By Brian Purnell, PhD
Jitu K. Weusi – Big Black – Baba Jitu – he had many names, but I always called him Mr. Weusi. From the first time I called his home, in late March 2000, until our last phone conversation, sometime in 2012, I called him Mr. Weusi. He called me Mr. Purnell. In the over ten years I knew him, and during the four years from 2005-2009 when we met as often as possible to record oral histories about his life, I always showed him the respect I thought he deserved as my elder, and as someone with whom I was working professionally.
Mr. Weusi and I first met when I was a student starting my research on the civil rights movement in Brooklyn. He helped me, and his assistance proved essential. I would not have been able to spend fifteen years working on the history of the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a history with so much more to tell, without Mr. Weusi’s generosity and trust.
We reconnected in 2005 to record a narrative of his life story, in his words. I was interested in his life to explore the history of the role the Black Power Movement played in African American education. Now, I am working to finish that book, conducting interviews with his friends and family, coworkers and comrades for the book’s final chapter called “Remembering Jitu.” If all goes well, the book, entitled The Narrative of Jitu Weusi (Leslie Campbell): Brooklyn’s Black Power Educator, will come out in 2023 to mark the tenth anniversary of Mr. Weusi joining the ancestors.
In the book, Jitu Weusi will speak for himself. He will tell his story.
His story highlights growing up in a family that promoted radical politics of equality and justice. His story features parents who worked vigorously as political and community organizers. His story recreates the rhythms and feelings of the Black community in Brooklyn that raised him in the 1940s and 1950s. His story reveals how love for Black people, Black community, and revolutionary politics of self-determination and human liberation defined different phases of his life – his participation in the Civil Rights Movement; his leadership in the African American Teachers Association; his advocacy of community control of public schools; his founding of the African cultural and educational center, The East; his leadership in Black News, Uhuru Sasa School, the National Black United Front, the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, the African Arts Festival, and at least half-a-dozen other institutions and organizations. His story captures what he meant to his family, his children, his students, and his friends. Jitu Weusi’s story is an important, essential portrayal about how devotion to Black people’s strength, excellence, and power animated, not only one man’s life, but an entire community’s life, and the legacies and lessons that history teaches us.
The power and importance – the joy, love, inspiration, laughter, dance, music, and the kazi – the kazi, or work, most of all – that surrounded Mr. Weusi’s life was on fully display at the ceremony to rename Putnam Plaza, a block-long triangular public gathering space on Fulton Street between Grand Avenue and Cambridge Place, as Jitu Weusi Plaza.
It is right and good that Brooklyn has a public space that bears Jitu Weusi’s name. There are dozens of streets and buildings in this city devoted to people who enslaved, degraded, and dismissed Black people. Putnam Plaza was named for Israel Putnam, a military leader during the American Revolutionary War. He fought gallantly at the battle of Bunker Hill. Historians dispute his role in losing the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776; some, starting with Congressmen at that time, say Putnam’s bungling caused the Americans to lose that important early battle, while others credit him with enabling George Washington to escape into Manhattan and evade capture. Either way, there are no shortage of commemorations for Israel Putnam. In New York State alone, his name lives on in Putnam County, Putnam Avenue in Brooklyn, and Putnam Place in the Bronx. Half a dozen other counties in the United States commemorate Israel Putnam. Ironically, a large statue of Israel Putnam stands in Brooklyn, Connecticut, where he died in 1790.
The historical record is mixed on Putnam’s connections to slavery and to eighteenth century racism. He owned one slave, but may have been the only American general in the Revolutionary War to free his slave before the war began. He employed that Black man as his servant for the rest of his life. We know next to nothing about their relationship.
Changing Putnam Plaza into Jitu Weusi Plaza transforms a space that had commemorated a long-dead war hero (who still has public honors in other places, even in Brooklyn) into a space that memorializes a Black educator, organizer, and activist whose life and legacy still lives on in the works and needs of the Black Brooklyn community he spent a lifetime serving. Jitu Weusi loved Black people. He spent his life living and working in Brooklyn, New York. He dedicated himself to Black people around the world. A plaza in his name is too small an honor for the bigness with which he worked to create community, solidarity, and empowerment for Black people, but he is worthy of it all the same.
July 3, 2021 was a rainy, grey morning, but the sun shone bright in Jitu Weusi Plaza. That place will serve as both an honor for the work Mr. Weusi did for Black people in Brooklyn (and throughout the country, and the African Diaspora). Perhaps more importantly, Jitu Weusi Plaza can also provide inspiration to those who live and carry on his work to continue the work – the kazi – on behalf of, and with, Black people and Black communities, to secure empowerment, prosperity, and collective health, now and into the future.
Brian Purnell, PhD, teaches Africana Studies and History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He was born and raised in Coney Island. He is the author of articles and books on the Civil Rights Movement outside of the South, including Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn. Readers interested in participating in an interview on the life and legacy of Jitu Weusi can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org