Residents remember Newark's Baxter Terrace and Queen of Angels Parish

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on February 07, 2017

 Former residents of James Baxter Terrace, a Newark public housing development that was demolished in 2012. Joyce Stafford Simmons speaks about the complex. Next to her is Fateisha Tullis Mariano, Fred Brown, Ronald Koontz Sr., Linda Leonard-Nevels and Rosemary Francis-Spears. They participated in a Black History Month program at the Newark Public Library that explored the role of the church and the community in their lives

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When residents moved into the James Baxter Terrace public housing development on Sussex Avenue in Newark, they felt a sense of family and promise, a chance at upward mobility.

"It was such a village,'' said Rosemary Francis-Spears, a Vauxhall resident who lived there 15 years until 1956.  "We were family.''

Queen of Angels Parish - Newark's first African-American Roman Catholic Church - was just as much a community anchor, located nearby on Irvine Turner Boulevard, an eight-minute drive by car. Its worship services were as lively as its political activism and social commitment to never give up on people.

"When I came to Queen of Angels I knew I was home,'' said Cecilia Faulks, an Orange resident who had been a member since the 1960s.

Baxter Terrace residents and the faithful parishioners are forever linked to a special time and place in their lives when people looked after one another.

They gathered as panelists this past Saturday for a Black History Month program at the Newark Public Library, where 11 of them shared their joys and sorrows about the role of the church and a community neighborhood that still makes them smile.

And reminisce.

But Baxter Terrace and Queen of Angels are gone, two Newark stalwarts that were demolished after structural decline. The sprawling public housing development deteriorated and was torn down in 2012 after the Newark Housing Authority could no longer afford to maintain it.

Dwindling membership and costly repairs at Queen of Angels caused the Archdiocese of Newark to close the church in 2012, when the roof collapsed. The rectory and convent was razed in 2015, and the church came down in 2016.

When Baxter first opened in 1941 to working class and poor families, housing was segregated. Whites lived at the front of the complex along Sussex Avenue and Nesbitt Street. Blacks lived toward the back on the Orange Street side.

The panelists, however, said they were just kids who didn't pick up on the racial divide, which lasted until the 1950s.  They played with each other in the courtyard, and mothers looked out from their windows to watch them shoot marbles, play kickball or hopscotch.

There were sprinklers on hot summer days and bushes from which parents plucked a flexible, thin limb of a branch to spank a misbehaving child. Many of us know it as a "switch."

Older kids ventured away from the courtyard, but they had to be home by 5 p.m. They went roller skating, played basketball or checked out three movies for 14 cents when they saved up a quarter. The left over change was spent on penny candy.

"It was a wonderful time,'' said Ronald Koontz Sr., of East Orange. "I'll never forget it.'' 

Remnants of Baxter Terrace, which include entranceways, are now part of the Smithsonian's National African-American Museum in Washington, D.C. But what Baxter Terrace evolved into before it was finally razed is not the picture that residents remember.  They didn't experience the poor housing conditions rampant drug activity that became the development's reputation.

"That wasn't the last vision I had,'' said Linda Leonard-Nevels, a Hillside resident who is among four generations of family members who lived in Baxter from 1941 to 1986. "When people think of Baxter, they think of deterioration. We had a great time. It was a safe time.''

Fateisha Tullis Mariano of Willingboro wished her time at Baxter could have been like the glory days of other former residents who speak passionately about the complex.

"I feel bad that I didn't have the closeness that you had growing up,'' said Tullis Mariano, who was a resident from the mid- 1980s to the early 1990s. "We didn't have it all bad, but we didn't have it all good, either.

Queen of Angels, known as the beacon on the hill, was the social conscience of the neighborhood. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited several times and held meetings at the church for the Poor People's Campaign.

When King was killed, Queen of Angels organized a walk for racial harmony through the Central Ward, which drew of 25,000 people.

Members didn't sit idle in this church. They were put to work. There were fish fries, bake sales, community theater performances and dances. They were taught to give back.

No one was left behind, and Miles Callender, of Newark, can testify to that kindness. During his cocaine addiction, he said, the church never turned its back on him when he showed up on Sundays.

"No matter what condition I was in, the church was always receptive to me, even if I was sitting in the back stoned out of my mind.'

The church's nurturing way turned him around. Callender earned a doctoral degree in theology and is working on a second master's degree at Seton Hall University.

The Queen of Angels members have gone through stages of grief, from anger to sadness, over the loss of their church. But they've moved on to other parishes, taking with them the call-and-worship-style of praise that made Queen of Angels appealing to many.

Tracey Battles, of Plainfield, understands the heartache, but he's practical about the demise of his church.

"Queen of Angels served its purpose and it served its time,'' he said.

The pews and stained glass windows are at Seton Hall University. St. Lucy's in Newark has the church bells, and many other artifacts are part of a gallery exhibit on Central Avenue in Newark. The curator is Matthew Gosser, a Newark resident and professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark.

The land where Queen of Angels once stood is still empty, but the former Baxter Terrace site is not.  It's now called Baxter Park, a modern $21.7 million apartment development built by the housing authority in 2013.

The only thing that remains the same are the memories of bygone days and the people who created them.

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