A Life in Art

Let’s Honor Alice Childress

Hey, Roosevelt Island! Let’s do the right thing. Let’s honor the great African American writer, actress, director Alice Childress, and while other icons come down, let’s raise hers up.

By David Stone

It started with the most routine of New York activities, last winter. Two actors from Roosevelt Island, Michael Rogers and Mark Blum, made their way to the subway.

Shop talk ambled along into mutual acquaintances until it arrived at Alice Childress, the African American superstar of literature. Both were more than fans, and in fact, she’d been Rogers’s mentor.

Alice Childress

Rogers recalls riding a Queens bus across the Roosevelt Island Bridge to meet her. Before any Tram glided across the East River, Alice Childress was one of the first residents calling Westview home.

And that conversation led to an agreement.

Roosevelt Island, which has long neglected its African American pioneers and legends, should honor Childress.

Rogers and Blum hatched an idea, but then, Rogers said, “Two weeks later, Mark was dead.”

COVID-19 felled Mark Blum on March 25th.

How To Honor Her

Honor Alice Childress? What did she say about it?

She has been credited with many “firsts”: the first black woman playwright to have a professional Equity cast (in 1952 for Gold Through the Trees), one of the first to direct her own work Off Broadway, the first to win an Obie (in 1956 for Trouble in Mind…)

Alice Childress Didn’t Defang Her Plays, and Producers Said No, by Helen Shaw in Vulture

But, ever modest about her gifts, Alice Childress saw it in her own way.

“I just hate to see the ‘first’ Negro, the ‘first’ black, the ‘first’ one,” she said. “It’s almost like it’s an honor rather than a disgrace. We should be the 50th and the 1,000th by this point.”

Actor, writer, director Michael Rogers in Good Shepherd Plaza, last week, taking on the coronavirus with distinctive style.

Rogers and Blum’s idea flashed into a larger frame when protests over police abuse rocked the nation after George Floyd’s public execution.

“They’re tearing down all these statues of white supremacists,” Rogers said. “Shouldn’t we also be putting things up?”

To honor Alice Childress, the commuting actors agreed, the new Roosevelt Island branch of the New York Public Library ought to be named for her.

Alice Childress Branch of the New York Public Library, Main Street, Roosevelt Island, New York

It’s fitting in profound ways.

Once honored by local admirers after her death, a memorial in her honor was nearly lost. PS/IS 217 staff, driven mad by a lust for free parking, filled the space with muddy tire tracks before a groundskeeper rescued it.

Then, RIOC’s public liaisons, Erica Spencer-EL and Jessica Murray, with full support of president Susan Rosenthal, gave her memorial a new home near the Meditation Steps.

But that’s not nearly enough.

For a giant, you need to think big, as big as Alice Childress was.

We’ve got a new library close to opening — which takes us full circle because Childress helped its earliest version get started on the ground floor in Westview.

Alice Childress’s last home, until 1994, was upstairs.

It’s Juneteenth, 2020, and we have a chance to give her lasting memory the honor of an Alice Childress Branch of the New York Public Library, right on the street she last walked, on Roosevelt Island.

Does she have your support?

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