|All interviews were taped and documented. They are available through the Reference Department of the Teaneck Public Library. The Library is not responsible for the accuracy of the statements nor does it necessarily endorse the opinions expressed.|
Audio recording of the interview with Isaac G. McNatt
|NARRATOR:||Isaac G. McNatt|
|INTERVIEWER:||Clifton B. Cox|
|DATE OF INTERVIEW:||February 27, 1984|
This is Clifton B. Cox, interview for the Teaneck Oral History Project. I will be interviewing Judge Isaac G. McNatt of Teaneck, New Jersey.
(N) I’ve lived here since April 20,1960. My wife, Gladys, and my two sons, oldest one is Glen and the youngest is Robert. They both have grown up and moved away from home now. (Gladys Martin McNatt, wife’s name)
( I ) Did you originate in Teaneck?
(N) No. I was born in North Carolina. Down in Blayton County, North Carolina. The southeastern part of the state. Grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina which is Cumberland, adjoining county, from about the age of eight years and lived there until I came here in 1942 to study law. Came to New York, St. John’s University.
( I ) You are a professional attorney?
( N ) Yes. That was my profession right straight through from the time I was admitted to the bar in New York 1946. I am still admitted to the bar in New York and New Jersey both but I am now a judge of compensation. I served in the capacity for the state of New Jersey, Appointed by Gov. Byrne in 1982. And I gave up my law practice at that time.
( I ) You were one of the first black councilmen for the city of Teaneck?
( N ) Yes I was the first in Teaneck. I was elected to the township council in 1966 and it was a rather round - about way of my getting to be elected. I ran for the May elections on 1966 and did not win. I came in eighth and they only have seven people on the council. I was, however, selected by the council after that seventh candidate, the winner, died about two weeks later after he was elected. Since I was next high up, there was a little doing it took to get me appointed at that time by the council to fill the vacancy but that’s how I was finally selected to start my work as a township councilman.
( I ) What other important posts in the city of Teaneck have you filled besides deputy mayor as well as councilman?
( N ) Well I served as a councilman for at first almost four years, beginning in 1966. My term started in June and then I had to stand for election again in November of that same year and at that time, I was elected and filled out the term that ran until 1970. Then I was elected again in that year and served until 1974 and during that second term, I was also selected by my colleagues to be deputy mayor and I served in that capacity for four years. Then at the end, in 1974 , the term ended in May I did not seek office again, at least that office. I sought to be elected to the county freeholders, the Board of Freeholders, and I ran in the democracy primary for that post but I didn’t win that.
( I ) Why did you settle in Teaneck?
( N ) Well it was one of the few places I could find a house. Where black people would be accepted. My wife and I looked all over Long Island and then we looked up in Westchester and we looked in other parts of New Jersey and so many places we ran into racial discrimination. If it was a nice neighborhood, they didn’t want black people to move there. They would find different reasons for not selling to us. And we found this house here in Teaneck and we liked it and it was available and we bought it.
( I ) In other words Teaneck was opened for all types of people to buy.
( N ) Well at least this particular block was, this particular house, I’ll put it that way, was available. There were certain other streets in which people were living in substantial numbers. This particular street at the time I moved in.
( I ) What year was that?
( N ) That was in 1960.
( I ) Well in 1960 the school integration had begun in the city of Teaneck?
( N ) No. It hadn’t started at that time. That came later. It came about two years, three years later.
( I ) Did you play a role in that integration process?
( N ) Well only as an interested citizen. I was president of the Teaneck Fair Housing Council at the time and part of our job was to attempt to get people into Teaneck and into other parts of Bergen County where they wanted to live and could afford to buy whether or not they were, even though they were black. And where the community was not willing to accept them. I spent a great deal of my time in those first six years in Teaneck in doing that kind of work. Serving that capacity.
( I ) What were some of the outstanding features of Teaneck that you would like to emphasize?
( N ) Well it is a community where I understand that some time back it was listed as a model town, model city. But what we like about Teaneck is, of course there is physical appearance of the town. It is a residential town as opposed to primarily an industrial or commercial. The streets are nice they are attractive. We like also, the better part than anything else is the people that live here. We have made so many friends here. And our friendship cuts across all lines of race, color, or religion or ethnic origin. We have friends from many different racial and religious backgrounds in Teaneck and that’s not a feature that is, unfortunately, common in other towns.
( I ) And it is ideal for airport connections and so forth.
( N ) Yes. When we go by air, and we fairly often do, we generally select Newark Airport. In fact, but if we wanted to take a limousine connection, that is very convenient likewise. And not to expensive.
( I ) Does your family have church affiliations in Teaneck?
( N ) No. My wife and I married in the community church in New York. It is down on 35th street and Park Avenue, although that’s not where we got married. We didn’t own that building at the time. We were married there and our children grew up through that Sunday school there and we have always continued to go there even though we moved to Teaneck. And I have served there in various capacities Trustee, Chairman of the Trustee Board and so forth. That’s a Unitarian Universalists Church affiliated with that denomination.
( I ) What are some of the negative features of Teaneck if there are any as far as you are concerned?
( N ) Well I don’t know. Of course there are always, I suppose, some people in Teaneck, I would think the majority of the people in Teaneck work for a living and that’s not a negative feature. It is a fact that people who work for a living, most of the ones that I know, do not work in Teaneck and we commute or go some place, back across into New York or to some other town in order to work. That’s a feature that I find in a sence attractive. It might result in some less commitment in that way. I do know a few people, friends of mine, who maintain their voting residence somewhere else. I rather they wouldn’t. But they are a small number. Most of us are committed residents and voters as well.
( I ) Is there any changes that you would like to see take place in Teaneck or specific changes?
( N ) Well a lot of the changes that we wanted to see take place have taken place, A good number of them. One of them you referred to earlier was the program to integrate the public schools that I give Teaneck great credit for. That’s one of the things we wanted to see because it was not a helpful thing to have our children grown up in a segregated school system. And Teaneck took the lead there not only for the particular county or our area but almost on a national basis. It took a lead and did that. Another one of the things I liked Teaneck for, the time I was elected to council, the time now that we have our black mayor for the first time. Mayor Brooks, it was not a situation where people stood back and said we would elect the mayor, the only one who will represent the majority of the population of the township. Even though most of the voters are white, they still recognized people who are willing and able to serve and give them an opportunity to serve. And I like that about Teaneck.
( I ) What do you think about the closing of the three of the schools that is taking place that was voted by the school board just recently? Do you have any comment to make about that?
( N ) Well I am not sure if I am that well up on it. I was advised when I became a judge that I should not comment too much on matters of a political nature. I think the information that I have had up to this point was that there might be two schools closed and then I was a little bit surprised to know that there might be three and since I am not aware of all the reasons why it changed from two to three, I might not be able to comment properly on that phase of it. I know that there has been a decline in the school population. For instance, when my oldest son graduated from Teaneck High School in 1966, there must have been something like 700 or close to that, a little more or a little less, in his class. This past year, we only had 447 graduates. That is quite a drop. And of course there is a similar drop along the line, I believe, in the other schools. So there is probably a need to close some part of the plant, to put it to other uses, but I am not in a position to say how many. I wouldn’t stick my neck out on that because I am not that aware.
( I ) This will tend to help Teaneck budget by closing these schools.
( N ) Well if the schools are not needed, then I think that is a reason for closing some one or two of the schools but whether it should be three or two or more or less, I am not in a position to say. If we needed them, I don’t believe Teaneck would, I don’t think the Teaneck officials would try to close them if we actually needed them. I think the thought is that we don’t need all of those schools and I’ll go along with that if I can be convinces that that is the case.
( I ) Now you mentioned before that you were a judge. Now what type of judge did you say you were?
( N ) I am now serving as a judge in compensation for the state of New Jersey, I was appointed to this position in January of 1982 by Gov. Byrne, one of the last appointments he made before he left the office. And I was confirmed by the senate, and I took the oath of office on January 18,1982 and entered upon my duties a week later. And I am serving now, my court in Newark, which is where I am sitting.
( I ) Could you explain a little bit about what type of cases you would judge in your….
( N ) Yes. The Court of Compensation is the court were suits are brought by employees who are hurt on the job, who suffer an accident on the job or who suffer an occupational disease from exposure to unhealthful conditions on the job. And their claim is for money and benefits for medical treatment or being paid while they are out of work until they are able to go back or even after they go back, if there is a permanent injury so there are three types of benefits that we administer there. Before that I had served as a municipal court judge here in Teaneck for about two years and I, during that time, I was, it was part time as I was still practicing law. But in this position it is full time and we are not permitted to practice law at all.
( I ) I see. Very good.
( N ) There was one other thing you asked me about activities I had been involved in. In 1963, one of the things I got great satisfaction out of was organizing here in Bergen County for the March on Washington. I was chairman of a committee that undertook that task and we were able to get a great deal of support from people who were willing to go and able to go and there were some who were unable to go who gave their money. For instance, I think it was Sen. Feldman who gave money for other people to go who would be willing to go on that march.
( I ) This march was for what purpose?
( N ) It was for jobs and freedom. And we were able to get a good deal of support from the churches. And we chartered nine buses to go down and the ten buses we took, there were ten in all, was lent to us by the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Hackensack so we took down quiet a delegation of buses. In 1983, I was back again to see it twenty years later and it was a very stimulating experience.
( I ) Do you have children living in the city of Teaneck?
( N ) No. They don’t live here now. Both of my boys have graduated from the Teaneck High School. The year we moved here, my oldest son Glen was entering seventh grade the following September and he graduated from high school. My youngest son was entering first grade. And they both graduated and have both since finished college and are working. My oldest son is in Alexandria Virginia a writer for Time Life Magazine, the book division. And my youngest son, Robert, is associate editor for Black Enterprise Magazine in New York and he lives in New York.
( I ) And your wife Muriel, is she s professional lady?
( N ) Gladys. Yes she has been a schoolteacher and school administrator for several years in New York City and her last position there was as an assistant principal in charge of health and physical education at Hughes High School in the Chelsea Section, West 18th street in Manhattan. She retired a couple of years ago.
( I ) Very good. So you have a house of professional people. Well this is mighty nice. There has been some talk about unemployment in the city of Teaneck. Do you foresee any positive moves to try to correct this for the young people? Especially in the black community?
( N ) This past Friday night I attended a group meeting. I sort of interloped in there with my wife. One of the women’s groups my wife is a member of had some high school youths there discussing their own concerns and problems and this meeting was held at St. Anastasia’s Church. The people, the youngsters who were present were concerned with, well of course mostly school, they had their school problems and they had their community problems and there relationship with their neighbors and law enforcement, that came up. But primarily, I shouldn’t say primarily, but there was an undercurrent of concern about getting employment at the time they should graduate from high school, from college. They were looking five or six years down the road. And they were speaking of their parents working very hard and often not being able to spend a lot of time with the homework with the children and they were looking forward to working but hopefully in a position to work and to give guidance to their children in school. I have not worked that closely with any agency that would enumerate unemployed in this city, in town, in Teaneck but I am a member of the Urban League. The Urban League has done a great deal in that direction. And I defer to someone in that organization or connected with some employment agency. They would know a little bit more about that.
( I ) Have you been tuned into this renovation of Teaneck Road north of Route 4?
( N ) Only what I have read in newspapers. That’s as much as I know about that and, of course, hearing people talk about it where ever I happen to visit but it is a thing that I have a great deal of interest in. Before I was appointed mayor here in Teaneck, Not mayor, I take that back. Judge in Teaneck I was a member of an informal group to work on that development, a group of merchants and one or two township officials and some residents of the area. We would meet informally to discuss what could be done along that line and there were several suggestions made and we were holding fairly regular meeting on that topic. But after I received the appointment of judge, I had to step out of that and I wasn’t able to follow up on it any further but I still have a great interest in it.
( I ) Has Teaneck improved over the last decade?
( N ) Yes I believe it has. One of the ways it has improved, it has taken greater stand for equality in housing. The township government has taken steps to discourage blockbusting, which is one of the things I play a role in when I was on the Teaneck Fair Housing Committee. We now have machinery in motion, part of which I sponsored when I was on the council. To receive complaints from anyone who knows of people away from Teaneck. We have been successful in getting blacks into many parts of the township, now all over the township. I don’t believe we still are in a majority as blacks but the effort has paid off in the sense that there is machinery in motion and the township is committed to it. I don’t believe that there are a lot of other towns that are so committed. I know Englewood has taken very positive steps in that direction but so many other towns in New Jersey haven’t. If they have, I am not aware of it. And I give a great deal of credit to Teaneck for.
( I ) Teaneck has been one of the leaders in that respect.
( N ) Correct. And at the very top level, there is a provision for enforcing those ordinances which I helped to pass for receiving the complaints and processing them.
( I ) Okay is there anything in your mind or thought that you might like to see the manager or the council members of Teaneck act upon?
( N ) The township manager on the council?
( I ) Yes.
( N ) Well I was pleased to see one step recently taken where there was a meeting of the township council held at the Bryant School and I believe that is a, I hope this is a trend to try to hold neighborhood meetings, not all the time. It is not always the most convenient place, you don’t have all the equipment, support mechanism, but I think occasionally it is well to go right into the neighborhood where the citizens are and to listen to their complaints and I am glad to see that Mayor Brooks has started that process and I hope that will continue.
( I ) You can certainly get the feeling of the town in that way.
( N ) That is correct. I appreciate that fact that the township of Teaneck has set aside a holiday for the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I was fortunate enough to be invited by the Governor to attend the signing of that legislation when it became a national holiday in the state. And we are one of the few states where that is the case. But even after that, the township itself here did not recognize that as a holiday and our offices were still open doing business. But just recently that situation has changed and it is now a holiday within the town. That is not the case in all the other towns around this area. So Teaneck has taken lead again.
( I ) So then you are one of the important people of Teaneck because you were asked to be there by the governor when they signed that.
( N ) Yes. As a matter of fact he gave me a pen.
( I ) That will make us proud to know that we have this person as one of us. Well, Judge, Is there any other thoughts that you would like to bring to this historical project?
( N ) Well one of the things I am proud of too is when I was selected or asked to serve as a bicentennial chairman for the township of Teaneck on 1976 when we were celebrating the 200th birthday of the nation. And I was very fortunate in having a very dedicated committee to work with me, a committee that was comprised of representatives from so very many of the organizations in the town. The township council, civil organizations, veteran organizations, and as a part of that I also had to coordinate some efforts with the county in its celebration so as a part of that, I met and worked with people in various other communities and I believe that the observance was a successful one. And one of the things I believe, maybe as a part of that or maybe not, I was selected as the citizen of the year for Teaneck in 1976 and that was one of the thrilling moments of my life too.
( I ) Well that is quite an honor.
( N ) It was quite an honor and I appreciated it. And I look back on it with fond remembrance of all the people who made it possible and who participated in it and who attended the dinner in which that honor was bestowed upon me. And I hope that in the years ahead, I will still be helpful in some way. Whatever way I can for the development of the township.
( I ) This will close this interview and we would appreciate if you can think of anything else of importance history-wise for the city of Teaneck. You can get in touch with me. I will be happy to come back and talk with you some more.
( N ) All right. I will be glad to do that. And what I would hope to do is to give you some of the names of the people with whom I have worked who deserve credit. I haven’t done all of that at this time but it is something that I would hope to do then.
( I ) All right. That would be very nice. I could pick those up some time. If you have any pictures or documents that would enhance this historical project, the library would be glad to borrow them. (END OF TAPE #1, TAPE 2 BEGINS)
( N ) I was saying that there are so many people who have worked with me and helped me in a number of the activities and I would just like to, at some point, mention a few names. I think off hand of, not off hand, the time I ran for the council, my campaign chairman was Dr. R.T.L. Layson (lives on Stuyvesant Rd.) He encouraged me and helped me in the campaign. And there is a Mr. Robert Manelkern, who is my assistant manager. The second time I ran, there was a Mr. William Watkins who lived up on this street. Who likewise did a marvelous job and I suppose as I look back on it had it not been for getting good committees and good managers, and good help I just don’t know whether I would have won any office or not. And Mrs. Carol Witherspoon who lives downs the street was the treasurer and kept account of all the books and records and kept me out of trouble with the elections commission and people like that. And there was a Mrs. Leon Thomas who was the secretary of my committee. The first time she lived right up the block at that time. The second time it was a Mrs. May Stewart who lives down the block, she was the secretary of the campaign. Kept the notes and minutes of the meeting of the campaign. Thomas Boyd on the committee, When I was on the council of course I worked with the various council members and I enjoyed that so much. I think I did receive a certificate of appreciation when I retired from the council and chose not to run again from the council signed by the members of the council and that is one of my treasured souvenirs. The certificate officially awarded to me and presented to me when I was honored as a man of the year was inscribed by ( Mr. McNatt requested tape to be stopped here.)
( I ) We were talking about people that have helped you out in your endeavors in the political arena.
( N ) Yes Dr. Harold Salwen I recall who worked with me and there are so many others. And of course the (Cottage Parlors). There were dozens and dozens of people who opened their homes when I was campaigning and invited me in to speak to their neighbors and I owe them all a debt of gratitude. I would like to refer to, I know one particular place I was invited and when I walked in the living room looked to me to be as large as my whole house from side to side. And I remarked, “So this is a cottage meeting.”
( I ) Some cottage right?
( N ) Some cottage. But I was welcomed in so many different ones all around the town by some of the friends that I made in those days when I was campaigning are still good friends of mine. That’s a friendship that has endured on a person-to-person basis. But at some point I will try to think of some additional names. Not try to think of them but get them sort of organized so I can give you the names of some other people who played an important role in the development of Teaneck with whom I have been in fairly close contact.
( I ) We would appreciate that very much. Thank you very much. (END OF THAT PORTION)
( N ) I was going to mention the time I was awarded the honor of man of the year, there was a beautiful certificate, a scroll, presented to me as a part of that ceremony and it was inscribed and it was really done by Mrs. Marilyn Bell who is an artist and that’s, I don’t think she makes a living of it but it is very beautiful and touching tribute that was given to me and I don’t believe I mention the name of the organization that bestowed that honor on me. That was the Teaneck Political Assembly and at that time or at various times, I have served as a member of the Board of Directors of that organization. I believe that year Mrs. Jacqueline Cates was the chairman of it or co-chairman of it. There was a time when I was active with an organization which I helped to start called Bergen Blacks for Action in Politics and that organization got started at a meeting here in my home in the fall, I believe, of 1974, shortly after I was off the council. And the purpose of it was to try to put blacks into a more meaningful position or play a more meaningful role in the countywide government. We felt that that’s where we were short of representation and of a voice to speak. So we set that up. There was Rev. Taylor who was serving as a member of the executive committee of that organization. There was a deputy mayor James Tremell at that time. There was a Mrs. Phyllis Scott. There was a Mrs. Jacqueline Stovall. Many of whom have continued to be active in political either at that time or since that time and that organization I believe served a useful purpose. We used to bring in various political candidates to not only for us to hear their views but for them to hear our views and each year at a breakfast, we would invite all candidates, both parties, and I think that is an organization that had some impact on the county government in this area. I was also instrumental in helping to start within the township, within the county, under the auspices of N.A.A.C.P. the annual observation prior to that in one, usually, on his birthday, but it had been discontinued and in the particular form that I first knew it so we started here. We helped it first at the Teaneck Presbyterian Church. I don’t know whether you remember that.
( I ) Yes I do.
( N ) And then the second one was held at the First Baptist Church in Englewood. The third one I believe was held at the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Hackensack. And then the next two were held in the Teaneck High School. And then this past year, it was held at Dwight Morrow in Englewood. So we generally hold in the three towns where we think the interest is greatest to have it and we’ve always had good support from those three towns. Dr. Oscar McCloud was one of the persons who worked very closely with us on that, Mr. Byron Whitter who was president of the N.A.A.C.P. at the time that was started, and Mrs. Smith who succeeded him. And Mr. Roy McBeam who succeeded Mr. Whitter were all very supportive of that and I served as chairman of it for the first four years. Mrs. Theodore Lacey has served as chairman (chair-person) for the past two years. I did some work also with an organization call Douglas Harver Community Developers. The organization was set up in the area. It was not limited to Teaneck. As a matter of fact, most of our early meetings were held in Englewood. All of them were held at once in Englewood to promote business growth among blacks.
( I ) This was for minority business?
( N ) Minority business, yes. And we set it up as a stock corporation. New Jersey Corporation. It is still in existence. We still maintain an office for that and they are on the plaza, 1420 Queen Anne Road. We have an office there. Part of the office we use for our town purpose and part of it we sublet to businessmen and so far, the only investment has been in real estate, in real property. This is still a growing organization. I am not a member of the board now since I became judge, but I was president of it from the founding in 1967 up until 1982 and it is still a going organization. So I wanted to get those thoughts into this and at some time, perhaps, I will be interested to hear certainly what I sounded like when I gave this interview and to hear other portions of the project. This will be in the Teaneck Public Library, is this right?
( I ) Public Library and of course all these tapes will be edited and set up and documented and after the project is over, you will be able to go down and possibly listen to yourself.
( N ) I’ll be glad to do that.
( I ) Very good. That was Judge McNatt. Thank you.