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Cleaning Up in Brooklyn

By Maggie Schreiner

Posted on May 14, 2020

Operation Clean Sweep Demonstration, circa 1962, v1989.22.17; Bob Adelman photographs of Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) demo, v1989.22, Brooklyn Historical Society.

This week we’re honoring our borough’s cleaners and sanitation workers. To the people who are cleaning hospital rooms, grocery stores, buses and subways, and picking up garbage and recycling, thank you for doing this important work to keep us safe and healthy!

The above image from 1962 shows a Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) demonstration called “Operation Clean Sweep” and illustrates the importance of cleaning and collecting garbage in our city. During the Civil Rights Movement, Operation Clean Sweep was planned by Brooklyn CORE members to call attention to poor environmental conditions in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which included infrequent and insufficient garbage pick-up, as well as crowded and dilapidated housing. Brooklyn CORE members researched the frequency of garbage pickups across different neighborhoods in the borough, and determined that less dense and majority white neighborhoods experienced comparable, if not more frequent, garbage pick-up than residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant. The dirty streets and trash accumulations that were the result of insufficient garbage pick-up in Bedford-Stuyvesant were stereotyped by city officials as social problems related to residents’ behavior, not the result of systemic discrimation.

Operation Clean Sweep Demonstration, circa 1962, v1989.22.2; Bob Adelman photographs of Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) demo, v1989.22, Brooklyn Historical Society.

After months of advocacy, Brooklyn CORE hosted Operation Clean Sweep on September 15, 1962. Brooklyn CORE members collectioned garbage that had been left by the Sanitation department on Gates Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, transported it in a U-Haul trailer, and deposited it on the steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. The action received substantial media attention, but only achieved a slight increase in the frequency of garbage pick-up. However, the action did establish inadequate municipal services as a civil rights issue. Over the course of the 1960s, the frequency of sanitation service in Bedford-Stuyvesant increased.

Learn more about the history of Operation Clean Sweep in Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings by Brian Purnell. View the finding aid for the Bob Adelman photographs of Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) demonstrations (v1989.22) here.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. We look forward inviting you back to BHS in the future to research in our entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections. In the meantime, you can use our Remote Research Guide to get started. Our reference staff are still available to help with your research! You can reach us at [email protected]

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