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Photograph: Jay Muhlin

Public eye: Fenton Williams, 79

New York street interviews: Stories from the sidewalk as told by real New Yorkers about their lives in the city that never sleeps.

By Kate Lowenstein
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Prospect Pl between Underhill and Vanderbilt Aves, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

Did you grow up around here? Yes. My family moved to Fort Greene from Virginia when I was five, in 1936. This was Depression time, you know. We were sharecroppers. You know what sharecropping is?

I do. What do sharecroppers do in Brooklyn? Well, nothin'. My father couldn't read or write. When we came up here, welfare must've just started. My father was in a work program called the WPA. You heard of that?

I have, in high-school American history. [Laughs] Me, I worked for the city. I started out as a city carpenter, and then I got to be a superintendent of building and grounds in the city hospitals. I retired at 55.

Sounds pretty sweet. It was kinda tough, but I made enough for my three children to go through college. They got degrees above a bachelor's—all of 'em. I got one who's a doctor. That's how good I did!

What would your father have said about all those degrees? He woulda liked it. His father was a slave.

That is pretty horrifying. Isn't it? I tried to instill in my children that they're not far away from it, so they better take all the opportunities they can get.

Opportunities you didn't have? Oh, yeah. I remember discrimination right here in New York City. You know the Waldorf-Astoria? Josephine Baker and all those black stars like that couldn't go in that place. For me, being poor as I was, it didn't make any difference—we couldn't afford 'em anyway. [Laughs]

Did you experience discrimination in other ways? Yep. Segregation was great. See, I got drafted in '52. I was stationed in North Carolina. We had party time! The black people used to have juke joints—shacks in the backwoods with a jukebox and whiskey and beer and the girls and the boys...

Hmm. Segregation fun? [Laughs] Right. It was beautiful. When I look back over my life...I had a nice life. Tough years, good years, bad years. I did okay.

More from Fenton

"You know Red Hook? When I was a little boy, they still had outhouses out there. Imagine that!"

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