first experience with racism took place while he was playing in a basketball game at South Side. After he accidentally stepped on the shoe of a white spectator during the game, West was accosted by five white men outside the locker room who called him racial slurs. One of his teammates defused the situation, but West did not forget the incident.

After graduating from South Side, West attended Bloomfield College and Cooper Union College in New York. He later served in the United States military before being honorably discharged. West was employed as a correspondent for the Newark Evening News and the New Jersey Afro-American newspapers. In 1966, at the age of 33, Calvin West became Newark’s first African American to be elected councilman-at-large. His sister, Larrie West Stalks, was the primary Black political operative for Mayor Hugh Addonizio, and managed all the support Calvin needed from the Mayor. Ironically, West won the election on the first ballot, and Addonizio sought support from West in his run-off election in 1966.  

As a city councilman, West believed that working from “inside” the political system was the most effective way of uplifting Newark’s Black communities. “I decided, and my sister [Larrie West Stalks] decided,” West said, “that the only way to justify what tomorrow was going to bring for the youth, was through the ballot box.” Because of his emphasis on working from “within” the political system and his alliance with Mayor Addonizio, West often found himself at odds with the younger generation of Civil Rights and Black Power activists in the city. This younger generation thought that West and other Black political insiders with Addonizio were operatives in a politically corrupt and bankrupt system, though West argued, “I wanted to get on the inside so we could all be a part of it.”

Calvin West was in opposition to most of the so-called “militants” and Black Power advocates in the 1960s, leading up to Ken Gibson’s election as mayor. He ran for a second term in 1970 on the ticket with Mayor Addonizio. He lost his seat on the City Council to Earl Harris, a nominee of the 1969 Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention.

Calvin West, Pearl Beatty, Jimmy Sifelli, Harry Wheeler, and others outside City Hall, 1970s (Newark Public Library)

In 1986, Calvin West served as the personal aide and Chief Advisor to Newark’s second Black mayor, Sharpe James. Subsequently, West became the Executive Director of the North Jersey Office of the Governor, serving under the administrations of James McGreevy, Richard Cody, and Jon Corzine. He served the City of Orange Township as the personal aide and chief of staff to Mayor Joel Shain and also as Chief Advisor to Mayor Paul Monacelli as a member of the Orange Board of Education. Beginning in 1960, West participated in the highly-contested and successful presidential campaign efforts of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton.

References:

Robert Curvin, Inside Newark: Decline, Rebellion, and the Search for Transformation.

Calvin West remarks at “The 1967 Newark Rebellion: Power and Politics, Before and After” Conference, October 1, 2016.

Junius Williams Interview with Calvin West, 2016.

Who’s Coming In, Who’s Going Out?

World War II kicked off the second Great Migration, as African Americans from the South sought better living conditions in Newark and other cities. Between 1940 and 1950, the African American population of Newark increased from 45,760 to 74,965—growing from 10.7% to 17.2% of the city’s total population. In many ways, this population influx marked a tipping point for recognition.

For most of Newark, the depression ended. “Help wanted “ signs went up. But African Americans could not always find a job. The New Jersey Afro-American wrote in 1941 that while contracts for nearly a billion and a half dollars in government defense orders have been placed with firms in New Jersey, the Urban League finds that these firms have steadfastly refused to hire colored workers.”

 

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“Help wanted “ signs went up. But African Americans could not always find a job.
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But some African Americans did find employment. Jobs for blacks in the Newark defense workforce improved from 4% in 1942, to 8.8% in 1943. With the overall economy booming, Newark’s downtown stores began hiring some African Americans as elevator operators and janitors. Large restaurants hired blacks as chefs, cooks and waiters—they could work, but not sit down to eat. The war years helped enhance the prospects of some, while still denying prosperity for the many.

Whites Begin to Leave

Around 1947, the white middle class started deserting Newark for the suburbs, along with the businesses that sustained them. The post World-War II boom was good for businesses for a while, but factories, schools, and streets had been neglected during the war. Overcrowding was a problem, especially in the ghettos. These conditions made the suburbs very attractive as alternatives to Newark.

The G.I. Bill of Rights and FHA loans made it easier for whites to buy a house, and brand new highways built by the federal government with taxpayers’ dollars made it easier to drive those new automobiles to the suburbs, in Essex County and further west. These same mortgages were unavailable to most African Americans; and most suburbs were off limits.

 

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These same mortgages were unavailable to most African Americans; and most suburbs were off limits.
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But Newark’s heterogeneous ethnic character remained intact in the early and mid-1950s. Newark was described as follows by writer Joseph Conforti:

The Germans had given way to the Irish who in 1950 shared political power with an Italian and a Jew. The ethnic division of the city could also be observed less directly. Many occupations were ethnically identifiable: the police and fire departments were overwhelmingly Irish; the construction trades were Italian; the merchants were largely Jewish, the small luncheonettes were Greek, the large businesses were owned and operated by WASPs, skilled craftsmen were likely to be German, and the factory operatives were Irish, Polish and Italian. Even the city’s taxicabs had ethnic identifications…yellow cabs were operated by the Irish, 20th Century cabs by Jews, Brown and White cabs by Italians, and Green cabs by blacks.

Newark’s Changing Demographics

Ghettoization continued in Newark. By 1940, the Third Ward (today’s Central Ward) alone contained more than 16,000 black residents. By 1944 nearly one third of the apartments and housing in the black areas were below the standards of minimum decency. Some houses still had outside bathrooms.

The slums were among the worst in the nation. The situation was particularly grim for African Americans, clustered on “the hill” just west of the Essex County Court House. Public Housing did not help a lot. There were 7 low-income projects finished before the war, but by 1946, there were 2,110 white families and only 623 black families in the buildings. Four of the projects housed no black people. The best low-rise public housing, such as Bradley Court, was reserved for whites; while the poorest units, such as F.D.R. Homes, were reserved for blacks. Ultimately, the majority of African Americans were steered into the growing number of high rise public housing which just happened to be built in the center city where black people had been confined beginning at the turn of the 20th century.

 

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Four of the projects housed no black people.
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The 1950 Census showed the trend in population increases for blacks, and decrease by whites. Newark’s total population rose only slightly from 429,760 in 1940 to 438,776 in 1950. Black residents had increased from 45,760 to 74,965—more than a 60% increase. When newspapers took a look at the faces of misery, increasingly they were black.

Even though the city began hemorrhaging jobs (250 manufacturers left between 1950-60; 1,300 manufactures left during the 1960s), the more dramatic change in the city’s socioeconomic structure was the rapidly changing composition of the city’s population.

African Americans were rapidly become politically and economically obsolete in a city where they would soon be in the majority. Segregation and discrimination by race and class defined Newark’s offering to the city’s newest immigrants.

Listen to the people speak about their experiences as newcomers to Newark below…

Calvin West reflects upon his early experiences with racism and segregation growing up in Newark — Credit: Junius Williams Collection

Calvin West describes his election as Newark’s first African American Councilman-at-Large in 1966. — Credit: Junius Williams Collection

1970 Campaign Flyer

1970 Campaign Flyer

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Flyer from Calvin West’s 1970 campaign for re-election as Councilman-at-Large. — Credit: Newark Public Library

Calvin West, 1966

Calvin West, 1966

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Portrait of Calvin West taken in 1966 by Newark photographer, Al Henderson. — Credit: Newark Public Library

Explore The Archives

African American Repairman

African American Repairman

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Photograph from the PSEG archives of an African American repairman at work. — Credit: PSEG

22 Clayton Street Stove

22 Clayton Street Stove

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A look inside the apartment of an African American family at 22 Clayton Street in Newark. — Credit: WPA Photographs, NJ State Archives

22 Clayton Street Bathroom

22 Clayton Street Bathroom

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A look inside the apartment of an African American family at 22 Clayton Street in Newark. — Credit: WPA Photographs, NJ State Archives

African American Stoker

African American Stoker

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Photograph from the PSEG archives of an African American stoker at work. — Credit: PSEG