By Seth Berkman
When Clarence Hardy received an eviction notice in December 2009, ordering him to vacate the Slave Theater in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, he could not believe it. Every day since 2004, Hardy had opened the building at around 8 a.m. and stayed until dusk, taking care of the theater as he believed that John L. Phillips, his friend and the former owner of the theater, would have wanted.
Rev. Samuel Boykin, who lives in Akron, Ohio, had Hardy served with the notice. Boykin is Phillips’ nephew and the current court-appointed administrator of the Phillips’ estate. Phillips once owned 13 properties in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Beginning in 2001, Phillips was placed under the care of a series of State Supreme Court-appointed guardians until his death in 2008. According to Boykin’s records, when Phillips died, his estate had accumulated over $2 million of debt from years of uncollected rent and unpaid taxes on the properties.
Boykin said he must now sell the Slave Theater to help pay off the debt. Boykin has received inquiries from local residents about purchasing the theater with the intention of possibly donating it back to the community, but he said that he cannot move forward because buyers do not want to purchase the property when people currently occupy the building.
“I know the community has a love affair with the theater,” Boykin said. “But there’s a lot of stuff going on.”
Hardy fears that if the theater is sold, it will be torn down and used for commercial or residential space. “He’s never been in these theaters,” Hardy said about Boykin. “What they’re trying to do is get me out of here so they can rent it.”
Once a landmark in the Bedford-Stuyvesant community, the Slave Theater may be headed towards an unfortunate final act. Boykin and Hardy both said separately that they want the theater to be sold to a local owner who will refurbish the building into a center for community events. But Boykin said he cannot guarantee that will happen and since neither party trusts the other, their war of words has confused many Bedford-Stuyvesant residents, hampering efforts to draw the community together to save the building.
A former Civil Court judge in Brooklyn, Phillips purchased the Slave Theater in 1982 and managed the building for nearly two decades. During the 1980s, groups of Bedford-Stuyvesant residents ranging from clergy to businessmen to militants regularly packed the 500-seat theater to hear speeches by community activists like Rev. Al Sharpton and Alton Maddox.
“Many of the more highly respected public intellectuals and historians in the black community came by the Slave Theater,” said City Council member Charles Barron. “It was always a hub in our community, where we could gather to strategize and have consciousness-raising sessions.
“It was almost like an African village. Outside there would be all the vendors selling books, incense and African artifacts. Then when you’d get inside, you’d see the diversity in the African community from all walks of life and you’d be able to enjoy an excellent lecture or film or organizing session.”
Today, Hardy is recognized by many Bedford-Stuyvesant residents as the face of the theater, while Boykin is less known in the community since he lives in Ohio. On June 17, the Our Times Press, a weekly newspaper covering Bedford-Stuyvesant, published an interview with Boykin, in which he said Hardy was not a “spokesman for the family because he happens to be there.”
“People are running around Mr. Hardy with all kinds of fabrications and trying to legitimize him holding onto property that does not belong to him,” Boykin said.
Boykin said Hardy is no more than a squatter at the Slave Theater, while Hardy said he has a right occupy the space through a letter of authorization signed on March 6, 2004, by a former guardian, Emani P. Taylor, with the authorization of Surrogate’s Court Judge Michael Pesce, who was overseeing Phillips’ case at the time.
Hardy said he looked after Phillips when the judge was under guardianship, visiting him every day at the nursing homes where he stayed during the final years of his life.
“I was right there each time,” Hardy said. “Where the hell was Boykin? Mr. Phillips called me each place he was at and I went up there and did the best that I could, whatever I could do.”
Boykin, meanwhile, said he stayed in New York for several months to look after Phillips. Boykin has long been burdened by other taxes and unpaid utility bills related to Phillips’ properties and said he has never received one rent payment from Hardy. Since Boykin does not live near the theater, he said it is difficult for him to keep track of the eviction status.
“For some reason, people believe they can keep squatting, but they can’t. I know that’s making all the people angry at me there, but I have to sell that theater and my family doesn’t want to sell.”
Boykin said he hopes that once the theaters are sold, he can devote his efforts to a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit against Castle Senior Living at Prospect Park, where Phillips died, which was filed in in New York State Supreme Court in February.
In the meantime, Hardy still opens the theater every day, willing to tell any passerby who comes in about the building’s history and the life of Phillips. Hardy knows he does not have the financial resources to purchase the theater or hire a lawyer, but that doesn’t mean he won’t leave the theater without a fight.
“It’s like David and Goliath,” Hardy said. “But this is about justice for the judge. You’ll never meet a man like Mr. Phillips.”
Barron hopes a reasonable resolution can be made and the Bedford-Stuyvesant community can come together to save the theater.
“Ultimately the best thing that could happen, give us a chance to get some people together to try and purchase the facility for our community,” said Barron. “We’re trying to enrich our culture and community by having such a great cultural institution around. We’re trying to convince the owners to have patience to try and pull some people together to purchase the building.
“For it to be turned into something commercial, it’s really a slap in our face and a setback for our community. We’re suffering high rates of foreclosures and police brutality, we have so many issues in this economic crises that we need this institution to organize responses and reactions.”