The Golden Ghetto’s Shame

I observed the civil rights movement as a teenager in Great Neck, New York, the goldene medina, far from the agony of Mississippi and Alabama. Great Neck, our Depression-bred parents told us, was paradise, filled with huge houses and lush landscapes, swimming pools and tony stores, in contrast to the mean streets of Brownsville or Far Rockaway where our parents had grown up. Except for a small black population on Steamboat Road dating back to the 19th century, Great Neck was then all white and all Jewish. We didn’t experience anti-Semitism as our parents had. Our schools were rated among the best in the country.

Great Neck had everything. Including a conscience.

Despite our affluence, in Great Neck our politics remained liberal. In those days, hardly any Jews in Great Neck voted Republican. Like black people, we Jews too had suffered from racism and we weren’t going to forget it. Unlike other white people, we were enlightened. We would, we were determined, right wrongs. My parents, born in America to poor immigrants who had fled the pogroms of Russia and Poland, sent regular contributions to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (as did many Great Neck Jews). They belonged to a liberal, Reform synagogue whose rabbis had been preaching about the injustices suffered by “Negroes” since the early days of the movement.

And like many in Great Neck, my family had a black housekeeper. Her name was Mattie, and she worked for us for 22 years. Women like Mattie worked in countless Great Neck homes. And the ladies of these houses, while their husbands were away at work, were discovering right in their own kitchens just how complicated the race issue was in America.

My mother tried to make Mattie feel like a member of our family. Mattie slept in a comfortable room, with a television and a private bathroom. Every Friday night when she went home to Bedford-Stuyvestant for the weekend, my mother loaded her down with big cuts of kosher meats to feed her family. On the nights when Mattie cooked dinner for us, my mother insisted that she join us at the table. Mattie did so, but reluctantly. My mother also asked Mattie to call her Esther instead of Mrs. Sparberg. Somehow Mattie couldn’t.

In 1968, a Jewish businessman in Great Neck donated space for a local branch of the NAACP. The previous year, race riots had burned cities across America during the “Long Hot Summer” and Lyndon Johnson’s presidential commission concluded that the cause was two separate societies, “one black, one white, separate and unequal.” That same year at Great Neck North, my high school, the Human Relations club bussed in black students from Harlem for “sensitivity sessions.” The principal initiated a “senior values seminar” that featured Irving Davis, an activist in the growing Black Power movement. A yearbook photo shows Davis in a classroom, leaning against a desk, microphone in hand, clearly charming the standing room-only crowd. A student, one of the event organizers, sits importantly on the desk against which Davis is leaning. The scene could be a teenage version of the party Leonard Bernstein threw for the Black Panthers in 1969, the origin of Tom Wolfe’s phrase “radical chic.”

Something else happened in Great Neck in ’68, when I was 17: The board of education, on the recommendation of a private think tank, voted to bus in poor, black kindergarten-aged children from Queens for a two-year experimental program to encourage school integration. Twenty children would come the first year; 45 the second. On the face of it the plan seemed perfect for our community. Funding would come from the state, so Great Neck taxpayers would pay nothing. Nobody’s life in Great Neck would be disrupted, because no Great Neck students would be bussed to Queens in exchange. Everybody would benefit. Not only the poor black children, but their white classmates, too, who would now come to know their black peers. Great Neck would have the honor of making Maitin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of “two races sitting down at the table of brotherhood” come true.

Many of the black women who worked in the homes of Great Neck came from Queens. You saw them every Friday evening on the platform of the railroad station, waiting for the train that would carry them from verdant Great Neck back to their homes in Jamaica or, like Mattie’s, in Bedford Stuyvestant for the weekend. On Monday morning, they would return en masse. Like my family, the people who employed these women tried to think of them as “members of the family.” But were they? Though Mattie and her black sisters lived with our families, they were strangers to us. We didn’t know their children. We never saw their homes. We didn’t know their aspirations (though we did assume that they were different from ours.) We were always congratulating ourselves for establishing “equality,” but the women who cooked our meals and cleaned our toilets knew better.

Still, when the bussing idea came along, we loved it. What better way for the Jews of Great Neck to extend and live out their liberal ideals than to sharing our excellent schools with their children? It seemed so right, so logical, the next step in our community’s moral evolution.

As soon as the board presented its plan, however, opposition mounted. A committee of angry parents against the busing formed. They had no qualms about articulating the ambivalence that the rest of the liberal community felt. Members of that Parents’ Committee Against New York City-to-Great Neck School Busing went on record saying that they were unwilling to assume the burdens of other communities. In a disingenuous nod to the welfare of the black students, they claimed—without documentation—that “experts” believed the disparity between urban and suburban pupils would create frustration on the part of the disadvantaged. Some complained that the high taxes they paid for the privilege of living in Great Neck shouldn’t be spent on those from outside the community. They demanded a referendum on the issue.

The board, shaken, capitulated. Then, because of purported problems with voting machines, the results of the record turnout vote were inconclusive. It appeared that the nay-sayers won, the efforts of the pro-busing group, Committee for Conscience, notwithstanding.

Then the board changed its mind and voted to implement the busing plan anyway, referring back to a warning from the State education commissioner, James E. Allen, Jr., that holding the referendum was illegal. Things got really ugly. The busing opponents accused the board of treachery, threatening to have them all voted out. Great Neck would never approve another budget, the opponents said. The Great Neck board, said the opponents, didn’t give a damn about what the community wanted. My parents and I cringed over the circle-the-wagons mentality of the busing opponents. Full-page ads began appearing in the local paper, accusing the busing opponents of racism. Outraged students signed petitions in support of the busing. Six hundred of them staged a noisy march, accompanied by some of Great Neck’s clergy and 200 angry liberal parents. The demonstration ended up as part of a CBS documentary about Great Neck busing fiasco. The story had made national headlines. What a shondah.

In the end, Great Neck never did bus 45, or even one, black five-year-olds into its schools. Despite the board’s decision to move forward with the plan, the opposition made good on their threats. The next school budget was voted down. Two vocal busing opponents ran in the school board election and won, replacing two pro-busing board members. The future of the plan seemed in doubt. And the New York City Board of Education had had enough. Six months after the Great Neck board first put forward the plan, the New York City board voted to kill it. Great Neck, stated then-city schools superintendent Bernard Donovan, clearly did not believe in the busing plan.

The whole world had seen an uncomfortable truth about Great Neck. Thirty years later, I ask myself, how did this happen? How did the nay-sayers win? Admittedly, 1968 in particular was an uncomfortable time for black-Jewish relations. In New York, black anti-Semitism had recently burst wide open as a long and bitter teachers’ strike pitted the largely Jewish teachers’ union against the city’s black students and parents. But New York’s tortured racial politics is only part of the answer. It is the easy answer. The fact is, while the politics of race raged outside, in our streets and in the news, inside our Great Neck homes nothing changed. Mattie continued to work for us, and to uncomfortably eat dinner with us. We never discussed the busing with her, and she never brought it up. True, we scolded our grandmothers when we heard them use that awful word. “Schvartze,” my grandma would say casually from time to time in reference to somebody’s housekeeper. But we also knew in our hearts that these black housekeepers were not “members of the family.” 

Alice Sparberg Alexiou, who last wrote in LILITH about the Promise Keepers, is at work on a book on them.