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He Honors Black New Yorkers. Not All Black Activists Are Thrilled

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tags: New York City, African American history, public history



Last March, a crowd gathered in Downtown Brooklyn to celebrate a new name for Gold Street: Ida B. Wells Place. Jacob Morris, the tireless activist behind the renaming effort, addressed the group.

“I’m almost speechless,” he said.

“Yeah, almost,” someone in the audience commented, laughing.

Mr. Morris has not achieved success by mincing words. A force behind the renaming of some 40 streets and monuments in New York after prominent Black New Yorkers, including the performer Paul Robeson, the civil rights activist Ella Baker and the Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, he likes to talk and he likes to nudge, both of which come in handy when dealing with community boards and city bureaucracies. But his nonstop zeal can also rub people the wrong way, perhaps most notably in Harlem, where he is the head (and only member) of the Harlem Historical Society.

Mr. Morris proceeded with his speech, enumerating his other renaming accomplishments before getting to the woman of the hour, Ms. Wells.

“It wasn’t just that she lived here,” he said. “It was that her time here in Brooklyn was critical to her growth, as an activist, as an author.” In Brooklyn, Mr. Morris explained, Ms. Wells banded together with a group of local women to help finance her groundbreaking journalism exposing the horrors of lynching.

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For more than 15 years, Mr. Morris has been on a mission to increase Black representation in public spaces. The end result tends to look impressive, but the work itself is tedious, requiring hundreds of hours at local government meetings that few have the patience to attend, much less engage in. A mix of curiosity, conviction and free time make Mr. Morris perfect for this kind of work.

Earnestine Morris, his wife, puts it this way: At any public lecture, Mr. Morris is the guy with the question afterward, hand jutting up in the air.

And he has spun his quirks into a vocation, while sporting Negro League baseball jackets that he bought on eBay (“I get a lot of compliments”), despite the fact that he is white.

Read entire article at New York Times

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