Remembering And Celebrating An East Harlem Legend, Herbert “Chuck” Griffin

By Ed Davila

June 17, 2020, marked the 92nd birthday of Herbert “Chuck” Griffin, the legendary East Harlem coach and social activist. Befittingly, it is an ideal moment to reflect on the life and times of this extraordinary human being given the global uprisings, displays of social consciousness and cultural awakenings throughout the land.

The decade of the 1960s unfolded with President John Fitzgerald Kennedy as the 35th president of the United States, the youngest person to hold that office. His election brought about a spirit of hope and promise, and an idealism which people of color yearned to achieve.

JFK’s assassination, nearly three years into office, dramatically altered the national political landscape and ushered in a period of great strife and turmoil. Truculence such as protests against the Vietnam War, unrests on college campuses, uprisings in Watts and other American cities, assassinations of three major leaders and demands for civil and human rights, arrestingly etched the national images of the country.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech was followed by the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. That year, the 88th United States Congress passed the most sweeping Civil Rights bill ever to be written into law, and thus reaffirmed the conception of equality for all men that began with the slave revolts, the Abolitionist Movement, President Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and the Civil War one hundred years earlier.

In 1965, the year after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, people of color experienced a renewed burst of hope, as the Civil Rights Movement put their agenda on the front page of America’s consciousness. This consequential act set the stage for the Black and Puerto-Rican social activist in America.

The greatest of them all set up shop in New York’s East Harlem. His name, at birth, was Herbert Josephous Griffin. Chuck was born in Mississippi on June 17, 1928 into a prosperous middle-class family. His father was a prominent minister, and amongst his brothers and sisters were a school teacher, a professional artist, a renowned opera singer and a minister. Contrary to his siblings, it remains questionable whether Chuck ever attended high school.

A handsome, burly, six-foot-one, two hundred and eighty pounds charismatic figure, Chuck broke out of the Jim Crow south with his manhood fully intact. While a teenager, he made his way to Chicago where he learned about the complexities of the big city and its despairing inhabitants on the Southside.

After a quick stint in the Navy at the end of WWII, wherein his comportment demanded equal treatment and respect, he moved to New York and began work as a plumber’s assistant. He soon married into an outstanding family from the Bronx, had children, and settled down in East Harlem. At the time of his arrival, East Harlem was primarily comprised of Italian, Irish and Jewish populations.

The construction of the Thomas Jefferson Housing Projects brought the first African-Americans and Puerto-Ricans to the east side. Chuck and his family were amongst them.


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The wrath of the native East Harlemites intimidated many of the new Black and Puerto-Rican arrivals. Chuck’s natural fighting spirit and intellectual vigor drove him to take this matter into his own hands. Violence was not an option. Athletic competition and forthright debate energized his demand for respect and, he not only demanded it, he got it!

As their numbers continued to swell, people of color changed the landscape of East Harlem. These changes coincided with President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” policy. Chuck, with his inordinate ability and foresight to measure the historical pulse of the times, seized the moment. His time had come!

At this time, Chuck was a 35-year-old cab driver and neighborhood basketball coach who had a vision and a dream. He believed that the liberalization of the political climate created the occasion to tap into and draw from the immense wealth of unused talent and brilliance that surrounded him.

Having been a top-flight football player in his youth, he decided to design and build his dream around the rough and tumble lessons of life that the gridiron offered. His perseverance matched his desire. He scouted the neighborhood for the toughest, supposedly most incorrigible, 8 to 16 year-olds, and convinced them to show up to daily practices and learn how to master the game of football.

From the outset, there was little money, so he worked out of pocket. He brought fourteen pubescent boys into his home, which served as an instructional facility, and seated around his small dining room table, he began designing the blueprint to what would become the East Harlem Federation Youth Association. With growing community support, the Federation expanded and moved to a new home.

In its new location, between East 115th and 116th Streets and Second Avenue, formerly a supermarket, the Federation evolved into Harlem’s most respected neighborhood community center. Its outstanding reputation would quickly, and resoundingly, become known as “Chuck’s Center.”

A crush of Harlem youth would swarm the center causing Chuck to rapidly expand to five divisions.

“Pee Wees,” “Intermediates,” “Juniors,” “Seniors” and “Unlimited” constituted the different levels of competition. Chuck’s notoriety as an innovative and excellent coach, was second to none. A handful of dedicated parent volunteers and a small talented staff navigated the ship.

For Chuck, winning was a way of life! At the center’s front entrance, greeting its players, members and visitors alike, was a fifty-foot banner that read: “Home Of The East Harlem Chargers Number One On The Planet Earth!”

For Chuck, winning was a way of life! At the center’s front entrance, greeting its players, members and visitors alike, was a fifty-foot banner that read: “Home Of The East Harlem Chargers Number One On The Planet Earth!”

Chuck’s validated philosophy: “at-risk” children, when properly motivated, are diamonds in the rough.

His strategic choice of football was the perfect match for the tough, violent lives that many of the young males were experiencing on the streets. It also gave Chuck the perfect platform to get tough with the toughest.

His flawless creed: go upside the young men’s heads to get their attention, and then smother them with love.

He instilled the notion that education was cool and anyone who didn’t seek to excel in the classroom was a chump. He strangled the heroin epidemic to a standstill, thus steering hundreds away from the demon needle and other negative outcomes.

“Hey son, bend down and give me one,” was a familiar refrain that was non-negotiable. His introduction of the “Iron Lady,” a solid paddle, carved from a two-by-four, adorning a taped grip, helped remedy a myriad of situations. Negative behaviors radically improved and grades far exceeded satisfactory levels. Adherence to parents’ instructions at home, completion of school assignments, and arrival to practices on time were ameliorated. The only thing more legendary than the “Iron Lady” amongst his young adherents, was Chuck himself.

Chuck’s unique background empowered his self-esteem, which was healthier than that of the average East Harlem parent. He assumed a position in the lives of the young men and women he cultivated that was bigger than life. In his program, he challenged his young constituents to look beyond “the norm.” To think outside the box. Settling for mediocre achievements was not a choice.

In addition to football, Chuck introduced chess, sailing, falconry, archery, checkers, poetry, fencing, camping skills, fishing, track and field, basketball, debate skills, tennis, spelling bee competitions, acting, tutoring and remedial education programs.

The center was avalanched with “First Place” trophies and consecutive undefeated seasons. We competed and dominated on all levels! Annual championships, accompanied by “black-tie” banquets, became common occurrences from the organization’s inception.

Although girls participated in most of the activities, ahead of conventional wisdom, they produced one of the “Crown Jewels” of the Federation, the singing group, “The Voices of East Harlem,” which grew into an international phenomenon.

This talented group of singers, sponsored by such musical greats as Donny Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield, received the Michael Jackson Award and enthralled audiences with the Federation’s East Harlem spirit from major stages on three continents around the world.

They also made regular TV appearances and recorded four albums. Such groups and performers like Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Wilson Pickett, Ike, and Tina Turner, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Harry Belafonte, B.B. King, Joan Baez, Richie Haven, Judy Collins, Roberta Flack, The Staple Singers, Peter, Paul and Mary and The Rascals, among others, were often on the bill.

They also made regular TV appearances and recorded four albums. Such groups and performers like Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Wilson Pickett, Ike, and Tina Turner, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Harry Belafonte, B.B. King, Joan Baez, Richie Haven, Judy Collins, Roberta Flack, The Staple Singers, Peter, Paul and Mary and The Rascals, among others, were often on the bill.

Chuck Griffin’s Federation rode the socially receptive thrust of the late 1960s to produce over twenty-five prestigious New England Boarding School graduates and over two hundred college graduates who attained successful careers in the sciences, arts, law, business, medicine, education, sports and a number of other occupations and professions.

Some went on to national and international acclaim, including but not limited to, receiving Emmy-Awards, literary and journalism awards and national recognition for their work in cinema, television, and theater. Chuck single-handedly planted several thousand seeds that have grown and blossomed into what is now referred to as the Black and Puerto-Rican middle class.

During his maturing years and still ready to tackle some new challenges, Chuck turned his attention to acting. He became a consummate actor working with people like Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington, Giancarlo Esposito, John O’Donahue, Larry Fleishman, and Keith David, only to name a few.

“Life essentially comes down to either third and long or third and short. That is the essence of life. The question is: what play will you call?”

Although heavily indulged in his acting career, archery was and continued to be Chuck’s, first love. He continued to compete to seek the twelve-point buck. Chuck always believed that hard work and diligence were the only way to get where you wanted to go, often saying, “They ain’t mailing you nothing. The check is not in the mail. If you want it, you have to go out there and work for it.” He would also often say, “Life essentially comes down to either third and long or third and short. That is the essence of life. The question is: what play will you call?”

Chuck was resourceful, a deep thinker, a man of character, and a master chess player who imparted transformative life-lessons to his young acolytes.

Chuck’s great leadership, and others like him, has passed. Times have changed drastically. Over the years, the horrid collapse of our inner-cities has taken on tragic proportions. During his time, Chuck asked the right questions, provided the right answers and delivered life-enriching solutions to a generation of young people who otherwise may have merely wound up as statistics in the back pages of America’s history books.

Instead, our impactful stories are captured in best-sellers: “Passages” by noted author Gail Sheehy, and “Chasing America” by Emmy Award winner Dennis Watlington, our football team’s quarterback, who grew up in the Thomas Jefferson Houses. And many of the brilliant, breathtaking performances featuring “The Voices of East Harlem” can be viewed today on YouTube.

Twenty-four years ago, on October 19, 1996, at the New York State 369th Armory in Harlem, hundreds of his admirers attended a tribute honoring Chuck, his decades of community service, and endless accomplishments.

On April 13, 2013, at the age of 85, the great Herbert Josephous Griffin quietly made his transition in New York City. A few weeks later, on May 25, 2013, a large contingent of Chuck’s former players, constituents and disciples held a memorial in his honor at the historic Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ, the once-famous Bluebird Theater, and where Malcolm X was memorialized in 1965.

The location could not have been a more fitting place to celebrate the greatness of Chuck, a renaissance man imbued with extraordinary courage, talent, and gifts. An unlettered man who helped produced hundreds of college graduates, scholars, and leaders. A one of a kind storyteller, whose massive intellect and oratorical dexterity captured the imagination of an entire generation and catapulted them to heights beyond their wildest dreams.

The location could not have been a more fitting place to celebrate the greatness of Chuck, a renaissance man imbued with extraordinary courage, talent, and gifts. An unlettered man who helped produced hundreds of college graduates, scholars, and leaders. A one of a kind storyteller, whose massive intellect and oratorical dexterity captured the imagination of an entire generation and catapulted them to heights beyond their wildest dreams.

In order to grow properly, plants need air, light, and water. They also need essential nutrients from the soil, comprised of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Each one of these is vital, but “phosphorus” especially, because it significantly impacts the plant early in its life. Phosphorus is requisite to convert other nutrients to energy, to transfer plant characteristics from one generation to the next, and to build the plants’ embryonic root system, which serves as the core for the absorption of other nutrients. Thus, minus enough phosphorus, plants are obstructed and yield little.

We thank God for blessing us with our hero, Herbert “Chuck” Griffin. He was, and continues to be, our “phosphorus!” We love you Chuck and belated Happy Birthday!!!

Special thanks to Anna Griffin, Kevin Griffin, Gerri Griffin, Lydia Griffin, John “Pablo” Clark, Kevin Barnes, Bernice Cole, Monica Burruss, Robert, Dennis and Calvin Watlington, Jerome Mack, Boyce Landrum, Raymond “Spooky” Reid, Claudia Moore, Diane Powell, Gus Caballero, George Figueroa, Wayne Booker, Mike Molina, Beverly Pierre, Victor Brazier, Stephen Brown, John “Cat” Washington, Judith Ross, Joseph Gay, Augustine Fantuzzi, Thomas Holloman, Michael Bonds, Raymond “Smiley” Brown, Lorenzo Presley, Michael Clark, Robert Garcia, Lorenzo Holloman and many, many others for their devotion, contribution and support over the years.

Ed Davila was born and raised in Harlem. He is a graduate of Hunter College. He has a long history working with small businesses and as a mentor in Harlem. Ed was Director of Community Development, Government Affairs, and Alumni Relations from 2008 to 2013. Ed Davila at saxeddie@yahoo.com

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Harlem World Magazine is a lifestyle and brand for anyone who has a Harlem state of mind, dedicated to news, history, the renaissance and stories that celebrate our lifestyle.

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