Irene Lawson grew up in Ponckhockie, graduated from Kingston High School in 1951, and after attending nursing school became Kingston Hospital’s first African-American nurse. Her husband, Joe Lawson, ran a barbershop on lower Broadway until urban renewal encroached on the area, and he moved the business to a building he bought on Broadway in Midtown (it’s now a gallery and events space called The Idea Garden).
Joe Lawson was a pivotal figure in the community, who also worked in the city assessor’s office and later as the recreational director of the Rondout Neighborhood Center. He knew everyone.
In numerous ways the Lawsons, who raised their three sons in a house on Foxhall Avenue in a predominantly white neighborhood, bridged Kingston’s racial divide. But racism’s spectre often raised its head in forms that, though occasionally covert, were always painful. Irene and Joe overcame the prejudice and personal obstacles confronting their family not only to make successful careers but also to inspire the community. Now advanced in years, but still vivacious and youthful-looking, Irene, who lives with her son Doug and his wife in Uptown Kingston, recently spoke to me about what it was like growing up, working and raising a family in Kingston as an African-American. Doug, who works for the Hyde Park school district, contributed to the conversation, sharing his experience and outlining the ways racism persists to this day —with a suggestion on how to combat it.
Kingston Times: Irene, where were you born? What are your roots in Kingston?
Irene: I was born in Glasco in a home birth. My mother was 15 when she started her family, which consisted of four of us. We moved to Kingston when I was five years old, where I went to Number 4 School [it was subsequently torn down by urban renewal]. I was raised by my grandmother and grandfather, who worked at the brickyard. My grandmother came from the South and had moved to the area in the early part of the 20th century.
KT: Was your neighborhood integrated?
Irene: Yes, and it was fine when I was in grammar school. But when I went to Kingston High School some of the Caucasian girls were not so friendly. Before that, I can remember going to Hasbrouck Park and the white kids would not allow us to swim in the pool (at that time the parks all had pools) because they said the black color of our skin would come off. We would swim at Kingston Beach, and when we lived in Glasco my mom would take us to the creek to swim.
KT: Do you think you got a good education?
Irene: Yes, and in fact up through high school I had perfect attendance, but I was never recognized for that. I never received the certificate they would normally give out to reward a student. One time, when the principal saw me walking out in the hallway, he chastised me, although I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
KT: What made you want to be a nurse?
Irene: I had always wanted to be a nurse because of Mrs. Young, who was our school nurse when I was in grammar school. She was the sweetest lady, and she inspired me.
My best friend and I both wanted to be nurses, so we applied to the Kingston Hospital School of Nursing, but it was clear they didn’t want black nurses or black students. My guidance counselor suggested I go to Union University School of Nursing, now Albany Med, which was an excellent choice because it was the number-one nursing school in the state.
KT: How did the Kingston Hospital nursing school discourage you?
Irene: They would just look away from you and let you know you weren’t wanted.
KT: Did you experience a similar racism at the Union University School?
Irene: No. It was a three-year program, and there were black students. Interesting enough, I was the only black student in my class, and one of the other girls became a good friend and we remained friends for years. There weren’t any problems ever. There was a prince from Africa studying to be a doctor who was interested in me.
KT: What did you do after graduating?
Irene: I applied to Kingston Hospital and got a job as an RN. I was the first African-American nurse — prior to me there was a black woman working there, but she was from another county. After I started working there I experienced a lot of tension and prejudice, but after a while it worked out. It was coming from the staff, not the patients.
One day, when I was under all this pressure, I snapped at this little maid who was working at the hospital and was the sweetest thing. She was so hurt — I could see it in her eyes — that I snapped out of it and went back to being my original self. Because of her, I was able to go on. She just gave me strength. I was traveling down this dark path, because of the treatment I was receiving.
Doug: Black people don’t talk about it, but we can detect if someone’s racist within 15 seconds of meeting them. My mother is very good at it. They wrinkle their nose at you, which means disgust. You learn how not to react to it. Mom’s a perfect example of that: her tone is very even. It’s the qualities one needs to survive in that particular environment. You don’t have the luxury of showing anger or being upset. You learn to work in that hostile environment.
KT: How long did you work there, and what was your specialty?
Irene: I worked there 38 years, from 1954 to the early 1990s. My specialty was obstetrics/gynecology, which I loved. I worked in three units, labor and delivery, post partum and nursery. After that I worked in Dr. Joseph Rienzi’s office for seven years. He called me “Sissy.”
Doug: They were very close friends. He thought so highly of her that he invited her to work for him.
Irene: After he retired, I worked in home health care for a few years and also in the jail for a short time, passing out the meds. The inmates were very respectful.
KT: Having overcome formidable obstacles, you must have helped and inspired others.
Irene: I was flattered by what a couple of black women in Kingston told me. Dorothy Childs [wife of the Rev. James Childs] was one. She came up to me and said she was inspired to go into nursing because of me, and she did become an RN.
KT: Where did you meet your husband, Joseph?
Irene: He was a good friend of my brother and I met him in Kingston. We dated while I was in nursing school and after I got out of school we got married.
KT: Was his family from here? What was his background?
Irene: Joe’s father came from the South and worked at the Governor Clinton Hotel. Joe worked there before he opened up his barber shop.
Doug: My father left high school and went into the service, where he learned his trade as a cook. There was a certain amount of discrimination: if you were a person of color, the attitude was, “we’ll let you be a cook,” but he was okay with that, he enjoyed cooking. He went to barber school in Philadelphia.
Irene: He also worked for a black barber, down on the Strand. After he left his location on lower Broadway, they left his barber pole out.
KT: Was he forced out by urban renewal?
Irene: I don’t know if he had to move. He suspected something might happen down there. It was a proactive move on his part and the opportunity presented itself to purchase the building on Broadway in Midtown. It was roughly around 1967.
KT: You were also starting a family. How did you come to live on Foxhall?
Irene: Joe’s Aunt Lillian owned a house on Foxhall and after she went into a nursing home it was vacant for a few years. My husband went to see her and offered to buy the house, but instead she gave it to him. It was modest and located next to where Stewart’s is now.
KT: It was a white neighborhood. Did you feel welcome?
Irene: Joe’s aunt Lillian had been their neighbor for years. They knew her, so having a black family move into that house wasn’t that strange. The neighbors were nice.
There was an exception: the neighbor who lived diagonally from us was an RN and we worked together at the hospital. She was friendly but a little biased, which you could tell by how her kids reacted to us. She would drive her kids to school, and she would never pick up my kids, who walked. Her son Glenn, who was the same age as my kids, had a birthday party to which my kids were not invited. It didn’t bother them, but when I had a birthday part for my twin boys and Glenn was not invited, he asked his mother why. Everyone in the neighborhood except him was invited, and he was over there watching all the kids run around our yard. It was a neighborhood of big families, and you knew everyone in your immediate block. One New Year’s Eve, everyone from the neighborhood celebrated by sleeping upstairs at our house.
KT: Did Kingston have predominately black neighborhoods?
Doug: Up two blocks on Gage Street there was an enclave of black families, most of whom were homeowners. Midtown, around Franklin Street, was predominantly African-American. My grandmother owned a house on Van Buren Street.
The big equalizer in Kingston was IBM, which meant you could get a decent job and own a house. It was almost an even playing field because of IBM.
Irene: My brother, his wife and my brother-in-law worked at IBM. My brother-in-law started out clocking in people and ended up in third-level management.
Doug: I worked at IBM and loved it. If you worked hard, you could accomplish things you never thought you could do. They’d promote you and provide free schooling. It was a wonderful place. They had a country club you could take your family to. They were unlike any other company that existed in Kingston.
KT: Doug, where did you go to school? Was there discrimination?
Doug: I went to Brigham Elementary [located on O’Neill Street, where the senior housing is now], where there were four or five other black kids. My mom had to go to the school on a couple of occasions. Once when I was ten …
Irene: He was accused of something he didn’t do. The teacher blamed him for something a white boy did. Doug was my serious child, and when he came home [and told me what happened,] I went to the school and confronted the teacher. She was very nice when I confronted her, complimenting me on how nice and clean my kids were. My children had no problems after that.
Doug: You develop certain survival skills when you know someone doesn’t like you and you don’t know why. My mother was way ahead of the curve and she prepared us well to handle it. Racism and classism feel the same, in that people act toward a person as if they are poor or beneath them. My mother prepared us. She’d dress us like we were going to a private prep school. I’d wear a white shirt with a burgundy dickey with navy blue pants. Our pants were always pressed. Once they found out their mother is a nurse and their father has his own business, the educators saw us differently.
KT: What was your father’s role in the community?
Doug: Everyone knew Joe the barber. My father was very good at public relations. When as a kid driving in the car with him, people would beep and call out, Hey Joe. He’d wave at blacks and whites alike and moved very fluidly between the two communities. My father was an “ethnic hair specialist,” but nobody was excluded.
If you’re a politician and do retail politicking and are a Democrat, you’d better visit the local eatery and barbershop and make yourself known. The backbone of the community was the black church. My mom went to the New Central Emmanuel Baptist, which was originally on the High Road and is now on East Strand, and then after marrying my dad she went to his church, AME Zion on Franklin. My father knew all the ministers and members of the other churches. Congressman Maurice Hinchey was a very astute politician and probably asked “Who’s the black barber in town?” and got introduced to Joe. My father also had a reputation as a wonderful cook. Maurice would say, Would you do a fundraiser?, and my dad would have one at Forsyth Park where he’d cook his skirt or flank steak and 400 or 500 people would show up. If they knew Joe was cooking, it was an easy sell.
He also worked at city hall, in the city’s assessor’s office, and knew his boss, mayor Frank Koenig. Koenig was a wonderful guy, and they were friends. My father was also a career reservist, and later he was the director of the Rondout Neighborhood Center. After he’d leave the center, he’d ride up four blocks to do barbering.
He could move in and out of both communities easily because of his personality and also because he was light-skinned. Everybody from the guy down on his luck to the congressman could call him by his first name; he was like Joe Biden that way.
KT: You raised your two children in Kingston. What’s their experience been?
Doug: My daughter went to grade school at George Washington, when she was living with her mom, and that was fine. It was integrated and diverse. When she came to live with me, when she was seven, she went to Chambers, which was not as diverse. She felt out of place there, unwanted, until another black girl started attending, and they became best friends. She then went to Miller, which was terrible and had a certain amount of racism. If I had to do all over again, I would have home-schooled my kids. I thought Chambers was a better school than Washington, but socially it was not so hot.
KT: Can you be more specific about the problem at Miller?
Doug: When my daughter was at Chambers, she took this English Language Arts test, which was given to sixth graders, and scored in the 99th percentile. I see this and I smile, thinking yes, I got the job done, she will go to Harvard or Yale. She gets a special invitation to go to a Johns Hopkins summer school [for high achievers], but I couldn’t sell it to her and because of her experience she didn’t go.
She goes to Miller, and one day it slipped out that she was in a special reading class. Immediately I knew what that was. I went to the school and I played dumb and called a conference. One of the benefits for me, having grown up in a white school, was that I wasn’t intimidated by the white principal and vice principal and other people sitting in big chairs, surrounding you in a semi-circle like they were a firing squad.
I said, “Can any of you explain to me why my daughter is in the special reading class?” and they said “She has trouble with her reading.” I said, “How could you determine that?” and the guidance counselor said my daughter wouldn’t raise her hand in class.
I happened to have her test score and said, “Take a look and tell me what you think.” The principal puts his head down and passes it to the next person, and now it’s very quiet after they all read the test score. I give them a way out and said, “Listen, obviously there is a mistake somewhere. What will you do to correct it?” They’re expecting the angry black man to come out, but not today. They took her out of that class.
It also begged the question to my daughter, “Why are all your friends in the special reading class?” and she said, “It’s not too bad for social reasons.” I’m wondering, why wasn’t she singled out for being gifted?
Why did I have to fight that fight, when you’ve done everything right? They have the college track and the vocational track, and once they track you, it’s difficult to remove yourself from it. Often you don’t even know you’re being tracked. Unless your family intervenes, you may never question it.
KT: What is your daughter doing now?
Doug: She just turned 32 and lives in Cohoes. She has five jobs, working for the state for one of the alphabet agencies, in human services, and she is also a drug and alcohol counselor. She loves the counseling and it’s a wonderful place. She has a nursing degree and works 85, 90 hours a week.
KT: What form do racist attitudes take today?
Irene: I was shopping at Walmart’s and this little child in a cart her mother was wheeling around said to me, “You look like a monkey.” Where’d she learn that? Obviously from her mother.
Doug: A white person says to me, “Doug, you’re so articulate.” They don’t mean to be offensive, but to a black person’s ears it’s not a compliment, because we know you wouldn’t say that to a white person. It says something about how you view the world.
Sometimes it’s more overt.
About 30 years ago, I was with a girlfriend who was white at a local eatery. My girlfriend put her hand on my shoulder and was being affectionate when the waitress came over and asked us to leave. I told her I didn’t feel like leaving, and the waitress said she was going to call the police. Then my girlfriend said, “He is the police” because at the time I was working for the sheriff’s office. But I realized it would be best to leave and said, “Let’s go.”
Here’s the reason: Typically, the officer would arrive and ask you to leave. If you don’t, then you’re probably going to get charged with disorderly conduct. If you’re really upset and you resist, then he’s allowed to use minimal force to arrest you. If you protest and push back when he tries to handcuff you, then you may be charged with assault on a police officer. So the situation could escalate from a violation to a misdemeanor to a felony, and you will definitely end up at the police station, if not in jail and in court.
KT: Looking back, do you see racist attitudes you weren’t aware of at the time?
Doug: Where I grew up, a half-block away we could play tennis, basketball, softball, touch football, baseball. We could fish, play golf. Where we lived afforded us the privilege to do these kinds of things. But there were other things, which I didn’t realize until years after the fact.
I delivered papers and shoveled snow in the wealthy neighborhood of Roosevelt Park. I was a cute little black kid saving up for my new bike, and when I collected my money on Fridays, I made lots in tips.
Some of the yards had these ceramic statutes of a little man with a black face dressed in red and white holding a lantern. I thought they were odd. But it wasn’t until more than 40 years later that I learned how racist and offensive they were, after someone mentioned lawn jockeys, I asked “what’s that,” and Googled them.
My brother and I also sold all-occasion cards door to door. Sometime doors would be slammed in our faces. It could hurt you, but rather than run home we made a game of it to see who could knock on the most doors. Rather than focus on the noes, we wanted to get more yeses. That’s a valuable lesson.
KT: What is your advice on how we root out this terrible evil?
Doug: You have a choice to surround yourself with people different from yourself. For me, if I wanted to work and make a living I was going to have to get along with white people and go to their house.
You have to get out of your comfort zone. You should go to a black church. It’s not as scary as you might think. Yes, people will notice that you’re white, but you’ll find they will welcome you with open arms, and you don’t have to call ahead of time. Just show up, with your friends, if you’re interested in breaking down these walls.
You need to meet different kinds of people and go into their spaces. I’ve seen hearts changed from people in long-term care who, for the first time in their life, after 70 years of carrying baggage, were surrounded by black caregivers who were loving and kind.