MLK Day recollections of exclusion in my hometown

MLK Day recollections of exclusion in my hometown

History bends for Jews, blacks in Maplewood

Robert Wiener at age nine, one year after moving to Maplewood.
Robert Wiener at age nine, one year after moving to Maplewood.

The 50th reunion of Maplewood’s Columbia High School class of 1957 was held in the spring of 2007 at Maplewood Country Club. After dinner, each classmate was asked to address the gathering. When my turn came, I said, “I have never set foot in this place before. I feel like I just got served at the lunch counter.”

For many years after it was established in 1911, the country club excluded Jews and other minorities from membership. My friends and I joked that the way they spelled the word “private” on the sign at the entrance to its driveway was “No Jews.”

One classmate, Maplewood resident and former mayor Fred Profeta, recalled that during our high school years, the all-white, all-Christian country club “wouldn’t even allow Jews on the premises.” When a local band with Jewish members wanted to perform at the club, they had to lie about it. “We couldn’t tell the management they were Jewish kids,” he said.

The club’s membership restrictions brought it bad publicity in 1957, when the world’s top woman tennis player, Althea Gibson, an African-American, was denied permission to enter the prestigious Eastern Clay Court Championships, even after sponsors threatened to relocate the tournament.

Ironically, for at least the past 30 years, Jewish membership at the club has been as high as 80 to 90 percent. Blacks and Latinos have also been made to feel welcome. 

Such changes are emblematic of the transformation of this town of 24,000 people. By the official count of the 2010 census, Maplewood’s racial makeup was 56 percent white, 35 percent African-American, 6  percent Latino, 3.04 percent Asian, 0.18 percent Native American, and 0.03 percent Pacific Islander. 

But some of the town’s drives for racial and religious equity were won only after decades of difficult struggle.

During my senior year in high school, a black family attempted to purchase a home on Sagamore Road in one of the more affluent parts of town. Before the contract was signed, all the other families on the street addressed a petition to the prospective buyers saying, as I recall, “Do not close on this house because you will not be welcome here.” The family chose not to buy.

When my family moved from Manhattan to Maplewood in 1948, my brother and I were the only Jews at the Fielding School (another Jewish boy joined my class in sixth grade). I had only one African-American classmate in those years, none that I can recall at Maplewood Junior High, and very few at Columbia. A check of my senior yearbook showed only four African-Americans pictured, out of a graduating class of 423. Most lived in South Orange, which partners with Maplewood in the joint public high school. There were essentially no black families in Maplewood.

In 1996, Profeta was asked to organize the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race. Even then, almost 40 years after I graduated, “people were starting to worry” about the way real estate brokers were manipulating home sales on the basis of racial discrimination. The suspicion was that they had been guiding prospective home buyers toward or away from certain neighborhoods based on their race and were preying on racial fears to encourage panicky white people to sell their homes at low prices. 

“You could see that happening on Midland Boulevard,” said Profeta. “It was changing one house after another right up the block.” 

The coalition tested real estate agents’ responses to black and white clients, amassed evidence of racial bias, and brought charges before an administrative board.

“Then we made a ‘pocket book’ argument,” said Profeta. “We told them, ‘Look, don’t be stupid. If you market your properties to both blacks and whites, you are going to double your demand for housing, It came at a time when prices in Maplewood and South Orange were  stagnant so the realtors got on board.”

When Profeta’s daughter graduated from Columbia in 1986, her class was 20 percent African-American. In recent years, the high school enrollment grew to more than 50 percent black, “but it’s changing again. Now it is down to around 40 percent,” he said. 

The demographic shift in Maplewood led to change in the town’s political climate, according to Profeta. In the 1940s and ’50s the rumor heard about town was if you didn’t register as a Republican you wouldn’t get your garbage collected. But majority registration shifted to Democratic around 1980; the primary reason, said Profeta, was “more Jewish families moving in.” 

“The big dividing thing when we were in school was Maplewood was Christian and South Orange was Jewish,” said Profeta. “South Orange didn’t have a Jewish majority by any means, but my Christian friends in Maplewood thought of South Orange as ‘the place with the Jews.’”

In the recent presidential election, a staggering 82.8 percent of Maplewood voters supported Democrat Hillary Clinton, while only 9.7 percent voted for Republican Donald Trump.

“Maplewood right now is probably one of the most progressive towns around,” said Profeta. “It has gone from rock-ribbed Republican conservatism to being a real progressive bastion.” 

The LGBT community was another beneficiary of changing attitudes in the era of increasing inclusiveness. In the years before marriage equality was made legal in New Jersey in 2013, Profeta said, he performed more same-sex civil union ceremonies than conventional weddings during his tenure as mayor from 2003 to 2007.

Profeta attributed the growth of the LGBT community in Maplewood to its members thinking, “‘This is a welcoming and diverse community, so we will probably feel better there, too.’” 

As a person who has lived in Maplewood for most of his life, Profeta said, he is keenly aware of the political and social evolution it has undergone.

“When you walk around Maplewood you can talk to anyone and they will have similar views to yours,” he said. “You can see integrated groups of high school kids walking through town. It is just not the Maplewood we knew, and that’s a good thing.” 

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