Mason Dixon Line in Queens by Fred Prowledge

Fred Prowledge describes race relations in the North, as mirrored by the disagreement over a plan to desegregate schools in Queens. The article, “Mason Dixon Line’ in Queens,”¬†appeared in The New York Times on May 10, 1964. The text appears courtesy of Fred Prowledge.

It is the street ironically called Junction Boulevard; it leads to the heart not only of the city’s school integration issue but of the North’s race relations problems.

By Fred Prowledge

Junction Boulevard is a wide street in New York’s Borough of Queens. It joins the communities of Jackson Heights on the west, and Corona on the east. But it also separates the two communities, and thus the yellow traffic line down the middle of Junction Boulevard has become a factor in the greatest domestic controversy this nation has faced since the Civil War. Jackson Heights is “white.” Corona is “colored.” Some of the whites refer to the street as the “dividing line,” and some of the Negroes call it “the Mason-Dixon Line.”

Both Jackson Heights and Corona are considered bedroom communities for middle and lowr0middleincome families who earn their living in Manhattan and other parts of the city. Since they are relatively free of the pressures that create urban tension, both areas might have continued their separate existence in peace and mutual ignorance of each other.

This separate existences was nor unlike that of the Southern Town, with its white neighborhoods and its neglected “negro section. It was easy for the whites of Jackson Heights to look right past the other side of Junction Boulevard. They could proclaim as Queens Borough President Mario J. Cariello did last summer, that the entire borough “truly represents the full flowering of advanced urban living.”

As for the Negro residences of Corona they knew that, while their community was left affluent that Jackson Heights, it was not a terribly bad place to live. The summer heat did not, as in Harlem, force people out into the steaming streets to unleash their resentment. Nor did the winter cold bring hatred for landlords in Corona are not as merciless about steam heat as they are in the real slums. It was possible for a Negro in Corona to go about his life with a measure of dignity, and there for to ignore the white community across Junction Boulevard.

But early this year, the New York City Board of Education changed all this. The Board let it be known that it was considering the “pairing: of Public School 149 in Jackson Heights with P.S. 92 in Corona.”Pairing” is a plan for integrating¬†de fact¬†segregated facilities by combining two schools–one predominately white, the other predominately Negro or Puerto Rican–that are reasonably close together. P.S. 149 and P.S. 92 are both elementary schools. The Jackson Heights school, with 1,057 students is 87 per cent white. The Corona school, which has 497 students, is 97 per cent Negro. The schools are less than six blocks apart. A child walking down the steps of P.S. 149 can see, over the apartment buildings and treetops, the American flag that flies atop P.S. 92.

The news of the board’s plans has brought bitter controversy, mental anguish, threats and promises, and a lawsuit filed by some of the whites. Last, Monday the U.S. Supreme Court declined to rule on a Negro appeal, in Gary, Ind., case, which sought to force the school board there to assign Negro and white pupils to schools in order to end racial imbalance. While the Supreme Court decision puts no legal barrier in the way of New York’s plans, it may well influence the thinking of school boards already doubtful of undertaking such a controversy or step.

Regardless of the outcome of the “pairing” program, the mere suggestion of it has served to expose a big vein of feeling that can only be described as Northern light prejudice.

Junction Boulevard is the home of many small businesses — men’s and women’s specialty shops, hairdressers, small food stores, a large chain grocery or two, a 22-lane bowling alley, a number of coffee shops, a few bars and liquor stores, and one of two restaurants of the sort that use linen napkins.

The casual visitor who walks east across Junction Boulevard into Corona can tell, without doing any homework, that the area is inhabited primarily by Negroes. There are many two-family and four-family dwellings, and they are neatly kept, but there are few large apartment houses of the sort advertised in the Sunday classified sections.

Northern Boulevard., an east-to-west street that runs through both Corona and Jackson Heights, is a major business center for Corona, but few of its businesses are in the luxury class. Most offer the basic community services — the automatic laundry; the vegetable markets with supplies of chitterlings and pigs’ knuckles and collard greens, displayed attractively in windows and on the sidewalks; a thrift shop (called the Akbar, and operated by the Muslim movement); a funeral home; a taxi service; the shops of men who repair refrigerators and television sets; a few newspaper and magazine stands, and, perhaps most prominent, storefront churches.

When one walks west across Junction Boulevard from Corona into Jackson Heights, the scene changes drastically. They are neat, brick apartment buildings, most of them six stories high or less. Each cluster of buildings has a playground and modest vistas of grass, trees and shrubbery. Elsewhere there are two-family and four-family dwellings, similar to those in Corona, and some older apartment buildings.

Jackson Heights buys its bread and wine on Junction Boulevard, along with Corona, but it also has shopping areas on 82nd St., a you blocks west of the boulevard, and along Northern Boulevard. The services are geared to the income of the community. Whereas chitterlings and collards are sold in Corona, roast beef and asparagus are sold in Jackson Heights.

Jackson Heights was initially settled by Irish and Italians. Now many have been replaced by Jews, who were once barred from the area. A recent survey showed that almost 75 percent of the residents of one Jackson Heights cooperative apartment house were Jewish.

The section is full of children. Their numbers are not surprising; many families have moved to Jackson Heights because they had two or three children, did not want to live in the more crowded parts of the city, and could not afford to join the commuting set in Westchester and Connecticut. In one cooperative complex, about 40 percent of the apartments have one bedroom, 50 percent had two bedrooms and 10 per cent have three.

Statistics collected by the 1960 U.S. census confirmed the differences between the two communities. Two census tracts, one in eastern Corona, the other in Jackson Heights, yielded this information:

In the Corona tract, which contains 14 square blocks, there were 2,638 Negroes, 499 whites and 36 persons who were classified as “other.” Eight of the residents had been born in Puerto Rico; four of them had Puerto Rican parents; 331 were foreign-born. There were 368 children in the area attending elementary school, of whom 331 were in public school.

The median scholastic attainment level for the area’s adults was 10.3 years. The median family income was $5,407.

In the Jackson Heights census tract, there were 10 square blocks. They contained 5,436 white person, 15 Negroes and 40 “others.” Twnety-eight had been born in Puerto Rico; four had Puerto Rican parents. The foreign-born number 1,319. There were 566 elementary-age children, of him 258 and attended public school.

The median school level was 12.1 years in the median family income was $7,610.

The two elementary schools which serve the areas also differ. P.S. 92, the Corona school, was built in 1910. Although the parents of the children who attend it have asked repeatedly for improvements, they have had no satisfaction. As of last September, the school board had placed P.S. 92 below 114 others on its priority list for renovations. P.S. 149, the Jackson Heights school, was built in 1935. Two years ago it was completely renovated.

It could be argued that these facts had nothing to do with discrimination. But the school board made a rather interesting announcement recently, after it had decided to “pair” the schools. P.S. 92, which had been ignored for so long, suddenly went to the top of the priority list. Many Negroes in Corona find it easy to believe that the decision was made because the board knew he could not fob off a decaying school on white parents.

School pairing is the most far-reaching of the school board’s several plans to satisfy a requirement made last summer by Dr. James E. Allen Jr., state commissioner of education, that all of the state’s school boards examine their racial policies and make sure that integration is being carried out. In New York, pairing is referred to as the “Princeton Plan” after its predecessor in Princeton, New Jersey.

When word first came last September that the school board was considering the Princeton Plan for the city, critics began organizing throughout New York. Some of them formed local groups call parents and taxpayers (P.A.T.) and said that they would fight to the finish to keep their neighborhood schools. Others talked in terms of their children’s being forced to ride buses “all over the city” in order to carry out the school boards integration policy.

In the case of P.S. 149 and P.S. 92 under the Princeton Plan, students from both schools would attend the first and second grades at P.S. 92, the higher grades at P.S. 149. Only about 30 students in the first two grades would have to travel more than a half mile to school. They would be eligible for bus transportation. For most of the others, pairing would mean a walk of the two or three additional blocks.

At the outset some members of Corona’s Negro community thought opposition raised by P.A.T. would not apply in their case. The schools were very close together; the only factor that kept Corona and Jackson Heights from being the same “neighborhood” was the skin of their residents, and, finally, the integration plan that had been initiated last summer by officers of both schools parents groups.

But it did not work out that way.

The pairing proposal was enough to start a split among the residents of Jackson Heights regarding their neighbors in Corona. At one meeting at P.S. 149’s parents’ association, the members rebelled against their leaders; a vote on pairing came and 58 for to 223 against. A survey conducted last November and December showed that 68.5 per cent of the white sample oppose the plan, 31.5 percent favored it.

The Jackson Heights chapter of P.A.T. was formed last September 11, the same day the first newspaper speculation appeared on the Princeton Plan. Mrs. Joan Addabbo, the young housewife and mother of two who heads the chapter, recalled recently that 300 persons were assembled within three hours for the first excited meeting. Now the membership is 1,556; members pay $3 a year in dues and attend one meeting a month, more in times of crisis.

Both Mrs. Addabboo and her husband, an employee of a television repair firm, were natives of the Corona section. They moved into a cooperative apartment in Jackson Heights, she said, “because we wanted a home of our own.”

A great number of P.A.T. members, she said, “are housewives like myself who find it physically impossible to run back and forth across town to schools; women who don’t want two different kids in two different schools; men who feel that the children will be scholastically hurt and deprived of their after-school activities like the Boy Scouts — this is a big community for the Boy Scouts — and after-school religious training.”

(From independent sources there is the additional information that a great percentage of the P.A.T. members moved to Jackson Heights from areas of Brooklyn and the Bronx that were considered “in transition.” And one of Mrs. Addabbo’s fellow members, commenting on the after-school religious training, mused: “It’s hard enough to get them to go to Hebrew school anyway. This school pairing would make it impossible to get them to go.”)

“We think the academic standards would be hurt,” continued Mrs. Addabbo, “if the schools are paired. After all, the Board of Education itself and the so-called civil rights groups all say that the ghetto schools are behind the other schools academically. If we can’t believe them, who else can we believe?”

“. . . my children go to a school which is integrated not just racially but regionwise and every other way. I feel that every group should have their equal rights. But I look at this thing as the other side trying to obtain their equal rights by taking over mine . . .

“So what should I tell my kids when they get sent to the other school and they have to walk past their own school to get there?

“I’ll have to tell them ‘it’s because your skin is white’ or I’ll have to make up a fairy tale. But believe me, before that happens we’ll set up a private school. It’ll be an integrated school, or at least Negroes can enter if they want to, but it’ll be a neighborhood school.” Mrs. Addabbo is now a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to enjoin the school board from paring the two schools.

A different point of view comes from George Anderson, who works in the Akbar thrift shop in Corona (although he is not a Muslim) and who is vice president of the Parents’ Association at P.S. 92. Mr. Anderson, a native og Trinidad, first encountered discrimination in the United States when he stepped off a boat in Florida and walked in tot he waiting room of the bus station.

“That was the South,” he said recently, “but it’s just as bad here. Here you can not put your finger on it. It’s still there but it’s very intricate. For instance the Princeton Plan.

“It wasn’t our idea. It came from some of the white people at P.S. 149. The local school board had some meetings and we went and I told them that we were only trying to get the same educational facilities for our own children that you’re getting for your children. I told them that we didn’t want to come to their parties or visit in their homes.

“We felt for once that inasmuch as they had gotten up the plan themselves it work out well. But it didn’t. Things got very, very tense. I t seems as if the P.A.T. people had put up a curtain along Junction Boulevard–a Mason-Dixon Line.”

A telephone rang and Mr. Anderson excused himself. It was a salesman. Mr. Anderson said he needed more raincoats, that he had sold his last one. “No,” he said, “I didn’t get that much for it. I let him Jew me down on the price.”

He returned to the conversation. “Some of the whites who are against the Princeton Plan say they are against it because it would be dangerous for their children to walk to P.S. 92. What they mean is that they think our neighborhood is corrupt. But they come down here to collect rent from us. And at night we see them come down here in their cars trying to pick up the girls — our girls.”

A neatly dressed Negro in Corona said it would be a waste of time for him to try to find an apartment in Jackson Heights, although he could afford one. “They just wouldn’t it rent to me,” he said, as if he were reciting a mathematical fact. Another resident of Corona said he felt he could get an apartment, but he was certain that the rental agent with quote and inflated rent in order to “scare me away.”

Across Junction Boulevard, a white woman said she knew for a fact that Negroes could rent apartments and buy cooperative apartments in Jackson Heights. “But there are strict regulations here,” she said, “on the number of people who can live in a four-room apartment. The colored people try to jam half a dozen people into one little apartment. That’s what’s keeping them out. It isn’t prejudice.”

Had the woman studied her surroundings, she would have found that a surprising number of Jackson Heights apartments were crowded with white persons. A number of families with one or more children managed to live there and one-bedroom apartments.

A small but surprising number of Jackson Heights residents, asked recently about their objections to school pairing, said they were primarily worried about crime in Corona. More than one expressed fears of dope addiction and venereal disease. A Negro of Corona, replying to this, said: “Where do they think the dope comes from? You ever see a black man running a dope ring? These bad habits that they talk about, they weren’t ours to begin with. Most of the bad things we’ve learned, we’ve learned from white people.” The man may not have known it, but he was repeating a line of reasoning often employed by the street-corner purveyors of black nationalism.

Seymour Deneroff, a white man who has been a strong opponent of the Princeton Plan, is a 44- year-old sales manager with two children in P.S. 149. He feels the children at P.S. 92 are “arrogant trouble-makers, and two or three years behind their level of education.”

“Most of those kids are problem-makers in the area,” he said recently. “They’re different because of their attitude, not their color.”

One white mother explained her position while keeping an eye on two children who were defying gravity in a co-op playground. Like many, she asked for anonymity:

“I’m not a bigot. You have no business even intimating that I’m a bigot. I don’t discriminate against colored people and I never have. But I and my husband have worked hard to get what we’ve got. The only material things we have in this world are a car and a cooperative apartment, and we just aren’t going to watch them go down the drain.

“I wish there was some way for everything to be integrated peacefully — you know, there could be one or two colored at first, and maybe more later, and nobody would mind — I know that nobody would mind. It’s just the large numbers that I’m afraid of. And that’s what everybody else’s afraid of too. Not just in the housing, but in the schools too.”

Not only has the proposed pairing of P.S. 92 and P.S. 149 exposed mutual ignorance and distrust between whites and Negroes; it also has produced grave differences within the wider community. Within a few hours after the Jackson Heights P.A.T. held its first meeting last September, another group of white persons gathered. They chose the name “Citizens Committee for Balanced Schools of Jackson Heights, Corona, and East Elmhurst,” because they favor the pairing of the schools. East Elmhurst is a northern neighbor of Corona.

Harry Ansorge, a 35-year-old lawyer who served as chairman of the group for its first seven months, explained what happened:

“Many of us attended the first P.A.T. meeting. We were shocked and dismayed at what they were saying and some of the language they were using to say it. Some of us who were there asked that they use reason, that they study all sides of the situation. This provoked cries of outrage. Later, about 40 of us got together. We decided to do what we could do to lower the community temperature.

“We felt that this was the ideal place for such a school pairing plan. The usual arguments about busing kids around the city were out of the window — the schools were only six blocks apart. We thought the outcome would be ideal.

“But then after the P.A.T. people got organized the school board started vacillating. And now, we don’t know where we stand. It’s just a state of suspended animation.” The next step is up to the school board, which last week and was showing indecision over whether it really is going to carry out its school pairing plans.

Mr. Ansorge said the Citizens Committee has about 300 members, approximately half of them Negroes. A high percentage of the membership, he said, consists of lawyers, teachers and other professional people.

Although the controversy in Jackson Heights is marked by bitterness, Mr. Ansorge will not excuse the P.A.T. supporters of outright prejudice. “With many of these people it’s a lack of understanding,” he said. “They don’t realize that the school pairing can benefit their own children. They’re not aware of the significance of the Supreme Court decision, or the March on Washington, or the whole civil-rights revolution. They don’t know what it all means. It’s very hard to explain it to them; they’ve closed their minds.”

In all this controversy, an important group of whites in Jackson Heights has remained quiet. These people have always existed in the midst of a revolution; sometimes they are known as moderates. One of their identifying characteristics is apathy, but when they abandoned that apathy they become a powerful force. In Jackson Heights, they are believed to make up the majority of the white citizens.

They are, perhaps, the counterparts of the white southern moderates who, through the power of their presence and their numbers, helped to effect a peaceful, if token, desegregation of the schools in Atlanta, Chattanooga, Charlotte and a dozen other Southern towns. Or they can be the counterparts of those whites who remained silent in Birmingham in Jackson, Miss., and thus helped bring shame to their communities.

It is believed by some that these whites hold the key to the controversy in Jackson Heights. Without their assistance, the Citizens Committee for Balance Schools cannot generate widespread support for school pairing, nor can it build a lasting friendship between Jackson Heights and Corona. Without their assistance, P.A.T. cannot continue to say that it speaks for all the parents.

One of the members of the silent majority, speaking privately, defined the situation as “desperate.”

“There is no communication,” he said. “It is a totally exacerbated community. Some of these people won’t be speaking to each other for a long time.”

This man had hoped the Citizens Committee for Balanced Schools would act as a bridge between the two communities and become a rallying point for silent moderates. “But it turned out that it didn’t take that role,” he said. “Instead, it became a civil rights pressure group and ruined its effectiveness.

“A couple of months ago, there was an effort made to bring together the people who said they were in the middle, but it just didn’t work. There had been such an enormous polarity. The people in the middle just said, ‘A plague on both your houses; I don’t want any part of your fight.'”

This man, and other qualified observers, agreed that the people in the middle might have shown more enthusiasm if the Princeton Plan had been worth fighting for. But these people see the pairing plan as an artificial and temporary way to solve the city’s mammoth race problem, which embraces not only the color of children but also the quality of instruction and physical facilities, the whole psychology of oppressed minorities in such related matters as housing and employment.

Thus they cannot in good conscience join either side of the controversy. They see defects in the arguments advanced both by P.A.T. and the Citizens Committee. These defects afford them an opportunity to excuse themselves from the battle. They become, though apathy and perhaps a degree of fear, bystanders.

One white resident of Jackson Heights summed up this feeling recently while sipping coffee in a Junction Boulevard bagel emporium:

“How can I fight P.A.T. when I know that the Princeton Plan isn’t the answer? How can I join the other side when I know that they don’t have the answer? I know I’m wrong, but I’m just going to have to sit this one out and let them slug it out themselves.”

Letting them slug it out themselves, of course, means sitting back and letting the argument drift into the hands of the militants on both sides. And that, some persons fear, is the worst thing that could happen on Junction Boulevard and the other dividing lines in the North.