Coordinator of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home and a member of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s legal team, Johanna Fernández, Ph.D. and an associate professor in Baruch’s Department of History, recently won a slew of awards for her latest book, The Young Lords: A Radical History.
At their annual meeting in mid-April, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) announced that Dr. Fernández was the recipient of three of their top book prizes, including the highly prestigious Frederick Jackson Turner Award, which is given to the author of a first scholarly book dealing with some aspect of U.S. history.
Fernández – whose book traces the history of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican counterpart of the Black Panther Party – also received the Merle Curti Social History Award and the Liberty Legacy Foundation Award.
In a press release announcing the awards, the OAH was unflinching in their praise of Fernández’s work, writing, “The academy rarely uses the word definitive to describe books but, in this case, Johanna Fernández has produced the most authoritative work on the Young Lords.”
It is no surprise that The Young Lords was the recipient of other book awards as well, including a New York City Book Award, bestowed by The New York Society Library to honor books of literary quality or historical importance that evoke the spirit or enhance appreciation of New York City.
Charting a Powerful History
The Young Lords details the history of the legendary Puerto Rican activist group that shook up Chicago and New York in the late 1960s and early ’70s with protests, community organizing, and media campaigns. Their efforts to support communities of color and rectify social inequities ranged from a hospital takeover in the Bronx to a “garbage offensive” to clean up East Harlem and improve city services.
One major area of activism for the Young Lords was public health. Their activism, alongside a direct service model centered around providing free medical care, forced public attention on a swath of public health crises crippling Black and Latinx communities. This effort resonates today, as the global COVID-19 pandemic has once again forced a reckoning with the systemic injustices in access and care that have led to such disparate health outcomes for people of color.
Following the historic 1970 occupation of Lincoln Hospital – then the only medical facility in the majority Black and Latinx South Bronx (and known to locals as “The Butcher Shop”) – a coalition of doctors, nurses, and non-medical hospital workers led by the Young Lords drafted the first known patient bill of rights.
In 1974, following years of Young Lords activism and campaigns that became known as the Garbage and Lead Offensives, the Journal of Public Health credited the group’s organizing and militancy for pressuring New York City’s government into passing decisive legislation to protect New Yorkers from lead poisoning.
The Young Lords “spoke and amplified and explained the problems of their generation,” Dr. Fernández said in a podcast for CUNY’s Book Beat. “They are the equivalent of black Twitter then, but they did it in the streets.”
Fernández went to impressive lengths to share this history, including collecting countless oral histories, reviewing the group’s written documents, mining FBI counterintelligence reports, and even suing (successfully) to gain access to files documenting the NYPD’s surveillance of the group.
As OAH wrote in their press release, “[Fernández] conjoins a rich social history of everyday activism with a lively account of political culture, intellectual underpinnings, and news-grabbing protests. The book is engagingly written and crisply argued, and the research is phenomenal.”