BY KULSOOM KHAN
Only a hop, skip, and a jump away from John F. Kennedy International Airport is Jamaica- a middle-class and ethnically diverse neighborhood made up of Caribbean, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, and African-American communities. The revitalization of Jamaica’s downtown area and the launch of the Air Train, which provides commuters and travelers an easier way to reach the airport, has boosted Jamaica’s economy.
In 1655, English settlers from Hempstead, Long Island established a town called Rusdorf. Eventually, the town became known as Jamaica. Even though Jamaican immigrants reside in the neighborhood, the name actually came from the Jameco Indians who first inhabited the area. In olden times, Jamaica served as colonial trading post and became a hub for commerce, education, finance, government, entertainment, and transportation.
The Queen’s County Clerk office and the New York State Supreme Court House are both located in Jamaica. Transportation played a key role in Jamaica’s prosperity in its early days. Jamaica Avenue, which was previously known as Jamaica Plank Road was an Indian trail and colonial road that stretched from Brooklyn to Long Island. The Spanish Baroque-style Loews Valencia located on Merrick Boulevard was once the largest movie theater in Queens. Today, it houses the Tabernacle of Prayer Church.
Also located on Merrick Boulevard is the first Black church in Jamaica, the Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church of New York, which was established in 1834. Former U.S. Congressman Reverend Dr. Floyd H. Flake leads the devotional services for a congregation of more than 18,400.
A strong black presence in Jamaica’s churches is related to the fact that the neighborhood has a history of producing Civil Rights leaders and activists. Rufus King, one of the signers of the Constitutions was an ardent opponent of slavery. He also served as a U.S. senator for 19 years and an ambassador to England for 10. King died in 1827 and was buried in Grace Church Cemetery on Jamaica Avenue.
King’s son, John followed in his father’s footsteps and continued the fight against slavery in the New York State Assembly, in the Senate, in Congress, and during his time as Governor of New York. The family home, the 11-acre King Manor was turned into a museum in 1900 and is located on 151-01 Jamaica Avenue.
Assata Olugbala Shakur, whose birth name is JoAnne Deborah Byron was also born in Jamaica and spent the first three years of her life there. Shakur was a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army.
Jazz musicians Albert J. Johnson, Al Sears, Buck Clayton, Buddy Johnson, Charlie Mingus all hail from Jamaica. Live Jazz concerts are even held annually at the Air Train station. Another famous musician who is a native of South Jamaica is none other than Grammy-winning rapper Curtis James Jackson III better known by his stage name as 50 Cent. Former New York governor Mario Cuomo’s parents who were Italian immigrants also lived in South Jamaica at one point in time.
For lovers of music, dance, and art, the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning located in the heart of downtown offers a variety of classes, programs, exhibitions, performances, and shows. The center’s annual Black History Month art exhibit is one of the most popular in Queens.