Robert Curvin

Robert Curvin, 1964.(Al Henderson/Newark Public Library)

Robert Curvin was born in Newark in 1934 and spent his childhood in Belleville, a predominantly Italian immigrant neighborhood. At 17-years-old, Curvin joined a youth chapter of the NAACP and also enlisted in the Army, where he served five years before being discharged. In 1960, the same year that Curvin graduated from Rutgers University-Newark, organizers from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) visited the city to recruit volunteers to form a local chapter of the organization. Finding that the NAACP was “too moderate,” Curvin helped to form the Newark-Essex chapter of CORE and served as the chapter’s first chairman.

While Curvin was chairman of Newark-Essex CORE, the organization focused on campaigns against discrimination in housing and employment, police brutality, and general discrimination and mistreatment of the city’s Black communities. In 1963, Curvin and CORE joined a coalition of civil rights, religious, and labor groups known as the Newark Coordinating Council to protest discrimination in the building and construction trades at the site of the new Barringer High School. The contentious demonstrations at Barringer marked the arrival of sustained civil rights protests and organizing in the city. During that year, Curvin and CORE also led the charge for a civilian police review board and led protests against employment discrimination at NJ Bell Telephone Co. In 1965, as Northeast Regional Vice Chairman of CORE, Curvin again led the charge against police brutality after Lester Long was fatally shot by Newark Patrolman Henry Martinez.

During the rebellion that broke out in July 1967, Curvin found himself front and center outside the Fourth Precinct, where taxi driver John Smith was beaten and held under arrest. Curvin was infamously pictured addressing the crowd through a megaphone outside the precinct. Over the course of those five days, Curvin and other community leaders met several times with city and state officials to advocate for Newark’s Black communities. It was after a Sunday meeting with Curvin and Tom Hayden that Governor Hughes finally agreed to withdraw the National Guard and State Police from the city.

Robert Curvin speaks at a rally in Military Park in 1965. -Credit: Wally Akerberg/The Star-Ledger

Following the rebellion, Curvin played a central role in the campaign to elect Newark’s first Black mayor, Ken Gibson. Curvin was elected as chairman of the planning committee and executive director of the 1969 Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention. The Convention was assembled to nominate the “Community’s Choice” of candidates in the 1970 mayoral and city council elections. The same year of the convention, Curvin also served as an advisor to the Black Organization of Students (BOS) at Rutgers-Newark in their struggles to increase the recruitment of Black and Puerto Rican students and faculty on campus.

In addition to his activism and organizing during Newark’s Civil Rights era, Curvin went on to earn his doctorate from Princeton University, and serve as a member of the editorial board of The New York Times, director of the Ford Foundation’s Urban Poverty Program, and dean at the New School. Writing of Curvin in his 1992 memoir, historian and activist August Meier stated, “I regard him as gifted as any of the movement’s well-known national leaders.”   

References:

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

Sam Roberts, “Robert Curvin, Scholar Who Fought Bias and Poverty in Newark, Dies at 81,” Sept. 30, 2015, www.nytimes.com

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…

Robert Curvin speaks at a 2007 panel on the significance and legacies of the 1967 Newark rebellion. — Credit: Sandra King

Robert Curvin Police Profile

Robert Curvin Police Profile

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Newark Police profile on Robert Curvin from 1965. — Credit: Junius Williams Collection

Bob Curvin at CORE Rally, 1965

Bob Curvin at CORE Rally, 1965

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Robert Curvin speaks at a CORE rally at the corner of Spruce and Belmont following the fatal shooting of Lester Long by Newark Police in 1965 — Credit: Wally Akerberg/The Star-Ledger

Black and Puerto Rican Convention Invitation

Black and Puerto Rican Convention Invitation

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Invitation from John Bugg, James Pawley, and Robert Curvin to participate in the 1969 Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention. — Credit: Junius Williams Collection

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

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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

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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

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