June Jordan Turned to Writing to Save Her Son and Have a Voice

In July 1964, June Jordan was a 28-year-old first-time mother to a son, Christopher. She, Christopher, and her husband, Michael, lived in Harlem.

On July 16, 1964, on the other side of town in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, James Powell, a 15-year-old Black teenager, played with a group of boys in front of an apartment building.

Wanting the teenagers to scram, the building’s superintendent sprayed the kids with a water hose. But, instead of retreating, Powell chased the super into the building’s lobby.

Overhearing the commotion, white-off duty New York Police Lt. Thomas Gilligan approached the building. When Powell came out of the building, Gilligan fired three shots.

According to Gilligan, Powell was holding a knife, although other witnesses said the boy was unarmed. Powell died within minutes.

Powell’s death came as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) planned a protest around the disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.

The organization quickly shifted its event to focus on Gilligan’s killing of Powell. CORE and others in New York City’s Black community thought Gilligan could have subdued Powell without killing him.

From Destruction and Desperation Comes Inspiration

The protests started peacefully, but things spiraled out of control on July 18. Protestors approached a Harlem police station, demanding Gilligan’s firing.

Officers guarding the building attacked the demonstrators with billy clubs, kicking off the Harlem Riots of 1964. The riots continued for six days, leaving one person dead and $1 million in property damage, about $8.4 billion in today’s dollars.

New York City police beat a demonstrator during the Harlem Riots of 1964.
Photo by Dick DeMarsico, New York World Telegraph & Sun, Public Domain

The riots shook Jordan. She was Black, Michael was white, and she worried that Christopher could one day face the same fate as 15-year-old James Powell.

Looking for solutions, Jordan turned to architecture, which she studied at Barnard.

Jordan sent a letter to architect Buckminster Fuller. Fuller was a world-famous architect, best known for his geodesic dome structures. (Think Spaceship Earth at Epcot in Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.) Jordan asked Fuller if he would work with her on a plan to redesign Harlem.

Jordan’s proposal impressed Fuller. For one thing, Jordan was a nobody who wasn’t afraid to pitch a well-known architect out of the blue. Secondly, Fuller wanted to do what he could to help rejuvenate Harlem, a historically Black neighborhood that experienced decades of decline, starting with the Great Depression.

So, Buckminster Fuller agreed to work with Meyer on improving Harlem.

‘Harlem Is Life Dying Inside a Closet’

Fuller and Jordan worked on a radical concept for redeveloping Harlem. They had blueprints and sketches of large cylindrical apartment towers that, combined, would house 500,000 people.

Walt Disney World Resort’s Epcot, designed by Buckminster Fuller.
Walt Disney World Resort’s Epcot | Photo by Benjamin Suter from Pexels

Along with housing units, each floor would host grocery stores, restaurants, and shops. Walkways would connect the buildings, and an elevated freeway would allow easy vehicular access to and from New Jersey. In addition, the older, ground-level Harlem would become parks.

The duo dubbed their plan “Skyrise for Harlem.” Jordan wrote an article about the proposal, and Esquire magazine paid her $500 for the piece.

It was money Jordan, who was divorcing Michael, desperately needed. She got the check on Christmas Eve 1964. And Esquire published Jordan’s story, under her married name, June Meyer, on Apr. 1, 1965, under the headline, “Instant Slum Clearance.”

Jordan’s article begins: “Harlem is life dying inside a closet, an excrescence beginning where a green park ends, a self-perpetuating disintegration of walls, ceilings, doorways, lives. It is also, of course, a political embarrassment for which no political solution is adequate. A housing project planted in the middle of a slum is not an answer.”

Jordan goes on to list statistics about life in Harlem.

“A typical Harlem child will score lower on an I.Q. test in the sixth grade than he scored three years earlier in the third grade,” Jordan wrote. “Nine-tenths of its housing units are more than thirty years old. Traffic deaths for Harlem youths appreciably exceed the rate plaguing the whole island of Manhattan.”

“A typical Harlem child will score lower on an I.Q. test in the sixth grade than he scored three years earlier in the third grade.” — June Jordan

There wasn’t much reaction to Jordan’s and Fuller’s Harlem plan. Nothing close to it ever came to fruition, and Harlem continued its decline until gentrification started in the late 1980s.

While Jordan’s Esquire article didn’t lead to Harlem’s redevelopment, it did launch her writing career.

June Jordan Seizes the Poet’s Pen

Jordan, now divorced, started teaching literature at The City College of New York in 1967. She released her first poetry collection, Who Look at Me? two years later. Other poetry books followed, as well as the 1971 novel His Own Where (Amazon | Bookshop). It was a National Book Award finalist.

June Jordan

Along with writing, Jordan continued to teach, eventually landing at the University of California, Berkeley.

In much of her work, including His Own Where and as a professor, Jordan used and taught Black English. Some criticized her for the practice, saying it put Black children at a disadvantage to other American kids.

Jordan replied by saying, “Our culture has been constantly threatened by annihilation or, at least, the swallowed blurring of assimilation. Therefore, our language is a system constructed by people constantly needing to insist that we exist, that we are present.”

Our language is a system constructed by people constantly needing to insist that we exist.” — June Jordan

June Jordan wrote 28 books and started an arts/activism program at Berkeley called Poetry for the People (P4P).

According to P4P’s website, the program “continues to pursue Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a beloved community for all. P4P has an academic focus on the reading, writing, and teaching of poetry, and the program also engages in bridging the gap between the university and the larger community, working with teens and young adults, schools, and community organizations, and activist projects in the greater Bay Area.”

A Legacy Lives On

P4P continues at Berkeley, but Jordan is gone. She fought a ten-year-long battle against breast cancer, finally succumbing to the disease in 2002.

In 1974, Jordan published a poem titled “Poem About Police Violence.” It begins:
Tell me something
what you think would happen if
everytime they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop
everytime they kill a black man
then we kill a cop
you think the accident rate would lower subsequently?

Jordan’s son, Christopher, survived, by the way. He went to Harvard and then the University of Colorado School of Law. Today he’s a practicing attorney in Bozeman, Mont.

June Jordan

  • Born on July 9, 1936, in New York, N.Y.
  • Died on June 14, 2002, in Berkeley, Calif.

Books by June Jordan

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