Help Save Your Children – Johanna Fernández

Puerto Ricans demonstrate for civil rights at City Hall in Manhattan, 1967.

“Identified as a distinct condition in the first decade of the twentieth century, childhood lead poisoning, more serious and potentially fatal than its counterpart among adults, is usually acquired through contact with objects that contain lead. Lead is a neurotoxin whose damage to the brain is irreversible. The more acute cases of lead poisoning can cause mild or severe mental incapacity, persistent vomiting, epilepsy, kidney disorders, and in its most extreme case a swelling of the brain that usually leads to death. In the 1960s scientists already believed that between 10 and 25 percent of children living in the slums of Eastern and idwestern cities had absorbed dangerous quantities of lead. Although lead-based paint was discontinued in the 1940s, the failure of municipal governments to enforce housing codes—requiring landlords to remove old coats of lead-based paint from apartment walls—contributed to the crisis. In 1960s New York 43,000 ‘old law’ housing tenements, deemed ‘unfit for human habitation’ in 1901, continued to house predominantly black American, Puerto Rican, and Chinese tenants. The threat of lead contamination among children in these tenements was ubiquitous. In fact, public health advocates and government officials were aware of what came to be known as the ‘lead belt.’ According to a memorandum prepared for Mayor John V. Lindsay by his special assistant Wenner H. Kramansky, activists were not exaggerating when they denounced the housing crisis in East Harlem and the Bronx as deadly. The memorandum explained that New York’s ‘lead belt begins in Jamaica East, skips Jamaica West, runs through Brownsville, Bushwick, Bedford Stuyvesant, Red Hook, Gowanus, Fort Greene, Williamsburg-Greenpoint and becomes thicker and heavier in Lower East Side, skips Yorkville and is anchored in Riverside, East Harlem, Central Harlem, Mott Haven, Morrisania, and Tremont.’ In November 1968 New York City’s health department announced that six hundred cases of childhood lead poisoning had been recorded in a period of ten months, three of which had resulted in fatalities. … One of the most consequential campaigns run by the Young Lords Organization (YLO), a radical social activist group led predominantly by poor and working-class Puerto Rican youth, involved tackling the long-standing crisis of childhood lead poisoning. …”
Lapham’s Quarterly
The Nation: The Roots of Organizing By Ed Morales
From Rumble to Revolution by Frank Browning, Ramparts Magazine, October 1970, pp. 19-25
amazon: The Young Lords: A Radical History by Johanna Fernández

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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