Yesterday, we resumed interviewing for the Bronx African American History Project by bringing in Mario Sprouse, a musician, composer, arranger, educator and musical director who grew up on Ritter Place in the Bronx in the 1950's and 1960's on the same block where the great jazz singer Maxine Sullivan lived. The story he told left everyone in the room enraptured. The community Mario Sprouse described growing up on a block of homeowners in the South Bronx defied every stereotype people have of Bronx neighborhoods during that period. It was multiracial and multicultural, filled with energy and, optimism, and provided a mentoring experience to many young people that prepared them for successful and productive lives. For Mario Sprouse, that mentoring came from his block, where people like Maxine Sullivan and the person who ran the dance studio down the street took a personal interest in him; in schools, where he got support and encouragement from teachers, most of them white, some black; and in the church he attended, St Augustine Presbyterian Church, whose minister Rev Edlar Hawkins was a powerful figure in the neighborhood and someone who influence hundreds of neighborhood youth to pursue professional careers. At St Augustine, Mario Sprouse sang in the choir, learned to play the organ, attended the Church's summer camp and performed with his musical group when he became a teenager. He also drew inspiration as a budding intellectual, from the famous African American political and cultural figures who came to the Church, among them Duke Ellington, Rev Martin Luther King, and Yaphet Kotto
The story Mario Sprouse told us resembled the one told by civil rights leader and historian Vincent Harding. Both individuals benefited from mentoring they received in African American Churches and in Bronx schools, the first from Black ministers and Church elders, the second from a multiracial but largely white group of teachers..The combination prepared these two remarkable individuals for leadership in their chosen fields.
There is a lesson here for those who chose to apply it, Strong communities and strong schools are BOTH needed for young people to flourish.