NEWARKERS” article from The NEWARKERS publication)
His Early Years
Leonard Jeffries was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, educated in Newark Public Schools, graduated from Sussex Avenue School in 1951, after completing Roseville Avenue School which he attended up to the 6th grade.
He was born on January 19, 1937 at the Women and Children’s Hospital on Central Avenue and 10th Street.
They say, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” And Newark provided that experience. Newark was made up of many African villages or sections of our city. His special village was the 14th Street neighborhood in the Roseville Section. All of the families took care of one another.
He lived on 14th Street across from the Spelmans (the late Rev. Dr. Harry Spelman, his son and Dr. Robert Spelman), The Fosters (the late Dr. Albert Foster), the Olivers, the Chrenshaws, and many others. His mother’s family lived on 13th Street and his father’s family lived on 12th Street.
Most of the families and youth went to the church down the block—Mount Sinai Baptist Church. All children developed a sense of self-worth and race pride. As a teenager, Lenny sensed he was on a mission. He was interested in the formation of our young men and women. His formal education came from the Newark Public School system were he became President of his graduation class at Sussex Avenue School, January 1951. His later schooling was at McKinley Jr. High School and Barringer High School where he graduated with honors.
Develops an Interest in Africa
Jeffries had heard about the [Crossroads] program a few years early, but listening to Dr. Robinson that day in the chapel of Lafayette College (in Easton, Pennsylvania he was a student) he was “transformed.” “Listening to this man talking about the need to work with Africa…tears came to my eyes. It was as if he was talking to me!”, remembers Jeffries.
The following summer, Jeffries took his first trip to Africa with Crossroads. His apparent leadership abilities and proficiency in French made him as asset to the program. He was brought on the Crossroads staff, and by the summer of 1962, was the group leader of a trip to Senegal. By 1964, he had traveled to Africa a dozen times. To date (though he has stopped counting) he has traveled to Africa more than 40 times—usually leading groups of young people whose lives might be as touch by Africa as his was.
His experiences in Africa shaped his academic ambition and, ultimately, his career. He switched from a budding lawyer to a political scientist, left law school and sought a master’s degree in international affairs.
Develops an Interest in Black Studies Programs
Later, he worked on his Ph.D. in the Ivory Coast. Studying economics and politics. He was struck by the extent to which African studies, as taught in the educational institutions, was from the imperialistic view.
It was not long before he began challenging the “authorities” on Africa in intellectual circles.
His lectures, writings, and the single class he was teaching at City College (prior to a Black Studies Department) put him in contact with his peers at the time; and in 1969, he and historian John Henrik Clarke established the African Heritage Studies Association. That same year, his friend James Turner was called to Cornell University, and Jeffries to San Hose State University in California, to set up their first Black Studies programs.
Thus, Jeffries began to build on firm ground his own vision of a curriculum based on the “African world focus.” His program objectives were:
- community oriented
- reach overseas to Africa
- reach out to the Caribbean.
He was to break with previously structured master and Ph.D. programs—his goal being to link academic activities to the community, and root Black history to its existence prior to slavery.
Dr. Jeffries has stated, “Africaness is not something that limits you to a corner of humanity…it expands you universally.”