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Miriam Sirota, 45Former Owner, Real-Estate Sales
Now lives in: Carroll Gardens
When I was there, there was a man who lived next door, in a home that for a lot of people will always be Thelma’s house. There was another house that I sold, across the street, for Mr. and Mrs. Campbell. For some people, I think, that will always kind of be the Campbells’s house. People knew the family [who had lived in my house] but didn’t tell me a lot about them. I found a number of boxes in my basement. The house had been owned for a long time by one family, and the boxes contained family photos, family Bibles, birth certificates. You could almost piece together who these people were. I know that the woman who owned the house was a Mrs. Biggers. She had a son named William, and William was in the service. He was a very handsome young man. In these boxes were pictures of this family in my living room, in my kitchen, having holidays. It was remarkable — surreal to have this history of my home through photographs. It was a gift.
Then something terrible happened to the photos. I put them on a shelf in the basement, and a pipe burst. It was knee-deep. The photographs weren’t destroyed, but when they dried, they were so musty that there was nothing I could do to restore them.
William, especially, made a big impression upon me. He really looked like a man of his time—like a guy from the ’40s and then the ’50s. In a weird way, I feel lucky to have known him. Among the documents that I found were medical records, so I know that William died of sclerosis of the liver. His family will live in my memory. I feel very honored to have had this connection.
Roy Watson, 85Former Tenant of Miss Biggers and Former Owner of a Different House on the Block, Retired Postal Worker
Now lives in: Rocky Mountain, North Carolina
I went to college in North Carolina. After I came out, my girlfriend got me a place to live with the Biggers in Brooklyn. I never moved from MacDonough Street. I moved in there in 1960. We lived there until my wife wanted to come back South.
The reason that I bought the house was my landlady, Miss Biggers, she was friends of the Lairences. And she told me, “Roy, you and your wife should buy that house.” My wife wasn’t too enthused because she wanted to move back to Mt. Vernon [North Carolina]. Eventually, the two of us got her to agree. It wasn’t that much because I think it took us about five or six years before we had it paid for.
We enjoyed living there. Miss Biggers was always across the street. When my daughter was born, she used to babysit her. She considered Vanessa being one of her grandchildren, and when she made up her will, the same amount she gave her grandkids she gave Vanessa.
The block as a whole was a very good block. Every year, we had the block party. I enjoyed being the block president. I learned all the block members, and I think that was a great asset for me because I used to be very, very shy.
I knew just about everybody in the block when I left. We wasn’t always in one another’s homes, but something is going on in the block and you don’t like, you bring it to your block-association meeting. If someone died, the block association would go to the family and find out if there was anything that we could do. We would come together, we would cook food, take it down there. Everybody looked out for one another and we worked well together. My wife, she worked with me with the block. Even if she worked that Saturday, she would come home and get right into whatever we were doing. We had meetings in the basement of our home, my daughter would stay upstairs and let the members in.
My wife wanted to move. We found the house, and I was sort of glad to change, you know, because I had tenants for so many years. I sold my house myself. I didn’t put it in real estate. I sold it by word-of-mouth. I sold my house for about $200,000. That house now is probably worth about $800,000 or $900,000.
I miss New York, period. I miss the block, but my involvement is different here than it was there. In Brooklyn, it was predominantly black, but the area that I moved into is not that way, It’s a mixed area. It’s not a matter of liking one from the other, it’s entirely different. The close-knit that I lived in with the brownstone, it’s not that way here. It’s an entirely different atmosphere. I have a half-acre of land, and I have to keep up my lawn, stuff like that. I miss the many things that you can go to in New York. I miss going to a play, the theater, or a musical. I miss my church. I became an officer of the church when I was in New York, and I remember how shy I was.
Betty Haywood, 85Daughter of former owners, Elementary Schoolteacher
Now lives in: Los Angeles
History: Moved into the house in 1940 with her father, her mother, and her grandparents.
My father, Myles Paige, had grown up in Montgomery, Alabama, and gone to Howard University, where he was a football player. He graduated from Columbia Law School in the class of 1924 — I think he was the third black student. He became president of Harlem Lawyer’s association and an assistant New York attorney general. Then he was an informal adviser on Harlem affairs to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who appointed him to be a New York City magistrate. He was the first black magistrate judge. After that, there was a vacancy in the Court of Special Sessions, in Brooklyn, and La Guardia appointed him to be a justice there, which is why we moved to MacDonough Street.
We were kind of dubious about moving to Brooklyn. But when we saw the house, it was a nice tall brownstone building with a gated iron fence and leafy green trees outside. We had a small backyard, so we could have our dog, Robin, an Irish setter. We kind of fell in love with the house. There was a large living room, a library, and beautiful banisters. The previous owner had left a wall of books. And my sister, who’s an avid reader, fell in love with it for that reason.
The neighborhood was integrated, though maybe not socially integrated. The people next to us were a German family. But they never spoke. We were called Negroes then, but we were African-Americans. And believe it or not, the African-Americans were better educated than the Irish and German neighbors. Barbara and I both went to the Lincoln School, which was later Horace Mann. I remember that we had classmates who were driven by their chauffeurs from Park Avenue and Fifth. It was a so-called progressive school. I guess the progression was that they had one black girl and one black boy.
My father was very involved with the community. He was a Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus member, a member of the Holy Name Society, and the chairman of the board of the Brooklyn branch of the NAACP. Branch Rickey asked him to act as community liaison for the Brooklyn Dodgers in connection with Jackie Robinson’s contract signing. Mr. Ricky engaged my father to help prepare the neighborhood to accept the contract. My father was very active in helping Robinson to find a home, which happened to be on another block of MacDonough Street. I remember meeting Jackie Robinson and being very impressed. There was even a Judge Myles Paige Day at Ebbets Field.