By Lynn Edmonds
Harlem is known as the epicenter of Civil Rights, black nationalist movements, and black culture and arts in New York City. But it is often forgotten that a number of black leaders, ranging from Malcolm X to W.E.B. Du Bois, called Queens home.
Malcolm X lived in East Elmhurst at 23-11 97th St. from 1959 until the time he was assassinated in 1965. He lived there with his wife, Betty Shabaaz, and their four daughters, who at the time of his assassination were six, four, two and five months old.
In a 1965 article, The New York Times described his house, as “a modest one. It consists of a small living room, a dining room, two tiny bedrooms, a former utility room used for the baby’s crib, a bathroom and a kitchen. There is a small room under the gabled roof. There is also a small garage behind the areaway.”
At the time, East Elmhurst was a black, middle-class enclave, and had been since around 1914, Steven Gregory wrote in his 1998 ethnography “Black Corona,” though he also wrote that in 1959, “large sections of North Corona…like many urban black communities at the outbreak of the civil rights movement, was confronted with escalating problems of neighborhood deterioration, poor public services, and political powerlessness.”
Though Malcolm X spent a great deal of his time in Harlem and traveling the entire country and world, he did partake in local activism as well. A longtime resident of the neighborhood was quoted in “Black Corona” talking about his impact locally.
“Suddenly, people started hearing about this fellow, Malcolm X, who was having meetings [on Ditmars Boulevard], talking about ‘blacks’ and saying some pretty controversial things,” the source said.
Malcolm X’s autobiography, written by Alex Haley, also describes how he was living in East Elmhurst at the time when he publicly split with the Nation of Islam, and its leader Elijah Muhammad, on March 8, 1964.
“The telephone in the home in East Elmhurst rang considerabley longer than usual, and Sister Betty, when she answered, sounded strained, choked up. When Malcolm X came on, he, too, sounded different. He asked me, ‘have you heard the radio or seen the newspapers?’ I said I hadn’t. He said, ‘well, do!’ and that he would call me later.”
In his autobiography, Malcolm X described in the first person how he was supposed leave after the falling out.
“Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam had a lawsuit going against me, to force me and my family to vacate the house in which we lived on Long Island,” he wrote.
That quickly turned to them cutting off his phone line.
“When Malcolm X reached home in Long Island, one of his followers, telephoning him there, got, instead, a telephone company operator who said the OL 1-6320 number was ‘disconnected.’”
Soon after that, Malcolm X’s house was firebombed, most likely by members of the Nation of Islam, when he, his wife and four daughters were inside.
A Molotov cocktail was hurled through the window at about 2.45 a.m. on Feb. 14th, 1965, a New York Times report said.
The bomb came just ahead of the civil court hearing on whether Malcolm X could stay in the house.
Malcolm X moved his family out and started shopping for another house. He found one that he liked “in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood also on Long Island, requiring a $3000 down payment,” his autobiography wrote.
He promised his wife that he would cut down on his international traveling and spend more time with the family. “I’ll never leave you so long again,” he was quoted in his autobiography.
But just one week after the firebombing on Feb. 21, Malcolm X was assassinated.