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Today's Pride of Bed-Stuy: The Hon. Bertram Baker

The first African American ever elected to the New York State legislature

February 13, 2013: Bertram L. Baker rose to prominence as the first black person elected to the New York State legislature and a champion of fair housing and equal rights.

“Bert” Baker was born in the British West Indies in 1898. He immigrated to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, in 1915, when he was 17 years old.

After working up from bookkeeper to head of the bookkeeping and accounting departments of a chandelier-manufacturer, Cox & Nostrand, he went into private practice as a public accountant.

Baker was appointed United States Deputy Collector of Internal Revenue in 1939, assigned to the income-tax division in Brooklyn.

During his time as a deputy collector, he became active in Democratic Party politics in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 1940s.

In 1948, he ran for office and became the first black elected to the State Legislature from Brooklyn, thereby becoming the first African-American elected to public office in the borough. As a leader in legislation against discrimination, he co-sponsored one of the nation’s first laws barring race discrimination in housing, the Metcalf- Baker Act, in 1955.

Baker served in the role as assemblyman for 22 years. In 1966, he was named Assembly majority whip, the highest position attained up to that time by a black person.

When he announced his retirement from the Assembly in April 1970, the minority leader, Stanley Steingut, Democrat of Brooklyn, described Baker as ''one of the wisest, kindest and most beloved members of the Legislature.''

Baker also was an avid tennis player. He served as the executive secretary of the American Tennis Association and president of the New York State Tennis Association, the black tennis group that paved the way for the late champions Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe.

Baker was a vanguard, a leader who opened the door for so many others who have since followed in his footsteps. Bertram Baker died on March 10, 1985, at his home in Brooklyn. He was 87 years old.

On December 13, 2010, the Brooklyn City Council voted to co-name Jefferson Avenue, between Tompkins and Throop Avenues in Bedford-Stuyvesant, after the late Hon. Bertram L. Baker.

Bertram Baker, we acknowledge your leadership and honor your vast contributions.

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