Summer Reading 2016: A Tradition of Breaking Barriers, Fighting Injustice

NJ Spotlight News | September 1, 2016 | 2016 Summer Reading
A fistfight in a racist real estate agent’s office can’t hold back Booker’s ‘grand conspiracy of love’

While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Every day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book — from nonfiction to novels to poetry – with a New Jersey connection.

The public has watched Cory Booker’s political rise for nearly two decades, from Newark councilman to the city’s mayor to United States senator to most recently on a few short lists of possible vice president candidates.

Less known are his family’s early years moving to Harrington Park in Bergen County and facing — and fighting back against — the redlining policies of too many of New Jersey communities at the time.

This excerpt is from the introduction to Booker’s “United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good,” published in February.

My parents were living in Washington, D.C., at the time. In 1969 my brother was two years old and my mother was pregnant with me. With help from the Urban League, my father was able to get jobs as the first black salesman for two different companies; then he became IBM’s first black salesman in their Arlington, Virginia, office. My father excelled there, eventually making it to the director level of the Golden Circle, which meant he was in the top 5 percent of IBM salesmen in the world. With his success in Virginia, my dad was offered a promotion. He’d be working in the IBM Office Products Division’s headquarters in New York City at 590 Madison Avenue. My mom, who worked for IBM as well, got a transfer to work in White Plains. IBM also had an office in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, so my parents wanted a home that was in the middle of that triangle, close to an airport because of how much they would have to travel for their jobs, and in a town that had good schools for their children. Bergen County was ideal.

My father began searching for homes and found that real estate agents kept directing him to the same few neighborhoods in Bergen County that had significant black populations. At the time you couldn’t just find out about houses for sale in the paper and go see them; you had to go through real estate agents. The agents would usually insist on meeting you first, and they would assess you, ask you questions, and determine in their minds where you should or could live. For black couples this meant that agents would simply not show homes in certain neighborhoods—they would “steer” blacks away from some towns and toward others. This injustice angered both of my parents, and they sought legal help. They were referred to the Fair Housing Council.

With the council involved, they began to see homes in predominantly white towns around Bergen County, near Franklin Lakes. My father said when they pulled up to a home they instantly became a neighborhood attraction. Often by the time they walked out, they were greeted by onlookers. It seemed many found an excuse to be outside—watering lawns, walking dogs, pushing kids in strollers. My mother told me that at one point my father rolled down the window, smiled at one of the people on the side of the road, and said, “Don’t worry, we didn’t like the house.”

For the houses that my parents did like, they would be told that the homes had already been sold or been pulled off the market. So Lee Porter and the Fair Housing Council decided to begin to send out white “test couples” to see if indeed the homes were sold or off the market. They weren’t.

Porter reached out to Arthur Lesemann and gave him my parents’ case file. Arthur, busy with a number of cases for the Fair Housing Council, referred the case to his colleague Marty Friedman. Friedman handled all the legal elements and helped to plan the sting operation that would follow.

My parents visited a home in Harrington Park on Norma Road. They loved it, but as usual, they were told the house had already been sold. The next day, a test couple was sent in by the council. When they looked at the house, they too expressed interest. And to their feigned delight, the house was indeed for sale! With Marty handling all the legal details, the white couple put a bid on the house that was identical to what my parents wanted to offer. The offer was accepted. The white couple went to the real estate agent’s office and drew up the paperwork, but they did so without a lawyer. They claimed that they had to meet with their lawyer and would take the contract with them to get a legal review, and then they’d come back on Monday morning with their lawyer to finalize the contract. Marty and the test couple now had the evidence they needed to prove the house wasn’t already sold and the agent was in violation of New Jersey law.

On Monday morning at the time of the appointment, as the real estate agent was waiting to close on the house, the white couple didn’t show. Instead, Marty Friedman showed up with my father.

My father said he knew there would be trouble when he saw a large Doberman pinscher curled up in the corner of the office. Marty told my mom that what cut through the tension—and the ominous presence of the dog—was a sign hanging in the office that claimed they supported equal opportunity in housing.

The real estate agent looked up, more than a little surprised to see my father. Marty, having been part of sting operations like this before, didn’t waste any time. He marched right up to the agent and walked him through the fact pattern. He informed the real estate agent that he was in violation of New Jersey state law and his real estate license was at risk. The Bookers, he explained, would be purchasing the home.

My father said that Marty didn’t get much further into his speech. At this point, the real estate agent stood up and punched Marty in the face, then grabbed his paperwork, trying to yank it away and destroy the evidence. The agent called the dog’s name, yelling at the dog to “Get ’em! Get ’em!” My father turned toward the dog as it ran at Marty and managed to corral it. He held the dog back as Marty and the real estate agent fought. Things slid off desks, a table and chairs were upended, and Marty was shoved against a window, breaking it.

When things settled down, the real estate agent began pleading with my father, swearing that if we moved into Harrington Park, we would wreck the town. He kept insisting that we didn’t want to move there, that we wouldn’t like it, that we should want to be with our own people, that we didn’t want to be responsible for destroying a community.

Lee Porter said the real estate agent was yelling about my parents being black. She recalled that the real estate agent went “ballistic.” “There were fisticuffs and then he put the dogs on Marty,” she said. My dad always insisted there was only one dog, but I often joked with him that every time he told the story, the dog got bigger—growing from Toto all the way to Cujo over the course of my lifetime. But I do imagine what this must have been like for my father: growing up in the segregated South, making it to college, then integrating company after company, facing biases and bigotry, only to distinguish himself, to excel, and then, at thirty-three, to literally fight his way into a town.
Still, my father never complained to me in telling this story. He even told it with humor: We moved into Harrington Park and became four raisins in a tub of sweet vanilla ice cream. My father and mother often talked of it to make a point about people—not the bigots or those who in the face of bigotry did nothing, but those in Harrington Park who embraced us when we moved in. My parents used the story as an example of the conspiracy of love: the lawyers inspired by Bloody Sunday; the volunteers, black and white, who gave up hours and hours to help families like mine; the leaders like Lee Porter, whose steadfast and tireless direction of a small organization has impacted the lives of thousands alive today and those of generations yet unborn. They told me the story to show me that good people doing the right thing can make a tremendous difference.

Marty Friedman is now dead. I never thanked him for what he did for my family, including taking a punch so that we could open a door to walk through.

My mom, modeling Lee Porter, went from a Fair Housing Council client to a volunteer. She went on to become the president of the Bergen County Fair Housing Council’s board and helped to bring IBM on as one of the organization’s biggest donors.

To this day Lee Porter, almost ninety years old, remains the executive director of the Fair Housing Council—a job she has held for nearly fifty years—and she is still fighting for equal housing rights in Bergen County and beyond.

My parents loved to remind me of what it had taken for us to move into Harrington Park. They reminded me that bigotry and hate can have very different consequences for well-connected IBM executives and their family in Harrington Park than for other, less fortunate people in our country. And this point would often be a launching pad for their discussion of the two American ethics and my place in the world. Privileges and opportunities say nothing of character and honor, they would tell me. Only actions do. We are ultimately responsible for our actions. We are defined by what we do. Actions, small and large, radiate out into eternity. What we do or fail to do—to one another, for one another, or with one another—leaves a lasting imprint beyond what we can imagine.

Yes, we do drink deeply from wells of liberty and opportunity that we did not dig. We do owe a debt that we can’t pay back but must pay forward. We are the result of a grand conspiracy of love.