Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Young Businessman, Father of Two

Flyer mentioning Kyrle Elkin, 1951
(Brooklyn College Archives)

Through one of those surprising historical leaps, while growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., I conversed occasionally with a man who had known and worked with W.E.B. Du Bois.

This man was a good friend of my parents named Kyrle Elkin, tall and soft-spoken with a large mustache; always wore a black suit. He lived with his wife Lillian – elegant, thin, long red hair in a braid – in a Dutch Colonial house set on a slight rise up from the street. Both were born in New York City in 1915, which made them just over a decade older than my parents give or take a few years.

W.E.B. Du Bois, born in 1868, wrote The Souls of Black Folk in which he famously declared, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” The first African-American to earn a PhD from Harvard, he co-founded the NAACP and edited its journal, The Crisis, for 24 years. Until his death in 1963, Du Bois challenged racism and poverty all over the globe and advocated for human rights and world peace.

I didn’t know about Mr. Elkin’s connection to Du Bois or frankly much about Du Bois until many years later when the second volume of David Levering Lewis’s biography of him won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. Then my father told me he remembered his friend’s involvement with Du Bois but said they hardly spoke about it. By that time his friend was dead. 

Kyrle Elkin grew up in Queens, Brooklyn, and The Bronx, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant who worked as a salesman and later owned a hardware store. His mother, born in the United States, was a bookkeeper. They must have been enormously proud of their son when he was admitted to Harvard in 1936. I speculate that his pacifism and commitment to social justice emerged during the late 1930s although Lewis states he came to organized politics through Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign.

In 1950, Du Bois agreed to chair a new organization called the Peace Information Center whose five officers included Kyrle Elkin as treasurer. The group’s first task was to promote the newly-written Stockholm Peace Appeal which petitioned the United States to undergo nuclear disarmament. We were barely into the Korean War.

After Secretary of State Dean Acheson denounced the Stockholm Peace Appeal as Communist propaganda, the Department of Justice demanded that the PIC register “as an agent of a foreign principal within the United States.” At that point, Du Bois and his four colleagues decided to dissolve the PIC but the government would not permit it. Indicted and arraigned in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, each would pay $10,000 and serve five years in jail if convicted.

With the formation of the National Committee to Defend Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and Associates, support grew for the principals of the now-disbanded PIC. Albert Einstein, for example, testified on behalf of Du Bois. In November 1951 the charges were dismissed.

By the time my parents met Kyrle Elkin, a decade had passed since the PIC trial. The former defendant was now a successful hardware manufacturer. Since we didn't have a television, my family went to the Elkins’ house to watch President Kennedy’s funeral. 

I remember Mr. Elkin sitting on his screened porch just before a summer thunderstorm while the war escalated in Vietnam and Mount Vernon’s residents battled over integrating the city’s public schools.



  1. Do we know who the first African-American woman was to get a Phd at Harvard?

    1. Harvard doesn't make it easy to find out. But it is complicated because 1963 was the first year that women received degrees from Harvard instead of Radcliffe. It looks like the first African-American woman earned a BA from Radcliffe in 1898.


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