Jesse Allen

Jesse Allen speaks at at UCC meeting. (Newark Public Library)

Jesse Allen was born in Florida before making his way North to Newark, and had a history as a labor union activist. When the “students” came to Newark with Tom Hayden and others from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), they met Jesse living in the Lower Clinton Hill section of the city. He was one of the first residents recruited to organize with the newly created Newark Community Union Project (NCUP).

He became one of the most effective organizers in NCUP. His laid back style of organizing was characterized by his ability to use his southern accent and “down home” ways to get people in the neighborhood to trust him. He was a great listener. He specialized in getting people to go on rent strike, to get the landlords to fix up the buildings. Jesse was one of the people, and they responded to his invitation to join NCUP, and participate in their confrontational actions.

Jesse’s showcased his speaking skills at a 1965 SDS conference in Cleveland, during which he “stopped in the middle [of his speech] and asked Fannie Lou Hamer to come up and lead the singing of ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain,’ which…really got people very enthusiastic, and then went back to the speech.”

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)

Jesse supported NCUP’s move to take over Area Board #3 of the United Community Corporation by (UCC), Newark’s War on Poverty Program in 1965. (Jesse’s signature words were his convoluted Florida accent of the word “Area,” an expression that defies written correspondence). Jesse and other NCUP members were responsible for getting the people to the meeting and managing the floor debates on many issues.

Jesse was one of the first people hired by the Area Board, proving to NCUP members that they could receive some of the benefits of the hard fought battles. But Jesse was no longer in people’s houses but at the PAG office. There were new titles and less of a sense of a neighborhood.

Jesse Allen was one of the leaders developed in the NCUP experience who outlasted the organization’s lifetime. In 1974, he was elected to the position of Central Ward Councilman. Once he was elected, however, some of his flair as an organizer was lost as he scrambled to keep up with the culture of elected office.

References:

Recollections of Junius Williams

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…

Jesse Allen addresses a group at “The Newark Conference” organized by NCUP in 1965. — Credit: Robert Machover

Statement at Blight Hearings, 1967

Statement at Blight Hearings, 1967

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Transcript of Jesse Allen’s statement to the Central Planning Board on June 13, 1967 during the Medical School “blight hearings.” — Credit: Newark Public Library

UCC member Edna Thomas reflects upon Jesse Allen and the Newark Community Union Project. — Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries

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