Home Is Where His Heart Is / First black in Cambria Heights neighborhood endured racism
Doing research earlier this year for a book on the history of Cambria Heights, the Rev. Joshua Mastine Nisbett, pastor of St. David’s Episcopal Church, came across a little- known piece of the African-American story in Queens. He was looking for long-time residents to interview when he was directed to William H. Durham, who is known in that community as the “Mayor of Cambria Heights.”
What Nisbett found out from talking to Durham so impressed the clergyman that he drew up a proclamation outlining a principled stand Durham has taken against bigotry throughout much of his life.Nisbett read the proclamation on Feb. 23 at what was to have been a Men’s Day service celebrating Black History Month. The program was changed to “Durham’s Day.” Congregants wanted to hear Durham tell his story, and he did, answering questions posed by Nisbett. The pastor believed Durham’s experiences deserved a wider audience and sought it for him.
William H. Durham already knew what it was like to be shunned and mistreated as the first black to move into an all-white enclave when he broke the color line in Cambria Heights in 1960. His German-American neighbor in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where he previously lived had objected to him buying a house in that neighborhood, which was mostly white at the time. He was the first African-American to move on his block.
“He gave me a hard time,” Durham recalled recently. “He would call the police and tell them something was going on in my house, maybe drugs. That didn’t work out, so he called the health department and had them come. He said I had a lot of garbage in the backyard. Every few days he was calling some agency to come.” His neighbor resolved the issue by moving. Eventually, Durham, his first wife, Sadie, and their daughter, Gail, then 6, left Bedford-Stuyvesant. The neighborhood was changing.
“A house was torn down across the street from me. All kinds of young men and women were hanging out. I was afraid for my kid to be outside.”
His brother-in-law, who lived in St. Albans, helped Durham search for a home there.
“[Brokers] would say, ‘We’re not selling anything in that area, it’s an all-white area.’ … If you wanted to buy a house it had to be in St. Albans where the black people lived,” Durham said. St. Albans was of no interest to him. “Some of the places were worse than where I’d come from,” he said.
Durham found a house he liked in Cambria Heights selling for $38,000. A real estate broker told him he could only come to look it over at night. Durham was working as a lighting-fixture assembler and he and his wife’s combined income was $17,000. But banks refused to give him a mortgage, Durham said. Some banks wanted at least half the cost of the house as a down payment, he said.
Eventually the homeowner asked his bank to give Durham a mortgage. “I went to his bank, and they said, ‘Not in that area,'” Durham remembered. But eventually the bank agreed to lend him the money, after the homeowner threatened to close his account.
Durham grew up with racism in Goldsboro, N.C., where he was born in 1920. “In the old days you were always told, ‘Negroes stay in your place,'” he said. “You always had to tip your hat and say, ‘Yes ma’am, no ma’am, whenever you spoke to a white lady. If you didn’t you might get a visit from the Klan or your immediate boss.”
Wanting to escape from the forced obsequiousness, Durham joined the U.S. Army at 14, concealing his true age, and made his way to New York as soon as he could.
“My grandmother used to say, ‘Boy, you’re going to get into trouble one of these days. You’re too determined. You want to talk about rights and all that. There are no rights.'”
Durham, who came North in 1946, reflected, “I thought it would have been nicer here.”
But his reception in all-white Cambria Heights wasn’t what he expected. He recounted what happened the September day that he drove into his driveway at his house on 235th Street followed by the moving truck carrying his furniture.
“People started swarming out in the streets. Men were walking back and forth, looking at me. Women stood in the street looking to see what was happening. They stayed until every piece of furniture was unloaded.”
One woman asked him if he had bought the house. When he told her yes, Durham said she told him, “Why did you move here? Why don’t you move where your own kind is?”
“I asked her, ‘Aren’t you an American?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘I’m with my own kind. … I fought for this country in the U.S. Army,” he said.”‘No one else will live here if I’m not allowed to live here.'”
That night, teenage boys on bicycles threw rocks through a picture window in the Durhams’ house. It was the start of almost a year of torment. Neighbors did not speak to them. “They wouldn’t walk on the same side of the street,” he said. The family got threatening phone calls. One was directed at their daughter, Gail, then 7. The NAACP arranged for a police escort for their child to and from school. A cross was burned on their lawn. Their car windshield was broken. The house was ransacked. People stopped talking when Durham entered a local store, and he was refused service. One storeowner threw oranges that Durham had selected in the garbage.
H. Rap Brown, the former Black Panther, offered to help Durham fight fire with fire after the cross burning, but “I turned him down,” Durham said. “I was raised up as a religious man, and God wasn’t telling me to do anything like that. You can’t win with evil.”
At a community meeting, however, Durham told his neighbors, “I’m going to stay no matter what. The only way you’re going to get me out of here is feet first.” He also mentioned that he was trained as a sharpshooter in the Army.
“Things started to change,” Durham said. An elderly couple on his block befriended him. An incident involving milk engendered a new neighborliness. During a lengthy milk strike in the city, Durham, who worked in New Jersey, overheard a local Catholic priest voicing concerns that his parishioners couldn’t get milk. Durham offered to bring in milk from New Jersey. “All of a sudden I became important,” Durham said.
Still, the Klan tied a cross to a lamppost on his front lawn a month later. “I just pulled it down,” he said. “I was determined to stay more than ever.” Things quieted down, Durham said, after then Mayor Robert Wagner ordered an investigation into the cross-burning.
Today, Cambria Heights is a mostly African-American and Caribbean community. Following the path blazed by Durham, blacks started moving in during the 1970s.
Commenting on the proclamation Nisbett’s church issued, Durham, who remarried after Sadie died in 1982, said, “People are honoring me for something I feel I don’t deserve to be honored for. … God used me to carry out a plan for him. I am glad I was able to stand the fire and walk through.”