The Citymeals Blog

Food for Though
Arthur, Citymeals Recipient

Living Black History

The Harlem Renaissance. The Stonewall uprising. The birth of hip-hop. New York City history is Black history. For our meal recipients, about 20 percent of whom are Black, this is the history of their lives. Whether they were born here or arrived as children, they’ve witnessed the city grow and change around them, as they worked, raised families, pursued their dreams, built community and moved into older age.

For some of our oldest recipients, the city has transformed physically in their lifetimes. At 94 years old, Thomastine remembers the clinking of glass milk bottles on her family’s stoop. “We lived in Brooklyn when they had cobblestones and horse drawn wagons,” she laughs.

Thomastine, Citymeals Recipient

Thomastine wanted to be a pediatric nurse, but her dream was dashed when a nursing school administrator told her she’d never find work in a hospital because of her skin color. “It was very prejudiced back then,” she recalls. Instead, she took various jobs to support her family, including working as a tailor in the Garment District for decades. Today, she’s well known around her East Williamsburg neighborhood, where she gets around with the help of a walker. “I think I’m the oldest person here,” she jokes.

Growing up in South Bend, Indiana the youngest of five, Arthur figured his future was the same as his brothers’ — working in one of the city’s automobile factories. Unsure how to make a living out of his passion for singing, he enlisted in the Navy, serving on the U.S.S. Pittsburgh. After his tour was over, Arthur arrived in New York City and landed a coveted spot at The Juilliard School. 

Mementos from Arthur's music career

Not long after graduating, Arthur struck up a friendship with Harry Belafonte. He joined The Belafonte Folk Singers, providing backup vocals for the celebrated singer and activist at concerts and recording their own albums. Arthur’s greatest honor came in 1964 when The Belafonte Folk Singers performed at President Johnson’s inaugural gala. It was the height of the Civil Rights movement and Arthur was at the heart of it all. “It was quite a thing to do at the time,” Arthur — now 87 — says with his signature modesty.

Alice, Citymeals recipient

Alice, 95, moved to New York City from Virginia with her family when she was just a young girl, part of the Great Migration of Black Americans seeking opportunities and equality in northern cities. Sadly, though, both of her parents died within just a few years of arriving and at just 15, Alice found herself responsible for raising her five younger siblings.

Women of color have always faced tougher economic prospects and fewer career opportunities — inequalities that put them at even greater disadvantage later in life. Despite the obstacles, Alice went on to work at Macy’s making hats and pocketbooks. She then moved into hospital administration and, eventually, a career in the insurance industry as a coder.

These days, Alice keeps her mind sharp reading voraciously and staying up to date on the news.  She’s been well-served, she says, by her life’s motto: “Pay no attention to humans. Use dirty words if you need to. Laugh about it.”

The lives of Thomastine, Arthur and Alice are microcosms of the nation’s own history over the last nearly one hundred years. They’ve witnessed tremendous progress, while also enduring setbacks, in the pursuit of a full life. As they age, our Black meal recipients face challenges — health issues, economic insecurity and social isolation — shared by their older neighbors, but heightened among people of color. As Citymeals honors the Black History Month, we continue to be guided by the vision of our city as place where everyone can age with dignity.

Food For Thought