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Freehold is a small town, made smaller -- if only in relative terms -- by a boom in the surrounding area after World War II. Its racial and ethnic makeup has been a source of conflict throughout its history. Bruce put it this way in the lyrics to "In Freehold," from 1996: “Well if you were different, black or brown/It was a pretty redneck town/Back in Freehold.”1 There were 7,550 people living there in 1950, the year after Bruce was born, and the population increased 40 percent in the next two decades.2 The growth spurt was the second of the 20th century. During the 1920s and 1930s, the number of residents more than doubled as people moved into town to take jobs, especially at the Karagheusian rug mill.3 Even so, the town's growth failed to keep pace with the likes of Freehold Township, where farmland gave way to housing developments. The number of township residents soared almost fourfold in the 1950s and 1960s, and by 1970 its population surpassed Freehold's.4 Last year, the township had three times as many people, according to a Census Bureau estimate.5 Bruce was different by Freehold’s standards because of his long hair. Drivers tried to push him into ditches as he hitchhiked along Route 9.6 Yet his ethnic makeup was perfectly in keeping with the town’s Western European heritage. The Dutch were among the town’s early settlers. Irish immigrants followed in the mid-1800s, when their home country was struck by famine.7 The Irish became Freehold’s largest white ethnic group, followed by the Italians. Together, they were 28% of the population in the 2000 census.8 African-Americans arrived as slaves during the 1700s, and historically were Freehold’s largest minority group. In 1790, they accounted for one out of every six residents. The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the town’s oldest black congregation, started in 1848.9
Slavery didn’t end in town until the Emancipation Proclamation was ratified in 1865, though New Jersey adopted an emancipation law six decades earlier.10 Segregation remained an obstacle for the African-American population after that. Freehold introduced all-black schools in the 1840s. The Court Street School, opened in 1915, was built for specifically for black children. Even though the school moved to another building four years later and expanded in 1926, there were never more than four classrooms available to teach kindergarten through eighth grade.11 Court Street was desegregated in 1947, when New Jersey adopted a constitution that banned segregation in schools.12 Freehold’s high school, which was integrated, added its first African-American football players four years later. The team featured an all-black offensive backfield in 1953, when it went undefeated and won state and conference championships.13 Despite these milestones, race relations worsened in the 1960s as the local economy slumped. The town’s government sought to address the issue through an Inter-Racial Human Relations Committee. The panel was composed of 10 members and two representatives of the Borough Council, the governing body, in 1968.14 Simmering tensions triggered a riot on the evening of Monday, May 19, 1969. The outbreak followed three days of name calling between black and white youths and began within hours after the cancellation of a black protest parade, set for Memorial Day. Thirty-four windows were smashed at 25 businesses on Mechanic, South and West Main streets.15 During the unrest, a car full of white youths stopped next to a car of black youths. One of the whites fired a shotgun into the back seat of the other car. Two of the blacks were wounded, and one of them was permanently blinded in one eye.16 This incident inspired Bruce’s reference to a shooting in “My Hometown,” though he changed the timing to a Saturday night in 1965.17
Bruce avoided being caught in the racial undertow with the help of music, which gave him a common ground with his African-American peers. Rhythm-and-blues performers such as Sam and Dave and Eddie Floyd were among his favorites.18 “Raise Your Hand,” a hit single for Floyd, later became a staple of his concerts. One of those peers, Richard Blackwell, appeared on his second album, “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.”19 He played congas and percussion alongside the E Street Band’s two black members at the time, pianist David Sancious and saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Sancious went solo after that album, while Clemons is still in the band. Bruce talked about racism at a 2002 show in Cincinnati, where the deaths of two black men in police custody sparked a boycott of the downtown area. “As a young man, I saw it up close in my hometown,” he said. “While there have been many improvements since then, the core fact of racism continues to this day at all levels of society.”20 Two years earlier, he wrote “American Skin (41 Shots)” after New York City police killed an unarmed African immigrant. There were relatively few Hispanics in Freehold when Bruce lived there. Even so, one of them was the first girl he ever kissed, Maria Espinosa. “In Freehold” referred to that milestone, which happened at a YMCA dance when she was 15. Blackwell, who was in Espinosa’s class, once described her as its only Puerto Rican.21 Hispanics later become the town’s largest demographic group, accounting for 28.1% of the population in 2000. African-Americans were 15.8%, in line with their proportion in 1790.22 The influx of Latinos, coupled with efforts to combat illegal immigration, led to complaints of discrimination. In 2003, five immigrant-related groups filed a lawsuit alleging that day laborers were denied the right to look for work in public places and singled out by police and housing code officials. The case was settled three years later.23
Bruce responded to the demographic shift by helping St. Rose of Lima raise money for a community center, designed to serve the Hispanic population. He played a benefit concert in the school’s gymnasium, where he unveiled “In Freehold,” in 1996. The proceeds went toward the center, which opened the next year.24 Freehold also has a Jewish community that began in the late 1800s, when V. Henry Rothschild brought in Jews to work at the shirt factory he built there.25 Merchants and farm workers from Russia and Poland joined them in the early 1900s, when they immigrated to the U.S. to escape religious persecution at home.26 The Freehold Hebrew Association formed in 1909. The group became Congregation Agudath Achim Anshal Freehold two years later and then built its first synagogue at First and Center streets. A larger temple opened in 1950 at Broad and Stokes streets, where the Traditional congregation still meets. Its name changed to the Freehold Jewish Center in the 1960s.27 Jews were aware of the threats surrounding them, especially in the 1940s, when the Ku Klux Klan operated just south of Freehold in Howell Township. Members of the congregation patrolled the synagogue with shotguns to safeguard the property.28 It’s possible that Bruce had their period in mind when he wrote “The Klansman,” an unreleased song from 1983 about a boy whose father and brother were Klan members.29 He clearly didn’t share the group’s hostility toward Jews. The E Street Band has included two Jewish musicians, pianist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg, since 1975.
Springsteen, “Freehold,” Lebanese Tribute. 23 Aug. 2009
Workforce New Jersey Public Information Network. "New Jersey Resident Population
by Municipality: 1930-1990," State of New Jersey, Department of Labor and Workforce Development. 21 Aug. 2009 <http://lwd.dol.state.nj.us/labor/lpa/census/1990/poptrd6.htm)
Pepe, Freehold, 137, attributed to Richmond’s Freehold City Directory of 1922-23, and
Workforce New Jersey, “Resident Population.”
Workforce New Jersey, “Resident Population.” U.S. Census Bureau, “Population Finder,” American FactFinder. 21 Aug. 2009
<http://www. factfinder.census.gov/servlet/SAFFPopulation?_submenuId=population_0 &_sse=on>.
Nicholas Dawidoff, “The Pop Populist,” New York Times Magazine, 26 Jan 1997.
27 Aug. 2009 < http://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/26/magazine/the-pop-populist.html>.
Maxine Lurie and Marc Mappen, Encyclopedia of New Jersey, Piscataway, NJ (Rutgers,
Census, “Fact Sheet,” American FactFinder. 21 Aug. 2009 <http://www.factfinder.
census.gov/ servlet/SAFFFacts?_event=Search&geo_id=&_geoContext=&_street=&_county= freehold+borough&_cityTown=freehold+borough&_state=04000US34&_zip=&_lang=en&_ sse=on&pctxt=fph&pgsl=010&show_2003_tab=&redirect=Y>.
Pepe, 50, 107. Pepe, 50. Pepe, 107.
Pepe, 107-110. Kathleen O’Brien, “Black History Month: Integrating Jersey’s Schools,” The Star-
Ledger, 10 Feb. 2008. 12 Sept. 2009 <http://blog.nj.com/ledgerarchives/2008/02/black_ history_month_integratin.html>.
Rodney Point-Du-Jour, "Team Tackled the Color Line," Asbury Park Press, 1 Feb.
2002. 22 Aug. 2009 <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=1839078241&sid=1&Fmt=3 &clientId=65060&RQT=309&VName=PQD >.
The Borough of Freehold Historical Book, Freehold, NJ (Freehold Borough, 1968). Fred Kerr, “Police Quell Disorders in Downtown Freehold: 2 Youths Shot; Curfew
Imposed,” Asbury Park Press, 20 May 1969.
"Freehold's Riot: How It Happened," Asbury Park Press, 22 May 1969. 21 Aug. 2009
Springsteen, “My Hometown,” Born in the U.S.A. , 1984. 23 Aug. 2009
Kirkpatrick, Words and Music, 2. Martensson and Johansson, Local Heroes, 47-51. Rick Bird, "Springsteen urges city to heal its racial rift," Cincinnati Post, 13 Nov. 2002.
21 Aug. 2009 <http://www.greasylake.org/article_record.php?s_publication_date=2002 &concert_date=2002-11-12&release_title=&Id=164>.
J. Steven Svoboda, “An Encounter with Richie Blackmore,” Luckytown Digest,
21 Sept. 1999, 21 Aug. 2009 <http://www.luckytown.org/luckytown-digest/v06.n470>. The author misstates Blackwell's last name throughout the posting. Ritchie Blackmore is a guitarist and a founding member of the bands Deep Purple and Rainbow.
Census, “Fact Sheet,” American FactFinder. "Immigrants come up winners in settlement," News Transcript, 15 Nov. 2006. 21 Aug.
“Parish History,” St. Rose of Lima. Dean Herrin, "The Makers of Gulistan: A&M Karagheusian's Rug Mill in Freehold,
New Jersey, 1904-1965," Freehold, NJ (Monmouth County Historical Association, 1987), 36.
Jill Huber, "Freehold 'Center' celebrates 95 years," New Jersey Jewish News, 15 June
2006. 21 Aug. 2009 <http://www.njjewishnews.com/njjn.com/061506/moFreeholdCenter.html>.
Huber, “Freehold ‘Center’.” Huber, “Freehold ‘Center’.” Springsteen, “The Klansman,” Lebanese Tribute to Bruce Springsteen. 23 Aug. 2009
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