Celedonia Jones—people call him Cal—grew up during the Depression, and his family was, he remembers, the poorest of the poor. His mother’s biggest fear was that they’d be dispossessed, find all their furniture put on the sidewalk. That happened in Harlem in those days. But landlords gave a month’s free rent when people moved into a new apartment. So Cal’s family kept moving to take advantage of a month with no rent due. He was born on 153rd Street, but over the course of his childhood he lived on 145th, 144th, 148th, 143rd, and 150th. In 1939, Cal was nine and the family was living on 143rd Street between 7th and Lenox Avenues. The neighborhood was full of kids, and that’s where Cal learned the street games that kids played all over the city.
Like most people in the neighborhood, they were on relief during the Depression years. His father was out of work. Cal couldn’t join the Boy Scouts because he didn’t have the few cents it took to pay the dues. His friend Dickie was a Scout because his dad had a job. Then Cal’s father was hired by the WPA, the Works Progress Administration, which was part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. It hired men to work on public projects. Cal’s dad planted trees at the Harlem River Houses. Cal’s mother used to pack his father’s lunch, and Cal would take his lunch pail to him every day.
Cal worked too. He sold newspapers late at night outside the Cotton Club and other Harlem nightspots, even when he wasn’t much more than 10 years old. He also went around picking up wine bottles he found on the street, because he could make a penny or two when he turned them in. Sometimes he found scrap on the street that he could sell to a junk dealer. He made money when neighbors paid him to do errands. He gave whatever he earned to his mother. He grew up knowing the family had to pull together.
When Cal was 11, the Joneses were living on 144th Street. One Sunday afternoon, they were listening to music and kidding around, having a good time. They were dancing to a song called “Five Guys Named Moe” when an announcement came over the radio and they stopped to listen. Then, like people all over America, they tried to figure out where Pearl Harbor was.
Things changed immediately. People thought Hitler would try to bomb New York City. At school, all the children were given plastic tags with their name and birthdate, so they could be identified in an emergency. Air-raid drills were added to fire drills. At home, there were ration books, and his mother would trade stamps with her friends, shoe stamps for sugar or coffee, whatever people needed most. When the blackout rules went into effect, air-raid wardens patrolled the neighborhood. They’d stand down on the street and call out: “Turn the light out on the fifth floor. We can see your lights.” The city buzzed with wartime activity. The harbor filled with ships, and soldiers and sailors were everywhere.
Then, Cal’s mother got a job in a factory making small beaded dolls. She was paid by the piece—a set amount for each doll she finished—so she’d bring them home and the whole family would make more of the dolls at night, sitting around the coffee table. But discrimination was constant. One day she came home and said her supervisor was giving her a hard time, wouldn’t let her do the work that paid a little better than what she was doing. It was especially hard, because Cal’s father was often unemployed and his mother was the family breadwinner. Sometimes his mother would say, “So-and-so’s got steady work, so now those kids can eat.” For Cal, “steady work” and eating regularly were riveted together in his mind.
When the war came, jobs opened up. There weren’t enough white men to work, so they hired black men. Then, there weren’t enough black men, so they hired women and young people. Cal’s sister got a job in a defense
plant when she was 18. Cal himself lied about his age (he was really only 12), and was hired by Horn and Hardart, a popular New York City chain of restaurants where all the food was served from vending machines. Cal was a dishwasher, paid $18.75 per week. Busboys earned more they collected the dirty dishes off the tables—but only whites got those jobs. Then, there weren’t enough white boys, and Cal was allowed to bus the tables.
Cal was working at Horn and Hardart in August 1943 when the Harlem riot erupted. His brother was a Western Union delivery boy, and came home with the news and stories about looting and pilfering. He wanted to go out and get a radio for himself, but his mother said, “No, no, no, you stay right in here.” It wasn’t hard to believe the rumor that started the riot—that a black soldier had been killed by a white policeman. Even kids playing stickball in the street knew what would happen if a policeman came along. Either he’d take the stick and break it, or he’d ask for $2 to look the other way. Kids began each game by collecting money from all the players so they would have enough to pay off the police.
In 1945, when he was 15, Cal worked as a delivery boy at the American Bias Binding Company on 20th Street, which made cloth tape used in army uniforms. He had a cart that he’d load up and push from one end of the garment district to the other, from 10th Street all the way up to 38th or 40th. In August, people started to say that the war was about to end. Cal’s supervisor, Benny, asked him to pile up the burlap bags they used to put out paper trash, and put them by the windows so they could dump them out as a celebration. When the word came, Benny said, “Now, Cal.” Cal opened the window and shook the papers out of one of the bags. At first people below were annoyed, but then everybody opened their windows and sent papers fluttering down toward the street like confetti. Cal ran out and met his friends in Times Square, which was packed with people hollering and celebrating.
Cal Jones went on to earn a B.S. in accounting, and worked for the City of New York for forty-two years. He retired in 1990 from the Office of the Comptroller, where he had been director of the Office of Fiscal Services. In 1997, he was appointed Manhattan borough historian and was reappointed annually through 2006. Today he holds the title of Manhattan borough historian emeritus.
To hear Cal Jones reminisce about his Harlem childhood, visit storycorps.org/listen/stories/celedonia-jones-androbert-harris/.
Source: “Celedonia Jones,” interview transcript, WWII & NYC, New-York Historical Society, 2011.
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