This is the story of the Cockburns, who bought property and built a house in Edgemont Hills in Westchester County, New York only to find out they were not legally allowed to reside in it. But that is only part of the story. Joshua and Pauline Cockburn belonged to a unique community of Afro-Caribbean seafarers. They were part of a mixed race community that resided throughout the port cities of The British Empire.
In 1937, an important case involving the validity of racist deed covenants was heard at the New York State Supreme Court in White Plains. The case involved a lawsuit brought against Mrs. Pauline T. Cockburn by Mrs. Marion A. Ridgway of the Edgemont Hills neighborhood in Greenburgh, New York. According to an article in The New York Times dated May 23, 1937, Ridgway sued her neighbor, Pauline T. Cockburn, because Cockburn had violated a common deed covenant attached to neighborhood properties.
The covenant stated that “No part of said parcels shall ever be leased, sold, rented, conveyed or given to Negroes or any persons of the Negro race or blood, except that colored servants may be maintained on the premises.” This covenant is representative of the hostility to the Great Migration by white Americans in the North. In this case scientific racism, the idea that racial qualities are inherent in a person’s blood was used to ensure that no one with any hereditary relationship to Negroes could own or use the property.
Pauline and her husband Joshua belonged to an interracial seafaring community that had developed during the 19th century in dockside areas throughout the British Empire. The nexus of this unique community was located in Liverpool, England, where the Cockburns were married in 1911. On their marriage certificate, Joshua had listed his occupation as Master of Foreign Going Ships. He went on to command a ship in Great Britain’s West African Cameroon Campaign in 1916, and in 1920 had become the first captain of Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Shipping Line. The two men had a serious falling out during the summer of 1920.
According to The New York Times, on March 23, 1923, Cockburn was a witness at Marcus Garvey’s trial when the United States Government charged Garvey with mail fraud. Garvey was jailed and later deported while Joshua Cockburn became a wealthy Harlem real estate operator. Garvey maintained that Cockburn’s stake in his real estate business came from money he had made from illicit transactions while he had served as Garvey’s captain. Newspapers often reported the Cockburn’s activities during the twenties and thirties.
An article in The New York Times reported that Joshua made a $5,000 contribution towards the construction of The Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in memory of his only son, who had died and been buried at sea. He had done so by donating through the committee of the Episcopal Church of St.Phillip in Harlem. Joshua Cockburn also donated a large silver cup to the New York Tennis Association in 1926, and the Cockburn Cup Tennis matches became an annual interstate tennis tournament in upper Manhattan. They were still being held the year the Cockburn trial took place. The Cockburns were also listed in the society pages of African-American newspapers and the business pages of the New York Times and the Yonkers Herald Statesman. Joshua and Pauline Cockburn established the Pauline Realty Company.
During the late 1930s, Joshua purchased the Old Tree Inn in Yonkers with two female business partners and opened Harlem’s first post-Prohibition liquor store. According to the 1940 census, Pauline Cockburn listed her occupation as “retail liquor,” so it is safe to assume that she worked at or operated the store. At his trial for mail fraud, Marcus Garvey had accused Joshua Cockburn of putting his realty business in his wife Pauline’s name because he had obtained the money for it illegally. The tradition of the seafaring community the Cockburn’s belonged to provides another explanation.
Although The Cockburns had been married in Liverpool they were originally from The Bahamas. West Indian mariners did not have the means to use banks in the larger, often racist communities they resided in. Therefore they developed communal cooperative systems in which they loaned each other money or pooled their money together. The West Indian community in Harlem was renowned for its frugality. According to Marcus Garvey’s second wife Amy Jacques Garvey West Indian families founded cooperatives in which groups of people pooled their money together to buy real estate. A standard practice was for the men to give the cooperative money to their wives who acted as bankers for the cooperative. This might also explain why Pauline Cockburn’s name is the only name listed on the Edgemont Hills Property’s Pauline Cockburn originally purchased the Edgemont Hills property on April 16, 1933. She and her husband Joshua built a $20,000 home there and moved in on December, 31, 1936. Marion Ridgway explained to the press that she thought she had purchased a home in a “very exclusive neighborhood.” Pauline Cockburn was reported by the Times to be “extremely light skinned“. She later testified in court that her mother was Italian and her father had some “Negro blood.” On her marriage certificate Pauline’s father is listed as Ernest Bethel and his occupation was Mariner. The Bethels and Joshua Cockburn were citizens of an interracial seafaring community that did not regard racial differences as a deterrent to a good marriage. It must have been painful for the Cockburn’s to have their identity called into question over a home that they had built on property they had paid for four years earlier. In The United States, a nation that purported itself to be the land of the free, The Cockburns were being charged with purchasing a home in a community where they were only welcome as servants due to their ancestry.
The Cockburns had an excellent defense team. Arthur Garfield Hays of the American Civil Liberties Union was lead counsel; his assistant counsel was a young N.A.A.C.P. attorney named Thurgood Marshall. Their goal was to call into question the fact that the United States had no legal definition of what a “Negro” actually was. Hays hoped to prove that deed covenants were invalid in New York State because the term Negro could not be defined.
On March, 4, 1933, the New York Age reported that Hays had written Walter White, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed secretary of the N.A.A.C.P, to explain why he wanted to try the case:
I do not quite understand why the question has never been raised before, but it is about time that someone raised the point that there are practically no Negroes in The United States. You people call yourselves Negroes just like a lot of us call ourselves Jews, who come from a certain race and belong to a minority group. In other words, we are not willing to desert an oppressed group even if we have the opportunity to do it. Nobody knows what a Negro is, even Negroes themselves, any more than anyone knows what a Jew is, and I’d like to be helpful in getting the courts to do away with artificial distinctions among people of the human race.
In his 1942 autobiography City Lawyer Hays states that, “for illustrative purposes, on the first day of the trial a large number of light skinned Negroes and an equally large number of dark Italians.” His goal was to demonstrate that color alone could not be a determining factor with regard to a person’s race.
Marion Ridgway sought an injunction to force the Cockburns from their home at the New York State Supreme Court on February 1, 1937. Pauline Cockburn was the only person named in the suit because Joshua’s name had not been listed on the deed. Ridgway and her attorney Morris Orenstein asked Judge Raymond E. Aldrich to issue an injunction to prevent the Cockburns from residing at their home in Edgemont Hills.
Indicative of the world situation during the late 1930s, Attorney Hays referenced Nazi Germany. The Yonkers Herald Statesman reported on February 2, 1937, that he had argued, “No one but the Nazis of Germany can be certain about a race.” Jews had been denied their citizenship rights in Germany since 1934. The headline in The Herald Statesman’s stated the goal of the Cockburn’s defense team: “Supreme Court Asked to Rule on Question: What is Negro?”
The New York Times reported February 10, 1937, that Justice Aldrich refused to grant the injunction against the Cockburns, stating that to do so “might very well be a gross injustice.” The trial began in March. Arthur Garfield Hays of the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) was better-known than Thurgood Marshall in 1937. He had participated in the Scopes trial and many other civil rights cases during the twenties and thirties, and Hays was passionate about making the United States Government and its state governments honor the Bill of Rights. His 1928 book Let Freedom Ring detailed the myriad ways those sacred rights were dishonored by state and federal authorities on a daily basis. Hays argued that the Cockburns had every right to live in Edgemont Hills because the plaintiffs could not prove that they were Negroes. Hays believed that the individual and individual rights were sacred. He took the Cockburn’s case because the racist deed covenant attached to their property denied them this sacred right.
Hays and Marshall put Columbia Professor Dr. Otto Klineberg on the witness stand to make their case that the Cockburns could not truly be considered Negroes. According to The Yonkers Herald Statesman of March 23, 1937, Klineberg testified that 70% of the people in the United States classified as Negroes by the census were actually
mixtures of several different races. Morris Orenstein then cross-examined Klineberg. He asked Joshua Cockburn to stand and said, “Would you say this man was a Negro?”
“I would guess he is about three-quarter Negro,” Dr.Klineberg answered.
“Undoubtedly Captain Cockburn has Negro ancestry , but whether he would qualify as a member of the Negro race I could not state and neither do I believe could anybody else.”
Dr.Klineberg then amplified his statement by pointing out that in the same family blood brothers and sisters may differ markedly, some having distinct Negro characteristics and some lacking them almost entirely.
Hays then asked Joshua Cockburn if he thought he was a Negro.
“I don’t know,” Cockburn replied.
Arthur Garfield Hays relates in his autobiography that at that point Justice Lee Parsons Davis turned to Hays, and interjected, “Don’t you think he is trifling with the court, Mr. Hays?”
Hays explained to the judge that he had instructed his client to answer the question in the negative to prove the defense team’s contention that Negro is an uncertain term with no legal basis. Although some Southern states did provide criteria for determining if a person had Negro blood, the state of New York did not.
Justice Lee Parsons Davis was serving his first term as a New York State Supreme Court Justice. He had been a successful attorney for many years. While serving as the Prosecutor for Weschester County he had sent 35 men to the electric chair. After becoming a defense attorney he took part in many celebrated cases during the 1920s.
Two of those trials involved persons of mixed racial backgrounds. In the Rhinelander trial of 1925, Davis had successfully prevented a former maid, Alice Rhinelander, from having to have her marriage to a wealthy New York aristocrat annulled because she was found to have Negro blood. Davis had won the case by having Alice disrobe in front of the all white male jury to prove that one could tell she had Negro blood, if they looked closely enough. Alice Rhinelander’s parents had married in England, her father was dark skinned and her mother was white. Davis later won an annulment trial for a Westchester socialite who had married a baggage handler with Negro blood. In both cases he had successfully argued that one could tell a person of Negro ancestry simply by looking at them.
In the case of Professor Klineberg’s testimony during The Cockburn Trial, Davis said he would reserve judgment. After realizing that his primary argument of “What is a Negro?” had failed to persuade judge Davis, Hays put Norman W. Zaubler, president of the Certified Homes Corporation, on the stand. The Mt. Vernon Daily Argus reported on March 23, 1937 that Zaubler testified that Joshua Cockburn had told him he would surround his home with guns after hearing that the other residents of the Edgemont Hills neighborhood were hostile to his presence there. Hays got Zaubler to admit that he had unsuccessfully bid for the Cockburn’s building contract back in 1933. He asserted that the developer had been responsible for generating hostility towards the Cockburn’s presence in Edgemont Hills out of spite. The New York Times of March 23, 1937 reported that Hays also charged that Marion Ridgway and Zaubler had been involved in an attempt to force the Cockburns to buy more property from them. Residents of the Edgemont Hills neighborhood had packed the courtroom because they wanted to see the deed covenant honored. They asserted that the Cockburns presence would reduce their property values.
Arthur Garfield Hays conceded that this was true, but that other considerations such as the Cockburn’s civil rights under the 13th and 14th amendments should have taken precedent.
In an article in The New York Times, it reported Justice Davis’s 1,600-word ruling on June 8,1937. Davis found for Marion Ridgway on all counts. He found that Pauline Cockburn had not admitted that she had Negro blood when she purchased her property in Edgemont Hills.
Davis found no conflict with the deed covenant and the 14th amendment to the constitution.
He wrote: “There can be no doubt that the defendant is partly “colored.” She considers herself an octoroon; that is , a person with one-eighth Negro-blood. She concedes that she belongs to the “colored race” and has in the past called herself a “colored person.’ Her husband, Joshua Cockburn is concededly a “colored man.” The proof indicates that he has at least three-quarters Negro blood. In every outward appearance he is what would be called, in common speech, a Negro. There is no reflection whatever on the character of either the defendant or her husband, nothing to indicate they are anything other than an entirely respectable couple. The plaintiff brings this action simply to enforce a covenant, and asks an injunction restraining the defendant and others assisting her from using or occupying the premises.”
The law was clear. The deed covenant attached to the Cockburn’s property said that Negroes could only reside there as servants and could not own or otherwise use the property. Since Justice Davis did not agree with the defense team’s argument that the Cockburn’s could not be considered Negroes because New York State had no definition of Negro, the case was lost. Arthur Garfield Hays states in his autobiography that the Cockburns were able to remain in their home in Edgemont Hills. The plaintiffs knew he planned to appeal the verdict and that if he won it would be “ an invitation for colored people to flock to the section involved. Consequently our opponents never entered an order on the judge’s decision and the Cockburns are still living in Scarsdale.” (Although Edgemont Hills is located in Greenburgh it has the neighboring town of Scarsdale’s address and post office).
A 1941 New York Age society page entry states that the Cockburns hosted a New York society couple at their home in Westchester. Joshua Cockburn died in 1942 at the age of 62. In 1946 the Town of Greenburgh got into a dispute with Pauline Cockburn over its desire to build a sewer line on a corner of her Fort Hill Road property. She asked for $2,000, but the town refused and “began condemnation proceedings.” An easement was listed in the land records for Westchester County in 1946. In 1949 the Town of Greenburgh purchased the Cockburn’s home. It is reasonable to conjecture that the property was taken due to non- payment of taxes. A year earlier, the United States Supreme Court had ruled that racist deed covenants attached to residential properties were not legally enforceable. The justices’ reasoning in the 1948 decision was much like the reasoning that Hays and Marshall tried to use during the 1937 case. Racial terms such as “Negro” had no legal definition in the United States, so legal documents listing them could not be enforced by the courts.
In 1953 a California case much like the Cockburns’ case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. This time, the outcome was the complete opposite: the justices ruled six to one that the racist covenant was invalid. On June 16, 1953 The New York Times quoted Thurgood Marshall’s response to the decision: “This case is a natural sequel to the other restrictive covenant cases. We are quite sure that we can meet other attempts to circumvent these decisions. On the other hand we are certain that die-hard white supremacists will come forth with some other ingenious scheme which we will have to meet. We will not stop until Negroes are entirely free to live wherever they have the money to buy or rent. Although a battle had been won, Marshall recognized that the war was ongoing. One year later, Thurgood Marshall successfully argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that led to the Supreme Court decision that ruled that segregation in public education was unconstitutional. Research conducted by Dr. Otto Klineberg that compared the achievement of Negroes who were educated in the South with that of Negroes educated in the North was instrumental in helping to convince the members of the Warren Court that people of color were harmed by segregation in education. The court found that the 14th amendment was violated by segregation in public education.
Pauline Cockburn eventually moved to Pawtucket Rhode Island. She passed away in 1967, one year before the Federal Fair Housing Act made racially restrictive deed covenants illegal.
The Cockburn’s house in Edgemont Hills is still there. Today it is valued at over $800,000. A ship’s anchor is mounted upon a large rock facing the street at the edge of the property. Perhaps the anchor is a testament to a life of seafaring within a unique community.