MOTHER ROSETTA GASTON, FOUNDER
Rosetta Gaston is the founder and visionary of Brownsville Heritage House, Inc. (BHH). She envisioned an educational and cultural center for young and old, which would spark individual and community achievements by focusing on a common heritage.
Mother Gaston, as she was affectionately known, realized early on that the one element missing in our community was the knowledge of our culture. She decided to do something about it. In 1969 she started the Children's Cultural Corner out of her home, where she taught young minds about their culture and history. This laid the foundation for BHH, Inc.
U.S. Congressman Edolphus Towns was instrumental in acquiring the second floor space above the Stone Avenue Branch Library. It was the fruition of a 50 year dream. Mother Gaston at age 96 transitioned a month before BHH opened it's doors in March 1981. That same year Stone Avenue was renamed Mother Gaston Boulevard, which runs from Broadway to Linden Boulevard, covering the communities of Ocean-Hill and Brownsville. Thanks to then Councilman Enoch Williams who introduced the bill to former Mayor David Dinkins. Rosetta Gaston's name will live on forever as an educator and a devoted leader of her community.
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Mother Rosetta Gaston on her terrace in Van Dyke II, the senior citizen building. The tall building to the left is one of the two buildings of the Carter G. Woodson senior citizen complex (consolidated with Van Dyke II). As it was being built, we called it Van Dyke III. It was completed in 1970. Courtesy P. Dean (2006)
She was a both a contemporary and a friend to Dr. Carter G. Woodson and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. The following is the story of how my life intersected with negro history educator and activist Mother Rosetta Gaston.
I grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York, otherwise known as "the Ville" as in "never ran, never will", just south of "Do or Die" Bed-Stuy. This former predominantly Jewish neighborhood was comprised of decaying tenements and New York City Housing Authoriy projects including the Van Dyke Projects. I grew up in the building known as 345. I lived in the projects when they were the projects, not the PJs. There was a place right down the street on Dumont and Junius where they made sour and and half sour kosher pickles and the man, who I now understand to have been an orthodox Jew based on his garb, owned the business. I remember my mother taking me there and him giving me a big juicy kosher pickle for free. This had to have been in the early 60s. Right around the corner was the Hoffman Soda warehouse. I can still recall the jingle."the prettiest girl I ever saw, was sipping Hoffman right through a straw"... I was fascinated with the seltzer bottles... Further up on Belmont Avenue were the open pushcarts where we would buy our fresh vegetables for Sunday dinner. By the time I was old enough to walk up there by myself, the vendors had become predominantly Puerto Rican. The neighborhood was changing. White flight had been in effect for years.
The Projects of The Ville. Brownsville orojects are front and center, Tilden to the right and Van Dyke to the left. Brownsville has more projects per square mile than anywhere else in Brooklyn (18).
This is the Stone Avenue branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. It was built in 1914 and was the first Children's Library in the nation. Mother Gaston founded the Brownsville Heritage House on the third floor of the library. Heritage House opened in March 1981, one month before her transition home. The tall building behind the library is 345, the building Mother Gaston and I lived in. This library was my favorite place to go as a child. I went there almost everyday after school until junior high.Mrs. Patricia Dean, a long time New York City Housing Authority resident says of Mother Rosetta Gaston, "[She was] the founder and visionary of Brownsville Heritage House, Inc. She envisioned an educational and cultural center for old and young which would spar individual and community achievement by focusing on a common heritage. She alligned herself with and became a close friend to Carter G. Woodson, father of Black History Month and Mary McLeod Bethune, who as an illiterate child dared to dream of opening her own school - now known as Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona, Florida. Both who instinctively knew that you must connect to the past in order to have a vision of the future. Hence, the Brownsville Chapter for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History was launched. Mother Gaston, as she was affectionately known realized early on that the one element missing in our community was knowledge of our culture. Too many of us didn’t know or understand our rich heritage and the many contributions, we as a people made to America. She decided to do something about it and started “the children’s cultural corner”, out of her home where she taught young minds about their history." Mrs. Dean has run the Heritage House since 1992. Stone Avenue was also renamed Mother Gaston Blvd in honor of Mother Gaston in 1981 as well.
I am proud to have been able to have had such a knowledgeable and noble teacher. The legacy that Mother Rosetta Gaston has left us is one that changed the face of African American studies among the youth of America by providing an unbroken mirror with which we might view ourselves. Mother Gaston worked quietly and persistently for the betterment of us all. She is indeed, a true unsung hero
I first became aware of Mother Gaston one Halloween when I was in the fifth grade. She lived in the one bedroom corner apartment on the 10th floor. While everybody else was giving out candy, Mother Gaston was giving out pennies and wisdom. As she handed out her financial treats, she explained how important it was to save our pennies. She also told us about how blacks in this country were important to the development of America. We were all aware of what slaves were but we found out about black inventors and scientists and business people. After peaking our interest, she invited me and my fellow trick-or-treaters to come to her afterschool negro history class at the Tilden Community Center right across the street.
Although less than five feet tall, Rosetta Gaston was the epitomy of strength, grace, and perseverance. After finally getting us to settle down with a quiet but firm "Hush!" Mother Gaston showed us a documentary on Hariett Tubman and the Underground Railroad. As the film played, the room fell silent. I know for myself that I could not believe that my people had been treated in such a horrific way. I sat there, at the age of 12 or 13 trying to reconcile the fact that we were so despised solely because of the color of our skin. The sounds and images of the whip and webs of thick, black, keloided skin is something that I will never forget. For good or ill, that experience helped to create the person that I have become. Unfortunately, interest in the afterschool classes dwindled. Our parents didn't insist that we attend and by then most of us were caught up in adolescence as well. Fortunately, when I was 16 I got a summer job with the Neighborhood Youth Corp. working at the Van Dyke II Senior Citizen Center and voluteered to take Mother Gaston her lunch every day. Though I was more than happy to soak up the wisdom of my first mentor in the world of community activism, I was totally unaware of the extent of her impact on the expansion of African American studies in America.
This past Saturday, as I looked at some of the pages set up to honor the memory of the late Dr. John Hope Franklin, I also clicked on links for Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Somehow, I found myself on a page containing congressional record data referencing Mother Gaston. In his February 1999 speech before the Congressional Caucus, Representative Major Owens from New York spoke of the impact of Rosetta Gaston on the African American history movement. The 2:33 video follows.
And a whole youth movement was developed as a result of Mother Rosetta Gaston pushing the great scholar, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, to popularize African American history.