The Brooklyn block and neighborhood of Jefferson Ave. between Tompkins and Throop avenues in Bed-Stuy was officially co-named Bertram L. Baker Way last Saturday.
Diane Patrick, who grew up in Bed-Stuy, and her husband, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, were on hand along with local politicians and the folks from the Brooklyn block and neighborhood of Jefferson Ave. commemorated an important Brooklynite.
In December–as an act of City Council–Jefferson Ave. was co-named Bertram L. Baker Way, named for the first Black person elected to office in Brooklyn. Still living in the mid-block family house, Bertram Baker’s daughter Marian Baker Howell attended the official ceremony on Saturday along with many members of her extended family. Son Ron Howell and niece Diane Patrick, First Lady of Massachusetts, were part of the happy celebration.
Bertram “Bert” Baker represented Bedford-Stuyvesant in the New York State Assembly for 22 years. Born on Nevis in the British West Indies in 1898, he came to the U.S. in 1915 at the age of 17. He rose through the ranks of the Brooklyn Democratic Party in the 1930’s and 1940’s and was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1948. As a legislator, he was a champion of fair housing and equal rights.
He co-sponsored one of the nation’s first laws barring race discrimination in housing, the Metcalf-Baker Act in 1955. He was named Assembly majority whip, in 1966, the highest position attained up to that time by a Black person.
Displayed on the stage where the ceremony took place was a portrait of Bert with a montage of symbolic images reflecting his life, including images of tennis.
The legislator was an avid tennis player. He was the head of the Black tennis group, the American Tennis Association from the 1930s through the 1960s–tennis was segregated and Black players were effectively not allowed to play in the big national and regional competitions. The ATA had its own tournaments locally and once a year they had their national championships.
In 1950, they got the major tennis association to allow Althea Gibson to play and she went on in 1957 to win singles and doubles at Wimbledon, the first Black international champion (akin to the Jackie Robinson of tennis). Following her win, she visited Baker at his house on Jefferson Ave. And when New York City threw her a celebratory ticker tape parade, Bert Baker rode with her.
At the co-naming ceremony, Governor Patrick introduced his wife Diane who shared memories of living on the block and the months before Baker’s death. Local politicians Assemblyman Hakeem Jefferies and Councilwoman Leticia James paid tribute the trails he blazed. Borough President Marty Markowitz spoke of racial issues in the past in New York. He presented a Proclamation saluting the memory of Brooklyn’s first African-American assemblyman.
Following the accolades, family, friends, and neighbors proceeded to the Common Grounds Bookstore around the corner on Tompkins where Governor Patrick did a book signing of his new memoir, “A Reason to Believe: Lessons From an Improbable Life.”
In January 2007, Deval Patrick became the first African-American governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, one of only two African American governors elected in American history; in their trailblazing, Governor Patrick and Bertram Baker share political legacies.
The governor was born in Chicago and worked as an attorney for NAACP Legal Defense Fund, later appointed by President Clinton, as assistant attorney general for civil rights. He is serving his second term as governor of Massachusetts.