Roosevelt Islanders

Alice Childress, Community Pioneer and African American Woman of Distinction, Update

Updated 2 years ago David Stone
Alice Childress Plaque Beside the Missing Magnolia, East Promenade
Alice Childress Plaque Beside the Missing Magnolia, East Promenade
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Update, April 3, 2017: Walking along the promenade behind PS/IS 217, this morning, I spotted a man removing Alice Childress's plaque from the lawn. A tree planted in her honor has been missing for a year. I asked about it and was told he was "taking it (the plague) inside until we find a place where it gets the respect it deserves." 

Good news, and thanks to whoever got the school to get moving in the right direction. Now, if we can only get a complete and honest answer about the five healthy trees that were destroyed...

I'm as guilty as anyone. I walked by the Alice Childress's Roosevelt Island memorial a thousand times, barely giving it a thought. Like most, I also failed to notice when the twenty year old magnolia was cut down, leaving a disembodied plaque and no obvious answers anywhere.

About a Missing Tree

My curiosity was stirred simply enough.

Michael Rogers, a Daily reader, wrote, "I notice behind school 217 that the tree planted for the late author Alice Childress has been cut down, with only the plaque remaining. Can you please inform the community concerning that situation?"

Vaguely recalling seeing plaques placed near trees behind PS/IS 217, I walked down the West Promenade to have a look. What I found is the respectful memorial plaque placed in Alice Childress's honor by the Roosevelt Island Rainbow Coalition and the Tree Board in 1995.

And a spot, now grown over with grass, where the groups planted a magnolia tree in honor of an African-American writer and actress who chose to spend her last years on Roosevelt Island. In all three aspects, she was a pioneer.

I emailed Christina Delfico, our best resident resource on all things green, to see what she knew.

Delfico remembered that the tree had been sick, a couple of years back, and offered some suggestions for investigating its fate.

Neither the Rainbow Coalition, maybe a legacy of David Dinkins's tenure as New York Mayor, nor the Tree Board seemed active, suggesting that Alice Childress's magnolia tree may have lost its sponsors.

Later, I located Tree Board leader Ali Schwayri who said he was not aware that the tree had been cut down, and in any case, his organization had no funds to do anything about it.

After checking in with RIOC and verifying that they did not own the land, I visited with PS/IS 217 Custodian Jeff Atkinson. Jeff filled in most of the mystery about the fate of that magnolia, planted so long ago, plus a bit more, but not quite everything.

So, Who Was Alice Childress, Anyway?

Somewhere in the non-digitized archives of the newspaper started decades ago by Jack Resnick and still publishing, there's probably more if anyone can get at it, but all you find online from a search at the Main Street WIRE website is a passing reference, in a 2009 article by Jennifer Dunning, to Childress as a Roosevelt Island pioneer with the tree planted in her honor in 1995.

There's also a clipping, written by Childress in the now forgotten Roosevelt Island News. She remembers our first library being "in a ground floor room in Westview," and reminisces about its founders, Herman and Dorothy Reade, two more names receding beneath rapid growth and the dust of a transient population.

Nowhere is it mentioned that Childress's novel, A Short Walk, published in 1979, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Few of us know that her Trouble in Mind won an Obie for Best Off-Broadway Play of 1955-56, making her the first African-American woman to win that award. It was slotted for Broadway, but when she steadfastly refused to write a happier ending, it was dropped.  

Her Gold Through the Trees (1952) was the first play to be professionally produced in New York written by a woman of her heritage.


Her young adult novel, A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich, was adapted by her into a screenplay that became a movie staring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield in 1978.

A fearless writer, Childress's play Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, which explored interracial romance in a less tolerant country could not get produced in New York for six years, and when it finally arrived in 1972 at the New York Shakespeare Festival, she directed, another first for an African-American woman.

When she died, Childress left unfinished a work about her grandmother who'd been born a slave.

You can see why two groups were eager to plant a tree that would stand as a living memorial to this woman. You can imagine the pride they felt that Alice Childress had settled here in the formative years of our community.

We may never know why she's been forgotten by all but a few. Even Wikipedia, on their page about Roosevelt Island, fails to mention her as a one-time resident, although they list Sarah Jessica Parker who lived here as a child for about as long as it takes to down a cup of Bosco.

It's strange, but the answer may lie in the gentle impression Childress left on everyone she knew, a personal touch at odds with her professional drive. Gentle souls most easily slip out of history's lens.

And the Fate of the Tree(s)...?

Jeff Atkinson remembers the Alice Childress's memorial magnolia still standing when he came to work at the school. But just barely.

The magnolia, probably not the best choice for an environment with harsh winters, was sick, having struggled through two decades, as Christina Delfico also recalled.

It was uprooted and replaced. To protect the young tree, Atkinson installed a border of large rocks, but that wasn't enough.
"Vandalism," Atkinson remembers, "destroyed it."

Someone or a group ripped the young branches, wrecking the tree's chances of survival. A species that can live for eighty to a hundred years lasted just one.
Tree #2 barely survived last winter and was, again, removed. Sometime later, a larger stump from the original tree was dug out. 
Neither Atkinson nor his assistant knows for sure who took cut down the original ailing tree or planted the new one that fell to vandalism.
"We always thought 'RIOC,'" he says.
But RIOC's Jessica Murray dug as deeply as she could with her organization and found, "We do not know what the situation was with the tree."

...a Roosevelt Island Mystery

The upshot, so far, is that someone who no one involved can identify has been going around doing good deeds for which they sought no credit.

The thing is, we need them to do it again.

Alice Childress deserves better than an orphaned plaque. We will keep looking and see if we can find the good deed doer, past and/or future, who will make things right again.

Our community deserves it too.

Will the next humble local hero please stand up?


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