In a sprawling borough embedded in a city that never sleeps and that’s populated with over-sized personalities, it is sometimes difficult to keep track of all the historic power brokers who have made Brooklyn and New York City what they are today. Bertram L. Baker is one such figure who, though seemingly relegated to “dustbin of history,” deserves to be pulled from the shadows of the past and into the light. His name should be readily associated with Brooklyn politics, mid-twentieth century housing desegregation efforts, Caribbean immigrant history, and the history of Black Brooklyn. Thanks to Ron Howell, long-time New York City journalist and Baker’s grandson, now he will be. Howell has just completed Boss of Black Brooklyn: The Life and Times of Bertram L. Baker, a great treat for lovers of twentieth-century Brooklyn history. Told as part biography, part family memoir, Howell traces his family’s lineage back to the islands of Nevis and Barbados. Ambitious from an early age, Bertram Baker emigrated from Nevis to Brooklyn at the age of 16. He arrived with other aspiring West Indian immigrants during World War I and began a journey that took him from the stockroom floor of the cavernous Abraham & Strauss department store on Fulton Street to the heights of New York state politics.
Howell’s biography of Baker, his maternal grandfather, is respectful, loving, and at times painfully honest, for Howell revealed a portrait of Bert Baker with warts and all . . .
Baker realized his ambitions step by step as he advanced from political precinct captain to achieving a historic first in 1948 when he became the first black legislator elected in Brooklyn. Then in the mid-1950s Baker made his most significant legislative mark. A compelling orator, Baker worked in coordination with upstate Republican Senator George R. Metcalf, to secure anti-discrimination housing legislation (The Metcalf-Baker bill). Over the following decade they worked diligently to expand the law’s reaches. In 1966 Baker reached the pinnacle of his political career when the Democrats gained control in the State Assembly and Baker became the Majority Whip.
Howell does an excellent job avoiding the easy trap of hagiography in this biography of his grandfather. As he marks Baker’s political ascent, Howell recognizes that Baker was a strategic compromiser. While this was the essential ingredient of the most successful politicians, it also left Baker on the wrong side of history by the mid-1960s. Political insurgents and radical activists were no longer willing to work within the old-boy political clubhouses that had historically propped up racial inequality. With rare exception, Baker remained committed to that way of political life. In sum, Baker comes across in Howell’s book as neither particularly likeable nor self-reflective, but he was clearly one of the most influential black leaders in Brooklyn and in Albany for decades and for those reasons and more, he deserves the attention this book offers.
Finally, Boss of Black Brooklyn offers more than a biography of Bertram L. Baker. Howell takes a much appreciated risk as he closes chapters with author commentaries . . .
Brian Purnell, Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History and Director of Africana Studies Program, Bowdoin College, author of Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn, University Press of Kentucky, 2013
Thanks to Ron Howell, we have this fascinating book on Bertram L. Baker, the first Black representative elected to the State Assembly from Brooklyn, New York, in 1948. As an author of New York's first housing anti-discrimination bill, Baker became one of New York 's most important legislators. As the author's grandfather, however, the intermingling of Baker and Howell's lives revealed generational divides that cleaved through American society during that pivotal decade of the 1960s. Baker, the immigrant striver, embodied respectability and rectitude. Howell, the American born, Ivy league educated militant, embodied rebellion and resistance. These tensions remain important aspects of African Americans' and the entire nation's history. Howell's strengths as a journalist, his honesty, care, and humor, mixes memoir and biography, personal reflection and scholarship into a book that is informative and exciting.