Oscar Hill

Oscar Hill came to Newark from North Carolina with his wife, Agnes Hill, and her daughter, Bernice, in 1953. The three lived in an apartment above the Howard Bar, where Oscar Hill worked until it closed, after having previously tended bar at nearby Maxie’s. After his wife left him and her daughter sometime before 1957, Hill began seeing Alene Johnson in 1959 and the two later had four children together. By all accounts, Hill was a loving and devoted partner, father, and stepfather.

After the Howard Bar closed, Hill took a job at the Spring Manor Bar on Jones Street, where he was heading for work on July 14th when he was fatally shot by police.  That morning, Hill and Johnson visited her mother in the Scudder Homes project before returning to the apartment they shared on Belmont Avenue. Despite Johnson’s pleas for him to stay home, given the ongoing conflicts in the streets, Hill dutifully left for work shortly before 5:00 P.M.

As Oscar Hill walked up Belmont Avenue and turned the corner onto Springfield Avenue, Newark police detective Frederick Toto was fatally shot outside of the Scudder Homes project after law enforcement exchanged fire with alleged “snipers” in the apartments. Toto’s shooting occurred shortly after police had opened fire on innocent people gathered in front of the project, killing Isaac Harrison and Robert Lee Martin. It remains uncertain if Detective Toto was struck by fire from someone inside the project, or by erratic shooting from National Guardsmen or State Police.

This was the scene that Oscar Hill was walking into as he tried to make his way to the Spring Manor Bar, just a few blocks away. As journalist Ron Porambo later wrote, “Immediately after Toto was hit in front of the projects three men were murdered by the Newark police in cold blood.”  Hill was most likely the first of these men, followed by Cornelius Murray and Rufus Council.

Although the Grand Jury’s presentment states “there are no known witnesses to this shooting,” 29-year-old John Rutledge, who knew Hill from the Howard Bar, gave the following account to Porambo:

“Up at the corner on Belmont there was a police car parked and two policemen standing by it. Oscar kept on walking towards the police car. Just then another police car came out of Beacon Street to my right and turned up the avenue. Just as the car got to where Oscar was walking, I heard a shot. Oscar turned towards the car and went down on the sidewalk. When I seen him go down, that’s when I took off. I knew the police shot him and I thought they were gonna shoot me too.”

Hill then managed to get to his feet and “staggered down the avenue, finally sitting down in the broken-out front of a clothing store.” This was where his body was found by a Newark policeman and at some point photographed by a LIFE magazine photographer.

According to Porambo, “Hill’s death remained an unfathomable mystery. Homicide investigators were unable to come up with the location at which he was shot, even though an unidentified photograph of his body lying in the store window was circulated coast-to-coast in the July 28 issue of Life magazine. Ironically and sadly, Hill, one of the most peaceful of men, was photographed in death under circumstances that made him appear to be a looter.”

Oscar Hill was dead at the age of 50 after having been shot in the chest by police while he was on his way to work. Hill’s common-law wife of nine years, Alene Johnson, later said, “I found out he had been killed the next Friday, a week later. ‘Oh, God, no,’ I said. By that time I knew I was pregnant again. Oscar never knew.”

The Essex County Grand Jury found “no cause for indictment” of the officers involved.

References:

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

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…

Photo from Life Magazine

Photo from Life Magazine

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Caption from LIFE Magazine: “The Negro sprawled in the store window was shot in the side, died moments after this picture was taken.” According to Ron Porambo, “Ironically and sadly, Hill, one of the most peaceful of men, was photographed in death under circumstances that made him appear to be a looter.” — Credit: LIFE Magazine, July 28, 1967

Grand Jury Report on Death of Oscar Hill

Grand Jury Report on Death of Oscar Hill

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Grand Jury report describing the death of 50-year-old Oscar Hill on July 14, 1967, who was fatally shot in the chest with “no known witnesses.” The Grand Jury found “no cause for indictment.” — 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