“A lot of people don’t understand the true environment of the period when we grew up,” Vann told the folks at the event for Hawkins. The audience was mostly older men who had gone to the school when it was Boys High, a fabled Bed-Stuy institution. Many of them attended nearly half a century ago, when Vann played hoops for rival Franklin K. Lane.
Back then, to be black and from New York meant you lived in either Harlem or Bed-Stuy. Blacks in those days fought their own “up South” version of the civil rights war, surviving insults and discrimination, and struggling against a white establishment that denied them access to power. But Vann, like Connie Hawkins, soared over those barriers. And if ever there was a man who represented the soaring potential of black power in Brooklyn, it was Al Vann.
“We led the whole struggle,” he said in his speech. “I feel for the younger brothers and sisters who did not have the opportunity to share what we shared.”
Vann was sounding a theme of nostalgia and race pride that has intensified in him over the last 10 years or so, as his political fortunes have declined. He seemed to be reaching for a past that once promised greater things, for him and for his community.
This year, during the politically divisive mayoral race, Vann’s ambitious dream of unifying minority communities in the city has never seemed further away. As many of black Brooklyn’s politicians defected from the Democrats to support Rudolph Giuliani, only Vann and a few stalwarts kept the progressive faith by energetically backing Ruth Messinger. And even he was all but invisible in the final weeks of the campaign.
This year’s race is only the latest chapter in a deeper story about one of the most significant and vibrant black communities in the country. During the 23 years Vann has represented Bed-Stuy in the state Assembly, the neighborhood has lost its once undisputed position as the heart of political power in Brooklyn. It is a process that began in the 1970s, as Bed-Stuy’s population began to dwindle and as black immigrants from the West Indies poured into the nearby neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Flatbush. The demographic shifts generated fundamental changes in the culture and politics of Central Brooklyn.
No politician has been more affected by them than Vann, a leader in the radical fight for school decentralization in the 1960s, fierce advocate of community empowerment in the ’70s and, in the ’80s, a visionary who hoped to create a coalition that would transform Democratic Party politics and unify low-income black and Latino communities citywide. In the ’90s, Vann’s progressive agenda is out of step with the smaller-government movement and alienated from the Republican power brokers. So Vann has left behind the revolutionary rhetoric. He speaks more about business enterprises as Bed-Stuy’s salvation, and focuses his attention on finessing contracts and grants for organizations and businesses in his home turf.
Al Vann has seen the revolution and come back out the other side, his power reduced, his aspirations curtailed.
I see a certain irony in this.
Back in 1992, Al Vann invited me to a homecoming award ceremony at which he was posthumously honoring my grandfather, Bertram L. Baker, who in 1948 became the first black person ever elected to office in Brooklyn. For 22 years, Baker wielded Tammany-like clout as a district leader and assemblyman in the seat Vann now occupies.
After my mother and father divorced, she and I went to live in the brownstone home of my grandparents. In many ways my grandfather was like a father to me, but I confess that I came to hate politics and remained forever suspicious of politicians. I was in continual conflict with my grandfather. He felt I harbored radical, if not revolutionary, ideas. I felt my ideas were not so much radical or revolutionary as resentful.
I knew guys my age who had died violent deaths on the streets. And cops seemed to have only disdain for the residents. After reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I came to believe that my community was held captive by the conservative political forces that my grandfather represented. For almost 10 years, until I was in my mid-20s or so, my grandfather and I barely spoke. Mercifully, in the mid-1970s, after he retired and I longed to talk with him about his past, we drew much closer and I came to respect all he had done for me and for Bed-Stuy.
It was against this backdrop that, despite my continued reservations about politicians, I decided to accept the award Al Vann was offering to my grandfather. After all, I asked myself, who among the black elected officials in New York deserved the benefit of a doubt more than Al Vann?
My mind reeled back a generation. When I was away at college in the late ’60s, I remember hearing about a Bed-Stuy native, then in his early 30s, who was making waves in the community. There was Vann in his dashiki, black, sharp-featured and (in the minds of many whites) menacingly tall and athletic. He spoke to and for a people developing a new African, militant consciousness. His base, initially, was the public school system, where he taught in junior high schools in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Those who looked up to him called him Mwalimu, Swahili for “Great Teacher.”
At this time, my grandfather was still in power but beset on one side by white reformers and on the other by black activists allied with Vann. He was dejectedly marking time toward his retirement in 1970, while the younger man was gathering increasing attention thanks to his role in the divisive fight for control of schools in the neighboring community of Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
Vann was leader of the African-American Teachers Association, which got into heated, sometimes physical battles with members of the powerful and largely Jewish United Federation of Teachers, led by Albert Shanker. Some of Vann’s most aggressive backing came from a now-defunct political and cultural center called the East, whose associates ranged from diehard revolutionaries to Swahili-speaking cultural nationalists. One of the leaders there was Jitu Weusi, formerly known as Les Campbell. In 1968 Weusi angered Jews when he went on a radio program and had a black student read a poem complaining about a “Jewboy with your yarmulke on.” Vann was thus a point man in one of the city’s most bitter conflicts between blacks and Jews.
As the controversy surrounding him increased, Vann made a painful but strategic decision that alienated some of his most radical supporters. His hardcore backers at the East thought it was a sellout, but in 1972 Vann decided to seek power inside the political system and run for the assembly seat vacated two years previously by my grandfather. The position was held at the time by Cal Williams, the owner of Black Pearl Car Service.
Vann lost his first race, but in 1974, on his second try, he won. Vann and his friends, flush with their unexpected victory, immediately set themselves about the task of doing away with the old “get-along, go-along” brand of politics and replacing it with one that, by their own description, put the interests of the community before those of a select few job-seekers. Liberals at the Village Voice held Al Vann up as an example of courage and virtue in the fight against the Democratic machine.
Vann surprised some of the old guard by arriving in Albany wearing a suit and tie. “They were probably expecting me to show up in a dashiki, because dashikis were the order of the day for me at the time,” Vann says. “I think they were taken aback when I showed up looking just like them.”
But the machine wasn’t so ready to accept the sworn outsider. Back home in Brooklyn, the battles with the Democratic regulars continued. In 1980, blindsided and outmaneuvered by the party machine, he was kicked off the ballot in the primary and had to run on the Liberal Party line against the black machine candidate. He prevailed nonetheless. Speaking of the victory, activist Weusi recalls: “It was the first time a local person running on the Liberal line alone defeated a Democrat…. That was the level of street support that he had. He went back up to Albany and everyone was saying to him, ‘Let me see you walk on water.'”
Vann continued to challenge the machine in ways that attracted ambitious black professionals to his club, the Vannguard Independent Democratic Association. In the early 1980s, pushed by Vann, three young associates–attorneys Esmerelda Simmons and Paul Wooten, and strategist John Flateau–filed a series of lawsuits arguing that district lines should be redrawn to allow for more minority representation. One of the suits went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was decided in their favor. All together, the actions resulted in the creation of a dozen new minority legislative seats in New York state.
Side by side with this legal strategy, Vann encouraged and tutored young politicians like Roger Green, who eventually beat the machine-backed white incumbent Harvey L. Strelzin of the Fort Greene assembly district. What’s more, the black population continued to surge in areas beyond Bed-Stuy, leading to the election of even more blacks.
Vann’s ascendancy peaked in 1984 when, as a founder along with Congressman Major Owens of the Coalition for Community Empowerment, he decided to try and harness the quickly growing power of the minority vote. He became state campaign director for the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s presidential bid, an effort that resulted in the registration of tens of thousands of new black voters, especially in Brooklyn. It seemed that a new era was dawning on local politics.
In truth, Vann’s brightest political days were already behind him.
The 1985 election was supposed to have been black Brooklyn’s moment of triumph. It was a bold grasp at power by progressive black politicians led by Vann and backed by a multi-ethnic coalition. They were trying to forge an alliance with Puerto Rican mayoral aspirant Herman Badillo, who wanted to unseat the increasingly conservative incumbent, Edward I. Koch.
Vann hoped to ride Badillo’s coattails and wrest the Brooklyn borough presidency away from the party regulars–and with it, he hoped, the entire county Democratic organization.
In the process, he hoped to build a long-term alliance between Hispanics and blacks, who had been divided politically. The vehicle for this was an organization called Coalition for a Just New York, pulling together all black politicians and activists citywide.
The hostility between Koch and black leaders at that time was deep and palpable. Some called the mayor a racist for his plans to close hospitals in minority communities, and Koch’s attitude toward them was highlighted when he donned an Afro wig at a gala with reporters and ignited a firestorm of protest from black politicians and columnists.
But in a move that shocked Vann, the so-called “Gang of Four” from Harlem–Charles Rangel, David Dinkins, Basil Paterson and Percy Sutton–broke ranks and put forth their own candidate for mayor, Harlem Assemblyman Herman “Denny” Farrell, a dark horse if ever there was one. They argued that a black group like the Coalition for a Just New York should support a black candidate, not a Puerto Rican. Badillo bitterly withdrew from consideration. Farrell lost badly in the primary. Down went Al Vann’s grand designs, never to be revived.
“The coup that the Gang of Four was able to pull off basically diminished Al’s power as leader of black Brooklyn, and it diminished Brooklyn’s emergence as the locus of political power for black folks in New York City,” recalls Esmerelda Simmons, now executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice, based at Medgar Evers College, which is part of the City University of New York.
The dominance of the entrenched old-line Harlem leadership continued, culminating in Dinkins’ election as mayor in 1989. In Brooklyn, on the other hand, black leaders became increasingly parochial in their concerns, even as the number of black elected officials soared. Today, the borough has 18 black elected officials, far more than any other borough.
But Vann, more than a decade later, turns misty with thoughts of what might have been. If his coalition had taken root, he says, black politicians would have been better able to minimize the deep social service cuts made in recent years by the Clinton, Pataki and Giuliani administrations; black leaders would have been more effective in confronting police brutality; and the county Democratic Party machine would be ready to exact political punishment on Congressman Ed Towns and Councilwoman Priscilla Wooten, who recently bolted ranks and announced endorsements of Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Several Vann associates say the assemblyman’s face today shows the pain of what they call the 1985 “betrayal.” In the two years after that debacle, Vann pondered getting out of politics. He toyed with the idea of going into real estate. Eventually, as if coming full circle, he settled into his job of local legislator.
On that evening back in 1992, as I was called to receive the award for my grandfather, I couldn’t help but wonder. What did Al Vann really think about Bert Baker, the tailor-suited Tammany leader? What did he really think of the calculating man who had retained power in Bedford-Stuyvesant for 22 consecutive years?
It occurred to me recently that Vann has been Bed-Stuy’s assemblyman for 23 years. And, perhaps more revealingly, I began to note increasing complaints from activists and others that Vann, now 62 years old, has lost his fire and become too willing to go along with the Albany leadership, the very things I had once heard (and, indeed, said) about my grandfather.
“Obviously you don’t stay in Albany that long by bucking the leadership,” says Ron Deutsch, director of the Albany-based Statewide Emergency Network for Social and Economic Security. Deutsch is upset that Vann backed a welfare reform package passed by the legislature earlier this year, dramatically cutting income supports for the poor.
In response, Vann says he and liberal legislators put as many softeners into the welfare reform bill as they could. He argues that holding out for more would have been futile.
The wheel turns.
My grandfather was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis, but came to Brooklyn in 1915 and moved into Bedford-Stuyvesant in the 1920s, when it was coalescing as a black neighborhood. He was part of a minority of West Indians who lived in Bed-Stuy and identified intimately with the struggles of their American brethren who had roots in the South. My grandfather occasionally attended New York meetings organized by Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican firebrand who preached that black people had “One God, One Aim, One Destiny.”
My grandfather also believed there should always be one boss; and in black Brooklyn, for more than two decades, he was it. I think that Bert Baker would have been astounded at the confusion and diffusion that mark black politics in Brooklyn today.
The chaos in large part has to do with the hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Caribbean who came to New York (largely to Brooklyn) in the years after the 1965 change in U.S. immigration policy. The transformation has been particularly notable during the last 10 years. Whereas black Brooklyn was once a definable spot called Bed-Stuy, with soul food joints, jazz spots, and a world view based on the peculiarities of American racism, it has become a huge area covering not just Bedford-Stuyvesant, but also neighboring Crown Heights and Flatbush. The cultural characteristics of the new black Brooklyn became jerk chicken, dollar vans blaring reggae, the West Indian Day parade. Brooklyn has become known the world over as a center of the African diaspora, but the latest mutation has had other implications for a homegrown black elected official like Al Vann.
“The view that many African-Americans have of Caribbeans is that they fail to realize what the African-American went through in this country,” Vann says. “They don’t appreciate the value of the struggle we waged in this country to make it possible for them to come and do these things.” For too long, black leaders have failed to speak out publicly on this issue of intra-black relations, he adds.
“I see the potential for real differences. I think we need to pay more attention to this. We are not talking to each other,” he says.
Barbados-born scholar Calvin Holder, who has written about the history of black politics in Brooklyn, says the problem is that no single person or group has emerged to unite the borough’s African-American and Caribbean communities around a progressive political agenda.
“The issues would be police brutality and jobs, addressing immigration issues for foreign-born blacks and making the school system far more effective for the black community than it presently is,” says Holder, a professor of American history at Staten Island Community College.
No one, not Al Sharpton, Al Vann or Caribbean-born City Council Member Una Clarke, has been able to do this. Clarke is of Jamaican descent and has been in the forefront of issues low on Vann’s agenda, such as the rights of immigrants and the legalization of the dollar vans.
Meanwhile, Vann decided that if he cannot lead black Brooklyn, then he will focus on his district. This resolve came after a period of soul-searching following his devastating political setback in 1985. “I find comfort working within my base,” he says.
More than anything else, Vann has been busy trying to bring government funding to Bed-Stuy. This has been a difficult task, especially with a Republican governor and a Republican mayor. Still, millions of dollars have flowed into social service organizations in Bedford-Stuyvesant in recent years, largely through Vann’s intercession. He has gained seniority in a state Assembly that is still controlled by Democrats, and he currently chairs the powerful Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, which reviews hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts. Vann is also a three-time past chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus.
One of the main beneficiaries of the veteran assemblyman’s power has been the nonprofit organization that bears his name. The Vannguard Urban Improvement Association, set up two decades ago, runs educational programs for area youngsters, who continue to suffer high drop-out rates. Thousands of teens have gotten summer jobs through the association, and hundreds have been inspired to attend college through its college prep programs. Vannguard has also been instrumental in securing grants and loans for the rehabilitation of housing in the community. The organization has a budget of approximately $1.5 million from state and city grants and contracts, and a staff of 35.
Officially, the assemblyman has no position within Vannguard, but the ties are long and deep. Its for-profit real estate-holding subsidiaries collect tens of thousands of dollars in rent from government agencies. And records from the state Board of Elections show that Vannguard gave $2,000 in October 1996 to the Friends of Al Vann. Such a political contribution from a publicly funded organization is illegal. Both Vann and Arthur Niles, the executive director of the association, say they are looking into the donation.
Besides Vannguard, dozens of other groups, small and large, have benefited from Vann’s influence as a senior state legislator. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and contracts have gone to the Jackie Robinson Center for Physical Culture, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Mental Health Center and other social service organizations in the community.
Vann likes to say he’s helping to build community institutions. Others call it old-fashioned machine politics, straightforward wheeling and dealing.
“I see Vannguard as his factory,” says Weusi, the activist with whom Vann has had strained relations in recent years. “I would rather have a thousand black-owned stores out here. We have all these elected officials and everybody has their factory. And the factories all get thousands of dollars. But we collectively as black people don’t own small businesses. We don’t own any appreciable amount of real estate. Even the newsstands, somebody external owns them, not to mention the bodegas. My politics would have had responsible citizens of our community owning those businesses and pumping the money back into the community.”
Vann counters that his community needs politicians as well as activists, and that the two have very different jobs. “Coming out of my role in the sixties, it was understood that the role of the politician was to help build institutions,” he says. “We need to get a greater share of the resources in our community. The money needs to flow into our community…. We have to use the political power to impact on this economic system. My philosophy has not changed.”
Vann, with a paunch protruding slightly from his thin frame, concedes he has been increasingly concerned about the financial well-being of his family, as well as that of his district. A few years ago, he organized Al Vann Associates, a for-profit firm, to solicit Medicaid patients on behalf of a health maintenance organization, M.H.S. It was at a time when progressive health activists citywide were excoriating such practices. Eventually state and federal authorities barred such solicitations. Vann now says he wants to refocus the family firm as a public relations and tour company.
Some, including Weusi, say Vann was probably always a conservative at heart, especially in his lifestyle. Vann is, after all, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a longtime member of the Alpha Phi Alpha black fraternity. He was a business administration major at Toledo University in Ohio, and holds two masters degrees.
Visit the Vann home any evening, and you’re likely to find the assemblyman or his wife, Mildred, a teacher-trainer with the city Board of Education, babysitting their grandchildren. Vann says one of his greatest frustrations today is that he wants to be able to do more for them. He says he’d like to remain in office at least another five years but makes no promises beyond that. “I want to be able to help my grandchildren get through school,” the assemblyman says.
In Vann’s commitment to his grandchildren, I saw something of my own grandfather, especially in his later years. My granddad opened his home to me and my mother. He was my father figure through childhood and adolescence. During his retirement he showed his great-grandchildren a tenderness I didn’t know he had in him. He died in 1985 in the Bed-Stuy home where he had lived for more than half a century.
He and Vann didn’t know each other in person, just by reputation. But if they could sit down and talk today, I think my grandfather and Al Vann would see eye to eye on many things. One thing I believe they would agree on almost totally is that a people without a leader is a people without power, and that today, there is no black leader in Brooklyn.
Ron Howell is George Polk Journalist in Residence at Long Island University.