As Bed-Stuy residents, we often hear about the storied creation of the nation’s first community development corporation, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, by Robert F. Kennedy, Jacob Javits and a community leader. Well, that unnamed “community leader,” was Elsie Richardson. Although she is not always mentioned outwardly in the telling of BSRC’s history, she was instrumental in its formation.
Elsie Richardson passed away on March 15, 2012, at the age of 89. Bed-Stuy has lost an inspiring leader in the community. Today we honor Elsie Richardson and acknowledge all of her enormous contributions to the growth and development of the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant:
Elsie Richardson grew up participating in the Marcus Garvey movement and was still a teenager living in Harlem when she took part in the 1941 NYC bus boycotts led by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. -- years ahead of the more famous Southern bus boycotts of the mid-1950s.
Richardson emerged early as a fearless and courageous fighter for human rights.
"That was a philosophy that my mother and father instilled in us,” said Richardson. “You’re as good as anybody else. And so we weren’t affected too much by what was happening. But you couldn’t help but notice it.
After settling in Brookyn, she became a community organizer and activist in Bedford-Stuyvesant and was a co-founder of the Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council in 1952 that grew to include 144 organizations.
She worked for 12 years at the Board of Education’s District Office juggling work, family, three children, and her community activism. She then returned to school at night in 1958 and, over the next 18 years, completed her BA at Pratt Institute and MA at the New School for Social Research.
In February 1966, Richardson led Senator Robert F. Kennedy on a local tour of Bedford-Stuyvesant. When Kennedy told her he was going to do a study of the area to try to help the community, Richardson replied, “I don’t know if we need another study; we’ve been studied to death. What we need is brick and mortar.”
Richardson challenged him to help develop a structure and institution that would effectively meet the core developmental needs of a struggling poor community.
Senator Kennedy, who was born out of state, grew up in privilege and was white, made him different from most of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s residents in at least three major ways. Still, as Elsie Richardson, a longtime neighborhood activist recalled in a New York Times article:
“None of that showed. I know one thing: He was someone who listened. He was always interested in getting information; he picked it up fast, and he would move on the information he received.”
Kennedy, along with Jacob Javits ended up working with Richardson in creating the first federally supported model of community development and the first nonprofit Community Development Corporation in the nation, the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation.
The Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation became a national model for many other community development corporations to follow.
In 2010, Elsie Richardson was honored by the New York City Commission. Elsie Richardson was an inspiring leader whose work lives on in Brooklyn and beyond.
A new exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society, chronicles the oral history of Elsie Richardson. Using headphones, visitors to the exhibit can hear segments from the interviews. To read more about the exhibit and hear some of those recorded interviews, visit the BHS website here.
*Sources: nyc.gov, nytimes.com