Bertram L. Baker
|Member of the New York State Assembly from Kings County's 17th district|
January 1, 1949 – December 31, 1954
|Preceded by||John J. Walsh|
|Succeeded by||Samuel I. Berman|
|Member of the New York State Assembly from Kings County's 16th district|
January 1, 1955 – December 31, 1965
|Preceded by||John J. Ryan|
|Succeeded by||District abolished|
|Member of the New York State Assembly from the 46th district|
January 1, 1966 – December 31, 1966
|Preceded by||district created|
|Succeeded by||Leonard M. Simon|
|Member of the New York State Assembly from the 56th district|
January 1, 1967 – December 31, 1970
|Preceded by||Salvatore J. Grieco|
|Succeeded by||Calvin Williams|
|Born||January 10, 1898|
Nevis, Leeward Islands
|Died||March 8, 1985 (aged 87)|
Brooklyn, New York
|Children||Marian Baker-Howell and Lillian Bemus|
|Education||La Salle Extension University, Chicago|
Bertram Llewellyn Baker (January 10, 1898 – March 8, 1985) was a member of the New York State Assembly from 1948 to 1970, representing central Brooklyn, New York. He was the first black person elected to any office by voters in Brooklyn.
Baker was born on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies and immigrated to the United States via Ellis Island in 1915, when he was 17 years old. He settled in Brooklyn, N.Y., obtained a degree in accounting from La Salle Extension University correspondence school in Chicago, and became a U.S. citizen in 1924.
Baker became a bookkeeper at Cox & Nostrand, a lighting manufacturer in Brooklyn, where he worked his way up to head of the bookkeeping and then the accounting departments. After being denied a promotion that he said was because of his race, he went into private practice as an accountant.
In the early decades of the 20th century, blacks were largely aligned with the Republican Party, which was still considered the party of Abraham Lincoln. However, as an immigrant without historical ties to the Republicans, Baker realized that Democrats were growing in numbers and power in Brooklyn, and he joined the local Democratic club, located on Gates Avenue in what is now Bedford-Stuyvesant. The club was controlled by the Irish, but Baker realized that they were the people with whom he — and other blacks — should align. He recruited other blacks to the Democratic Party, and after observing white political clubs, formed his own organization, the United Action Democratic Association. His volunteers in Bedford-Stuyvesant delivered votes on Election Days, and Baker gained political influence.
In 1939, Baker was appointed to a patronage job as United States Deputy Collector of Internal Revenue in the income tax division in Brooklyn. Through the 1940s, he served as a "confidential inspector" for John Cashmore, the Brooklyn borough president, an Irish-American, and was a liaison between Cashmore and the growing black community in central Brooklyn. In 1945, Baker ran for a seat on the New York City Council, but finished in 14th place among candidates from Brooklyn, not high enough to win a seat.
When the state Democratic Party bosses realized that their election slates could no longer remain all white, they made a deal to get Baker elected to office. They promised the local incumbent assemblyman, John J. Walsh, another Irish-American, that if he ran for the party's renomination in the primary but then withdrew, they would nominate him for a judgeship instead. With the proper timing, under New York State Law and party rules, the party bosses had the right to appoint a replacement nominee to run for the assembly, and that was Baker.
By that time, his area of Brooklyn was reliably Democratic, and in November 1948, Baker became the first black elected to any political office by voters in Brooklyn. (As the result of his election, Baker also became the second person to serve in the New York State Assembly who was born in Nevis, after Alexander Hamilton – something that he was fond of telling.) Baker was a member of the New York State Assembly from 1948 to 1970, sitting in the 167th, 168th, 169th, 170th, 171st, 172nd, 173rd, 174th, 175th, 176th, 177th, 178th, and 179th New York State Legislatures.
During his tenure in the assembly, Baker sponsored bills prohibiting various types of discrimination, most notably New York's fair housing law. The Metcalf-Baker Act, which was sponsored in the State Senate by George R. Metcalf, an upstate Republican, was one of the first laws anywhere that outlawed discrimination in housing. The first version was signed into law by Governor Averell Harriman in 1955 and covered only housing with mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration.. A revised version was signed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1963 to include all housing except owner-occupied one and two-family dwellings. The federal Fair Housing Act, with even broader reach, was not passed until 1968.
Baker eventually rose to become the assembly's majority whip in 1966, and remained in the assembly until his retirement from politics at the end of 1970.
Baker was an avid tennis player, and was the executive secretary of the American Tennis Association from 1936 to 1966, which promoted tennis to black communities and campaigned for the sport's integration. In that capacity, he championed tennis to many who otherwise could not have played, and helped to successfully negotiate with white tennis administrators to accept Althea Gibson into their competitions. Baker also served as president of the New York State Tennis Association.
Baker died on March 8, 1985 in Brooklyn. He was survived by his wife Irene, his two daughters Marian Baker-Howell of Brooklyn and Lillian Bemus of Queens, four grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.
Baker lived at 399 Jefferson Avenue in Brooklyn for many years. His block, Jefferson Avenue between Tompkins and Throop Avenues, was co-named Bertram L. Baker Way by the New York City Council in 2011.
- Howell, Ron (November 4, 2018). "How Alexander Hamilton Inspired Bertram Baker, Brooklyn's First Black Elected Official". New York Times. p. MB4. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
- Waggoner, Walter H. (March 10, 1985). "Bertram Baker, 87, is Dead – Ex-Brooklyn Assemblyman". New York Times. p. 36. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
- Howell, Ron (2018). Boss of Black Brooklyn – The Life and Times of Bertram L. Baker. New York, N.Y.: Fordham University Press. ISBN 978-0-8232-8099-5.
- Cutler, Jacqueline (December 23, 2018). "Black power, and class: How Bertram Baker broke the color barrier in Brooklyn politics". New York Daily News. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
- Simon, Alexandra (October 18, 2018). "Profiling Brooklyn's First Black 'Boss'". caribbeanlifenews.com. Caribbean Life. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
- "Candidates in City Race". New York Times. August 18, 1945. p. 24. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
- "Isaacs Tops Davis on Complete Count – Gets 59,830 First-Choice Votes to 56,540 — Connolly Is Third in Council Race". New York Times. November 11, 1945. p. 32. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
- Dales, Douglas (November 2, 1948). "Democrats Gain 19 Assembly Seats – Ten Also Added in Senate, but Republicans Still Hold the Control in Legislature". New York Times. p. 18. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
- Egan, Leo (April 3, 1955). "Legislature Ends Session; Restrains Bias in Housing; Votes City Traffic Relief – Final Day Hectic – Delay in Auto Tests Is Approved, Watchdog Group Is Set Up". New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
- Dales, Douglas (April 23, 1963). "Governor Signs Bill Extending Ban on Housing Discrimination". New York Times. p. 1. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
- Hunter, Marjorie. "Civil Rights Bill Wins Final Vote; It Seeks to Open 80% of Housing; Lindsay Asks Riot Panel Action – House is Praised – President Hails Action – Will Sign Measure 'at Very Early Date". New York TImes. p. 1. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
- "President Signs Civil Right Bill; Pleads for Calm – Acts a Day After Final Vote on Measure That Stresses Open Housing in Nation – Finds Much to be Done – In White House Ceremony, He Calls for Enactment of Rest of His Program". New York Times. April 12, 1968. p. 1. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
- "Records Search: Grooms". italiangen.org. Italian Genealogical Group. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
- Minsky, Tequila (July 20, 2011). "Jefferson Ave co-named for Bertram L. Baker". caribbeanlifenews.com. Caribbean Life. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
|New York Assembly|
John J. Walsh
| New York State Assembly
Kings County, 17th District (1948–1954)
Samuel I. Berman
John J. Ryan
| New York State Assembly
Kings County, 6th District (1955–1965)
| New York State Assembly
46th District (1966)
Leonard M. Simon
Salvatore J. Grieco
| New York State Assembly
56th District (1967–1970)