Continuing our Summer Postcards series, PhD student Damien Strecker tells us about an interview he conducted as part of his research on the history of St. Augustine Church in the South Bronx with Creighton Berry, a former member of its congregation. Read Damien’s account of his illuminating trip below.
Over the course of my two years working with Fordham’s Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP), director Dr. Mark Naison emphasized the importance of human connections that develop out of the oral history interview process.
In terms of my research on the South Bronx, the various contacts and friendships created as a result of over 300 BAAHP interviews has proved indispensable. I’m investigating the South Bronx formation of St. Augustine Church beginning in 1938 under the leadership of Rev. Edler Hawkins. By 1950, Rev. Hawkins and his burgeoning congregation became major religious, political, and educational forces in the area. A growing list of interconnected BAAHP interviews highlights the ways in which Rev. Hawkins, his church programming, and political activity positively influenced the community.
One such BAAHP connection led me to Westhampton Beach this summer for an interview with retired commercial and freelance artist Creighton Berry. During a routine meeting discussing my research last spring, Dr. Naison remembered
Mr. Berry donated paintings for a fundraising auction a number of years ago, recalled he had an affiliation with St. Augustine Church, and fortuitously located his telephone number. Before I left Dr. Naison’s office, I spoke with Mr. Berry and had an interview date set.
After a scenic train ride on the Long Island Rail Road, I approached the picturesque and inviting residence of Mr. Berry. As the interview commenced, the 92 year old Mr. Berry recounted his family background. After returning from WWI, his father secured employment as a Grand Central Station postal worker. He didn’t feel safe coming home from work in Harlem late at night so he, like many other upwardly mobile African American families, moved to the South Bronx. After his family’s arrival, the young Creighton Berry joined the St. Augustine congregation and explained the many ways Rev. Hawkins encouraged him to pursue his artistic talents. A lover of the arts and a student of the Harlem Renaissance, Rev. Hawkins understood the importance of culture as a component of African American identity. He brought in writers and performers such as Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. In addition, he took students on tours of the major galleries downtown and weaved the arts into church life. Mr. Berry believed that this positive cultural identity allowed him to successfully navigate difficult moments of his adult life. As an African American man doing advertising art in Manhattan during the 1950s, there were times he felt marginalized socially. Nonetheless, his confidence did not wane because he always had the St. Augustine cultural identity as a foundation. After an afternoon of conversation, I returned to the train more convinced than ever that Rev. Hawkins was a leader ahead of his time. I’m thankful I had the chance to spend time with Mr. Berry in his home and appreciated all of his insights. I hope to get more feedback from him as the research evolves.
Dr. Naison’s words concerning the importance of human connections continue to hold true for me—both in the oral history process and the historical topics I find compelling.