Donald Tucker

Donald Tucker, 1987. (Al Henderson/Newark Public Library)

Donald Tucker was born in Newark in 1938 and raised in the Down Neck (Ironbound) section of the city.  After dropping out of East Side High School to join the Air Force, Tucker eventually graduated from Central Evening High School and later from Garnett College in Montclair, VT. Although Down Neck was a predominantly Black neighborhood at the time, Tucker remembered his first experience with racism when some white folks came by and spit at him when he was about seven years old. In spite of the racism Tucker and his family experienced in the city, “race pride” was a prevalent topic in conversations in their household. Tucker later recalled when he was about eight years old learning from his parents about the legacies of Black Southerners, and being taught that “you may be poor but you don’t have to be dirty. You may be poor but you don’t have to be dumb.”

Tucker first became involved in the Civil Rights Movement through the NAACP Youth Council in 1956 while stationed with the Air Force in Riverside, CA. Upon returning to Newark in 1960, Tucker found that the city’s NAACP branch was “not working fast enough,” so he joined the newly formed Newark-Essex chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). “We used to involve ourselves in confrontations, demonstrations all over Essex County,” Tucker said of his experiences in CORE, “whether it was in housing, employment, basic discrimination.”

When the War on Poverty came to Newark in 1965 through the city’s antipoverty agency, the United Community Corporation (UCC), Tucker took an active role as an organizer with Area Board #5, “Operation Ironbound.” Because of his work in the East Ward, Tucker joined the efforts of the United Brothers and Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN) to create a Black united front in the city. In 1968, the United Brothers nominated Tucker and Ted Pinckney as candidates for that year’s City Council elections to fill vacancies, and again in 1970. Although both lost in both elections, the United Brothers and CFUN played a significant role in electing Ken Gibson as Newark’s first Black mayor two years later in 1970.

Donald Tucker, Junius Williams, and Ken Gibson chat in the Mayor’s office in the early 1970s. (Newark Public Library)

Tucker went to work for Junius Williams in the Model Cities Program, upon the election of Ken Gibson. Tucker was finally elected to the City Council in 1974 and went on to serve on the council for 31 years. He was the founder and president of the New Jersey Black Issues Convention, which first convened in 1983. From 1980-1984, Tucker was president of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials and later represented Newark in the NJ State Assembly from 1998 until his death in 2005. In addition to his political involvement in Newark, Tucker also helped to organize the Essex Council on Drug Addiction, created a non-profit, cooperative Day Care Center, established the city’s first free high school equivalency tutorial program, and helped get Seton Hall University to establish a degree-granting Black Studies Center.

When about his motivations for engaging in struggles for civil rights in Newark by Komozi Woodard in 1986, Tucker said “…because we were very much concerned with change. We were tired of dealing with the subjugation of Black people. We were tired of dealing with the stereotypical attitudes…and we wanted to be self-determining.”

References:

Komozi Woodard Interview with Donald Tucker, January 31, 1986.

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…

Press Conference During the 1967 Newark Rebellion

Press Conference During the 1967 Newark Rebellion

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Community organizers at a press conference during the 1967 Newark rebellion. Left to right: Jesse Allen, James Hooper, Donald Tucker, Marion Kidd, and Phil Hutchings. (Newark Public Library)– Credit: Newark Public Library

Article on 1968 City Council Campaign

Article on 1968 City Council Campaign

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Article from the Star-Ledger on June 25, 1968 covering the nomination of Theodore Pinckney and Donald Tucker for City Council positions during a political convention held by the United Brothers. — Credit: The Star-Ledger

Donald Tucker

"This is Newark (South Ward)" Mural

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Mural at 43 Elizabeth Avenue memorializing Donald Tucker, created through a partnership of Groundswell, City Without Walls, The City of Newark, The Centre, and the Donald Tucker Center in 2010. — Credit: Groundswell

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