From Spring Street to City Hall

How David Dinkins' political career left a lasting legacy

David Dinkins was the first Black mayor and the 106th mayor of New York City, paving the way for African-American politicians, such as Eric Adams, who recently became the second African-American Mayor of New York City. The Dinkins administration had rippling effects in the Big Apple that can be seen today. Dinkins added thousands of police officers to the NYPD to help combat crime as part of his “Safe Streets, Safe City.” Homicides fell by 13 percent during his time in office and Dinkins is credited for managing to keep NYC from having the same violent outcry as Los Angeles during the Rodney King verdict. While mayor, Dinkins turned a $1.8 billion dollar deficit into a $200 million dollar surplus of money for the city's economy. He accomplished this by fostering good business and by building lots of low-income housing and neighborhoods in only one term.

“A service man, an HBCU alum, a husband, a father, an Alpha Man, a mason, a political icon – David Dinkins was the epitome of that old Capital City mantra, Trenton Makes…The World Takes. I look at the life of Mayor Dinkins, it gives me faith in our city’s young people, especially those who will rise to his stature and accomplish even greater feats,” said Leslie Summiel Jr., President of the Trenton Branch of NAACP.

In 1989, Dinkins won the Democratic primary to become New York City’s first African-American Mayor. He ended former Mayor Ed Koch's chances for a fourth term and managed to beat Republican nominee Rudy Giuliani in the general election. He also started “Don’t Dis Your Sis'' a public relations campaign designed to encourage young men to respect women. Dinkins was also instrumental in helping to revitalize Times Square, and aiding in the creation of Restaurant Week, Broadway on Broadway, Fashion Week, and negotiating an unprecedented deal to keep the US Open in New York for 99 years.

Yearbook photo of David Dinkins from Trenton Central High School

Born in 1927 to Sally Lucy and William Harvey Dinkins Jr. in Trenton NJ in 1927, Dinkins’ mother was a domestic worker and his father was a real estate agent and barber. His parents separated when he was six years old and he lived with his mom for a short time in Harlem before returning to New Jersey to live with his dad and stepmother.

Dinkins grew up on Spring Street and attended Trenton Central High School in Trenton NJ. After graduation, he went on to enlist in the armed forces but he was turned away due to his race. He kept applying and when he was admitted in 1945, he was a part of a groundbreaking group of African-American marines called the Montford Point Marines. They went on to receive the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their sacrifice and service to their country during World War II. The War ended before he was able to see any action and while he was still in boot camp. But since he went to the military he was able to use the military's G.I. Bill which, covers all or some costs for school or training and enabled him to attend Howard University.

He attended Howard University and there he studied mathematics. While he was there, he met his future wife Joyce Burrows who was the daughter of a Harlem Politician named Daniel L. Burrows. It was Dinkins' father-in-law who became his political mentor. Dinkins returned to New York so that he could attend the Brooklyn School of Law in 1953. He first started in politics by becoming involved with the George Washington Carver Democratic club of Harlem. He was elected to the state assembly in 1965, but only served one term before his district was reapportioned. Dinkins was part of the Harlem Clubhouse, an unofficial group of four that included US Representative Charles Rangel, civil rights attorney Basil Paterson and Percy Sutton. Dinkins was one of 50 African-American investors who helped Percy Sutton to found The Inner City Broadcasting Inc, which became the first African-American owned broadcasting radio station.

The Harlem Clubhouse from left to right: David Dinkins, Basil Paterson, Percy Sutton, and Charles Rangle.

He also inspired many people who would later become mayor, such as Bill De Blasio, who served under Dinkins. On November 23rd 2020, Dinkins passed away at the age of 93, in his home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan due to natural causes, a month after his wife transitioned. Upon news of his passing, Governor Phil Murphy released a statement, saying, "David Dinkins rose to lead New York City out of a time of political turmoil, seeking with a steady hand to heal longstanding rifts that had divided its residents. He faced early on the forces of discrimination that he would later commit his public career to breaking down when, as a student at Trenton Central High School, he wasn't allowed to use the school's swimming pool because of the color of his skin. That he was New York's first Black mayor cemented a place for him in history, but he brought in other leaders who mirrored the City's diversity, and initiated many of the changes that renewed its place on the world stage as a cultural center." Dinkins' voice and policies will have a lasting effect on NYC and his hometown for generations to come. #BlackHistoryIsAmericanHistory

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