Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Last Day

louisa-may-alcott-portrait-bust-at-the-smithsonian-national-portrait-gallery-2016-by-amy-cools

Louisa May Alcott portrait bust at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, photo by Amy Cools, 2016

On Louisa May Alcott’s birthday evening, I think of a moment in her life that I discovered during my Frederick Douglass project, where she displayed the sort of moral clarity and courage I’ve associated with her since I was a little girl devouring every Alcott novel I could get my hands on. Thank you for your wonderful books, Ms. Alcott!

Ordinary Philosophy

Portrait of Frederick Douglass by unknown artist, 1844, National Portrait Gallery in WashingtonD.C., Portrait of Frederick Douglass by unknown artist, 1844, National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.. The NPG placard describes it as a ‘powerful portrait’ but I’m not particularly impressed, especially since I don’t think it looks like Douglass at all.

Fourteenth Day, Saturday, April 2nd

After a morning glancing at the light rainfall through the coffee shop window as I write up some notes and look up some things in preparation for the day, I begin my day’s explorations with a visit to the National Portrait Gallery. It’s at 8th and F Streets NW, its official address: unusually, it lacks a street number.

While I’m here primarily to see all the Douglass portraits I can find and have little time to spare since it’s my last day in D.C., I’ve wanted to visit the Portrait Gallery for a long time, and allow myself an extra hour to explore.

After I’ve made my inquiries…

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Where Has All The Loving Gone? A Review Of The New Film, ‘Loving’ by Peter Cole

Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, June 12, 1967, by Bettmann/Corbis via New York Times, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, June 12, 1967, by Bettmann/Corbis via New York Times, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A new film about the Southern working class couple whose love and dedication broke the back of anti-miscegenation laws across the nation arrives just in time. Released days prior to Donald Trump’s election, viewers of Loving might be shocked to discover that anti-racist, blue-collared, white men—like Richard Loving—walked Southern soil. He was brave (or ignorant) enough to think he could get away with marrying a black woman; wise enough to know she was smarter than him. His deferral to her effort to seek legal counsel ultimately overturned laws banning interracial marriage in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Loving v. Virginia (1967)

Beneath the film, the Lovings’ story also speaks to the centuries-long effort by white supremacists to create a “white race” and defend it from “race-mixing”(also called miscegenation). In 1958, Richard Loving, 23, and Mildred Jeter, 17, married in the District of Columbia. They did so because Virginia outlawed interracial marriages, one of twenty-four states with similar laws at the time. Richard was “white,” Mildred “black” though actually a mixture of African American and Rappahannock Indian.

So began their nine-year odyssey that ended with the Court unanimously ruling that states could not prevent a man and a woman from marrying, regardless of their racial identities. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, critics at Cannes hailed the motion picture and Oscar buzz has begun. The film deserves high praise and wide viewership, anchored by incredible performances from Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, the two principal actors.

Despite knowing the law—as proven by their DC marriage—the newlyweds chose to live in Central Point, their rural home in eastern Virginia’s Caroline County. A remote community made up of poor and working class people with a long, complicated history of ethnic and racial mixing, African Americans, European Americans, and Native Americans all lived in Central Point. Tellingly, despite 97% of all births, in 1960, occurring in hospitals, Richard’s mother, a midwife, delivered Mildred’s first child in 1959.

Just weeks after marrying, and prior to Mildred’s delivery, the sheriff arrested and jailed them for “unlawful cohabitation.” According to Mildred, when “they asked Richard who was that woman he was sleeping with,” she responded: “‘I’m his wife,’ and the sheriff said, ‘Not here you’re not.’”

The Lovings had violated Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 though laws prohibiting interracial marriage and sex date back to the colonial era. The first “Richard Loving,” as it were, appeared in Virginia court records in 1630: “Hugh Davis [a white man] to be soundly whipped before an assembly of Negroes and others for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christians by defiling his body in lying with a Negro; which fault he is to acknowledge next Sabbath day.”

By 1662, though, reality forced Virginia’s House of Burgesses to designate the status of interracial offspring:

WHEREAS some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shall; be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.

Virginia’s law dictated, “that which is brought forth follows the womb” or, in Latin, “partus sequitur ventrem.” In other words, a white, male slave-owner could have sex with—quite possibly raping—a black female slave, but their child was considered a slave, like the mother, rather than free, like the father. Previously, Virginia followed English common law, which dictated a father’s status determined a child’s. Virginia first outlawed miscegenation in 1691, as part of “An act for suppressing outlying Slaves.”

Over time, racial barriers further hardened in Virginia, the South, and nation. Before the twentieth century, Virginia considered a person “black” with one-forth African ancestry. In 1910, the state adopted one-sixteenth as its definition. With the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, Virginia embraced the notorious “one-drop” rule, authored in a period of heightened xenophobia and racism. For violating this law, in 1959 Judge Leon M. Bazile of the Caroline County Circuit Court sentenced Richard to prison for a year, but suspended this sentence if the couple agreed to leave Virginia and not return for twenty-five years.

In 1963, following encouragement from a relative inspired by the recent March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Mildred wrote Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He forwarded her letter to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which took the case. Attorneys Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop, both young Jewish men committed to racial equality, quickly recognized this Loving story could, once and for all, overturn all interracial marriage bans.

In response to their appeal, Judge Bazile wrote: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

In this tumultuous era, the height of the civil rights movement, white Virginians led efforts to prevent integration. In 1956 Virginians Senator Harry F. Byrd and Representative Howard Smith introduced the Southern Manifesto, encouraging Southern whites to engage in “massive resistance” to integration.

In 1963, the same year Cohen and Hirschkop appealed the Lovings’ punishment, another Virginia court ruled against interracial marriage: “’to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens,’ and to prevent ‘the corruption of blood,’ ‘a mongrel breed of citizens,’ and ‘the obliteration of racial pride’.”

Four years later, Chief Justice Earl Warren profoundly disagreed: “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.” “Odious to a free people,” banning interracial marriage violated the 14th Amendment. Case closed.

Sadly, the Lovings only spent eight more years together after becoming the Supreme Court’s most aptly named case. A drunk driver killed Richard, just 41, in 1975. Mildred died of pneumonia, in 2008, at 68. She never remarried, living the rest of her days in the house her husband, a bricklayer, built for her after changing History.

Given the recent presidential election, it seems impossible to watch Loving and not meditate about the so-called white working class. Two-thirds of whites without a college education—a very imperfect correlation to socio-economic class—voted for Trump. Yet, for most of the twentieth century, such people, particularly Southern whites, voted Democratic. At least in part due to the civil rights revolution, Southern whites overwhelmingly realigned and, largely, took over the Republican Party. In 2016, 72% of registered Republicans still question the Americanness of America’s most famous mixed race citizen, Barack Obama.

Richard Loving rejected white supremacy when he married Mildred—in contrast to legions of white men who “simply” had sex with black women. He, his wife, and their three mixed race children became victims of racism. He became a “race traitor.” White film viewers come to see that, after marrying, Richard essentially joined the black community. They lived with her family, first in Virginia and, later, a racially segregated part of Washington, DC. Except for his mother in Central Point, Richard appeared to have no white friends; he and his best friend, a black man, owned and drag-raced cars. He kept to himself at work—(apparently) all-white construction sites.

A long history of accepting interracial couples and mixed race children exists in the black community, if only because no alternatives seem to exist. James Baldwin laid bare this ugly truth during a televised debate with a white conservative. When asked about what whites feared most, “Would you want your [white] daughter to marry one [black]?” Baldwin retorted, “You’re not worried about me marrying your daughter—you’re worried about me marrying your wife’s daughter. I’ve been marrying your daughter since the days of slavery.”

In a telling scene in the film, Richard drinks with three black friends in a black saloon. One friend pointedly asks Richard how it feels to experience what blacks had suffered from for 350 years: virulent racism. Richard, always taciturn, says nothing but proceeds to get drunk and, later, cry in Mildred’s arms.

Today, the number of interracial couples and families, like the Lovings, remains small. The 2010 U.S. Census reported nine million Americans identified as multiracial. The Pew Research Center noted in 2013, however, “a record-high 12% of newlyweds married someone of a different race.” Yet, apparently many white Americans still fear people like the Lovings and the ongoing demographic changes transforming America into a “majority-minority” nation.

Hence, we need reminding that America was not so great for many Americans, including African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, and Asian Americans along with their white allies who opposed white supremacy. We also need reminding that Mildred and Richard Loving personally overcame. Their story and this film demand a wide audience.

~ This review was originally published on Nov 27th, 2016 in the blog of the African creative-commons-attribution-noncommercial-4-0-international-licenseAmerican Intellectual History Society, and the text and links are here reproduced in full 


Peter Cole is a historian of the twentieth-century United States, South Africa and comparative history. Dr. Cole is Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia (University of Illinois Press, 2013) and currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Race, Technology & Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter @ProfPeterCole.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 2, Part 1

Waverly Pl and University at Washington Square, Manhattan, NY

Waverly and University Places at Washington Square, Manhattan, NY, northeast corner

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

I take the E train north from where I’m staying in NYC’s Soho neighborhood of Manhattan to Washington Square. It’s a lovely, warm, and soft day, the sky blue and thickly scattered with puffy, small, wispy clouds like spilled cheap cotton balls.

On March 1, 1926, Margaret Sanger delivered a lecture titled ‘The Need for Birth Control in America’ to New York University’s Liberal Club. It takes a bit of digging to find out where the Liberal Club met at this time, but I finally discover it in a letter written to Sanger’s supporter and sometimes collaborator W.E.B. DuBois. In this letter, dated Nov. 22nd, 1926, the secretary of the Liberal Club, Mary Broger, invited him to address the Club’s open forum on Monday, Dec 6th of that same year. The letter also specified that the Club met at New York University’s Washington Square College ‘at University and Waverly Places’, which is at the northeast corner of Washington Square Park. (Pokorski’s ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger’ Google map has it a little wrong, marking the location of this event near the southeast corner of the park).

NYU's Silver Center at Washington Square Park, at the southeast corner of Waverly and University at the northeast corner of the park

NYU’s Silver Center at Washington Square Park, at the southeast corner of Waverly and University Places at the northeast corner of the park

It’s still unclear exactly where the Club met since there are buildings at the northwest, northeast, and southeast corner of this intersection, and my sources, including the DuBois letter, don’t specify an address. I think it most likely that the Club met in what’s now the New York University Silver Center for Arts and Sciences at the southeast corner of University and Waverly, called American Book Company of the Law Department of New York University in G.W. Bromley & Co’s city atlas of 1923. The buildings that stand at the other corners of this intersection appear to have been all residential, based on that same atlas, just as they appear now. At the southwest corner of this intersection, Washington Square Park pre-dates the 1926 meeting of the Liberal Club by about a century. The Silver Center building was built in 1892.

1926 was a hard year for Sanger. She was long subject to periodic depressions, and some legal setbacks in the birth control movement and the deaths of her sister Mary and her father that year all helped to start the cycles again. But she continued to think, and speak, and write, and plan, and that summer she decided she would present her case for birth control in the context of an international conference. Hoping to make her case to a world audience and influence delegates to the League of Nations, she began planning and organizing a World Population Conference in Geneva which would take place the next fall. It was a great success, and Rockefeller and many other benefactors helped fund the project. Its attendees and speakers included experts from a wide array of scientific fields from around the world, and this would be the first of many more such gatherings where problems of population growth would be studied and addressed.

The soft coolness of the morning has given way to a warm, somewhat humid day.

Webster Hall in October, festooned with pumpkin decorations, New York City

Webster Hall festooned with pumpkin decorations in October, New York City

Two views of Webster Hall's Grand Ballroom, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Above, a Costume Ball probably in the nineteen-teens or early twenties. Below, an orchestra prepares to record 'How to Succeed Without Really Trying' in 1961, public domain via Library of Congress

Two views of Webster Hall’s Grand Ballroom. Above, one of their popular costume balls, probably in the nineteen-teens or early twenties. Below, an orchestra prepares to record ‘How to Succeed Without Really Trying’ in 1961

I continue north (after a little wild goose chase several blocks to the east which turns out to be an out of date or incorrect address), and turn left on E 11th. My destination is Webster Hall at 125 E 11th St between 3rd and 4th Aves. It’s a red brick and brownstone structure, built in 1886-1887, and there’s a deco era small marquee added to the main entryway. The Hall has been restored and rebuilt many times after several major fires, and though its original brickwork, brownstone trim, and terracotta decorations survive, its beautiful old mansard roof is gone. It’s now a nightclub and concert venue. The doors are locked and there’s no one around to let me inside to see its famous Grand Ballroom with its reputed great acoustics. For a time, it was used as a recording studio, which leads to the second accidental Bob Dylan connection I make on this trip. His iconic harmonica backs Harry Belafonte’s 1962 recording of Midnight Special and is Dylan’s first published album recording.

In 1912, Sanger led a march of 119 child refugees from the Lawrence Mills textile strike, from Grand Central Terminal to Webster Hall. It was a difficult and violent strike, and this children’s march was to raise awareness of the plight of the striking families as much as it was to obtain proper shelter, food, and medical care for them. Sanger wrote in her autobiography that these children were underfed and inadequately dressed for the winter weather, and though many were sick, they had still been required to work. When they arrived at Webster Hall, however, they found a banquet all ready and families ready to give these children a caring home until better arrangements could be made for them.

Garment workers, Webster Hall. Bain News Service, P. (ca. 1915) [between and Ca. 1920] [Image] Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Garment workers, Webster Hall, ca. 1915-1920. By Bain News Service. Library of Congress

We think of Sanger today primarily as a feminist and birth control activist, yet she was an ardent Socialist and labor rights activist first. She increasingly distanced herself from her radicalist roots over the years because she believed it necessary to court the middle-class and wealthy for the long term success of her cause. Scientific research and development of effective means of birth control cost a lot of money. It also required influence in high places, to attract doctors and scientists willing to take the risk of working in this field as well as lawmakers, litigators, and politicians to push through legal reforms. Nevertheless, what Sanger observed in her early years as a nurse and activist among poor working families horrified, galvanized, and drove her in her cause for ready access to affordable and reliable birth control, especially essential for the health and safety of working class women and children.

The main entrance of The Brevoort

The main entrance of The Brevoort

I zigzag back east to The Brevoort, once Hotel Brevoort at 11 Fifth Avenue at 8th St. The doorman invites me inside when I tell of that I’m on a historical writing tour, and politely inquires about my subject. He utters a noncommittal ‘hmmm’ when I tell him who it’s about. This building dates to the 1950’s but he confirms that it stands on the original hotel site. There’s a photograph of the original hotel in a glass covered niche in the entryway.

Sanger gave many lectures and speeches at the Hotel Brevoort over the decades. The one I’ll focus on here was held the night before her obscenity trial for distributing The Woman Rebel through the mail. In this speech of January 17th, 1916, Sanger reminded her audience that birth control was not a new thing: it had been widely practiced since antiquity. Even the great philosopher Aristotle, arguably also the first scientist, had advocated it. She wrote more extensively about the history of birth control and its methods in her book Woman and the New Race.

Photo of the original Hotel Brevoort in a glass case in The Brevort lobby

Photo of the original Hotel Brevoort in a glass case in The Brevoort lobby

She also stressed her conviction that there was nothing anti-life about birth control. In fact, birth control prevented death: it prevented the death of mothers in childbirth, much more dangerous then than it is today, especially if you were poor. It prevented the suffering and death of infants and children born into deprivation and disease. It prevented the death of mothers who resorted to abortion, illegal then but widely available in back alleys if they could scrape together five dollars to pay for it. If they couldn’t, they did it themselves, often rupturing the uterus and causing deadly infections. But even this risk was acceptable to women who found themselves pregnant in circumstances so dire that they couldn’t face the thought of raising another child that way. When it came to abortion, in fact, Sanger opposed Aristotle, who promoted it especially in the early stages of pregnancy to prevent social ills such as poverty, overcrowding, and political unrest. In her Hotel Brevoort speech, as in her book, Sanger also reminded her audience that birth control prevented infanticide, another last but not uncommon resort of desperate women, and another acceptable form of population control to Aristotle in certain circumstances.

In other words, contrary to the opinion of her opponents then and now, Sanger considered herself and her movement radically pro-life, as we’ll recognize from her own words in a moment.

Today's incarnation of The Brevoort

Today’s incarnation of The Brevoort

35 and 39 Fifth Ave, Manhattan, NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

35 and 39 Fifth Ave, Manhattan, NYC

My next destinations, just a little ways up Fifth Ave between 10th and 11th Streets, are two buildings which stand shoulder to shoulder, both tall and handsome in their red brick. I especially like the second one, with its beautiful painted terracotta loggia-style embellishments. I’m unable to gain entry to either since they’re now residential buildings not open to the public. These two buildings turn out to have interesting histories.

The first is 35 Fifth Ave, formerly the Grosvenor Hotel, now Rubin Residence Hall of NYU. This 1925 building replaced the earlier 6-story Grosvenor, the first residential hotel in New York City, completed in 1876. Mark Twain lived in the original Grosvenor in 1904 while his new home at 21 Park Ave was being renovated. Another of my favorite novelists, Willa Cather, lived in the building that stands here today, from 1927 to 1932. Sanger stayed here a year earlier, from April to September of 1926, when the new Grosvenor was only a year old. She stayed here again for one month in 1928.

Sanger also lived next door at 39 Fifth Ave for a short time in mid-1923, when this building was also only a year old. It was designed by Emory Roth, whose firm designed many of New York City’s most iconic structures, and built in 1922.

1923 was a significant year for the progress of birth control for many reasons, one of which I’ll cover in the next installment of this story of my Sanger journey. Sanger wrote an article for the journal The Thinker in 1924 in which she summarized the trials and successes of the movement of the year before. In ‘The Birth Control Movement in 1923‘, Sanger restates and reaffirms the basic tenets of her movement:

‘…[W]e witness [an] appalling waste of women’s health and women’s lives by too frequent pregnancies. These unwanted pregnancies often provoke the crime of abortion, or alternatively multiply the number of child workers and lower the standard of living.

To create a race of well-born children it is essential that the function of motherhood should be elevated to a position of dignity, and this is impossible as long as conception remains a matter of chance.

We hold that children should be

1. Conceived in love;

2. Born of the mother’s conscious desire;

3. And only begotten under conditions which render possible the heritage of health. Therefore we hold that every woman must possess the power and freedom to prevent conception except when these conditions can be satisfied.

Every mother must realize her basic position in human society. She must be conscious of her responsibility to the race in bringing children into the world.

Instead of being a blind and haphazard consequence of uncontrolled instinct, motherhood must be made the responsible and self-directed means of human expression and regeneration.’

Entryways of 35 and 39 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village, NYC

Entryways of 35 and 39 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village, NYC

I visit many more sites on this long and adventurous day and will return soon to pick up the tale. To be continued….

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

*Listen to this podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and Inspiration:

10th Street.’ From New York Songlines: Virtual Walking Tours of Manhattan Streets

35 Fifth Avenue, 1926‘. What Was There website

39 Fifth Avenue, Between East 10th Street & East 11th Street, Greenwich Village‘, CityRealty website

About Sanger: Biographical Sketch‘, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the City of New York, 1921 – 1923, Plate 31. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992

Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.

From Geneva to Cairo: Margaret Sanger and the First World Population Conference‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #8 (Spring 1994)

Garrett, Y. ‘Jan. 2, 1923 First Legal Birth Control Clinic Opens in U.S.‘ From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Greenhouse, Steven. ‘New York, Cradle Of Labor History‘, Aug 30th, 1996. The New York Times

Kaplan, Fred. The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Anchor, 2005

The Lost Grosvenor Hotel — 35 Fifth Avenue‘. From Daytonian in Manhattan blog

New York University. Liberal Club. ‘Letter from New York University Liberal Club to W. E. B. Du Bois, November 22, 1926‘. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Pokorski, Robin. ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger‘ from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Regan, Margaret. ‘Margaret Sanger: Tucson’s Irish Rebel.Tucson Weekly, Mar 11, 2004.

Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Birth Control Movement in 1923‘, Apr 1924. Source: The Thinker, Apr. 1924, pp. 49-51. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Hotel Brevoort Speech,” Jan 17, 1916. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & CompanyZorea Ph.D., Birth Control

Webster Hall‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Webster Hall and Annex, 119-125 East 11th Street, Manhattan‘. Landmarks Preservation Commission
March 18, 2008, Designation List 402, LP-2273

Philosophy and Early Feminist Thought

As I write my new series on a feminist activist, I thought I’d share this piece I published two years ago while writing about two other great feminist activists, also in New York City. Enjoy!

Ordinary Philosophy

Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two founders of modern feminism, are the subjects of my recent traveling philosophy series. While their advocacy for women’s rights, abolition of slavery, religious liberty, and other human rights issues was so important, wasn’t their work more about politics than anything else?

Why write about feminist activists for a philosophy blog?

It’s true, their focus was on achieving political goals: to establish laws protecting and empowering women and other classes of human beings in their property, their person, their range of opportunities, and their enfranchisement. But to accomplish this, they needed ideas: not only of their own, personal beliefs about the world and the way it should be, informed by facts and supported by reason; they needed to convince others that their ideas were not only interesting and desirable to themselves but good, true, and conducive to flourishing for all human beings.

The laws of their…

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New Podcast Episode: Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 1 Part 2

The Chrysler Building at Lexington and 42nd in Manhattan, NYC

The Chrysler Building at Lexington and 42nd in Manhattan, NYC

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016, continued

Let me preface this second part of the story of today’s journey with full credit and a note of gratitude to Robin Pokorski, who worked with The Margaret Sanger Papers Project for a time. As with the MSPP overall, I found Pokorski’s project Mapping Margaret Sanger to be an absolutely invaluable resource…

…I exit Grand Central Station, where I’ve just returned to Manhattan from the Sanger clinic site in Brownsville, Brooklyn. I follow the signs to the exit which lets me out right underneath the Chrysler Building at 405 Lexington Ave, just north of 42nd St. I’ve long been curious about this building but for one reason or another, had never made it here. It’s fully as handsome on the outside and lovely on the inside as I’ve heard. It shoots up to the sky enthusiastically and towers overhead with almost aggressive confidence and optimism. I love its Art Deco style, and I’m excited to see all the wonderful architecture and art of this period that this trip will take me to…

Pokorsky writes, ‘At 4.30pm on April 20, 1939, Sanger met with Bill Melon at the Chrysler Building.’ I have not been able to discover who Melon was or why she met him here yet; I await her response to my inquiry…. Read the written version here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 1 Part 1, and a 100 Year Anniversary

Flyer for Sanger Clinic, Brownsville, Brooklyn, image courtesy of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Flyer for Sanger Clinic, Brownsville, Brooklyn, image courtesy of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

I start the morning preparing my itinerary for the day as I fortify myself with coffee and the first half of a sandwich.

My first stop is also the furthest east I’ll go this trip, to the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. I take the C train to the Rockaway station, head south on Saratoga, and wander around getting a feel for the neighborhood. It’s predominantly black, solidly working class, with lots of handsome old buildings, mostly well worn with peeling paint. I see lots of mothers and grandparents with strollers and very small children (it’s around noon during work hours), people taking smoke breaks in backdoors, and some very poor and homeless people. Reaching Pitkin’s busy sidewalk, I see shoppers, people going out for lunch, and shop and cafe proprietors in front doorways under brightly colored signs, and I hear many accents and many languages spoken, English, Spanish and French, and many others I don’t recognize. It reminds me of neighborhoods I frequent at home in Oakland. I turn north on Amboy Street, which runs north and south between Pitkin and E. New York Ave.

At 46 Amboy Street, just north of Pitkin, Margaret Sanger opened the United States’ first birth control clinic two days less than 100 years ago, on Oct 16th, 1916. Though just a  little late for the anniversary, I’m happy to be here at this historic place, humble as it now appears…. Read the written version here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 1 Part 3

roosevelt-hotel-exterior-view-manhattan-nyc-photo-by-amy-cools-2016Tuesday, October 18th, 2016, continued

I continue north to the Roosevelt Hotel at Madison Ave and E. 45th Street. Margaret Sanger attended the Conference on Contraceptive Research and Clinical Practice that met here on December 29th and 30th, 1936. She delivered a welcoming speech on the 29th and spoke on a panel the next day which discussed technical and medical birth control issues. While The New York Times reported optimistically on the effectiveness of birth control methods available at the time and Sanger spoke proudly of the ‘56,000 women who have voluntarily appealed to us for help’, she and many of the attendees knew that the lack of access to and effectiveness of birth control remained big problems. It was still fairly expensive; anti-obscenity laws were barriers to access and information in those pre-Griswold years; and too many of the methods were only moderately effective since they were not always easy to use correctly, especially in well, you know, the heat of the moment.

Roosevelt Hotel Lobby view

Roosevelt Hotel central lobby

But despite these problems, Sanger had reasons to be optimistic: the birth control movement had seen some successes in the twenty years since the raid of her first clinic in 1916. One of the most important was the recent decision in United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries (what a name!) in which the United States Court of Appeals upheld the decision of a lower court from earlier that year regarding a shipment of birth control devices that U.S. Customs had confiscated under the Comstock laws, which prohibited sending ‘obscene’ items through the mail. Sanger had ordered a case of unusually shaped diaphragms from Japan and requested that U.S. Customs forward them to her friend and colleague Dr. Hannah Stone. The circumstances of this shipment, between two physicians and across state lines, was arranged by Sanger and her lawyer Morris Ernst to create a test case to try and defeat the old Comstock laws. As they hoped, the Courts decided that obscenity laws, which had been broadly applied to prevent dissemination of information about contraception and the distribution of contraception devices themselves, could not be applied to the legitimate practice of medicine. But the birth control movement had a long way to go: would take three more decades before the Supreme Court weighed in on the issue of birth control, specifically.

Theodore Roosevelt, American President and yes, a eugenicist too

Bas-relief sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt, ‘The Long Long Trail’, at the Roosevelt Hotel

Speaking of Roosevelt, for whom this hotel was named (I assume, based on a sculpture of him prominently displayed in an upper lobby): Theodore Roosevelt was very much opposed to birth control. He feared that the very people who should be having the most children, the most talented, intelligent, and well educated, the healthiest and the wealthiest, were the very ones who were having fewer than ever. He believed the falling birth rate could lead to what he called ‘race suicide’, and opposed any and all methods that would facilitate this trend. Though Sanger and Roosevelt both believed in eugenics principles, their conclusions were very different when it came to population issues and the right to reproductive self-determination. I explore the differences in their views which led to their different conclusions in an earlier essay I wrote as part of this series. Sanger publicly and vigorously opposed Roosevelt’s public positions on birth control and the population question. In Sanger’s article ‘Birth Control: Margaret Sanger’s Reply to Theodore Roosevelt‘, published in The Metropolitan Magazine in December of 1917, she described why she believed his views were shortsighted and ill-informed.

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The Barclay Hotel, Manhattan, NYC, where Margaret Sanger stayed several times in 1938 and 1939

I zigzag northeast to the Barclay Hotel at 111 E. 48th Street, between Park and Lexington Aves. According to Robin Pokorski of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, ‘Sanger stayed at the Barclay Hotel in April and May 1938, and again in January 1939.’

I track down a listing in the Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Smith College Collection Series catalog for a microfilm of a letter Sanger received from the Barclay hotel, but I don’t have access to it at the moment. It’s not available online and I’ve not yet had a chance to visit the library at the University of California at Berkeley, which has a copy. I’ll update this account if I find anything interesting in the letter when I do get over there, and if I come across any other interesting details relating to her stay here in my continued research. In the meantime, I’ll continue with my story so I can publish it in good time.

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Barclay Hotel lobby, Manhattan NYC

242 E. 49th St, between 3rd and 2nd Ave’s, Turtle Bay Gardens

242 E. 49th St, between 3rd and 2nd Ave’s, Turtle Bay Gardens. Note the turtles in the ironwork at either side of the gate

I continue on a few blocks away, heading east, to 242 E. 49th St, between 3rd and 2nd Aves, to a brownstone at Turtle Bay Gardens. Sanger founded the American Birth Control League here at her friend Juliet Barrett Rublee’s home in 1921. Rublee, the wealthy wife of an influential lawyer, enthusiastically devoted her time and money to supporting feminist, humanitarian, and artistic causes. She’s a fascinating character, an activist, a nurse, a filmmaker, and an adventurer, whose exciting lifestyle was very well funded by her enormous fortune, leaving plenty of money to lavish on such projects as Sanger’s pamphlet Family Limitation and magazine The Birth Control Review, first published in February of 1917. Rublee took an active interest in Sanger’s work since Sanger was arrested for opening her birth control clinic in 1916 and they remained the closest of friends for the rest of their lives, dying only a few months apart. They wrote to each other often in intimate and detailed letters, many of which each kept although they marked them ‘destroy upon reading’. The Margaret Sanger Papers Project describes their correspondence as among the resources that reveal most about Sanger’s inner life. As with any public figure, especially one as controversial and embattled as Sanger, it can be difficult to get past the persona, the defensive walls they feel the need to construct.

Row which includes 242 E. 49th St

Turtle Bay Historic District row houses, including 242 E. 49th St. Behind these handsome brownstones is a lush, private urban garden, which you can see here.

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242 E. 49th St at Turtle Bay Gardens, Manhattan

Turtle Bay Gardens Historic District stands on what once was a bay of the East River, where ships harbored, country farmhouses stood, and Edgar Allan Poe used to go diving off the rocks. The bay was gradually filled in, and the once-thriving and handsome industrial district with its breweries, mills, and carpentry shops turned into a squalid, overcrowded district packed with cheap tenements, slaughterhouses, and run-down warehouses. One part of this neighborhood was destroyed in the riots that followed the establishment of a Civil War draft conscription office here in 1863.

When Sanger established the American Birth Control League at Rublee’s Turtle Bay home in 1921, it would have very recently been renovated and turned into a place of beauty and luxury. Another wealthy heiress, Charlotte Martin, bought this and an adjoining row of rundown brownstones in 1919 and thoroughly remodeled them, with a lush garden (complete with a copy of a fountain from Rome’s Villa Medici in the center) inspired by the European gardens she had fallen in love with during her travels, to create a haven of elegance and refuge in this what was then out-of-the-way, unfashionably too-far-east neighborhood of Manhattan. And by the way, as I just discovered, one of my favorite musical artists, Bob Dylan, used to live here at #242 as well!

Front entrance of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Ave at E. 50th St, Manhattan, NYC

Front entrance of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Ave at E. 50th St, Manhattan, NYC

I backtrack on 49th and turn right to 301 Park Ave, to the Waldorf Astoria between 49th & 50th Streets. There are three occasions in the life of Sanger which bring me here.

On January 5th, 1917, Sanger participated in one of the many debates on birth control she would take part in over the years. I’ll soon visit another site where she participated in a well-publicized debate four years later; I’ve found the text of it published online where I can share it with you, so I’ll wait to discuss her debate topics and style then.

Over fourteen years later, on October 23, 1931, Sanger addressed the attendees of a dinner honoring H.G. Wells, an important influence, long-time friend, and occasional lover. Wells shared many of her views on economics and eugenics, as well as her abiding concern that too many children were born into families and communities that didn’t have the capabilities to feed and care for them properly, leading to needless suffering and death. Wells’ article ‘The Needless Waste of Human Lives’ was published in the first edition of Sanger’s Birth Control Review, which described the plight of children born into poverty and privation only to be soon forced into labor in the most heart-wrenching terms this literary star could summon. Wells supported Sanger’s work in many other ways, both personal and public, some of which she described and thanked him for in her address that night. One of the ways Wells supported Sanger was by adding his influential name to an appeal to President Woodrow Wilson to get the many indictments which had piled up against her dropped. Most importantly, however, it was the enduring friendship with this famed man of like mind which propped up her confidence and spirits throughout the years until his death in 1946.

The front lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria. I snapped this photo in a brief moment between the stream of guests elegantly attired to attend some special event

The front lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria. I snapped this photo in a brief moment between the stream of guests elegantly attired to attend some special event

The Waldorf-Astoria on Park Ave at E. 50th St, Manhattan, NYC

Looking back on the Waldorf-Astoria in the early evening light

On May 11th, 1961, the Waldorf Astoria also hosted a World Tribute dinner for Margaret Sanger, organized as a fundraiser by the World Population Emergency Campaign and chaired by the renowned evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley. It was Sanger’s last public appearance since by that time she had developed heart disease, and while the alcohol and Demerol she treated her pain with may have helped in that regard, she was often tired, confused, and emotionally volatile. The senility which would incapacitate her within a few short years may have been starting to set in as well. But she was delighted at the invitation, and she rallied what strength she could to get to New York, assisted by her younger son Stuart, and briefly deliver her thanks. Even this was too much, and she nodded off her in her chair shortly afterward. Sanger would live five and a half more years, four of those in a nursing home, dying just before her eighty-eighth birthday. She enjoyed intermittent bouts of lucidity until her last year of life and appeared to understand the significance of the Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 when she was given the news. ‘It’s about time’, she said. It seemed as obvious to her as it does to most of us today that people had a right to privacy in their sexual relationships, yet the Comstockism she had fought for so long proved tenacious in American law and culture.

The Ambassador Hotel once stood where this plain office building does now, across E. 51st from St. Bart's at Park Ave.

The Ambassador Hotel once stood where this plain office building does now, across E. 51st from St. Bart’s at Park Ave.

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1921-1923 G.W. Bromley Atlas of the City of New York, Plate 78, showing location of Ambassador Hotel

My next stop is the northwest corner of 51st St. and Park Ave. According to plate 78 of G.W. Bromley’s 1921-1923 Atlas of the City of New York, the Ambassador Hotel used to stand at Park Ave and across 51st St. from St. Bart’s, as the beautiful 1835 St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church is commonly known. There’s a nondescript office highrise here now.

Ambassador Hotel, Park Ave, New York City midcentury advertisement

Ambassador Hotel ad; you can see St Bart’s in the foreground and to the right

The Ambassador Hotel was linked to Sanger in two ways. One, she stayed here on several occasions in late 1936 after she returned from her trip to India. While there, she toured the country and discussed and debated population and poverty issues, law, women’s rights, and birth control with Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi opposed artificial means of birth control. He shared the Catholic Church’s position that sex without the possibility of procreation is a form of animal lust unworthy of a spiritual being. He believed that human respect, understanding, and true spiritual connection were incompatible with carnal desire. However, he did believe in the right of women to control their own bodies insofar as they should never be coerced into having sex and that they had full rights of refusal, for any reason, within marriage as well as without. Sanger strongly disagreed with some of his views: she believed that sexual union could be as spiritually transcendent as it was pleasurable, one of the most beautiful, intimate, and powerful ways in which human beings connect with one another. And she believed that when partners were forced to refuse sex to one another for fear of having children, it undermined harmony and romance between couples, thereby breaking up marriages and destroying families. I recommend reading her debate with Gandhi published in Asia magazine, which not held in public but fortunately preserved because her secretary Florence Rose had the presence of mind to record in shorthand. I’ll further explore Sanger’s ideas about sex, love, and interpersonal spirituality in an essay I plan to publish before long.

Secondly, the Ambassador Hotel was also the site of a special joint meeting of the American Birth Control League and the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control following the December 7th, 1936 United States Court of Appeals ruling in the One Package case I discuss at the beginning of this piece. In this decision, Appellate Judge Augustus Noble Hand (again, what a name!) upheld Judge Grover M. Moscowitz’s decision from earlier that year, which prohibited the government from interfering with mail from doctors sending medical devices and information. This case seriously undermined the Comstock laws and was an important moment in extracting, isolating, and describing the right to privacy, implied but never specified in the Constitution, in American jurisprudence.

485 Madison Ave, NYC

485 Madison Ave, NYC, former home of CBS and recording studio for WABC (not the same WABC that exists today)

I head next to 485 Madison Avenue, between 52nd and 51st St, to the former Columbia Broadcasting System offices where WABC radio broadcasts were recorded. The founder of CBS, William S. Paley, had taken over as president of the tiny radio network United Independent Broadcasters founded in Chicago in early 1927. The savvy Paley quickly put the newly expanded media operation, which he bought the majority share of and renamed CBS, on firm financial footing, good enough to move to new, sleek 485 Madison Avenue in New York City in 1929. He wanted his new company to be where the action was, well situated for success. CBS stayed here until it moved into its own specially designed building in 1965.

Sanger recorded a radio broadcast here on birth control, on April 11, 1935, which was distributed to many radio stations throughout the country. In it, she outlined her basic arguments in favor of birth control which we’ve already considered (the benefits to women’s and children’s health, the right to reproductive self-determination, and so on) as well as her incredulity that the United States was now the only advanced country to legally prohibit birth control on obscenity grounds, in defiance of what she perceived as a preponderance of medical opinion in its favor. (In reality, the science of reproduction was still at a very early stage and there was far less of a medical consensus that birth control is safe, effective, and on the whole, medically beneficial for women as there is today.) She also announced plans for a petition directly to the second President Roosevelt, who she hoped would be much more progressive in this matter than the first one was. Sanger had a good reason for these hopes: Eleanor Roosevelt was also a long time supporter of the right to free access to medically approved forms of birth control. However, once Roosevelt’s husband Franklin became president, she felt could no longer publicly state her views on this issue. When asked, Roosevelt would neither oppose nor support the issue, stating simply that she refused to discuss it. Sanger understood and didn’t much blame the First Lady for making that choice. Like Sanger, Roosevelt was a strong woman who spent her days working hard on behalf of progressive causes, and like Sanger, she was willing to compromise and choose her battles when she felt it was necessary.

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The Rockefeller Center courtyard in the evening

The Rockefeller Center's glowing lobby

The Rockefeller Center’s glowing lobby

The Rockefeller Center's central escalator

The Rockefeller Center’s central escalator

The last site I visit for the day is the Rockefeller Center at 5th Ave and 50th St, another of New York City’s grand edifices I’ve been wanting to see. According to Pokorski, Sanger met with John D. Rockfeller, Jr’s aide Arthur Packard at Rockefeller Center in October of 1936. The Rockefeller Center is handsome outside, breathtaking inside. It glows even brighter, more golden and coppery and gemlike than the inside of the Chrysler Building. My camera doesn’t do justice to what I’m seeing since it has such difficulties in low light, but it does capture its amber-like quality.

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Memorandum of the conversation between Margaret Sanger and Arthur Packard, click to read the whole thing

I track down a memorandum of a conversation between Sanger and Packard dated Oct 9th, 1936, so I assume this memorandum discusses that meeting. One of Packard’s primary duties was to help select projects that the wealthy philanthropist Rockefeller might wish to fund.

A humanitarian and progressive, Rockefeller was interested in Sanger’s work and helped fund many of her projects over the years. In this case, Sanger and Packard were discussing a new form of sponge-and-spermicidal-foam birth control that Sanger had become aware of through Dr. Lydia DeVilbiss (which Packard amusingly misspelled as ‘Devilbus’) of Florida, who had been prescribing it to her patients. In addition to the further research on this method Sanger wanted to help fund, they discussed the One Package case, and Sanger’s increasing doubts about some of the long-term ramifications of the case as it was being argued. As you may recall, Sanger, Ernst, and Dr. Stone had arranged the circumstances that led to this test case purposefully so that it would be argued largely as a case about the right to practice medicine, since it involved devices shipped from doctor to doctor. However, Sanger was growing more concerned that this would focus too much on the rights of medical practitioners to make decisions in these matters and not enough on the rights of the women themselves. Perhaps the fact that it took another thirty years for the Supreme Court to base their decision in a major birth control case on the right to privacy, and hence to self-determination, is enough to demonstrate that Sanger’s fears were well-grounded.

It’s dark now, a beautiful balmy night, so I end my day’s Sanger explorations and just wander freely a bit before I head back for dinner. I still have three more days to go, stay tuned!

New York City rising above the Rockefeller Center's skating rink on a fall evening

New York City rising above the Rockefeller Center’s skating rink on a fall evening

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Sources and Inspiration:

242 East 49th Street‘. Douglas Elliman Real Estate website

About Sanger: Biographical Sketch‘, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.

Arredondo, Isabel. ‘Juliet Barrett Rublee‘. Women Film Pioneers Project at Columbia University

Barbanel, Josh. ‘Turtle Bay Gardens House on Market for Second Time Since 1961‘, Wall Street Journal July 15, 2013

Birth Control Aid Received By 56,000‘, New York Times, Dec. 30, 1936, p. 10, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the City of New York, 1921 – 1923, Plate 78. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

CBS‘. From Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, retrieved from Wikiwand

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992

Documenting a Friendship‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #3 (Fall 1992)

Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.

Griswold v. Connecticut‘, Oyez. Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech, n.d. Nov 3, 2016

History of Turtle Bay‘, Turtle Bay Association website

John D. Rockefeller, Jr.Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Juliet Barrett Rublee Papers, 1917-1955: Biographical Note‘. Five College Archives & Manuscript Collections: Sophia Smith Collection

Margaret Sanger and Eleanor Roosevelt – The Burden of Public Life‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #11 (Winter 1995)

Packard, Arthur W., 1901-1953: Biographical Information‘, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU, Editor’ Notes

Pokorski, Robin. ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger‘ from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Regan, Margaret. ‘Margaret Sanger: Tucson’s Irish Rebel.Tucson Weekly, Mar 11, 2004.

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Birth Control: Margaret Sanger’s Reply to Theodore Roosevelt,’ The Metropolitan Magazine, Dec. 1917, pp. 66-67 .

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Conference on Contraceptive Research and Clinical Practice Welcoming Speech Notes‘, Dec 29, 1936. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress Microfilm, 128:0262

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Family Planning: A Radio Talk By Margaret Sanger Columbia Broadcasting System‘, Station W.A.B.C., New York, April 11, 1935, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret ‘Gandhi and Mrs. Sanger Debate Birth Control,’ Recorded by Florence Rose, published in Asia magazine, Vol. 26, no. 11, Nov. 1936, pp. 698-702

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & CompanyZorea Ph.D., Birth Control

Tracing One Package — The Case that Legalized Birth Control‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #59 (Winter 2011)

Wells, H.G. ‘The Needless Waste of Little Lives‘. The Birth Control Review, February, 1917

Zorea, Aharon W. Birth Control. 2012, Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, Ltd.