Larrie West Stalks

Photograph taken at the New Jersey State Opera of Harry Wheeler, Larrie West Stalks, and Mayor Ken Gibson in the 1970s. (Newark Public Library)

Larrie West Stalks graduated from South Side High School in 1942 and went on to work as a union aide and secretary at Western Electric, and as a secretary at Local 1286 (IUE). In 1946, Stalks began to “literally work her way up from the basement of City Hall” when she started working as a clerk typist for the city government. While working in the basement of City Hall, Stalks held a second job working as district secretary for Congressman (and eventual Mayor) Hugh Addonizio. While working for City Hall and Rep. Addonizio, Stalks became “a young and ardent voice for black participation in politics.”

In 1950, Stalks led protests against the Far Eastern Restaurant, a downtown Chinese restaurant, for refusing to serve African American customers. Shortly after the protests, Stalks and Charles Matthews became the first African American customers served at the restaurant.

When Addonizio ran for Mayor in the 1962 election, Stalks helped to build a coalition of African Americans, Italians, and Jews in the city to unseat the Irish incumbent, Leo Carlin. Stalks was the consummate inside politician with Mayor Addonizio. Don Malafronte, close confidant of Mayor Addonizio said,  ‘She believed the best way to influence the transition from white to Black was to integrate into the power structure.” People of that generation believed you had to stay close to power, to be there when the transition is made.  She was younger than the ministers and politicians around her, “but tough!” She was oriented toward working with the Democratic Party and through City Hall, all the way.  And it worked for her. She was appointed Executive Secretary of the Central Planning Board and eventually Director of Health and Welfare– two “firsts” for Blacks, and women too.

William Payne, an unidentified man, Larrie West Stalks, and Ken Gibson in the 1970s. (Newark Public Library)

Stalks hoped for a smooth transition for Black people into power, maybe even somebody in her family. She was an integrationist, and believed in a gradual approach. However, she was eventually confronted with a younger generation that was motivated more by suffering of the people and wanted to move faster. As a member of both the Addonizio administration and vice president of the moderate Newark branch of the NAACP, Stalks found herself in the middle of power struggles between conflicting generations and ideologies.

References:

Josephine Bonomo, “Path to Top Doubly Hard For Women Executives,” Newark News, October 13, 1968.

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

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

Junius Williams Interview with Donald Malafronte, June 6, 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…

Larrie West Stalks describes working from “inside” City Hall to fight for Black equality and empowerment. — Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries

Newspaper Clippings on Larrie West Stalks

Newspaper Clippings on Larrie West Stalks

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A collection of newsclippings from the Newark Evening News in the 1960s covering the political career of Larrie West Stalks. — Credit: Junius Williams Collection

Former City Councilman Calvin West discusses the political experiences of his sister, Larrie West Stalks. — Credit: Junius Williams Collection

Former Deputy Mayor Paul Reilly discusses Larrie West Stalks’ appointment as Executive Secretary of the Central Planning Board during the Addonizio administration. — Credit: Junius Williams Collection

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