Harry Wheeler

Harry Wheeler, 1953. (Al Henderson/Newark Public Library)

Harry Wheeler was born and raised in Newark, where he went to school and later became a teacher at Hawthorne Avenue School. As a young teacher, Wheeler played an active role in the campaign to elect Newark’s first Black city councilman, Irvine Turner, in 1954. Wheeler was described as a “bright young politico who became a brilliant urban strategist coming out of the Turner victory.”

As such, Wheeler was ambitious. He campaigned for Hugh Addonizio in 1962 and upon Addonizio’s victory, Harry asked to be appointed Business Administrator. Unkind words were exchanged upon the Mayor’s refusal to appoint Wheeler, who was offered a job of far lesser importance. Eventually, Wheeler returned to teaching and was implicated in a minor scandal involving missing milk money for the children at Hawthorne Avenue School. Though many people suspect this was a set-up by Mayor Addonizio, Wheeler never really recovered from the accusation, although no charges were ever filed.

Harry Wheeler was a fighter. As coordinator of the Committee Against Negro and Puerto Rican Removal in 1967, Wheeler played a central role in community struggles against plans to build the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry in the Central Ward. The original plans called for a 200-acre campus that would have displaced 20,000 residents of the predominantly Black neighborhood. After months of meetings, protests, and the 1967 rebellion, when it finally came time to negotiate the terms of the school’s development with local, state, and federal officials, Wheeler was one of the leaders chosen to represent the Central Ward community. Wheeler, Junius Williams, Louise Epperson, and Duke Moore finally reached an agreement with the medical school and government officials that reduced the school’s size and included assurances of employment, relocation, housing, and healthcare provisions for the community. Wheeler referred to this agreement as the ‘Magna Carta of Newark’ and proclaimed that, ‘for the first time, the people had a voice in making policy that affected them.’

While involved in the Medical School Fight, Wheeler was also invited to join the United Brothers, a new Black political organization formed by Amiri Baraka, Harold Wilson, and John Bugg. In June 1968, Wheeler chaired the Newark Black Political Convention, which was organized by the United Brothers, to win two seats on the City Council in the November special elections. To Wheeler, the purpose of the convention was ‘the development of a platform on important city issues.’ Although both nominees, Ted Pinckney and Donald Tucker, were unsuccessful in their campaigns, the Convention served as a “dress rehearsal” for the 1970 Mayoral election.

Harry Wheeler (right) speaks at a meeting in the 1970s while Mayor Ken Gibson (left) listens in. (Roberta Pfeifer/Newark Public Library)

Shortly after the 1968 Convention, Wheeler took a job in Washington, D.C. as coordinator of a program for the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). Though the position was a good opportunity for Wheeler, it took him away from Newark and dashed his political aspirations for the 1970 Mayoral election. Though Ken Gibson became the nominee of the Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention in 1969, Wheeler decided to run on his own, only to pull out of the race at the eleventh hour. Had he not taken the job in Washington, many in Newark felt that Wheeler could have been the “Community’s Choice” for Mayor in 1970. “Harry Wheeler should have been the mayor,” Eulis “Honey” Ward later said. “We were rigging for Harry Wheeler. But Harry went and took the job in Washington.” When Gibson was elected, Wheeler was appointed as Director of Manpower, a job training program, and often served as the Mayor’s representative at speaking engagements.

When asked about his background and activity in Newark by a member of the Lilley Commission in 1968, Wheeler stated, “I am a strong advocate of change…I am a Black man who believes in the dignity of Black men and the present and future greatness of America.”

References:

Junius Williams, Unfinished Agenda: Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power

Komozi Woodard, A Nation Within A Nation

Komozi Woodard Interview with Honey Ward, 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.”

 

————
“Help wanted “ signs went up. But African Americans could not always find a job.
————

 

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.

 

————
These same mortgages were unavailable to most African Americans; and most suburbs were off limits.
————

 

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.

 

————
Four of the projects housed no black people.
————

 

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…

NAACP Legal Defense Fund Flyer

NAACP Legal Defense Fund Flyer

View Document

Leaflet distributed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund with newspaper coverage of the Medical School Fight. Harry Wheeler is pictured in the bottom right. — Credit: Junius Williams Collection

Testimony at Governor

Testimony at Governor's Select Commission on Civil Disorders

View Document

Testimony given by Harry Wheeler to the Governor’s Select Commission on Civil Disorders on Dec. 8, 1967. –Credit: Rutgers University Digital Legal Library Repository

Edna Thomas recalls a time Newark residents, including Harry Wheeler, stood their ground against police brutality in the city. –Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries

Harry Wheeler, Larrie West Stalks, and Ken Gibson

Harry Wheeler, Larrie West Stalks, and Ken Gibson

View Document

Harry Wheeler, Larrie West Stalks, and Mayor Ken Gibson at the NJ State Opera in the 1970s. — Credit: Newark Public Library

Explore The Archives

African American Repairman

African American Repairman

View Document

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

22 Clayton Street Stove

22 Clayton Street Stove

View Document

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

View Document

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

View Document

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