Mary Helen Campbell

thumbnail of LSP Notes on Mary Helen Campbell

Notes of Newark Legal Services Project staff on the death of 31-year-old Mary Helen Campbell. (Junius Williams Collection)

Mary Helen Campbell lived with her sister, Margaret, at 380 Hawthorne Avenue in Clinton Hill. The night of Thursday July 13th, 1967, the 31-year-old Campbell had gone out to a party with friends, where the group stayed late into the night. Earlier that night, continued protests at the Fourth Precinct resulted in clashes between demonstrators and police and the disorder quickly spread to other areas of the city. On Springfield Avenue, “looting and vandalism” became “intense” after 9:00 o’clock and shortly after midnight, Newark police officers reported “sniper fire” in their direction and requested permission to “use their firearms in order to retaliate.”

While the group was at the party, the Newark Fire Department had been busy responding to calls, including a car fire near the Fourth Precinct around 1:00 AM. It was around this time that Mary Helen Campbell left the party and caught a ride home with her friends. According to the report of the Essex County Grand Jury, as the car that Campbell was riding in approached the intersection of High Street (now MLK Blvd) and Spruce Street, a Newark Fire Department truck made a left-turn and the two vehicles collided, leaving Mary Helen Campbell dead.

Details of the crash are scarce, as one passenger of the car was asleep, and the other two passengers “could not be located” by the Grand Jury. Furthermore, police reports seem to conflict with those of the Grand Jury. According to the Grand Jury presentment, the car that Campbell was riding in “ran into the side” of the fire truck around 1:00 AM. However, the police report claims that the car was stationary when it was struck by a fire truck around 5:30 AM. Further complicating the story are reports claiming that others “believed Mrs. Campbell may be the woman who was run down by an official—fire or police—car on 17th Avenue about the same time.”

However murky the story surrounding the death of Mary Helen Campbell is, the Essex County Grand Jury had the final word in its presentment. The Grand Jury found “no cause for indictment” of any fire or police officials that may have been involved in the death of Mary Helen Campbell.

References:

Ronald Porambo, No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark

Tom Hayden, Rebellion in Newark: Official Violence and Ghetto Response

Notes of Newark Legal Services Project

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…

Grand Jury Report on Death of Mary Helen Campbell

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Grand Jury report describing the death of 31-year-old Mary Helen Campbell on July 14, 1967, who was a passenger in a car that collided with a Newark Fire Department Truck. The Grand Jury found “no cause for indictment.” — Credit: Junius Williams Collection

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