Gustav Heningburg

Portrait of Gustav Heningburg (Newark Public Library)

Gus Heningburg was born May 18, 1930 at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where his father taught. He grew up in North Carolina, his family moved to New York City during his senior year of high school, and he graduated from Jamaica High School in 1946. Four years later he received his bachelor’s degree from Hampton Institute and entered the US Army as a commissioned officer. Heningburg served three years in Europe before spending his final three years of service in New Jersey with the Counter Intelligence Corps. Upon retiring from the military in 1957, Heningburg joined the United Negro College Fund and later served for five years as assistant to the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

In 1968, Heningburg became the first president of the Greater Newark Urban Coalition, where he served in that capacity and as CEO for 12 years. During his tenure with the Coalition, Heningburg brought together corporate presidents, community organizers, and political figures to “revitalize” the city after the 1967 Newark rebellion. Heningburg sought to use his position of influence in the Coalition to benefit the city’s Black and Puerto Rican populations.  “Gus was a tremendous advocate and fighter for those who had been left out,” civil rights activist and community leader Bob Curvin recalled. “My sense is that Gus always knew that he only needed to ask, and hundreds of activists would show up in a minute to march beside him and support his goals.”

Heningburg had a thorough understanding of the workings of government and had an ability to enact policy change, even without public demonstrations. During the Medical School Fight, Heningburg was instrumental in enlisting the support of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and in negotiating with unions and contractors to hire and train Black and Puerto Rican construction workers. The Newark Construction Trades Training Council (NCTTC), which Heningburg helped to organize during the Medical School Negotiations, was responsible for training an estimated 800-900 “minority” workers in the building and construction trades.

Gus Heningburg (right), chats with NBA star Bill Russell (left) and MLB start Maury Wills (center) at an event in Newark. (Newark Public Library)

When the Black Organization of Students (BOS) “liberated” Conklin Hall at Rutgers-Newark in 1969, Heningburg helped to shape a minority recruitment plan that became known as the Equal Opportunity Fund. Heningburg’s negotiating skills were also highlighted through his roles in resolving the Newark Teacher’s Strike in 1970-1971 and the Stella Wright Tenants Strike in 1973. Heningburg’s role in mediating the Stella Wright Tenants Strike, which was the nation’s longest public housing rent strike, led a federal court judge to remark that “his credibility and his quiet, effective leadership brought order out of chaos, and produced solutions where many thought none existed.” Heningburg also played a pivotal role in battling labor unions to force the employment of Black and Puerto Rican workers in the construction of Terminal B at the Newark Airport.

After the Medical School Agreements were negotiated, where she played an important role with Harry Wheeler and Junius Williams, she became the only female member of the United Brothers, the beginning of a Black united front spearheaded by Amiri Baraka. Louise Epperson was also active in the Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention, held in 1969 to nominate the “Community Choice” for city council and mayor in the 1970 election. The efforts of the Convention resulted in the election of Newark’s first Black mayor, Ken Gibson. She was also the first Black person appointed to the Newark Board of Health and used her position to advocate for patients and the healthcare needs of her community. After initially turning down offers, she took a job at the Medical School, where she created an important patient relations program.

Of the hundreds of awards and citations that Gus Heningburg received from a wide array of groups during his long tenure as a civic activist and community leader in Newark, Heningburg was most proud of a recognition that he received from the Welfare Rights Organization in 1974. The small plaque read, “…Gus listens to us, fights for us, and we love him.”

References:

“Biography of Gustav Heningburg,” June, 1971.

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

Tara Fehr, “Historian uses life experiences to chronicle Newark’s past,” The Star-Ledger, Feb. 11, 2010.

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…

Gustav Heningburg reflects on his role in negotiating with city, state, and federal officials during the Medical School Fight. — Credit: Robert Curvin Collection

Power Pack for Self-Determination, 1969

Power Pack for Self-Determination, 1969

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Program for an event held by the Urban League in 1969 titled “Power Pack for Self-Determination,” featuring Gus Heningburg, Amiri Baraka, and Fred Means. — Credit: Fred Means Collection

Former Mayor Sharpe James speaks at the Bethany Baptist Church in Newark during a memorial service for Gustav Heningburg on January 26, 2013. — Credit: Chiara Morrison

The Urban Coalition (1974)

The Urban Coalition (1974)

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A 1974 article from Newark! magazine, highlighting some of the accomplishments of the Greater Newark Urban Coalition. — Credit: Newark Public Library

Program from Gustav Heningburg Memorial Service

Program from Gustav Heningburg Memorial Service

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Program from a memorial service held for Gustav Heningburg on January 26, 2013 at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark. –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