Skip to Main Content

Cecily Dyer
February 4, 2021

A few years ago, I went in search of background information about a periodical in the Center for Brooklyn History collections called Afro-America. It was published in the late 1960s from Fred Richardson’s African American Bookstore in Crown Heights, which sold books by and about Black writers, poets, and political leaders, as well as picture books for children and art by Black artists. Fred opened the store when he was just 22.

Fred Richardson in his newly opened store with sculptor Ruth Inge Hardison. New Amsterdam News, Brooklyn Edition, December 12, 1964

The magazine launched a few years later and carried news, poetry, West Indian recipes, and cartoons, as well as essays on history, language, Black Power, and legal rights. It advertised Black-owned businesses in Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant that it encouraged its readers to support. Almost all of those involved in the magazine were from Brooklyn’s West Indian community, but the endeavor was also a family affair, with Fred’s mother, Elise, serving as editor of the children’s section, and his wife, mother-in-law, and uncle also playing active roles. In the end, researching the names on the Afro-America masthead revealed a deeper story of kinship, community and activism running through generations of one Brooklyn family.

A FAMILY’S BEGINNINGS IN BROOKLYN

Elise and her sisters were the children of Aletha Dowdridge and Frederick Challenor, who had each immigrated from Barbados around 1902, joining an existing West Indian community in Brooklyn. The 1905 census shows Aletha living with fellow immigrants Conrad and Louisa Rollock, their children, and three other boarders in a two-story wood-frame house on Pacific Street and Vanderbilt Avenue (a block now beneath the Pacific Park/Atlantic Yards development that includes Barclay’s Center). Conrad and Louisa had arrived from Barbados ten years earlier and would have offered Aletha both the familiarity of shared culture and experience, as well as local knowledge and connections. Benevolent and mutual aid societies were important vehicles through which new immigrants formed communities and supported one another, and Conrad held various leadership positions in Brooklyn’s West Indian Benevolent and Social League. In 1904, Aletha served on the League’s Picnic Committee along with “F. Challenor”—likely 28-year-old Frederick.

Brooklyn Standard Union, August 19, 1904

Letters between the two, before and after their marriage in 1907, are preserved at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. They document challenges familiar to many new immigrants: Frederick and Aletha struggled to find jobs in the skilled trades for which they were qualified—Frederick as a shoemaker, and Aletha as a seamstress—and the service jobs available to Frederick were often unsteady. Their daughter Elise was born a year after the marriage, but (like Shirley Chisholm years later) she spent her childhood in Barbados with her grandmother while her parents focused on working and saving money. By 1920, they were able to buy a three-story brick row house at 405 Waverly Avenue, just a few doors down from PS 11, a well-regarded elementary school in Clinton Hill. 12-year-old Elise returned from Barbados to join her parents and two sisters, 4-year-old Dorothy and baby Ida May, in their new home.

Newspapers show that the girls themselves were active in local community and social organizations, and that central to their activities was the then-segregated Y.W.C.A. on Ashland Place in Fort Greene, which opened in 1919.  At the Y.W.C.A., the girls acted in theatre productions and joined the “Girl Reserves” and various clubs. By the time they were teenagers at Girls High School and into their college years, they had taken on leadership roles at the Y.W.C.A., working with younger girls in clubs that were mostly lighthearted and social in nature, with names like “The Peppy Outdoor Pals Club” and “Happy Elves,” and with functions including hosting lindy hops and raising money for charity. But the activities provided opportunities for organizing, leadership, and holding office—skills that they carried into later years.

As the Great Depression set in, the young Challenor women’s focus evolved to reflect an increasing awareness of the struggles and injustices facing people of color in America. The papers of civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois at UMass Amherst contain letters Elise wrote to Du Bois from Waverly Avenue around 1930—and copies of the letters that Du Bois wrote back in reply—in which she identified herself as “an enthusiastic reader of The Crisis,” the official organ of the NAACP, of which Du Bois was editor. Elise graduated from Maxwell Training School for Teachers (now PS 138, though still bearing the words “Training School for Teachers” above the door) in 1930, becoming a teacher in the New York City schools and, later, a vice principal at PS 44 (Marcus Garvey Elementary School) in Bedford Stuyvesant and PS 91 in Crown Heights. She was also a member of the Bedford Stuyvesant Health Committee, helping to organize free medical and dental service for local children as part of what was then called National Negro Health Week. In later years, both she and her son, Fred, in addition to working on Afro-America, led classes in Black history here at Brooklyn Public Library. 

Elise Challenor Rollock and her son, Fred Richardson, lead classes advertised in The Central Brooklyn Coordinator, March, 1967; Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council publications, ARC.163, Box 1; Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

While Elise’s work was decidedly local, her sister Dorothy became active in civil rights causes at a national level and is widely recognized today for her significant contributions and leadership. Dorothy’s involvement in issues stretching beyond central Brooklyn began at Brooklyn College, where she met students and teachers involved with the Communist Party USA, which was then a leader in the push for racial equality and workers’ rights, who were campaigning to improve the situation of their fellow Americans in the south. When Dorothy graduated in 1937 with a degree in biology and found herself unable to secure employment, she devoted herself fully to civil rights organizing. She held the office of Executive Secretary of the Brooklyn Negro Youth Federation of the National Negro Congress, helping to organize fellow young people in Brooklyn, and was a member of the Christian Youth Council and the Educational Committee of the State, County, and Municipal Workers Association.

New York Age, August 24, 1940. Those involved with the congress include both Dorothy Challenor and Elise's husband at the time, Dr. Lionel Richardson.

In 1941 Dorothy married fellow activist and CUNY graduate Louis E. Burnham, and together they moved to Birmingham, Alabama, to work with the Southern Negro Youth Congress, which their friends and fellow activists James and Esther Cooper Jackson had helped found. With headquarters in Alabama, SNYC campaigned for civil, economic, political, and social rights for African Americans, organizing farmers and industrial and domestic workers and campaiging against lynching, police brutality, segregation, employment discrimination, and discriminatory poll taxes.

People's Voice, September 7, 1946

With Cold War anti-communist sentiment placing increasing pressure on SNYC and its members, the organization held its last conference in 1948 and subsequently dissolved. Dorothy and Louis Burnham, along with James and Esther Cooper Jackson, settled in Brooklyn to raise their children—future leaders themselves. They continued to play important roles in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and helped cofound the influential political and cultural quarterly Freedomways, which Esther Cooper Jackson later edited. Louis Burnham also cofounded the newspaper Freedom with his friend, singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson, and worked as a writer and editor for the National Guardian until his untimely death in 1960. 

Dorothy Burnham, who has continued to fight for justice throughout her life, turns 106 next month

 

Comments / 2 comments

I knew Dorothy Burnham when she was a faculty member at Empire State college SUNY. I would love to contact her to congratulate her on her birthday and heritage.
1 year ago  
Wikipedia has an article about Louis Burnham that includes a lot of detail. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_E._Burnham
11 months ago  

Post a Comment

While BPL encourages an open forum, posts and comments are moderated by library staff. BPL reserves the right, within its sole discretion, not to post and to remove submissions or comments that are unlawful or violate this policy. While comments will not be edited by BPL personnel, a comment may be deleted if it violates our comment policy.

close navigation