Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Teaching History to New Immigrants

One of many tours created by Frank Bergen Kelley

Frank’s mother descended from Dutch burghers.  They peered from the frames of their oil portraits, clasping silver goblets while hunting dogs lurked in the background. 

His father’s forebears emigrated from the Isle of Man. 

The family settled in New Jersey, where the father became a minister.  All of the sons and daughters stayed nearby, except for one.  That would be Frank.

The passion of Frank Bergen Kelley would always lie across the river.  It was the history of New York City. 

Frank couldn’t wait to get to a place where he could influence how new immigrants, in particular, would learn the history of their nation.  Planning to become a teacher, he earned three degrees from New York University in rapid succession, emerging with a doctorate in 1890.

Then he set off to teach at several military academies before landing, in 1899, at DeWitt Clinton, one of the city’s preeminent public high schools which drew boys from across the socio-economic and ethnic spectrum.    

For the next 34 years, this would be the perch from which Frank sparked the connection between citizenship and education.  He did not frown on flag-waving; rather, he believed that a deep understanding of history would nurture the most meaningful, enduring patriotism. 

He also believed that learning history demanded full engagement: eyes and ears, thinking, exploring.

In one of Kelley's guides, he juxtaposed 1909 and 1609 (inset) views
 of Manhattan, probably to commemorate the tricentennial of
Henry Hudson's voyage up the "North River."

Soon enough, Kelley came to the attention of the leaders of the City History Club of New York.  Established in 1896, the club was run by a mix of Gilded Age millionaires, the heirs of Knickerbockers, and socialites, with a sprinkling of antiquarians and genealogists.

The club “exists for Americanization,” its founders stated.  “To develop a better and more intelligent citizenship by means of the study of the history and traditions of the city, and the lives and deeds of the men who have made this city great . . .”

The trustees invited Frank Kelley to become superintendent of the club.  He accepted with delight.  What a perfect fit:  while the board raised money by hosting balls and auctions, Kelley created an educational program comprised of lectures, self-guided tours, and exhibitions.  It was publicized widely.  Recent immigrants especially were encouraged to enroll.

In rapid order, Frank produced at least 12 pocket brochures, including:  A Guide to Greenwich Village, A Guide to Fraunces Tavern (where General George Washington, in 1783, bid farewell to the officers of the Continental Army).  The board of education distributed these free of charge. 

And he lectured all the time, all over the city, in libraries and halls and schools.  Each year he would deliver several series of ten talks, open to the public at no charge, on “The History and Government of New York City.”  Five Sunday afternoon excursions were part of each series.  

Often Kelley lectured as part of a group.  Fellow speakers might include college presidents, diplomats, and professional historians.

Imagine that!

Important people coming all the way from New England and Washington, D.C. to personally educate new immigrants!

Between 1899 and 1903, the number of New Yorkers that attended public lectures rose from 550,000 to 1.2 million.

In 1906, when the City History Club celebrated its tenth year of educational work, Kelley reported on classes held in settlement houses, churches, and industrial schools.  He called for more volunteers to teach government and other courses.  

From one of Kelley's reports: singing the 
National Anthem prior to a lecture about government

By now the City History Club’s programs were thoroughly entwined with the work of the public schools.  This meant that the club’s officers, trustees, vice presidents, and advisers had a stake in the education of all children who lived in New York City. 

Supporters included the descendants of New York's founding families:  Virginia Gildersleeve (Dean of Barnard College), George W. Wickersham (U. S. Attorney General and internationalist), Mariana Van Rensselaer (historian and reformer), Robert De Forest (longtime trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Frank A. Vanderlip (journalist and founder of the first Montessori School in the U. S.).

Lovingly guided by Frank Bergen Kelley.

See also December 13, 2017 post. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Of Time and the Blizzard

Snowy day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The day before my father died last March, I moved in close to his right ear and asked him a few questions. 

“Do you remember Primrose Avenue?” I said.

That’s the name of a street near the house where we lived when my brother and I were growing up in Mt. Vernon, N. Y. 

Primroses are small colorful old-fashioned flowers. Primrose the street was pretty, too. It began in a vale (an appropriately antiquated word) near the business district, then meandered along, past a small park with lilac bushes and a few benches.  As it climbed a hill, the street widened with grand houses on either side, some with marble steps at the curb.  These had been used for carriages in the 1890s.  

Primrose Avenue postcard, around 1905

Now it is 2018 and a big storm has swirled into New York City.  Down on the street, you can hear cymbals as the snow crashes into the wind.  I remember this sound from my childhood when snowstorms occurred routinely from November to March.  We trudged to school through banks, drifts and slush.  Sometimes the driving snow stung our eyes.

During the winter of 1970, a blizzard socked the New York metropolitan area. It lasted a few days.  I can still conjure that wonderful sense of being stuck inside.  Even if one had an appointment, it would be impossible to get there.  Everything was closed; only our homes were open for business. 

One night, the snow finally stopped.  Looking out the window, we saw a few flakes trickling down.  My father and I decided to take a walk.  In boots and layers of sweaters coats scarves hats gloves, we stepped outside.

We started around the block and came to Primrose Avenue.  The last foot of snow had not been plowed and we couldn’t find the sidewalk, so we walked up the middle of the street. 

I remember a pink glow, which must have been the snow reflecting the streetlight.  Also the crunch, crunch of our boots.  I also recall, dimly, our conversation.

My father reading to me (left) and my brother (right), early 1960s

My father was a talented writer and editor who worked largely with dry bureaucratic prose.  At heart, though, he had a true literary sensibility.  Because of him, there were volumes of Whitman, Dylan Thomas, Housman, and Keats in the house; also such novels as The Naked and the Dead, Of Human Bondage, and Johnny Got His Gun.  My mother recommended King’s Row and anything by John O’Hara, but he urged on me Lolita, Ship of Fools, and You Can’t Go Home Again.

After his death, I found notes for the book reviews that he wrote during his years as a newspaper reporter.  It was a good way to make extra money and get free books. In 1947, for example, his reviews included All the King's Men and a thriller called The Big Clock.*

Who knows why he also was reviewing Boswell’s Life of Johnson (published in 1791), but of it he noted simply: “Had to choke this one down.”

Back to Primrose Avenue. 

As we walked through the pink light and dwindling snowflakes, he imparted something magical to me.  I believe it involved the exhilarating connection between literature and experience.  The scene, the shadow, the words and characters – you could always return to them, or call them up.  And of course, what he said turned out to be true.

That’s why I’m glad that New York is finally getting a snowstorm, this snowstorm, the first one since his death.  It feels like I’ve crossed a continent to get back to Primrose Avenue and he’s there with me, talking and walking in the unplowed world.

Throughout his life, my father jotted down the titles
and authors of books he wanted to read.

*The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing was made into a movie starring Ray Milland and Maureen O'Sullivan.   

See posts November 16, 2016 and November 8, 2017.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Snow and Ice

"It was a lithographer's dream of winter"
(from Letting Go by Philip Roth, 1962)

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Laugh Died on Her Lips

Socializing in the Tenderloin District, 1900s.
(still from a film by Thomas A. Edison)

At dawn they spilled onto the narrow sidewalk outside an opium den.  It was the winter of 1908.  The three women and their younger male companions had begun the evening carousing in Manhattan’s Tenderloin district, a treacherous neighborhood filled with thieves and slummers drawn like moths to saloons, brothels, and gambling parlors.

Now, as the clock struck 5:30, drunk and stoned out of their heads, they staggered along Bayard Street in Chinatown, clinging to each other and veering away from the alleys where hooligans lurked.  They made their way toward the elevated train, heading uptown.

No one was looking out for anyone else. 

The women were Annie Conning, who worked as a maid at the Chelsea Hotel, Rose McGuire and Mabel Cuzzie.  The three men would remain unidentified.    

Convergence of elevated lines, Chatham Square, 1900s.

Once on the train, they passed around an open bottle of champagne while yelling, laughing and taunting the other passengers, who were laborers trying to grab some sleep on the way to work.

One of the group, a man who sported a gray coat, dozed off.  While he was sleeping, the others took his watch, chain and tie pin. When he awoke and realized his watch was gone, he leaped toward Mabel and grabbed at the muff she wore on her hands. 

Then a gun went off and Queenie, who had risen from her seat, dropped dead on the floor, shot through the heart.

A pistol fell from the muff.  The man in the gray coat picked it up, slipped it into his pocket, and swiftly left the train with the other two men.

Meanwhile, the motorman and conductor seized Rose and Mabel.  The police booked them and learned that Annie Conning went by the name “Queenie.”  Of the three women, the cops reported, Queenie was the “oldest and the handsomest.”  

Mabel had met Queenie and the man in the gray coat, whose name was Ed, the previous night in a bar on 26th Street.

The next day, the denizens of the Tenderloin flocked downtown to the morgue.  Queenie’s employer, Mrs. Callahan of the Chelsea Hotel, identified Annie Conning and explained that she came from a wealthy Delaware family and had a husband out there somewhere.

The police detained Rose McGuire and sent Mabel Cuzzie to the Tombs, Manhattan’s notoriously grim prison.

Postcard of the horrible Tombs, 1900s.

A letter carrier named Samuel Lipschitz who had been a passenger on the train and observed the “antics of the party” (in the words of the police) swore that the killing was unintentional.  Still, while the inquest may have vindicated both women, Rose and Mabel paid a price whereas the three men just disappeared into the workday.    

The conduct of the group typifies antisocial behavior among working-class New Yorkers during the early twentieth century, with the Tenderloin playing a big part.  After the 1863 draft riots, the areas populated by immigrants stabilized, if uneasily.  But the Tenderloin never quite returned to a neighborhood of peaceable Irish Catholics.  In 1900, it saw another race riot while crime and prostitution increased.*

Therefore, it’s not surprising that the group of six began their evening in the Tenderloin and that nothing good came of it.  But alas, poor Queenie.  After the denouement, did anyone care that she was gone?

An opium den in Chinatown, New York City;
early twentieth century

*The diarist George Templeton Strong called the Tenderloin a “noctivagous strumpetocracy.” It’s an odd phrase, evocative of Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism,” which means night-walking (noctivagous) prostitutes (strumpets) in control of the government. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Father Knickerbocker's Ball

The old-timers never forgot the winter of 1917.  At night the rivers froze like Colonial times, and during the day the frosty air held up a brilliant blue sky.  Brutal cold would not interfere with a gala evening, however.  On February 9 at 9 o’clock, the carriages started rolling up to the sumptuous Manhattan restaurant, Sherry’s.  It was time for Father Knickerbocker’s Ball, with a special treat in store for the guests who alighted. 

It all went back to the administration of President Washington.  After his inauguration in New York City, he and Martha moved to Philadelphia.  There she gave a series of receptions, entertaining fashionable women in a manner that some thought too regal, even anti-Republican.  But the chosen who attended never got over it.

Lady Washington's Reception
Line engraving after Daniel F. Huntington's painting (1865)

One hundred and twenty-eight years later, the descendants of those ladies weren’t over it, either.  For this reason, in honor of Father Knickerbocker’s Ball, they decided to dress up in period costume and recreate one of Mrs. Washington’s receptions.  

Their purpose was one that their ancestors never could have imagined:  to raise money for an organization that had been aiding immigrants since 1896 – the City History Club of New York.

Starting with the arrival of the Irish and Germans well before the Civil War, charitable, religious, and social service organizations had supported immigrants at home and at work, largely with the goal of assimilation.

Toward the turn of the twentieth century, as millions continued to arrive at American shores, progressivism began to influence the thinking of leading New Yorkers.  The City History Club, founded by a group of patricians, newly minted millionaires, and the descendants of colonists, embraced the ideals of the progressive movement.

A surgeon named Robert Abbe initiated the idea.  His ancestors emigrated from England during the seventeenth century, bequeathing to him an impeccable pedigree.  Abbe’s father, a philanthropist and businessman deeply committed to the Baptist Church, and his mother, the daughter of the founder of the Colgate Soap Company, encouraged their son to become a physician.   

Dr. Abbe’s work in radiology and plastic surgery was pioneering.  He visited Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris in 1904, and subsequently introduced radiation therapy to the U. S.

He told friends that the club was for his wife, really.  Catherine Abbe loved learning about the history of the city.  A fierce suffragist, she happily participated in the D.A.R., Colonial Dames of America, and other exclusive organizations which had been around for decades. 

Mrs. Robert Abbe
Cecilia Beaux, 1898
(Brooklyn Museum)

But this organization would be different. 

While Abbe and his colleagues stated that “the club exists for Americanization,” they enunciated deeper ideas: 

To develop a better and more intelligent citizenship by means of the study of the history and traditions of the city . . .    

To instill that true kind of patriotism which is not mere unreasoning emotion excited by flags and drums and catchwords but an integral permanent part of character . . .

The point was that reflexive patriotism is meaningless.  Informed citizenship is a product of historical understanding.  And that can only come through education and exploration.

The City History Club planned to use the city of New York as a laboratory to help immigrants reach that understanding.

In the words of the club’s superintendent, Frank Bergen Kelley:  

The city becomes more than a mere collection of buildings, a despised place in which one must live, but for which there is no admiration, no love, no regard.  Instead it becomes a living organism with an interesting and honored past, and a future to which every citizen ought to contribute, and for which every citizen should cherish great concern.

The City History Club sponsored public
lectures, exhibitions, and tours.

See also February 7, 2018 post. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Joan of Stones

Ready to charge across the Hudson River, an equestrian statue of Joan of Arc overlooks Riverside Park on the west side of Manhattan.  It arose in December 1915, six years after two energetic men – a distinguished mineralogist and jewelry company executive and a patron of the arts – set out to honor the French saint in New York City.

The 20-foot high bronze statue, atop a granite pedestal, has never been a major attraction.  Admirers always note, however, that it is the work of a woman sculptor, Anna Vaughan Hyatt.  Her sculptures also show up at the Bronx Zoo and Columbia University, among other places.

Anna Hyatt 
(Columbia University)
Anna studied at the Art Students League under Gustav Borglum, who created Mount Rushmore.  In 1909, she entered a plaster cast of a statue of Joan of Arc in the 1910 Paris Salon, where it received an honorable mention.  Subsequently, Hyatt would sculpt Joan in bronze for the New York City memorial.

As a child, the martyr Jeanne d’Arc experienced visions that called her to drive the English from France and restore the Roman Catholic King Charles VII to the throne.  She survived the battlefield and court and church intrigue only to be captured and burned at the stake by the English, at the age of 19 in 1431.*

Joan of Arc had been gone for several centuries when she came back into vogue.  During the late nineteenth century, thousands of French citizens began to make pilgrimages to her birthplace and new statues of her were erected in towns across France.

The reason for the excitement was the Church’s decision to beatify her in a series of ceremonies at St. Peter’s in Rome in April 1909.  More than 30,000 French pilgrims, dozens of French cardinals and bishops, and all kinds of “notables” attended. 

In the U. S., George Frederick Kunz, a mineralogist and former vice president of Tiffany & Co., and J. Sanford Saltus, a philanthropist and the heir to a steel fortune, decided that New York City should honor the new saint.  Both men revered French painting and sculpture, were recipients of the Legion of Honor, and felt a strong affinity with the people of France.

George Frederick Kunz

They co-founded the Joan of Arc Statue Committee in 1910. Within three years, Kunz – who was the real driver – had raised $20,000 for the construction of a statue. 

"In working for a statue to Joan of Arc here in New York,” Kunz told the New York Times, “we are not thinking of anything having to do either with religion or woman suffrage.  She represents, I think, the best type of true womanhood.”

He continued chauvinistically:

We are beginning to realize more and more that New York is the most wonderful city in the world and the monument must be an ornament to it.  As long as it is what it should be we do not care who makes it, a Russian, an Italian, an American, or a Hottentot.

Meanwhile, Anna Hyatt had already started to work on the statue, using her niece as a model for the figure.   

Kunz turned his attention to the pedestal.  The man had traveled the world in search of rocks, gems, opalized wood, meteoric iron and the like.  He was passionate about stone and hoped to use it to infuse the monument with meaning.     

For this reason, the granite pedestal contains stones from the castle at Rouen where Joan of Arc was imprisoned; from the cathedral at Reims where Joan watched the coronation of Charles VII in 1429; from Domremy, the village where Joan was born; and from the city of Orleans, where Joan led French forces to victory during the Hundred Years’ War. 

Statue unveiling, December 1915;
Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in left distance. 

In a book published in honor of the unveiling, Kunz offered descriptions of the stones: 

“. . . a great predominance of foraminiferal organic remains . . . embedded in a fine micro-crystalline matrix . . .”

“chalky-looking and very porous limestone with flint or ehert nodules”

and so forth.

It was Kunz’s idea, as well, to bury a copper box inside the pedestal.  The box contained mementoes of the era, including American and French currency, commemorative medals, and more than a dozen letters and speeches including salutations from President Wilson.

Lastly, a specimen of Staurolite, also known as “fairy stone,” went into the box.  The crystal symbolized the tears shed for Joan of Arc, Kunz explained.

In December 1915, Jean J. Jusserand, French ambassador to the U.S., dedicated the statue.  By this time, of course, the Great War had started and Jusserand’s message of fighting to the death held both poignancy and urgency.

Jean J. Jusserand
delivered remarks at the dedication

Through the war and for some years after, ceremonies were held regularly at the Joan of Arc memorial.  Kunz often participated.  On November 2, 1918 – nine days before the Armistice – he joined a French bishop to place a wreath on the pedestal.  The bishop noted that American soldiers in France were pressing to victory “like the men led by Joan of Arc.” 

Dr. Kunz (as he liked to be called) had launched his career in 1876 when he sold a spectacular tourmaline to Charles Lewis Tiffany.  Kunz would serve as Tiffany’s chief gemologist for the rest of his life, discovering and analyzing gorgeous, exotic stones.  The crystal known as Kunzite was named in his honor after he identified it in the Connecticut countryside in 1902.   

After the death of Kunz’s first wife, he waited ten years before remarrying a young woman aviator.

It’s kind of funny that her name was Opal.


*A highly abbreviated account. She also was charged as a cross-dresser.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Wartburg Orphanage

Postcard of the Wartburg Orphanage, around 1914.

A few weeks ago I read a crushing article, “The Lost Children of Tuam,” in the New York Times. 

The story concerns hundreds of unmarried Irish Catholic mothers who, during the mid-twentieth century, were exiled to the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in County Galway. Inside the stone fortress, as one survivor described the home, the nuns subjected the mothers and their children to neglect and degradation.      

Then, after a year of abuse, the mothers were forced out into the world leaving their children behind.  Many of those children eventually died and were buried under gruesome circumstances, although some made it through.

When the neighborhood kids encountered the St. Mary’s children at the local school, they taunted them and called them “home babies.”

Although the circumstances are vastly different, the story reminded me of the Wartburg orphanage in the city where I grew up, and how the students who lived there were known as the “Wartburg kids.”  That’s what we called them.  The teachers said it, too.  If pressed, a child might state in a very low voice, “I live at the Wartburg.”

 Late nineteenth-century view of the Wartburg Orphanage

We never visited the Wartburg.  Therefore, we didn’t know anything about what life was like there.  No one enlightened us, either, which made it even easier to imagine something unpleasant.  

There was an impassable line between the students who lived at the Wartburg and everyone else who attended our predominantly white elementary school.  Our city had a very strict social order most evident in the railroad cut that separated the South Side – largely black – and the North Side – largely white.  The Wartburg fit into that hierarchy. 

The founder of the orphanage, Rev. William Passavant, called it the Wartburg Orphan’s Farm School.  He started it after the Civil War for the children of dead soldiers.  For a while, elderly people lived there, too.  The reverend went on to establish several other orphan’s homes and spread the word of evangelical Lutheranism.   

He named the school after the medieval Wartburg Castle, located on a mountaintop in Thuringia in central Germany.

Passavant asked a businessman named Peter Moller to purchase 121 acres in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and to provide an endowment.  Moller, who liked to refer to himself as a Hanoverian immigrant (as opposed to German), was the eldest of several brothers who went into the sugar refining business in the 1850s.  He made his fortune as president of the American Sugar Refining Company.  Eventually he got embroiled in price-fixing but that was long after he gave Passavant the money.

George Charles Holls, first director of the
Wartburg Orphanage

To head the Wartburg, Passavant called on George Charles Holls, a German immigrant who had risen quickly in the ministry after he founded the first Lutheran orphan asylum in the U. S., in a Pennsylvania town that bore the inimitable name, Zelienople.   

After Holls retired in 1889, along came Gottlieb Cleopas Berkemeier, who presided over the Wartburg until his death in 1924. During World War I, Berkemeier became active in Friends of Peace, a pro-German group that lobbied against American involvement in the war – especially the prospect of a military alliance between the U.S. and the U.K.

The first American orphanages sprang up during the early 1800s in response to industrialization, which robbed children of their parents’ care.  Some orphanages were created to wrest control of children from their parents; this occurred especially among the families of Irish immigrants.

A social reformer named Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in New York City in 1854, working initially with newsboys.  Reverend Brace also created the Orphans Train, which transported city children to the Midwest, Plains, and New England where they joined new families, mostly on farms.  Astonishingly, the Orphans Train relocated nearly 400,000 children.

Orphanages proliferated in the U. S. during the last third of the nineteenth century.  Some historians believe this reflected society’s deepening concern for the welfare of the needy, young and old.  All institutions were privately funded, and religious and ethnic groups looked out for their own.  

My great-grandmother, for example, lost her husband soon after emigrating from Russia to the U. S. with two young children.  She placed them in a Hebrew Asylum for one year until she got back on her feet.

There were a few orphanages for African-American children.  The Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City operated between 1836 and 1946. By and large, however, black children without parents were sent to jail or reform school.

As progressivism surged into the twentieth century, Americans became disenchanted with orphanages, which were thought to keep children dependent and in lock-step (not to mention concerns about abuse).  In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt convened a White House conference to address the care of dependent children.  Subsequently, the Federal Government created the Children’s Bureau, which had considerable latitude in overseeing foster homes, institutions, and medical care.   

In 1911, Illinois became the first state to authorize mother’s pensions for families without male breadwinners.  It was thought that the pensions would minimize the need for orphanages.  By 1919, 39 states had followed suit.  Eventually the program was folded into the New Deal, along with much of the work of the Children’s Bureau.

Through two world wars and the Depression, orphanages were filled to capacity.  During those years, the Wartburg drew widespread praise as a model institution. 

In 1964, its board decided that the children should attend the local public schools.  I’m certain that at least a few public school parents and administrators objected. After all, these were “Wartburg kids.” 

This still, from a 1938 documentary about the Wartburg Orphanage,
oddly evokes "The Sound of Music" thunderstorm scene. 

*In 1979, the Wartburg closed its doors.

See posts November 2, 2015; December 21, 2015; May 18, 2016.