Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Wanamaker, Ogden, Whalen & Powell: A Story about Race

Wanamaker's at Astor Place, 1920s

In 1928, 200,000 black people resided in New York City and 250 of them were employees of the department store known as Wanamaker’s.  

Founded by John Wanamaker in Philadelphia in 1876, the same year as the nation’s centennial, the store had employed African-Americans after Reconstruction and into the Jim Crow era.  Wanamaker’s devout Christianity led him to believe in racial equality – to the extent that the times permitted.

John Wanamaker

The brilliant entrepreneur was also influenced by his friend Robert Curtis Ogden, who joined Wanamaker’s soon after it opened and conceived of the store’s innovative advertising and marketing schemes. 

Robert C. Ogden had been committed to the education of black Americans since 1874, when he joined the board of the Hampton Institute.  The Institute, established after the Civil War as a teachers’ training school, provided agricultural and industrial education – although little in the way of academics – to freed slaves. *

Nature study brochure
Hampton Institute, 1908

In 1896, Ogden moved from Philadelphia to New York City to manage a new branch of Wanamaker’s located downtown near Astor Place.   

There he drew admiration from black employees who soon formed the Robert Curtis Ogden Association of the John Wanamaker Store.  Its purpose was to celebrate the achievements of the store’s black employees; for example, the association awarded annual prizes for achievement in musical composition and performance.

In 1905 Wanamaker and Ogden addressed the National Negro Business League, founded by the educator Booker T. Washington to support black-owned businesses.  Their remarks received flattering reviews in the New York Age, one of the nation’s foremost African-American newspapers.

Robert Curtis Ogden

But contemporary scholars note that the speeches were patronizing and that both men denied the existence of systematic racism.  Further, it is now evident that Wanamaker’s nonwhite employees were rarely promoted. They remained in menial jobs behind the scenes with the exception of elevator operators.  

However, the store’s employment practices were tolerant compared to other businesses.

After World War I, for example, white veterans lobbied the Fifth Avenue department stores to fire black elevator operators and give them the jobs instead.  Saks and Best & Co. obliged but Wanamaker’s and Bloomingdale’s did not buckle.

One could argue that Wanamaker and Ogden were racists, yet they rose above the shameful standards of the day.

John Wanamaker died in 1922, by which time his son Rodman had complete control of the company.  While Rodman’s three passions were music, aviation, and American Indian culture, he continued the work of the Ogden Association and the store’s relatively liberal hiring policy.

Everything changed when Rodman Wanamaker died in March 1928 and a glad-hander named Grover Whalen, a longtime store employee who had been one of Rodman’s assistants, stepped into the top position.

Perpetually doffing a homburg hat, Whalen dabbled in everything: politics, public relations, ceremonies.  He did have some good ideas such as the creation of WNYC, the city’s radio station.  Also, he was a fabulous greeter of General Pershing, Charles A. Lindbergh, and numerous famous people who visited New York.

But he wasn’t great for Wanamaker’s.  Just a few months after Whalen stepped in, the New York Age ran a front-page story about a change in the store's longstanding policy.

It turned out that a white woman customer had observed employees eating together in the integrated company cafeteria and complained to management.  Whalen immediately issued an order to segregate the lunchroom.  In protest, black employees began eating in local restaurants rather in the cafeteria, but Whalen remained unbowed.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, Grover Whalen could not resist the call of City Hall.  Within a few months he was gone from Wanamaker’s, having accepted the job of Police Commissioner offered to him by playboy Mayor Jimmy Walker.   

“There is plenty of law at the end of a nightstick,” declared Whalen.  Communists and bootleggers counted among his many targets.

Over time, Whalen’s views on race might have evolved.  But they did not. 

In his autobiography, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the first black member of the U.S. House of Representatives, recalled visiting Whalen around 1935 just after the former police commissioner had been named chair of the New York World’s Fair Corporation.  The fair would open in 1939.

We went to ask him for employment for qualified Negro people.  He offered us token jobs.  We refused them.  The slogan of the fair was “Building the World of Tomorrow,” and I can remember telling Grover Whalen: “You cannot have a World of Tomorrow from which you have excluded colored people.”

Mr. Whalen, suave and urbane, smiled beneath his carefully trimmed mustache and said, “I do not see why the world of today or tomorrow of necessity has to have colored people playing an important role.”

“A loss shared by all New Yorkers,” came the cry when Whalen died in 1962.  Even though the language is boilerplate, it’s still hard to choke down.

Grover Whalen (second from left) greets Charles Lindbergh
(facing camera) at the Manhattan Bridge in June 1927

*The Hampton Institute (now Hampton University in Hampton, VA) and the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University in Alabama) were denounced in some quarters for providing what critics considered the equivalent of a grammar-school education.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Gun Hill Road

215 East Gun Hill Road, The Bronx, 1940
(from the NYC property tax photos of 1940)

My computer always warns me not to capitalize the word “The” in “The Bronx,” but I know it’s wrong.  My father, a proud Bronx boy, always had the last word in the matter.  Thus, after receiving our childhood gifts, my brother and I addressed all thank you notes to our grandparents at 215 East Gun Hill Road, The Bronx, New York.

They had moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the Art Deco-ish building sometime during the mid-1930s. My father and his brother grew up there.

Building entrance, 2010s

Gun Hill Road has existed for more than 200 years.  It gets its name from a Revolutionary War skirmish in which the colonists hauled a cannon to the top of a hill and fired on the British.  That occurred in the middle of winter in 1777. 

Well over a century later, in 1898, New Yorkers voted to consolidate the five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island) into the City of New York.  Consequently, vast swaths of land in The Bronx suddenly became valuable and made many a real estate fortune.

By 1905 there was subway service from Manhattan to The Bronx.  In 1917, Gun Hill Road became a stop on the IRT line. 

My grandparents’ neighborhood drew Catholics and Jews who had enough money to flee Manhattan, leaving behind the crowded streets and tenements.  They craved space, trees, and air.

Still, every day my grandfather took the subway back to Manhattan.  He was in the fur business, a trade he had brought with him from Lithuania in 1914. 

Until the 1980s, the fur business was big business.

In his Eastern European accent, he told a story about his family’s fur shop in Vilnius.  One day, the Cossacks rode up to the front of the store, dismounted their horses, and stormed inside. 

“Give us the furs!” they told his grandmother. 

“Never!” she cried. 

Again: “Give us the furs!” 


She flung her body across the minks that were piled on a table.  The soldiers shot her to death.      

My brother and I liked to hear this story and our grandfather seemed to like telling it to us.

At the time that my grandfather arrived in the United States, manufacturing was scattered all over Manhattan rather than consigned to one area.  You could find all kinds of industry from the southern tip of the island up to 59th Street and farther north along the East Side.

But in 1916, the same year that urban reformers pushed through the nation’s first citywide zoning code, local businessmen formed The Committee to Save New York.  The idea was to consolidate industry below 32nd Street and west of Sixth Avenue.  This would have the effect of restoring uptown real estate values for businesses and homeowners. 

Surprisingly, everyone got on board.  Within a few years, most garment manufacturers had moved their factories and sweatshops to the new industrial district.  The fur shops, clustered around Seventh Avenue at 28th Street, became part of it, too.

Within that small area, my grandfather moved around a lot: 214 West 28th to 150 West 28th to 52 West 22nd to 67 West 23rd.  These buildings have all been demolished except for a four-story brownstone walk-up built in 1851 when Franklin Pierce was president.   

Since my grandfather created designs for fur shops and department stores, he did not need to have a vault and a showroom – just enough space for worktables and the tools of the trade.  He might have needed refrigeration for the furs. 

He did well until the Davy Crockett craze of the late 1950s, when he jumped in late and ended up with too many raccoon tails.

My grandparents circa 1945

When my grandfather came home to Gun Hill Road, he sat down in one of the easy chairs zipped into plastic, smoked a cigar, and watched television while my grandmother fussed around him.

On her left leg she had a large brown birthmark, so visible that a bureaucrat noted it in her naturalization papers.  The mark strongly resembled a stain in their bathroom sink that was caused by a long-running leaky faucet.  The child’s mind insisted that there had to be a connection between the stain and the birthmark, but what was it?

Occasionally my parents went away for the weekend and left my brother and me with our grandparents.  If the day was warm, we would all walk over to the “Oval,” a large park built during the New Deal on the site of an old reservoir.  We’d sit on a bench while bicycles and balls flew by.

Construction of the "Oval" during the 1930s

Back in the apartment, in a corner of the second bedroom, a battered wooden rack held a couple of old magazines.  One was an issue of Look with a big story about Jackie Kennedy, commemorating one year since the president’s assassination. 

I liked to sit on the wooden floor with the window half-open, the breeze moving the curtains, looking at the pictures. 

Even then, it surprised me that my grandmother held onto the worn magazine, for she spent a lot of time clearing closets and tossing out anything that was past its prime. 

She wanted everything to be new with no reminders of the old country in the apartment on Gun Hill Road.