In 1970, Cleve Overton was driving home from a shift working in a Mobil Oil boiler room on Staten Island. On the way, he pulled off the road to pick sassafras to make tea for a friend. As he was coming out of the woods, he saw a police car. The officer standing next to it looked very nervous.
“Instantly, I began to frame the situation from his viewpoint. Bearded black man in the woods with a shovel and an ax…Black man has just buried a body after dismembering the torso…dies trying to resist arrest,” writes Overton.
The sassafras incident is one of the “vignettic gulps” that make up Overton’s book, In the Shadow of the Statue of Liberty: A Memoir of a Black American, which was published last November through the author’s own Diaspora Voices Press. The book is Overton’s attempt to prove that racism is as strong as ever on his native Staten Island, which he considers a race-relations microcosm of the United States.
But a 208-page memoir isn’t quite enough case-building for the Brookland author. This spring, Overton will return to Staten Island to collect stories from other long-timers on the toll that racism has taken on their lives, with an eye toward releasing a follow-up to In the Shadow. “I’m going to work on that, to prove to myself that much of the racism in the community still exists,” he says.
Not that he harbors too many doubts about the issue. Overton worked as a welder and blacksmith on the island’s dry docks in the ’50s—as far as jobs went, he took what he could get. As an African-American, he couldn’t even score a position at the now-closed Fresh Kills landfill.
Overton would later spy racism in the island’s municipal sphere. In January 2000, he mounted a protest against the murals in Borough Hall—Brooklyn’s City Hall—which were painted in 1940 by Frederick Charles Stahr to depict the history of Staten Island as part of a Works Progress Administration project. The pieces were meant to depict the history of Staten Island. Overton believed that the lone African-American figure, a shoeless man with a downcast expression, was presented in a demeaning way. So he painted a sign and picketed the hall in protest.
“People come across the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statute of Liberty—they will disembark at Borough Hall, tourists from many countries,” he explains. “They will see only that we were disenfranchised people, like that mural says.”
The murals are still intact at Borough Hall, ready to greet guided tours at its May 21 centennial party. The occasion may furnish opportunities for Overton’s latest project. “Who owns our history?” he asks. “Because if I don’t do this, my children won’t know, or any child that grows up on Staten Island will not really know.”