In his memoir, I Pried Open Wall Street in 1962, Westport resident Winston Allen relates his pivotal role in desegregating Wall Street and becoming the first minority-owned independent broker-dealer firm in the history of the United States.
Before that, as a black teen living in Harlem, he had never been exposed to segregation until he traveled to Miami, wherein he had his first taste of racism.
His retelling of these experiences is powerful and important.
“Prior to the Federal Policy of the mid to late 1960s, few blacks held responsible positions in private industry. I faced seemingly insurmountable barriers, hurdles and obstacles when I dared to enter an entry-level position with an established and well-endowed Wall Street investment firm.
“I had just returned from Paris where I studied on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1961 at the Sorbonne in Paris. Instead of giving up, which is alien to my nature, I took matters into my own hands and fought my way through the tightly slammed-shut Wall Street doors and became the first black person in the history of the United States to open a historic broker-dealer firm on Wall Street.
“I share my grueling but uplifting story that will inspire others, despite barriers, hurdles, and obstacles to pursue dreams that are considered by some to be ‘over the top.’ This book is my road map on how to escape the trap of institutional bias, by being relentlessly resourceful, creating and pursuing your own path and controlling your own destiny.
“I should reiterate that my life achievements did not always happen solely through my design and orchestration, but also through a multitude of good fortune, luck, and by encouraging people.
“Living in Harlem in the 1930’s and 1940’s was very different from what we think Harlem represents today. Of all the black neighborhoods in the US, Harlem where I grew up was the most unique and beautiful. I later learned that when Harlem was first conceived and constructed in the 1890’s it became a symbol of elegance and distinction for wealthy whites, who enjoyed the deluxe life that Harlem offered. Contrary to popular perception Harlem was a luxury residential area in the late 1890’s. This area of newly constructed luxury residences resulted in an oversupply because of over-aggressive residential construction.
“The real estate overbuilding in the 1890’s, was an outgrowth of the prevailing view that the new subway system extending to upper Manhattan would make Harlem more accessible and lucrative. When overbuilding and thousands of vacant apartments came on the market at the same time it brought financial ruin to many developers, owners, landlords, and contractors. A decision was reluctantly made to start renting the deluxe empty apartments to black families. Landlords found that they could charge and collect traditionally higher rents from blacks because they were conditioned to pay more because of their rare chances of finding desirable housing. That’s why it was possible for me to grow up in a huge, beautiful seven-room apartment in a manned elevator building with my family in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s. I was surrounded by supporting relatives and friends. I lived this comfortable, protected life until I graduated from college.
“The first time I experienced segregation was when I was thirteen, and I traveled from New York to Florida, by train, in a sealed compartment in 1946. Before the porter left, I was told I was not allowed to exit the compartment and all of my meals would be served to me in my sleeping car compartment. The porter closed the curtains, covered the windows and instructed me not to be seen from outside of the window. The porter then proceeded to exit the compartment and locked the door from the outside. When the train arrived in Washington, D.C., I did peek out the window and for the first time saw “WHITES ONLY” and “COLORED” signs.
“I did not understand the purpose of these signs or what the signs actually meant until I saw that people religiously obeyed these signs. Then I began to understand. Since this was my very first exposure to what was happening, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“The way I observed from peeking through my window black people being treated, spoken to and stripped of any dignity was a shock for this 13-year-old boy that never experienced any of this. The more I observed, the angrier I became. Right then and there I made a vow to myself to never, ever allow anyone to treat me in the manner that I just witnessed. This train ride riveted my mind and remained with me to this day and developed me into the person I am.”
Winston’s residence is registered on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior and officially designated as the Allen House.
There is interest in turning his book into a movie.