A Trailblazing Black Politician, Inspired by Alexander Hamilton
By BETH HARPAZ
Bertram Baker became Brooklyn’s first black elected official when he went to the New York State Assembly in 1948, but he was also an old-school power broker. Boss of Black Brooklyn, a new book written by Bertram’s grandson and Brooklyn College Professor Ron Howell, tells his remarkable story. Howell grew up watching Baker call the shots on “black patronage” — everything from helping supporters find housing to engineering the appointments of black judges.
To build influence, Baker joined organizations like the Prince Hall Masons, collected signatures for the Democratic Party, and worked the polls. He even opened his own Democratic clubhouse.
In 1948, Democrats “made a secret deal” with a white assemblyman who declined a nomination for re-election, allowing the district leader to appoint Baker as the nominee. Baker “won the primary without even running for it,” Howell said. He served 22 years in the assembly, sponsoring one of the nation’s first laws against housing discrimination, and becoming majority whip, “the highest state position ever achieved at that time by a black person.”
Baker’s legacy also extended to sports. As head of an all-black tennis association, Baker “negotiated with white tennis administrators to have them accept Althea Gibson into white competitions.” That led to Gibson’s “historic Wimbledon victory in 1957 and opened doors for Arthur Ashe and Venus and Serena Williams.”
Baker was the second New York assemblyman born on the Caribbean island of Nevis. The first was Alexander Hamilton, in 1787. Baker was fascinated by Hamilton, and often mentioned their shared heritage. In 1957, Baker sponsored an assembly resolution honoring Hamilton, and in 1983, he made a speech in Nevis outside Hamilton’s birthplace.
Eventually Baker’s “go along to get along” philosophy and backroom deal-making with the party machine lost out to 1960s reformers. Among those up-and-comers was a Brooklyn woman who became the first black woman elected to Congress. Her name was Shirley Chisholm, and her memoir was titled Unbought and Unbossed.