Brooklyn's First Black Elected Official: Bertram L. Baker

Michelle Montalbano

Before Shirley Chisholm or David Dinkins made history, Bertram L. Baker paved the way. If you've found yourself on Jefferson Avenue between Tompkins and Throop Avenues, you may have noticed street signs announcing his name. The first Black elected official from Brooklyn, Bertram L. Baker made his debut in the New York State Assembly in November 1948, where he would serve for the next twenty-two years. It was a milestone in Brooklyn history, but do you know his story, or what politics in the borough looked like when he was elected?  

PORT_0043, Bertram L. Baker, 1949, Brooklyn Daily
Eagle Photograph Collection, Center for Brooklyn History

Baker emigrated from the Caribbean island of Nevis in 1915, when he was 17 years old, an origin he shares with another important historical figure: Alexander Hamilton. He also shares this: after Hamilton, he was the second—and only other—person from Nevis to serve in the NY State Assembly. Baker moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1923, and lived at 399 Jefferson Avenue when he was elected to office. Trained as an accountant after defecting from his original intention to go into the Episcopalian ministry, one of his first full-time jobs was at a chandelier manufacturing company a block from Borough Hall, Cox & Nostrand. Brooklyn Borough President John Cashmore chose Baker to be his Confidential Inspector in 1945, which gave him the prominence he needed to secure his historic victory in 1948. It also gave him the platform he needed to liaise with Cashmore about the interests of the growing population of Black people in Brooklyn. 

In The Boss of Black Brooklyn, biographer—and Baker's grandson—Ron Howell describes a political landscape in the first half of the 20th century that was still very much boss-controlled, and where the Republican and Democratic parties did not have the same associations they do today. Though the tides were beginning to turn, Baker broke with tradition for many Black voters at that time, who were strongly Republican: the party of Lincoln, still associated with ending enslavement in the south. Baker aligned himself with the Irish Democratic machine, apparently benefitting from some backroom scheming to clinch the Democratic nomination against his Republican competitor Maude Richardson, a Black woman who had support from progressive and leftist organizations. 

Jefferson Ave. between Tompkins & Throop Aves., 1888.
Three years after the Baker family home at 399 Jefferson was built. 
Sanborn Maps, Brooklyn Map Collection, Center for Brooklyn History.

During his tenure with the State Assembly, Baker helped pass legislation that banned housing segregation, one of the greatest accomplishments of his career. As Baker noted in a "Brooklyn's Man of the Week" column in 1949, "In my travels, I've seen a lot of segregation. In Brooklyn, we have segregation, too. It's not forced on us, of course. But we still have it. That's one of the reasons my people need spokesmen in government." To achieve this goal, which addresses both the sale and rental of property in New York State, he reached across the aisle and joined forces with a white upstate Republican. It took years, but the Metcalf-Baker bill was finally signed into law in 1955. His Republican colleague George Metcalf attributed the passage of this, and subsequent anti-discrimination housing bills, to Baker's rhetorical gifts. An avid tennis player, he also worked to integrate the sport, celebrating Althea Gibson's 1957 victory, the first Black person to win a major tournament. He also reached the rank of Majority Whip in 1965, another first for a Black Assemblymember at that time.    

At the dedication ceremony of Bertram L. Baker Way in 2011, New York Attorney General Letitia James credited Baker with breaking the barriers that have allowed her and Hakeem Jeffries' careers to flourish. To learn more about Bertram Baker's life and legacy, check out The Boss of Black Brooklyn by Ron Howell. 

Howell, R. (2018). Boss of Black Brooklyn: The Life and Times of Bertram L. Baker. New York: Fordham University Press.

"Brooklyn's Man of the Week", Jan 9. 1949. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Center for Brooklyn History.

Interested in seeing more photos from CBH’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images, or the digital collections portal at Brooklyn Public Library. We look forward to inviting you to CBH in the future to research in our entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections. In the meantime, please visit our resources page, available here or access the resources of the former Brooklyn Collection here. Our reference staff are still available to help with your research! You can reach us at cbhreference@bklynlibrary.org

Caroline Campb…

I purchased and read the book in astonishment when it was first published. Being new to Brooklyn at the time, I was pleasantly surprised by the accomplishments of Mr. Baker. I currently life one block from his home in Jefferson. Congratulations to his family.
Tue, Feb 9 2021 11:39 pm Permalink

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