Remembering Elsie Richardson
Elsie Richardson, left, with Shirley Chisholm. Courtesy: Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration
Elsie Richardson, who died in Brooklyn on March 15 at the age of 90, was a school secretary and community organizer whose activism in the realms of civil-rights, housing, and community development spanned six decades. Her signature moment occurred on a frigid February day in 1966, when she led Sen. Robert F. Kennedy on a lengthy tour of the impoverished, majority-black Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Kennedy at the time was plotting a new front in the War on Poverty, which had been declared two years earlier by President Lyndon Johnson but had yet to score significant victories. Richardson, meanwhile, hoped to rally political support for a set of ideas she and her fellow Brooklyn activists had been developing—ideas about how to stem capital flight, create jobs, and revitalize crumbling housing stock. Their meeting resulted in the founding of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the first federally-funded Community Development Corporation and a model for the grassroots rebuilding efforts that would unfold in cities around the country in decades to come.
Born in 1922 to immigrants from the Caribbean island of Nevis, Richardson grew up in East Harlem. When she was 10, in the depths of the Depression, her father lost his factory job; days later, the family watched everything they owned disappear in a tenement blaze. They’d seen the fire coming, suspecting the landlord of coveting an insurance payout. Elsie’s father had even left a ladder by the back window of their third-floor apartment, just in case. As they escaped, the air filled with the screams of children—Elsie’s friends next door—burning alive. That memory would stoke the flames of Richardson’s activism for the rest of her days.
In her teens, Richardson joined Harlem’s civil-rights campaigns—most memorably the bus boycott of 1941, led by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. She married after the war and moved to Albany Houses, an integrated public-housing project in Crown Heights. It was there that she first made her name as an activist, organizing tenants and doing youth-outreach work at a nearby settlement house. By the mid-1950s, the Richardsons had saved enough to buy the townhouse of their dreams, only two blocks from the projects. Now a mother of three and a full-time school secretary, Elsie became a force in local block associations and PTAs. Somehow she found the time to take college classes at night. (She finally earned her B.A. 14 years later.)
Meanwhile, Brooklyn was undergoing dramatic transformations. Thousands of whites decamped each year for the suburbs, jobs in tow. African-Americans took their place, fleeing overcrowded Harlem and the Jim Crow South. The label “Bedford-Stuyvesant” came to denote a vast area of Central Brooklyn in which blacks made up the majority; by the mid-1960s, 400,000 people lived there. (Following the riots of July 1964, the national media labeled Bed-Stuy “America’s largest ghetto.”) The area boasted row upon row of elegant Victorian brownstones, which housed a substantial black middle class. Yet Bed-Stuy also knew wrenching joblessness, poverty, and crime. Most families paid exorbitant rents for cramped quarters and made do with woefully inadequate schools, sanitation, and hospitals.
Black Brooklynites also found themselves systematically excluded from the Democratic Party clubhouses that controlled local politics. To compensate, they built a dense network of civic groups, block associations, churches, civil-rights organizations, and social-service providers. Tying them all together was an umbrella organization called the Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council (CBCC), which at the height of its influence included more than 100 local groups and provided de facto political representation for the community.
CBCC counted among its energetic organizers a coterie of outspoken, politically radical women. Richardson and her close friend Shirley Chisholm, who would later become the first African-American woman elected to Congress, led the way. “We made an effort to involve everybody in the community,” Richardson recalled in 2008. “We went into barbershops, beauty parlors, bars. We made sure that everybody had a voice.”
CBCC took action on many fronts: workplace discrimination, juvenile delinquency, urban renewal. When, in 1964, the city and federal governments began funding community-action agencies as part of the War on Poverty, CBCC sponsored the first such effort in Brooklyn. (Richardson was an early member of the agency’s board.) Politicians popped in, pledged to help, and commissioned studies. Yet despite promises of an “unconditional” war against want, funds were painfully slow to materialize.
By 1966, Richardson had emerged as CBCC’s most visible leader. Now in her mid-40s, she approached problems with the intense, straightforward manner of a working mother who had no time to waste on political niceties. She often surprised men, especially powerful ones, by refusing to flatter them. (She tended to issue orders instead.) At street level, she blessed her neighbors with magnificent smiles and remembered everyone’s birthday. But on the public stage she took tough, uncompromising stances, especially when it came time to voice her community’s frustrations.
So it went when Kennedy accepted her invitation to tour the area in 1966. Their final stop was the Bedford Avenue YMCA, where Richardson chaired a community meeting packed with several hundred local citizens. “We are tired of what we call ‘getting the business’,” Richardson said in opening remarks directed at Kennedy. When the Senator promised to put his staff to work studying Bed-Stuy’s problems, Richardson replied, in disgust, “We’ve been studied to death.” She then called upon a parade of speakers—judges, politicians, grassroots organizers—who echoed her refrain: “Substance not studies!”
Kennedy was miffed. (“I don’t have to take that shit,” he complained to aides, “I could be smoking a cigar in Palm Beach.”) But he grasped the urgency of the moment and thought Brooklyn might offer a promising venue for a pioneering brand of antipoverty work. A week later the Senator asked Richardson to form a committee of local activists who would join his staff in drawing up blueprints for Bed-Stuy’s revival. She agreed—but she pointed out that blueprints already existed. Two years earlier, Richardson and CBCC, with the help of advocacy planners from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute for Design, had conceived of what they dubbed a “program for the total rehabilitation and renewal of Bedford-Stuyvesant.” Among other things, they proposed to fix up historic brownstones, fund local businesses, underwrite black-owned construction firms, set up financial cooperatives, build a community college, demolish burnt-out buildings, plant trees, and build parks on vacant lots. Crucially, each project would provide jobs and training for the unemployed.
Those ideas, refined during a yearlong collaborative planning process, would define the work of the Restoration Corporation and CDCs nationwide for decades to come. Ironically, Richardson was shunted aside by Kennedy’s surrogates in 1967, shortly after Restoration’s founding; they dismissed her as a “middle-aged matriarch” whose time had passed.
But Richardson kept organizing, ever demanding a fair share of health, educational, and economic resources for her community. She spent her final years in a city-funded nursing home that she herself had fought to have built, once upon a time. At her funeral, one of the politicians whose careers she helped launch, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, called Richardson “an example of what a citizen should be: a bedrock of her family, a bedrock of the community, and a bedrock of our democracy.”