About

This blog is a repository for articles about 20th Century civil rights issues in Scarsdale, New York before the Civil Rights Act was passed. It has developed organically based on the stories I have researched and retold. Ten years ago I came across a 1961 New York Times front page story about The Reverend George F.Kempsell, Jr., the Scarsdale Parish Rector who excommunicated certain members of his parish for an act of anti-Semitism involving a local debutante ball at the country club they belonged to. This fascinated me because I had been told that the club I had grown up at had at one time discriminated against Jews.Here was the incident that started to change all that, which in fact was a pattern of behavior that had existed in the town throughout the 20th Century. While researching the Holly Ball story I found out about The Concert for the Freedom Riders at Scarsdale High School in 1962 and the controversy that it caused. For both of these stories I was able to interview people involved in the events. Edgemont Historian Louise Clark invited me to visit The Episcopal Church of St.James the Less. During that visit she spoke about Father William C. Kernan, the man who help lead a McCarthey like anti-Communist crusade against the Scarsdale Public School system during the early 1950’s. I was fascinated to learn that Kernan had been an enthusiastic supporter of The New Deal and an active anti-fascist during the 1930’s. The story of The Cockburn’s deed covenant trial in 1937 revealed many fascinating details about he perception of race during the first half of the 20th century,many of them shameful and unsavory today but perfectly acceptable to those in power at the time. Once I learned that Joshua Cockburn had been a sea captain who had sailed for Marcus Garvey’s ill fated Black Star Shipping Line I left the cozy confines of my old hometown to follow Cockburn from The Bahamas in the late 19th century to British West Africa in the early 20th Century. In 1918 Joshua brought his wife Pauline and their 4 year old son Joshua Percival Cockburn to New York. The Cockburn’s son died at sea, most likely from an illness. Cockburn himself went to work for Marcus Garvey. In fact Cockburn made The Black Star Line a reality by finding a steamship for Garvey to purchase. Although I have learned much about Cockburn’s life I still do not know what kind of a man he was. Was he a decent self made man who overcame great obstacles to become a British licensed Ship Master and a successful real estate magnate or was he a self serving huckster who misrepresented himself to suit whatever situation he found himself in? Was he both? Whichever he was he most likely laid the groundwork for Rum Row, the informal fleet of ships flying foreign flags that anchored three miles of the east coast of the United States to sell booze during Prohibition. Rum Row revitalized the British Whiskey Industry and ignited the economy of Cockburn’s land of origin, The Bahamas. He was an interesting man, someone who should not be forgotten. When he and his wife Pauline were sued for violating a racist deed covenant in Edgemont Hills they became part of what I like to call The Secret History of Scarsdale: The story of outsiders who lived in one of the richest towns in America but did not fit in because they brought attention to the fact that the town’s pastoral ideal of life in a safe, clean, cultured community within shouting distance of Manhattan was not open to everyone.

 

9 responses to “About

  1. Poignant, truthful tale of our collective history. Thank you for telling it, so we don’t forget.

  2. Thomas, I’d like to publish your piece about Seeger and the Freedom Riders protest next week. Would that be OK?

    • Of course. If you see anything else you like you can publish those too. The Holly Ball story led to many other great stories all tangentially connected by the fact that Americans before the civil rights era tended to view themselves as members of specific religious/ethnic groups and were often hostile to those they considered outsiders.

  3. Fran Howe

    Thomas
    I have learned so much from reading your journey about our earlier history.
    Made more interesting by your following your leads and interests.
    thanks
    Fran

  4. vineyardlaborer

    Wonderful blog. We need a post now about Baltimore MD., Ferguson, MO, North Charleston SC, Eric Garner in New York City. We have not made much progress I fear when police can murder citizens willy nilly.

  5. I grew up in Edgemont and had always heard about some Scarsdale homes having clauses against selling to Jews. I teach American Jewish History in a local afternoon religious school; before mentioning it to my students, I decided to do a quick online search. Though it’s not a confirmation of that rumor, I am so happy to learn the story of Joshua and Pauline Cockburn. I suspect that the Cockburns’ plight, and the role played by Attorney Hays, is a much better exemplar of local civil-rights history.

    Some of my students drive past Cockburn’s anchor daily. Now they’ll have something to think about!

    • Thanks for reading Melissa. You must read Costly Grace about St James the Less Rector’s George French Kempsell’s stand against Anti-Semitism in 1961. That really opened up discussion about W.A.S.P. hostility towards Jews in Scarsdale and led to a new way of thinking about inter-faith cooperation in town.

  6. I will certainly do so.

    I’ve just spent some time reading some other posts here, and they are very interesting. Perhaps more so since I’m simultaneously listening to a joint press conference being given by President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

    Coincidentally, I was at the UNIA Hall in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on Marcus Garvey Day last August. My mother’s family owned a home on the same street, and some of the old-timers fondly remembered the Jewish community there.

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