Brooklyn residents today may take for granted that their representatives are as diverse as the borough they call home. But until the mid-20th century, New York’s largest borough still hadn’t elected its first black lawmaker to public office. That all changed in 1948, when Bertram Baker made history by joining the New York State Assembly as a representative from Bed-Stuy.
In “Boss of Black Brooklyn,” on sale now from Fordham University Press, journalist Ron Howell tells his grandfather’s story, tracing not only his own family history, but the roots of Brooklyn’s black immigrant population, from their native islands in the West Indies and the Caribbean, through Ellis Island and on to the Brooklyn communities they’d build and lead.
Not only was Bertram a record-setter as Brooklyn’s first black elected official, but he also sponsored the first housing anti-discrimination bill in America, and advanced opportunities for black athletes as leader of the all-black American Tennis Association. Howell deftly combines the personal with the political to tell the untold story of one of Brooklyn’s forgotten black icons.
Ron Howell is a journalist from Brooklyn covering politics, the Caribbean, Latin America and New York City. He is associate professor of journalism at Brooklyn College.