William Stringfellow


The stairway smelled of piss.

The smells inside the tenement - number 18, 342 East 100th Street, Manhattan - were somewhat more ambiguous. They were a suffocating mixture of rotting food, rancid mattresses, dead rodents, dirt, and the stale odors of human life.

This was to be home. It had been home before: for a family of eight - five kids, three adults. Some of their belongings had been left behind. Some of their life had, too.

The place, altogether, was about 25 x 12 feet, with a wall separating the kitchen section from the rest. In the kitchen was a bathtub, a tiny, rusty stink, a refrigerator that didn't work, and an ancient gas range. In one corner was a toilet with a bowl without a seat. Water dripped perpetually from the box above the bowl. The other room was filled with beds: two double-decker military cots, and a big ugly convertible sofa. There wasn't room for anything else. The walls and ceilings were mostly holes and patches and peeling paint, sheltering legions of cockroaches.

This was to be my home.

I wondered, for a moment, why.

Then I remembered that this is the sort of place in which most people live, in most of the world, for most of the time. This or something worse.

Then I was home.


The prospect of practicing law in Harlem had, of course, to be considered in relation to other opportunities that presented themselves during my last year in law school. One possibility was to return home - to Northampton - where it would have been possible either to join an established firm or open my own practice and where there were certain political opportunities that commended themselves. There was also the possibility of joining a large Boston firm with an excellent and interesting practice. But my experience in law school had been such as to interest me mainly in courses and cases that involved direct contact with clients - and, at that, with clients who are people, not institutions...

While I pondered these and other alternatives, [George] Todd came to see me in Cambridge and made his suggestions that I come to Harlem to practice law there in collaboration with the parish. I visited the Harlem neighborhood, met some of those who would be my associates, talked with the clergy of the parish, and finally decided to settle there myself...

To decide to live and work in Harlem was an essentially simple decision for me. The main reason for the decision was that I had come to feel - I suppose that I had been indoctrinated at law school - that the health and maturity of the American legal system depend upon whether or not those who are outcasts in society - the poor, the socially discriminated against, the politically unpopular - are, as a practical matter, represented in their rights and complaints and causes before the law. Harlem seemed to be a place where a lawyer might find out something about that issue, and so I decided to go there.