When the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York in March, student researchers with Fordham’s Bronx African American History Project saw an opportunity to document history as it happened and give voice to their neighbors.

“It was more important than ever to capture these stories, because the Bronx was probably one of most hard-hit boroughs out of the whole city—and those stories weren’t being told,” said Bethany Fernandez, a rising junior at Fordham College Rose Hill.

With support from Fordham professor Mark Naison, Ph.D., the founding director of the Bronx African American History Project, Fernandez and Veronica Quiroga, FCRH ’20, launched the Bronx COVID-19 Oral History Project.

Their goal is to document the stories of Bronx residents in audio and video interviews, giving people an opportunity to talk about how they and their families, communities, and workplaces have been affected by the pandemic.

“Recording these voices is of especial importance because the people of the Bronx, many of whom live on the edge of poverty and work in ‘essential occupations,’ have experienced one of the highest fatality rates from COVID-19 in the entire world. … If we are ever to change the conditions which have imposed such disproportionate pain on Bronx residents, we must allow them to speak for themselves,” the students wrote in a mission statement on the project’s website.

On July 7, Fernandez and Quiroga shared some of their work with Fordham alumni as part of a webinar organized by the Office of Alumni Relations. They were joined by the COVID-19 project’s faculty advisers—Naison, who established the Bronx African American History Project in late 2002 to fill in the gaps of African American history in the Bronx, and Jane Kani Edward, Ph.D., who has led the project’s immigrant research initiative since 2006.

COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impacts

Quiroga said that she, Fernandez, and rising Fordham College at Rose Hill seniors Carlos Rico and Alison Rini learned how to conduct oral history interviews through their work on the Bronx African American History Project. They drew on those skills to launch this COVID-19 offshoot so quickly and capture what’s happening in real time.

During the webinar, Quiroga and Fernandez shared clips from some of the project’s video interviews. In one, Bronx resident Maria Aponte, Fordham’s assistant director of diversity and global inclusion, said the pandemic and recent protests against racial injustice brought back traumatic memories of growing up in Harlem during the 1960s, when there were riots in response to incidences of police violence and housing and employment discrimination that disproportionately affected people of color.

“It really devastated me when they started breaking down the groups that were devastated the most [by COVID-19], which was the lower income, African American, Latino community, and it’s almost like a whole history of people just got wiped out,” she said. “My husband and I live near Montefiore Hospital, and the first early weeks, it was the nonstop ambulance sirens. … That for me was a trigger, because I was a kid during the riots in the ’60s, and I watched Harlem burn with my mother. … It just took me back to when I was 9, 10, 11 years old.”

Quiroga said that Aponte’s reference to COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on marginalized groups, including Black and Latino communities, as well as the elderly, underscores larger societal issues that need to be examined.

“I also felt that her perspective was a window into the collective trauma experienced by most Bronxites during the pandemic,” she said.

Bronx resident Marlene Taylor, a 1979 Fordham College at Rose Hill graduate who currently works as a physician assistant at the Ryan Chelsea-Clinton clinic in Manhattan, said she’s seen how the pandemic has continued to exacerbate disparities, particularly in health care.

“I believe strongly that those who are already underserved from a health-care standpoint feel more distressed because if they already had challenges with getting medication, food, housing, now there are more obstacles, now there are more challenges,” she said in a video interview for the project.

Trying to Provide Hope During a Pandemic

Another project participant, Maribel Gonzalez, the owner of the South of France restaurant in the Bronx, said that as an entrepreneur, she has faced the emotional and physical toll of trying to stay in business while trying to support her longtime customers and neighbors.

“It’s still a struggle because you don’t know if you’re going to be around the next day,” she said.

But despite her personal concerns about her business, Gonzalez has made it her mission to be there for her customers who are struggling.

“When I deliver to people, I see so much sadness, I see so much devastation, I see food insecurity, I see hunger … which we’re also trying to address as a restaurant, and I am giving pep talks,” she said. “I’m giving them encouragement. I’m their mother, I’m their sister, I’m their friend. I’m often the only person that they’ve seen in a long time, because they’ve been in their house and they’re people who are alone and they don’t have conversation.”

Gonzalez said she tries to stay positive through her faith, for herself and others, and believes “that the business will come back, that the community will come back, that the Bronx will come back.”

“I think that her words near the end encapsulate the stories we try to tell,” Fernandez said. “The story of a lot of Bronxites deals with resilience.”

The Growth of the Bronx African American History Project

The Bronx African American History Project has been documenting these stories of the borough’s resilience since 2002. During the webinar, Naison provided an overview of the project’s work, including the COVID-19 oral history project, as well as research papers, including one by Edward on African immigration to the Bronx, and books, such as Naison’s Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life in the Bronx from the 1930s to the 1960s (Fordham University Press, 2016).

He said the project highlights how the borough, defying the odds, rebuilt neighborhoods from the fires of 1970s and the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. The neighborhoods, with lower crime rates, saw community life flourish again and it became the location of choice for new immigrants to New York.

“The Bronx African American History Project started when I was approached by an archivist from the Bronx County Historical Society who told me that groups were looking [for information]about African American history in the Bronx and couldn’t find anything,” Naison said. “What I discovered was pretty amazing—500,000 people in the Bronx who were basically invisible.”

His first interview for the project was with a social worker, Victoria Archibald-Good, who talked for three hours about her experience growing up in the Patterson Houses, a housing project in the Bronx. While the project eventually came to be known as a place where crime and drugs were rampant, in the 1950s and early 1960s, Archibald-Good said it was a great place to raise a family, and it produced well-known talent, including her brother, Hall of Fame Basketball point guard Nate “Tiny” Archibald, who earned a master’s degree from Fordham’s Graduate School of Education in 1990.

“That defies all your stereotypes about the Bronx in the ’50s and also about public housing,” Naison said.

After that first interview, BAAHP grew, thanks in part to funding from the Fordham College at Rose Hill dean’s office, which allowed more student and professional researchers to join the project. BAAHP also began partnering with local schools to teach students about Bronx history.

“Learning all this about the Bronx, as a site of successful migration and cultural creativity, was something that was going to lift the spirits of students who had only been told negative things about the Bronx,” Naison said.

Within the first few years, Naison said newspapers had been regularly reporting on their work, and researchers from other countries, including Germany and Spain, also began reaching out, asking if they could come along. The project also began to bring guest speakers to Fordham.

Around this time, Naison said while out in the community, he and others began noticing a large West African presence in the Bronx. “We [saw]a lot of people in Muslim garb, and mosques and Islamic centers opening up, and we realized there is an African immigration story emerging in the Bronx.”

Highlighting the Contributions of African Immigrants

Edward, who is from Sudan and had studied Sudanese women living in exile in Uganda, joined Fordham in 2006 as a postdoctoral fellow and launched BAAHP’s African immigrant research initiative.

“We noticed there was a large number of Africans in the Bronx, and someone needed to study their history,” she said. “Their contributions were not studied well.”

The main objective of the project is to examine the conditions of African immigrants and migrants who came to the Bronx from 1985 to the present, and highlight their contributions to the borough, Edward said.

“[We wanted to] shift the discussion from simply assessing their needs and challenges that they face to looking at their contributions and achievements,” she said.

Their research has included interviews with immigrants from Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Burkina Faso, among other nations, which revealed a growing and diverse immigrant community that has enlivened neighborhoods where Jewish, Irish, Puerto Rican, and Dominican immigrants trod before them.

Naison said that the borough, throughout its waves of migration, has been a home for “cultural fusion,” particularly in the areas of music and food.

“The Bronx is this site where people mix their cultures and they create something new,” he said. “It makes this a lot of fun to study.”

While the history project allows for many fun moments, right now its focus is on documenting stories of both suffering and resilience related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fernandez said her goal with this project is to provide an accurate portrayal of the Bronx and its residents—and to counter “negative stereotypes and … extreme prejudices about the Bronx and what the borough is like” that she’s heard from people, including some within the Fordham community.

“The Bronx African American History Project tries to tell the stories of the people who live here. This is somebody’s home, this is a place that somebody loves, this is a place rich of culture and history just like any other place that you might think of,” she said.

Learn more about the Bronx COVID-19 Oral History Project at thebronxcovid19oralhistoryproject.com.

Video by Tom Stoelker, staff writer.