Brooklyn Politics as Shaped by Alexander Hamilton
Posted November 3, 2018 4:13 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — Bertram L. Baker, who was the first black elected official in the Brooklyn borough of New York City — a man whom Letitia James, the New York City public advocate, credits with paving the way for her and many other black politicians — had a very specific role model: Alexander Hamilton.
As a teenager on the Caribbean island of Nevis, Baker worked at a store on Main Street called the Scotch House. It was about 100 yards from the stone home where Hamilton was born in 1757.
Baker, born more than 140 years later, was a devoted student of Hamilton’s life. He enjoyed telling people that the founding father had served in the New York state Assembly. Years later, Baker would set out to do the same.
In 1948, three decades after immigrating to the United States and settling in Brooklyn, Baker was elected to the Assembly and became the second and only other Nevis-born person to serve there. He was also, notably, the first black person in the 200-year history of Kings County to be elected to a political office.
“It was Bertram Baker who knocked down the door of opportunity so that Hakeem Jeffries and I could just sway and walk on through,” said James, then a member of the New York City Council — and now the front-runner in the attorney general race — during a 2011 ceremony co-naming a block of Jefferson Avenue in Brooklyn as Bertram L. Baker Way.
Jeffries, then an assemblyman, now a congressman, who was also at the ceremony, said Baker had arrived in Albany before “our legendary folks like Percy Sutton and Basil Paterson, like Charlie Rangel and David Dinkins, like Shirley Chisholm.
“Before all of them got to the New York state capital,” he continued, “there was Bertram Baker, and we’re all standing on his shoulders.”
Baker stepped off Ellis Island in 1915. At that time, blacks made up 1 percent of the population in Brooklyn, as opposed to 33 percent today. Perhaps more important to what would happen next was the fact that blacks were still largely aligned with the Republican Party, considered to be the party of Abraham Lincoln.
But Baker could see times were changing. Democrats were growing in power in Brooklyn. After Baker became a U.S. citizen in 1924, he joined the Democratic club, then on Gates Avenue in what is now Bedford-Stuyvesant. The club at the time, which was accepting black applicants, was mostly controlled by the Irish, a powerful group. Baker seemed to know that these were the people with whom he — and other blacks — should align.
So he began to recruit other blacks to the party. “I went around here on Jefferson Avenue canvassing to get signatures on the Democratic petitions, and a black woman came to the door,” recalled Baker at age 87, three years before he died. “She looked at me astonished. She said, ‘Young man, I’m ashamed of you. I was a Republican born, I was Republican bred and I’ll be a Republican when I’m dead.’ Bam. And she slammed the door in my face.”
Dealing with the Irish was a balancing act for Baker. He could make nice as any politician could. But he also had aggressive impulses that could jeopardize relations with higher-ups. One of his first full-time jobs was as a bookkeeper with Cox and Nostrand, a lighting fixture outlet. The owners were Irish-American who ended up giving an important promotion to someone else, not Baker. It did not end well.
“Bertram got on a platform,” recalled his wife, Irene, years after Baker’s death. He said “they had deceived him and they had placed someone else in that position and that he was quitting, and he left.”
In 1933, Baker met with a group of like-minded blacks (including a few women) at his home on Throop Avenue in Brooklyn. They formed the United Action Democratic Association. Baker would be its leader, and through that organization, he would shift between the Irish and Jewish Democratic leaders, supporting them at times, opposing them at other times.
Through much of the 1940s, Baker served as a “confidential inspector” for Brooklyn borough President John Cashmore, who was Irish-American. With this position, Baker was able to provide a liaison between Cashmore and the growing black community of central Brooklyn.
When the Democratic bosses finally realized they could no longer remain an all-white cadre, they cut a deal to get Baker into an elective office. They promised the Irish-American assemblyman at the time, John Walsh, who was slated to be the Democratic candidate for the next general election, that if he declined the nomination, they would give him a judgeship. This would give the bosses the right to appoint a replacement nominee. And that nominee would be Bertram L. Baker.
“The breakthrough was at hand,” Baker recalled at the Brooklyn Historical Society in 1976. “The final barrier would be broken down.”
In November of 1948, Baker would become the first black elected official from Brooklyn, representing Bedford Stuyvesant in the state Assembly.