(A History of) The Harlem chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality

Leonard DeChamps (1970-1973)

At twenty years old Leonard DeChamps was the youngest of Harlem CORE’s chairman. Having been a member since the ninth grade, he previously was the national youth coordinator for CORE. He was first mentored by Gladys Harrington. His experience allowed him to work directly under Jerome Smith, Solomon, and Innis. James Howard served as vice chairman. Between August, 1971 and February, 1972, the chapter's office moves from 125th street to the national offices at 200 west 135th street, presumably to save money. At the time, Harlem CORE is one of only four surviving chapters in the five boroughs.

In the fall of 1971, a demonstration against a local Off Track Betting (OTB) parlor escalated into a larger conversation on the double standard of the justice system when it came to Black people and gambling. An article in New York magazine implied that Harlem CORE (HC) attempted to extort monies from the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation, a ‘quasi-government operation’ regulating the legalized gambling on horse races. The offices of OTB were threatened to be picketed unless a certain number of tickets to a CORE event were purchased (31).

In response, HC members temporarily shut down the OTB parlor on 125th street and sat in at the offices of an OTB executive, resulting in the arrest of Leonard Dechamps. CORE created a forum in the press to argue that the numbers (a system of gambling in which participants must guess what each day’s special three digit number will be) should be legalized. Legalizing the numbers would allow the monies to circulate in the Black community instead of being taken out. OTB is posited as something foreign and the numbers as indigenous to the Harlem community. Drawing attention to the injustice of Blacks being arrested for gambling in Harlem when OTB was legalized gambling raised questions about racism in the legal system.

By this time, Innis had stopped holding CORE’s annual conventions and elections. Two years earlier, he urged Harlemites not to vote in the mayoral elections, a strange position to take for one advocating the participation of Blacks in the democratic process (32). Ironically, CORE started to run their own candidates for local office in New York. Wilbert Kirby, former vice chair under Innis, was the first. In 1970, he ran for an assembly seat held then by Charles Rangel while William Chance, former attorney for many Harlem CORE members, ran for State Senator, a position held then by Basil Patterson. Patterson, like Percy Sutton, had been also been Harlem CORE's in house attorney while serving as the head of the Harlem NAACP chapter. At the time, he was on Harlem CORE's Advisory Commitee. CORE did not succeed until the following election year when Sidney Von Luther was elected State Senator in 1971.

In the spring of 1972, DeChamps was a delegate to the National Black Political Convention (NBPC), a gathering of several thousand Black political officials and activists seeking to create a unified agenda for future African American political aspirations. HC members Roy Innis, James Howard, Elaine Parker, Mary Dennison , Cyril Boynes, and former member Gladys Harrington were also elected delegates to the convention (33). There, the NBPC adopted CORE’s proposal to create a national all Black Board of Education, an idea which started with Harlem CORE’s earlier educational plans (34).Other HC members in attendance would go on to become members in the resulting National Black Political Assembly at the local level.

It is during this time period that Innis began his relationship with the African continent. In 1971 he and aides including Solomon and Dorris Innis made a series of trips throughout the continent meeting with various leaders, including the dictator Idi Amin with whom Innis had a good relationship. Through Uganda, Innis proposed that African Americans be given dual citizenship, similar to how Jewish Americans were also automatic citizens in Israel. He also began working on long term plans to send thousands of skilled African Americans to the continent for jobs. As CORE continued to adopt a Pan-Africanist outlook, their media portrayed them as picking up where Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association of the 1920’s left off.

DeChamps, after becoming director of operations for CORE and then their national press director, quit CORE with Vic Solomon by the end of 1973 for reasons unknown.