Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Race and Class in 19th Century Philadelphia

Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Memorial Irish railroad workers 1832

“ one gave a damn for the poor Irish.” p.178

“In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation…,” Karl Marx

Noel Ignatiev

Noel Ignatiev How the Irish Became White was my LeftBook group’s reading for the last two sessions. It is a provocative history of the Irish in Philadelphia 1800 through Reconstruction, and a New Left classic (although published in 1995). Some might complain Ignatiev unduly demonizes the poor Irish immigrants for defending slavery and adopting American race prejudice. But it is largely the ugly story of white supremacy in American history, and not particular to the Irish. My favorite history teacher at Temple University Center City, Herb Ershkowitz, called the US a slave republic until the Civil War. Thereafter it might be called a white republic. Congress voted in 1790 that only white persons could be naturalized as citizens. It took the 13, 14, and 15th Amendments in 1865 to establish the citizenship of black people, and presumably other non-white persons. The Irish fled British colonialism and the potato famine in the Old World, only to encounter new social and racial conflicts in the New World. Like many subsequent immigrant groups to the US, the Irish were poor and scorned by native born Americans, but gradually climbed the class ladder and became natives themselves. Of course, this option was not available to African Americans.

Noel Ignatiev (aka Noel Ignatin) teaches history at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. He has a lengthy resume on the Left. He joined the Communist Party as a teenager in West Philadelphia in 1958, and soon left with a breakaway faction called the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (POC, 1958-1966). His memoir of the POC is online. Ignatiev and POC comrade Ted Allen introduced the concept of “white-skin privilege” to the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in their 1967 pamphlet White Blindspot. They argued “The US ruling class has made a deal with the mis-leaders of American Labor, and through them with the masses of white workers. The terms are these: you white workers help us conquer the world and enslave the non-white majority of the earth’s laboring force, and we will repay you with privileges befitting your white skin.” This concept was widely adopted in the New Left.

In 1969 Ignatiev and others founded Sojourner Truth Organization (1969-1986) in Chicago. They held two principle positions: (1) White workers must repudiate their white skin privileges and support African American and Latino struggles to unite the working class; and (2) workers must form independent workers’ organizations outside the unions to develop proletarian consciousness and autonomy. The second idea was inspired by syndicalist ideas from the IWW, and the works of Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, who advocated workers councils as the foundation of real socialism. Our group Philadelphia Solidarity held similar views. We met Ignatiev in the 1970s when he visited family in Philadelphia. When he got laid off from the steel industry in the 1980s, Ignatiev enrolled in graduate school, and wrote his thesis on the Irish in his hometown Philadelphia, and began his academic vocation. How the Irish Became White is informed by his perspective on race and class derived from long years in industry and on the Left. He is not an ivory tower Marxist.


Ignatiev details the complicated interplay between race and class, ethnicity and religion, native and immigrant. The early Irish immigrants were mostly so-called Scotch-Irish, ie Protestants from Northern Ireland. Eight of the 56 original signers of the Declaration of Independence were Irish Americans. In the 19th century the Irish came in large numbers, and were poorer and Catholic from Ireland proper. According to censuses, a third of all immigration to the US between 1820 and 1860 were Irish. Ignatiev puts the number between 800,000 to one million. These Irish were escaping British oppression, and later the potato famine in the 1840s. 

In the 18th century Irish Catholics were ruled by the British Penal Laws. Catholics could not vote or hold public office; they could only own or rent small plots of land; they were barred from most professions; Protestants who married Catholics lost their civil rights. In mid century Catholics held only 7% of Irish land. They were essentially an oppressed people in their own country. A movement for Home Rule, or Repeal, led by Lord Mayor of Dublin Daniel O’Connell campaigned for an independent Irish Parliament and civil rights in the 1830s and 1840s. The Repeal movement in Ireland was also abolitionist, and implored their Irish cousins in America to oppose slavery. William Lloyd Garrison and the abolitionist movement in America had great hopes that poor Irish immigrants would find common cause with enslaved African Americans. Frederick Douglass even visited Ireland in the 1840s to promote abolition, although he was careful not to criticize England.

Unfortunately, the Irish in America did not heed Daniel O’Connell and the Irish clergy’s call to oppose slavery. Ignatiev argues new Irish immigrants were not initially considered “white” in America’s racial and class hierarchy. They had to compete against slaves and free Blacks to secure employment. They arrived in the US largely without skills and took jobs as servants, laborers, and factory hands. Ignatiev describes how Irish labor was hired to dig canals and build roads because they would work for less than free Blacks or slaves, who were too valuable to lose to injury or disease. Irish immigrants and free Blacks were packed into the same neighborhoods in Philadelphia. There was both fellowship and conflict.

Nativists opposed Irish and Catholic immigration. In Philadelphia, Protestants rioted against the growing Irish population regularly during 1830-1850s. The disputes were about labor conditions in the mills, religion in the public schools, and the Irish support of slavery. The Irish embraced the Democratic Party and the nascent labor movement in self-defense. Early labor unions began in Philadelphia in the 1820s and were largely English and “white”. The Irish gradually became central actors in the unions and the Democratic Party in the city. In Philadelphia this included the control of the police and fire departments, and local politicians. By the end of the 19th century, half the presidents of AFL unions nationwide were Irish or their descendants.

The Irish also displaced free Black labor. This is the thesis of Ignatiev’s book. He argues Irish immigrants used their white skin privilege and the race prejudice of white unions to claim jobs in manufacture and domestic work that had formerly employed free blacks. He feels the New Labor Historians of the 1960s, much like the Old Left, romanticized the labor movement of the 19th century which was an exclusive club for white workers only. 

Of course, this is the central dilemma of American history for the left and labor. Why couldn’t white workers ally with their working class black brothers and sisters to oppose chattel and wage slavery? Why did white workers in the South go to war and 100,000s die to defend the Southern planters and aristocrats? In this regard, I don’t see how the Irish were any better or worse than other white workers. Many Irish died for the Union as well as the Confederacy. Racial ideology was used successfully to divide the working class, and the divide continues to this day.

Ignatiev states abolitionists did not address the cause of free labor, which was also exploited. I know abolitionist Lucretia Mott preached for the eight hour day in the 1850s, and other advanced thinkers may have also. The abolitionists made a big impact despite their small numbers, but they missed the opportunity to connect the emancipation of free labor- black, white, other- and enslaved labor.

How the Irish Became White was reprinted in 2008, so Ignatiev is still being read. The lineage of white supremacy is receiving renewed attention with the ascendancy of Trump. Noel Ignatiev’s book is sadly contemporary.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Judith Giesberg, “Civil War, Civil Rights: African American Women in Civil War-Era Philadelphia”

Judith Giesberg, ed. Emilie Davis’s Civil War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863-1865. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014. Transcribed and annotated by the Memorable Days Project editorial team: Theresa Altieri, Rebecca Capobianco, Thomas Foley, Ruby Johnson, and Jessica Maiberger.

Laundress in Philadephia

This was another wonderful program July 19, 2017 at The Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin and fifty of his closest friends. The speaker Judith Giesberg is Professor of History at nearby Villanova University,  Editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era, a prolific author,  founder of the Emilie Davis Diaries Project (aka Memorable Days Project) and the Information Wanted Ad Project. In 2012 Giesberg and her graduate students started transcribing three diaries of Emilie Davis (1839-89), a young free black woman in Philadelphia, and posted them on their Memorable Days website. The diaries had been recently acquired by Pennsylvania Historical Society. The complete work was published in 2014 entitled Emilie Davis’s War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863-1865, edited by Judith Giesberg and transcribed and annotated by the Memorable Days Project. The diary describes everyday life for African American women in the city during the Civil War. Giesberg first talked about Emilie’s life and Civil War Philadelphia, and then her new Information Wanted Project about African American’s effort to locate lost love-ones after Emancipation.

Judith Giesberg, Professor of History Villanova University

Judith Giesberg’s talk was part of a three-week National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) summer seminar for K-12 school teachers. My sister teaches third grade in Northampton, MA and has taken several NEH summer classes at Smith College in recent years. I hope these programs survive Trump’s budget cuts. We need an educated and critical electorate. The summer seminar Director is Lori Ginzberg, Professor of History and Women’s Studies at Penn State. She introduced her students and the speaker, and promoted The Library Company’s unique programs and collections. Philadelphia has many many historical institutions which are under appreciated.

Philadelphia was a tough town for black people free or slave during the Civil War. According to the 1860 census, there were 22,000 “free colored men and women” in Philadelphia County. There was general support for slavery despite the Quaker and abolitionist heritage in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia voted heavily Democratic in the 1860 election. The city was a Southern neighbor and economically dependent on slave cotton, sugar and agriculture. Frederick Douglass said there was not a city “in which prejudice against color is more rampant than in Philadelphia.” 

Nonetheless African Americans built a strong community. Emilie Davis was a student at the Institute for Colored Youth, which later became Cheney University. She attended Seventh Street Presbyterian Church, aka First (Colored) Presbyterian Church near 7th and South Street. She attended lectures by Frederick Douglass and Ellen Watkins Harper sponsored by The Social, Civil, and Statistical Association of the Colored People of Pennsylvania. She raised money for the Ladies Union Association to provide supplies for sick and wounded United States Colored Troops (USCT) at local hospitals. Emilie Davis’s complete diary is posted at the Memorable Days website.

Black women in Philadelphia also succeeded in integrating the trolley cars so they could visit wounded soldiers in hospital. They visited the USCT at Camp William Penn in the present-day La Mott neighborhood of Cheltenham on the northern edge of the city. Black women were leaders in the civil rights struggle of the day.

Professor Giesberg and her students have launched another project to transcribe advertisements from nineteenth century African American newspapers seeking information about lost family members after Emancipation. They have posted thousands of ads on their website Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery. The project seeks volunteers to help transcribe ads- just sign up. One major source for ads was the Christian Recorder published by Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia. The ads give a human picture of the devastation wrought on black families over 200 years of enslavement. A few African Americans have succeeded in tracing their ancestors using the database. This should improve as the archive grows. The project is supported by Villinova University, AME Bethel Church, and the Philadelphia Abolition Society (another historic institution still active in the city).

Information wanted

Emilie Davis concludes her diary “all is well that ends well” on December 31,1865. It is a small uplift for our dark times today.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Slave Business in Philadelphia

Phillip Seitz, Slavery in Philadelphia: A History of Resistance, Denial and Wealth (Create Space: Philadelphia, 2014).

"Your cotton smells of blood." William Lloyd Garrison in The Liberator, 1852

List of Negroes at & belonging to Whitehall, c. 1803

Friday night March 31 my neighbor, wife and I attended Phillip Seitz's talk about his recent book Slavery in Philadelphia: A History of Resistance, Denial and Wealth at Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting in Philadelphia. This is the story of the privileged Chew family of Cliveden House, the National Trust Historic Site at 6401 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy, and their slaves. The grounds were the site for the bloody Battle of Germantown during the Revolutionary War in 1777. Seitz was the Curator of History at Cliveden House from 2000-2011, and still lives in Mt. Airy. His book is a vignette of Philadelphia's deep connection to slavery, and in a larger sense, the role of slavery in financing the North and emerging capitalism. This is not the history we learned in school. Nor is it the romantic history generally told at colonial monuments and museums. But it should be.

Phillip Seitz

The family story begins with John Chew (1587-1668) arriving at Jamestown VA in 1623 attended by two indentured servants. John was a successful merchant seeking fortune in the New World. He became a trader, planter, and legislator in the Virginia colony. On his death, he bequeathed four slaves to his second wife Rachaell. It should be noted by this date chattel slavery (ie slaves for life) had been firmly established in the colony for Africans. Half the immigration from Europe before Independence were indentured servants, but they earned their freedom in five years typically.

There are many Samuels and Benjamins in this chronology. It is confusing.

John's third son Samuel Chew (1630-1677) settled in Maryland and served in the Assembly and the Provincial Court. In a propitious development, he met the Quaker founder George Fox in 1672 and joined the Society of Friends, and became associated with the William Penn family, future owner of Pennsylvania and the "Three Lower Counties" (DE). Samuel's will left a 600 acre plantation to his wife and first born son, as well as slaves and indentured servants. Samuel's eldest son owned 160 slaves. Samuel's sixth son Benjamin Chew (1671-1699) more modestly owned ten slaves and contracts for three indentured servants. 

Benjamin's (1671-1699) first son Samuel Chew (1693-1743) became a hard working doctor and secured the financial fortunes for future Chew generations in Philadelphia. Samuel became the legal representative to the Penn family, moved to Philadelphia in 1734, and received a grant of 3000 acres in Delaware from Penns' private reserve. He later moved to Delaware (then known as the Lower Counties) and managed his three plantations. He was the largest slaveholder in Delaware. He was still a Quaker.

Samuel's (1693-1743) first son Benjamin Chew (1722-1810) obtained a first class education at Middle Temple in London, and had a long legal career including Chief Justice of Pennsylvania in 1774. He built his elegant summer retreat Cliveden House in then suburban Germantown between 1763 and 1767. He was wealthy. He was legal counsel to the Penn family, a money lender, and landowner of nine plantations in Delaware and Maryland, and large slaveholder. Like the Penns, he left the Society of the Friends in the 1760s for the Anglican Church (Church of England). Because of his association with the British rulers, he was detained by the Continental Congress during the British occupation of Philadelphia. The Chew family were persona non grata for 20 years after the Revolutionary War, but their wealth remained intact. Benjamin's only son Benjamin Chew Jr. (1758-1844) managed the family estates in Maryland and Delaware and speculated in land with indifferent results. One successful investment was Philadelphia's earliest railroad in the 1830s connecting suburban Germantown to downtown Philadelphia. Benjamin Jr. and his son also named Benjamin (1793-1864) dissipated their fortune by the 1850s.

It was up to grandson Samuel Chew (1832-1887) to restore the family fortune and Cliveden House. He married the daughter of David S. Brown, a wealthy textile magnate in Philadelphia and New Jersey. Samuel became a manager in Brown's corporation, and later the executor of Brown's estate in 1877. This became the basis for the Chew family wealth up to the present day.

Cliveden House 1878

Seitz could recount this complicated history because the Chew family saved extensive written records from the earliest days. In 2006 the Historical Society of Pennsylvania received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (now threatened by Trump budget cuts) to catalog the voluminous Chew Family Papers, which filled 885 boxes. Seitz began mining this material, and discovered accounts of slaves who worked the Chew plantations and estate in the 18th and 19th century. This is the part of American history that has generally been omitted from history books. Just recently Washington's slaves in Philadelphia and Mt. Vernon, and Jefferson's slaves at Montecello have been acknowledged and included in the historical memorials. Chattel slavery and wage slavery built this country. These are the true founding fathers and mothers, rather than the wealthy landowners who met at Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia in 1774. Seitz tells some of their stories.

Slaves were not passive victims. Seitz devotes one chapter to Chief Justice Benjamin Chew's (1722-1810) Whitehall Plantation, the largest in Delaware with 1000 acres and 60 slaves. He first grew tobacco, and later diversified into wheat, fodder and livestock. Seitz reprints correspondence between Benjamin Chew in Philadelphia and his overseers during the 1790s. The overseers were having trouble with recalcitrant slaves and seeking assistance from Chew. The slaves were so unruly that Benjamin Chew finally decided to sell Whitehall in 1803. He could not find a buyer willing to purchase the land with its troublesome enslaved Black people. Delaware law prohibited selling slaves out of state, and Chew could not find a buyer for his slaves in state. He finally liberated his slaves at Whitehall and sold the plantation at a loss to a neighboring farmer.

In Pennsylvania the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery passed in 1780. It was a conservative bill. It freed a child of a slave woman at age 28, which meant slavery lingered on in Pennsylvania for decades. It also stated any slave brought into Pennsylvania and retained for more than 6 months would be freed. This complicated life for slaveholders in Philadephia like George Washington and Benjamin Chew.

Charity Castle 
Seitz tells the story of the enslaved woman Charity Castle at Cliveden House in 1814. Charity accompanied her mistress Harriet Chew, who was escaping an abusive marriage in Maryland, back to her family home at Cliveden. As the six month deadline approached, Harriet's husband made efforts to retrieve Charity from Philadelphia before she could legally claim her freedom. Charity did not want to return to slavery in Maryland. She had also been abused- probably raped- by Harriet's husband. Charity then fell on the woodpile behind Cliveden, and was badly injured and could not travel. A contentious legal battle ensued between Benjamin Chew Jr., Harriet's husband, and Philadelphia lawyer William Lewis representing Charity Castle's free black husband. William Lewis argued "accident made her a slave, accident made her free, and it seems right that she should avail herself of it." Phillip Seitz does not know how the case resolved. Sometimes the abolitionists won.

During the 19th century the Chew family gradually sold or lost their plantations and slave holdings in Delaware and Maryland. With Samuel Chew (1832-1887) they became manufacturers and capitalists in David Brown's Washington Manufacturing Company. The Philadelphia Chews no longer owned slaves; instead they owned mills that processed slave cotton with waged labor. Actually, much of Phildelphia's economy depended on the products of slavery- tobacco, wheat and cotton. In the run-up to the Civil War, the Philadelphia ruling class and many white workers defended slavery. It brought wealth and jobs to the city, even though slavery was manifestly inhuman and unstable. Once secession and the Civil War commenced, the North had to win the war to save their industries, save the republic, and subsequently emancipate the slaves.

Cliveden today

The legacy of slavery in America is exemplified by the Chew story at Cliveden House. Much of the industrial revolution and Northern wealth was financed by slave labor. How much is hotly debated by historians. The large present day wealth gap between white families and black families in the US derives from 250 years of chattel slavery and 100 years of de jure discrimination. The divisions of race and class are still with us, and still dominate US politics today. Phillip Sietz's local history of the Cliveden House in Mt. Airy is sadly contemporary.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Lori L. Tharps Confronts Colorism in America

Lori L. Tharps, Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America's Diverse Families (Boston: Beacon Press: 2016).

Calida Garcia Rawles, Same Difference (2010).

Tess Gerould (l) and Lori Tharps (r) at Elkins Park Library 02.22.17

"God is the color of water." James McBride, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother.

I commend journalist Lori Tharps for tackling a difficult subject in her new book Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America's Diverse Families. Race and color and class, light-skin, dark-skin. Colorism is defined by Alice Walker as "prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color." Race is actually a scientific fiction, whereas different skin-colors are real, and usually stand as a proxy for race. Inside African American, Latino, Asian, and mixed-race families in the US there exists a large spectrum of skin-color. Unfortunately, people are treated differently by their family or society according to their skin color. Tharps tells the history of skin-color politics in these four communities, and then shares the often painful personal testimony of many people as the light or dark member of their family or community. Discrimination by skin color is a type of racism that is still pervasive.

Lori Tharps is a Temple University Professor of Journalism who lives in Mt. Airy, my old Philadelphia neighborhood. Colorism is a personal issue for her. She is African American and her husband Spanish (ie Caucasian), and their three children are mixed-race with all different skin tones. She and her husband are faced with the real problems facing Mixed-Race families, which are somewhat different than those facing other minority families. The light-skin child is doted on by the local dry cleaner, whereas the darker-skin child is ignored. Lori's husband finds a new dry cleaner to patronize. Lori gets asked if she is the nanny of her light-skin daughter when they walk in the park. My wife Tess had the same experience when we moved to suburban Elkins Park from Philadelphia 25 years ago. Our elderly neighbor assumed Tess was the nanny since my wife has brown skin, and our young daughter was light-skin. Tharps finds herself relieved when her second child is darker, visibly sharing mommy's skin tone. Are we all confined to our designated clans? Are times changing?

Skin color and race are two different things, although entangled in complicated ways. Africans were brought to the US as slaves to labor for European (ie Caucasian) settlers, who dispossessed the indigenous people as well. A strict racial hierarchy was quickly instituted so that African-Americans would remain chattel slaves permanently. But of course, from day one, there were sexual relations between black and white whether consensual or non-consensual. By the wonders of the genetic lottery, their children had all different skin tones and phenotypes. A light-skin privilege developed in the African American community, and a similar story was true for Asian, Latino, and mixed-race communities. The light-skin offspring of the White slave master and enslaved African women often became the house servants rather than agricultural laborers. This first privilege afforded them some access to education and assimilation into the White world. Tharps notes that after Emancipation, light-skin African Americans became the economic elite and the leaders of their community. She says, "many historically Black colleges, including Howard University and Spellman College, had unofficial but well-known admission preferences for light-skinned students who came from wealthy, professional families." This also held true for many professional societies and social groups, even churches. This the origin of the so-called "paper bag test." If you were darker than a brown paper bag, you could not join said organization. The racism of the dominant White culture got reproduced in the Black community.

Skin-color politics in the Latino and Asian communities have different narratives. The Latino community in the US derives from the Caribbean, Central and South America, and ultimately motherland Spain. They bring with them the legacy of Spanish colonialism in Latin America. The Spanish and the Portuguese enslaved the Native Americans and Africans just like the British colonists, but were more tolerant of interracial relationships and marriage. As a result, "a large portion of the Spanish-speaking world has African roots." The problem is the ruling class in Spain and Latin America  was reserved for those with "pure Spanish blood" only. This produced a skin-color hierarchy in Latino societies that persists to this day. The Latino population in the US does not fit neatly into black-white census categories. In 1970 the term "Hispanic" was introduced to resolve this dilemma. Nonetheless, light-skin or white Latinos still dominate Spanish-language media and business. Anti-Black sentiment is commonplace. A crude example was Univision host Rodner Figueroa comparing First Lady Michelle Obama's appearance to that of a cast member of "Planet of the Apes" in 2015. Ouch.

Tharps had some difficulty ferreting out the root of colorism in the Asian community. The largest Asian groups in the US come from China, Philippines, India, Korea, and Japan. Each has its distinct culture and history. Initially her East Asian subjects denied any skin-color prejudice in their native cultures, but later acknowledged it. Whether due to European colonialism or something older, there is a premium for  pale skin in East Asia, particularly as an ideal for feminine beauty. Foreigners were also disfavored. The Pearl Buck Society was formed after WWII to find homes for mixed-race children from the war that were outcast from their societies. My wife grew up mixed race in Japan in the 50s, and her mother and aunties were always admonishing her to get out of the sun so she didn't turn too dark. Skin-color is also a defining issue in South Asia where it is linked to caste and class. Again the upper class tends to be light-skin, and tends to be the immigrant class to the US. They bring their attitudes with them to the complex racial landscape in the US.

So much for the histories of colorism. Most of Tharps’ book is devoted to how skin color impacted peoples lives. In general light skin conferred privilege and opportunity in a racist society. Some parents were oblivious to their children's struggles; others were more sensitive and protective. Some light skin subjects testified they felt neglected or excluded because they weren't black enough. Teenagers (and grown-ups) can be very cliquish. What if the Black kids, the Asian kids, and the White kids sit at different lunchroom tables, and you don't fit in anywhere? This can cause enough pain and confusion to last a lifetime. Skin color impacts educational choices, choosing a romantic partner, finding a job, picking a neighborhood. It is formative.

Tharps notes that skin-color politics and race are "close cousins." In fact, in an increasingly multi-cultural society, perhaps skin color is the only way to classify people if society insists on racial categories. With Donald Trump's election, nativists in the US are attempting to reverse the tide of immigration and intermarriage. I think they will fail. Lori Tharps voices the growing awareness of the injury colorism causes to people and communities. It is no longer taboo to examine skin color politics. She blogs about identity politics, parenting and pop culture at and her professional site at She pushes all of us to overcome our tribal allegiances and embrace our common humanity. That can't be so hard.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Dorothy Day, Girl Reporter for The New York Call 1916-1917

Tom McDonough, An Eye For Others, Dorothy Day Journalist: 1916-1917 (Washington, DC: Clemency Press, 2016).

Ryan Walker, New Adventures of Henry Dubb (Chicago, IL: 1915).

Dorothy Day 1920s

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) is known as the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement (CW) with Peter Maurin in 1933, and for her selfless service to the homeless and downtrodden. Her legacy lives on. According to the CW website, today there are 240 CW communities mostly in the US providing hospitality to the homeless and other social services. The Catholic Church is formally considering Dorothy for Sainthood, although Dorothy might object. She often said,“Don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed that easily." She sometimes called herself a Christian Anarchist. The best statement of her views is The Aims and Means of The Catholic Worker, which is periodically reprinted in the Catholic Worker newspaper. Her philosophy was a unique and odd mix of left and right. In some ways she founded the Catholic Left in the US. She supported Republican Spain in the 1930s, championed the labor movement and civil rights, opposed war, criticized capitalism. On the other hand, she was an observant Catholic (including Church teaching on abortion and divorce), and a proponent of Distributism, an economic doctrine that had a brief life in the 1920s and 1930s, and then disappeared. Like Duke Ellington, Dorothy is "beyond category."

The Dorothy Day I find most appealing is her bohemian youth. Author Tom McDonough has collected excerpts from her published articles in the socialist The New York Call newspaper and The Masses in An Eye For Others, Dorothy Day, Journalist: 1916-1917, with commentary about her life and New York bohemia of the day. McDonough is a Catholic blogger and scholar. His two blogs on his Dorothy Day research and liberation theology are worth a visit: Precursorsof the Spirit of Pope Francis, and The Shire With WIFI.

Dorothy was born in Brooklyn Heights NYC in 1897 to a middle class family. Her father John Day, and later her two brothers and Dorothy, were journalists - the family business. John moved the family to Oakland CA in 1904 for a newspaper job, until the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 destroyed his paper. In The Long Loneliness (1952), Dorothy Day recounts the mutual aid and self-sacrifice of neighbors responding to the disaster. The family relocated to Chicago, where Dorothy grew up. She was an constant reader- no internet, radio, TV, computer games. Her expansive reading is evident in everything she writes. She loved the great Russian novelists Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Gorky, and the socialist novels of Upton Sinclair and Jack London in her teens. She was also influenced by her  older brother Donald, who wrote for the working-class Scripps-Howard newspaper The Day Book. She read Carl Sandburg, Eugene Debs, Peter Kropotkin, and accounts of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). From 1914-16 she attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on scholarship, then moved to NYC where her father had a new job at New York Morning Telegraph.

Very quickly Dorothy landed a reporter job at the socialist daily The New York Call in autumn 1916. She said later in From Union Square to Rome (1938), "I was only eighteen, so I wavered between my allegiance to Socialism, Syndicalism (the IWW's), and Anarchism. When I read Tolstoy I was an Anarchist. My allegiance to The Call kept me a socialist, although a left-wing one, and my Americanism inclined me to the IWW movement." I still have the same problem. She graduated to "Special Features Writer" in January 1918. One of her first assignments was "the Diet Squad"- reporting on living on $5/week on Cherry Street on the Lower East Side, which coincidentally was also her starting salary. She itemized her weekly rent for one room, food budget, cooking gas, clothing, laundry, transportation, recreation, and sundries. She also documented the daily struggles of the working poor who were her neighbors. She lived in the same tenements and shared their poverty.

Cartoonist Ryan Walker in the Appeal to Reason

The New York Call was still an ecumenical socialist daily in the days before the Russian Revolution. It was one of only three English-language socialist dailies in the US, with a circulation of 15,000 copies per issue in 1916. This was dwarfed by the foreign language socialist dailies. The Yiddish-language Forverts had circulation of 200,000, and the German-language New Yorker Volkszeitung had 25,000+. The staff of The Call during Dorothy's tenure included Rose Pastor Stokes, editor of the "Woman's Department"; regular cartoons by Ryan Walker with his New Adventures of Henry Dubb; and Dorothy's romantic interest, copy editor Itzok Isaac Granich (aka Mike Gold - author of Jews Without Money). During six months at The Call, Dorothy had 39 articles with her byline, and probably some more unattributed. The complete text of those articles are archived at the Catholic Worker Movement website. She also freelanced at The Liberator and The Masses. She was an accomplished journalist. 

Michael Gold columnist
Daily Worker

This was a protean moment for the American Left. The US entered WWI after Woodrow Wilson's election. The Russian Revolutions broke out. The Federal Government repressed dissent and expelled foreign radicals. The American Socialist Party and IWW fragmented into many competing communist and social democratic parties. The New York Call reported all of it. Dorothy Day interviewed Leon Trotsky during his 3 month exile in NYC, and Margaret Sanger and Ethel Byrne after their imprisonment for dispensing birth control information. Dorothy wrote five articles in April 1917 chronicling the peace pilgrimage of Columbia University students from NYC to Washington DC. The students opposed  the draft and opposed entering the European war. Six months later Dorothy picketed the White House for women's suffrage, was arrested and served 15 days in jail with Alice Paul from the National Women's Party. Her young friends and comrades became leaders in the post-WWI left: Eugene O'Neil, Michael Gold, John Reed, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Anna Louise Strong, Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, and Mary Heaton Vorse. Revolution was in the air, like the 1960s. There was vigorous debate in the Left, conflict and sectarian disputes. 

Ultimately, Dorothy took a different path. She told biographer Robert Coles, "I was very caught up in socialist convictions. I've always believed that people should share with each other, and that for a few to be rich and many to be poor is wrong, dead wrong." But she did not see the Left bringing forth brotherhood, cooperation, peace and justice. She rejected the brutality of Bolshevik rule and the dogmas of the left. Dorothy gradually returned to her childhood passion for Christianity. This period of her life is recounted in her novel The Eleventh Virgin (1924). She converted to Catholicism in 1927, and founded the Catholic Worker with the Christian Brother Peter Maurin in 1932. Her program was no longer socialism, but Catholic social teaching and the Gospel.

She said, "The biggest challenge of the day is how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution that has to start with each one of us." She remained true to this mission all her life.