Edgecombe Avenue


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Edgecombe Avenue New York is a city of blocks, each with its own history, customs and characters. Yet from these small stages spring large talents. A stretch of Edgecombe Avenue perched on a bluff near 155th Street.

Edgecombe Avenue was part of Sugar Hill, the neighborhood of choice for elegant black musicians, dapper actors, successful professionals — and those who aspired to be like them.

A red-brick tower at 409 Edgecombe was home to Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. DuBois and Aaron Douglas, who has been called “the father of black American art.”

A few blocks farther north, the building at 555 Edgecombe burst with musical talent: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Lena Horne and others. Right before and after World War II, when discrimination and segregation were commonplace, young people in Sugar Hill saw success stride by on the streets where they played tag and stickball.
The son of a taxi mechanic, Roy Eaton was a childhood piano prodigy who became a trailblazer in advertising. His friends on the block included the artist and writer Faith Ringgold; Cecelia Hodges, a Princeton professor and actress; and Sonny Rollins, the “saxophone Colossus,” who is still touring.

Many of them came from Depression-era families who were short on cash but long on dreams, managing to scrimp for music lessons or art supplies. And they lived in a community where Edgecombe Avenue neighbors and churches offered encouragement amid rampant racial discrimination.

“It was like our place to dream the impossible dream,” Mr. Eaton said. “It gave me a sense of, you might call it entitlement or unlimited possibilities — that nothing could stop me from doing what I felt I could do.”

A few doors down from where Mr. Eaton grew up, Cecelia Hodges reveled in the joys of reading. She had gotten the bug from her parents, West Indian immigrants who moved to Edgecombe Avenue from farther south in Harlem so she could attend better schools. Before she started first grade, her father found out the books she would use and read them with her.
She eventually skipped three grades.
Yet it was at home and in the neighborhood that her education was rounded out. Like her friend Roy, she attended St. James Presbyterian Church, participating in pageants and singing in choirs. It was the kind of church where pride was reaffirmed — the choirs, for example, were named after black composers — and dignity defended.

“These were things that were not emphasized in school,” she said. “Anything to do with what black people experienced, I got that from church and community groups.”

Her parents took her to the theater and showered her with books, like an 18-volume Dickens set they got from a newspaper promotion. “I was always told I was as fine as anyone else,” she said. “You have to work hard. But you’re able. I never suffered from low self-esteem.”

Sundays were special, and not just because of church.

“Much of my education came on Sunday afternoons in my living room,” she said. “Dad had visitors, and the talk always turned to race, or what they called ‘the plight of the Negro in American society.’ I listened, and I learned about the plight of black folks, and how one had to be to get ahead in this society.”

She went on to get her doctorate in the oral interpretation of literature, combining her love of reading and theater. After years of teaching in public schools, she was tapped in the 1970s for a professorship at Princeton, where she stayed until the late 1980s.

These days, she devotes her talents to one-person shows, some highlighting figures like the pioneers for racial equality Sojourner Truth or Fannie Lou Hamer.

Inside Ms. Hodges’s Princeton home, shelves sag with books from her long teaching career. The walls are festooned with African masks, paintings, and photographs of Malcolm X and President Obama. And in the living room, two chairs, their arms smooth from the decades, occupy a place of honor. They’re the ones her father and his friends used to sit in during those Sunday debates.

For her, their talk of unity back on Edgecombe Avenue played out in small ways: as a professor, she invited homesick black students to her home for dinner or a chance to mingle with writers like Ishmael Reed.

“It was the unrecognized part of the job,” she said, recalling the thanks those alumni expressed at a reunion a few months ago. “And years later, you realize the effect it had on others.”

Art and Expectations
Next door to Ms. Hodges’s home on Edgecombe, Faith Ringgold, nee Jones, spent her after-school hours drawing and painting, having graduated from her first easel, scavenged by her father on his rounds as a sanitation truck driver.
Her mother, who would become a clothing designer, taught her how to work with fabrics. Decades later, Ms. Ringgold’s painted quilts would be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.