Category Archives: Civil Rights in Scarsdale-Westchester County- New York

All of these articles pertain in one way or another to civil rights issues in Scarsdale, NY and its environs from 1900 to 1963.

Rachel Vardi: Local Leader

Rachel Vardi is a resident of Edgemont who has developed a Curriculum about The 1937 Cockburn’s Deed Covenant Trial and Joshua Cockburn’s life for Edgemont Junior/Senior High School’s eighth grade students. She was a rising sophomore (remote learning at the time) during the summer of 2020 when she first learned of my work. Rachel was interested in learning about Edgemont’s connection to Black History as a result of her interest in The Black Lives Matter Movement. In an effort to learn more about her town’s history with the Black community, she discovered my website.

At first Rachel attempted to name the Edgemont school auditorium after the Cockburns, as well as include a history display case outside of it. Like many Edgemont residents she had noticed the anchor on Fort Hill Road, but now that she knew there was a story of racial injustice attached to it she was hopeful her efforts would help forge a connection for Edgemont students to learn about a part of American History that is mostly unknown. Rachel offered an explanation for why Cockburn’s story was important to her: “It is important that our community learns about our past. It is only by increasing education of our unjust past that we can move forward together in order to create a more inclusive future. ” Though Rachel was unable to name the auditorium in the face of school policies, she came to believe a school curriculum would, after all, be a much more beneficial outcome. She worked with the school’s administration to push the idea forward and presented her proposal in front of the entire faculty to get their support. Rachel devised a three day curriculum that she taught to Edgemont eighth graders. She is going to be a senior at Edgemont High this year (2022-2023), so Edgemont’s middle school teachers will carry on with the curriculum about the Cockburns after she departs Edgemont for college.

Rachel is thrilled that her community has dedicated the time and resources to continue to educate students about Edgemont’s history. Rachel also has begun to work with the Director of Westchester Center for Racial Equity in order to expand her curriculum past just the Edgemont school district. She is currently working on a curriculum for elementary school students at the Westchester YMCA, and has already presented to high school students there as well. Writers need readers and I am pleased to have a person like Rachel discover my work and use it to educate young people about important stories like The Cockburn’s Deed Covenant Trial and Joshua Cockburn’s life before the trial. In an era of increasing censorship of civil rights history and stories about that history, Rachel Vardi is shedding light on darkness. Thank You, Rachel.

1 Comment

Filed under 20th Century Civil Rights Incidents in Westchester County New York, Civil Rights in Scarsdale-Westchester County- New York, Joshua Cockburn

Red Barber’s Moment of Truth: How a Radio Talk about St.Paul’s Message of Brotherhood helped him see the light about the Integration of Major League Baseball, with assists from Branch Rickey and Lylah Barber.


{Information |Description=Publicity photo of sportscaster Red Barber with wife Lylah and daughter Sarah, 1950. |Source=[

Red Barber is an American Icon. He was one of America’s first great sports radio broadcasters. During the fall he could be heard broadcasting the biggest college football games. During the Spring and summer, he was the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees. Barber’s folksy southern vernacular has even been immortalized in literature (James Thurber’s The Catbird Seat 1952). According to author Robert W. Creamer:

For all Barber’s Southern accent and country idiom (tearin’ up the pea patch, walkin’ in tall cotton, sittin’ in the catbird seat) he fit New York. He was sharp and intelligent, a thoroughly modern, refreshing broadcaster whose straightforward way of reporting the action attracted not only Dodger fans but baseball fans in general. (Creamer, Baseball in 41 p.55).

In the fall of 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Larry MacPhail left to join the army. His replacement was Branch Rickey, one of the most influential men in baseball history. Branch Rickey had presided over many successful seasons in St.Louis where he had run the St.Louis Cardinals. It was Rickey who created a minor league farm system for the Cardinals, which allowed the team to sign and develop young talent which could be kept under team control. Branch Rickey was a T-Totaler. He did not drink and he refused to attend baseball games on Sundays. He was a deeply religious man who spent a great deal of his limited spare time speaking at churches. Ever since he had been a college coach at Ohio Wesleyan University, Rickey had a strong sense of shame about baseball’s unwritten color line. No person of color had suited up for a major league baseball team. Although there was no specific rule against hiring players of color, it was commonly accepted that Major League Baseball was for white players only. Baseball players of color, whether African-American, Hispanic, or from the Caribbean Islands had to play in the segregated Negro Leagues. In this way, baseball mirrored American Society, which had made segregation legal with the Plessy V. Ferguson Supreme Court Ruling in the late 19th Century.

Red Barber was excited to work for Mr.Rickey as he liked to call him. Red lived with his wife Lylah and their daughter Sarah in Scarsdale, New York. Branch Rickey and his wife had moved to nearby Bronxville after he took the job with the Dodgers. The Rickey’s invited the Barbers over for a Sunday lunch. The Barbers and the Rickeys got along very well. But Red later realized that Branch Rickey had invited Red and Lylah over for a reason:

He wanted to know my wife. He knew good and well that, over and above what I thought, the wife I was married to had an influence over me, and he wanted to know what that influence was. (Ruhbarb in the Catbird Seat, Barber and Creamer, p. 254).

The importance of this Sunday luncheon revealed itself a few months later. It was Branch Rickey who convinced Red Barber that his stature as the radio voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers could be used to do good works. Red soon found himself the principal fundraiser for the Red Cross Blood Drive. This was very important work at any time but during World War II it was crucial. Red would later say that his work for the Red Cross was what he was proudest of during his time in Brooklyn.

He and Branch Rickey attended a meeting for The Brooklyn Red Cross. The meeting ran late so the two men walked to Joe’s Restaurant a Brooklyn Landmark across from the Dodger’s offices. The two men sat in a booth all alone in the back of the restaurant. Red recalls Mr.Rickey breaking up a roll and buttering pieces of it as he informed Red of the idea that would shake up the baseball world and American society. Mr. Rickey started off by telling a story of the time he was Manager of Michigan University’s Baseball Team and had gone on a road trip to South Bend, Indiana to play Notre Dame. Michigan’s catcher was an African-American from Upper Michigan. The young man’s family were the only African-Americans in the area and he had never encountered racism before. On this day the clerk at the Oliver Hotel in South Bend refused to let the young man check in because he was black. The clerk at the desk pulled back the register and said “we do not take Negroes here.”

Branch Rickey was shocked. He could not believe this splendid young man was being denied admission to the hotel. After arguing with the clerk Rickey arranged for the man not to be checked in but to be allowed to stay in Rickey’s room. A crowd had gathered and the clerk was loud and abusive as he emphasized how it didn’t matter who the young man was with, the hotel did not admit Negroes. Rickey sent the young man upstairs so he could register the other players. When he got up to his room Mr.Rickey found the young man crying as he sat on the bed, his body wracked by his sobs. The young man kept pulling at his hands and saying “It’s my skin. If I could just tear it off I’d be like everybody else. It’s my skin. It’s my skin, Mr.Rickey.” Branch Rickey grabbed another roll, broke it, and buttered it. Red recalled the anger within this bear of a man with bushy eyebrows who stared across the table at him.

“What I’m telling you is this: there is a Negro ballplayer coming to the Dodgers… I don’t know who he is, and I don’t know where he is, and I don’t know when he’s coming. But he is coming soon, just as soon as we can find him.”

Red Barber was speechless. Rickey continued to address him.

“Needless to say,” he went on, “I have taken you into my confidence in telling you this. I have talked about it only with my family. Jane is utterly opposed to my doing it. The family is dead set against it. But I have got to do it. I must do it. I will do it. I am doing it. And now you know it.” (Barber and Creamer, pp.266-267).

When Red got home to Scarsdale, he told Lylah he would have to quit the Dodgers. The way he saw things he was a southerner and in the south, there was always a line that could not be crossed. Red thought about his mother’s family in Mississippi, his birthplace. He thought of his father, who was from North Carolina. He thought of growing up in Sanford Florida. All of his life before moving to Cinncinatti in 1934 had been spent in the segregated south. Red insisted to Lylah that he had to quit the Dodgers because Branch Rickey was determined to sign a black ballplayer. Lylah fixed him a Martini and told him to think it over. He had a dream job and a wonderful home in Scarsdale. Was he really going to throw it all away over Branch Rickey’s determination to integrate Major League Baseball?

It was around this time that Harry Price, the Rector of The Episcopal Church of St.James the Less in Scarsdale asked Red to give a radio talk built on a sentence from St.Paul about Men and Brothers. According to Red:

It was the problem of the relationship between the Jews and the non-Jews in the wealthy community of Scarsdale, New York. It was going pretty good and it still is. A lot of people forgot that Jesus was a Jew. Some embarrassingly sickening things were beginning to happen. Sad things were being said. Things were being done to children. And so the rector asked me to talk about men and brothers. You were men and brothers together, and you should get along together.

Well, when I worked out that talk I suddenly found that I wasn’t nearly so interested in the relationship between Christians and Jews, Jews and Christians as I was about the relationship between one white southern broadcaster and one unknown Negro ballplayer, who was coming.
(Barber and Creamer p. 272).

Neither Red Barber nor Branch Rickey knew Jackie Robinson at this time. But Red Barber knew that Branch Rickey would integrate major league baseball soon. Red knew that he would be the man who would be broadcasting the games in which this unknown trailblazer would play.

Two years later Jackie Robinson was playing in Montreal. In 1947 Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and made history, winning Rookie of the Year and helping the Dodgers to the National League Pennant. Off the field, Robinson’s participation and starring role in the National Pastime had ripple effects for the civil rights movement and American Society. Recalling it all in 1967 Red Barber’s overarching feeling was one of gratitude.

So if I have been able to implement to any degree the second commandment, to have concern…Well, what I am trying to say is, if there is any thanks involved, any appreciation, I thank Jackie Robinson. He did far more for me than I did for him. (Barber and Creamer p. 276)

Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract (fair use).

Author’s Note: Although Red Barber is quoted as stating that the incident at the hotel in South Bend occurred while Branch Rickey was the coach of The University of Michigan, it occurred when he was the coach of Ohio Wesleyan University. Rickey moved on to The University of Michigan the year after this incident occurred.

The young catcher Branch Rickey refers to in his story about encountering racism at the hotel in South Bend is Charles L.Thomas. He and Rickey remained friends. Charles L. Thomas became a successful dentist. He lived in St.Louis, Mo during the 1930s and visited with Rickey at The St.Louis Cardinals offices. He could not attend the Cardinals game because the lower bowl of Sportsman’s Park was segregated. Dr.Thomas later moved to New Mexico where he was one of only two licensed African-American dentists in the state. His interview with Mark Harris was published in the September 1947 issue of Negro Digest.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil Rights in Scarsdale-Westchester County- New York

Gish Jen, A Great American Novelist from Scarsdale

Scarsdale can boast of at least one great American Novelist. Gish Jen moved to Scarsdale with her family in time to attend 5th grade at Greenacres Elementary School. She graduated from Scarsdale High School in 1973. Gish has published four novels, a book of short stories and two works of non-fiction. Her most recent short story No More Maybe was published in the New Yorker last month. Ms.Jen’s second novel, Mona, in the promised land was a New York Times Notable Book in 1996. Although Gish makes it clear during interviews that her work is not autobiographical, she does not hide the fact that Scarshill, the fictional town in Mona, in the Promised land, is Scarsdale in all but name. As she explained to Bill Moyers during a 2003 interview for NPR available at her website

it’s a very, very, very, very different kind of community. For one thing. Scarsdale is predominantly Jewish. I think probably it was really maybe 40 percent Jewish. But there were enough Jews so that it was felt to be quite a Jewish community. And so they were acquainted with what it meant to be a minority. So, this was a place where a minority was sort of the majority. And of course, as a community, it was completely committed to being open and embracing and so on. It was still awkward there too in many ways. But always in well-intentioned ways. People would sort of say, “We’d love to hear more about your traditions.” Maybe I didn’t really want to talk about my traditions. But in any case, it was never mean. Nobody ever threw anything at us.

The fact that there was no violence directed at Gish and her brothers in Scarsdale was a welcome respite from their experiences in their previous Yonkers, N.Y. neighborhood. Gish’s brother was beaten up so often by bullies that their mother had him take Judo lessons. Kids sometimes threw rocks at the Jen children. This welcome change is reflected in the opening chapter of Mona, in the promised land. Gish Jen compares Mona Chang’s Chinese family and Scarsdale’s Jewish population:

For they’re the New Jews after all, a model minority and Great American Success. They know they belong in the promised land. (Jen, Mona, in the promised land 6). 

Here is a quote from Gish Jen’s Harvard University Massey Lecture on Art and Culture  in 2013 that speaks to the author’s actual experience of Scarsdale as a newly arrived fifth grader:

“And whereas the library at my old school, St.Eugene’s in Yonkers, New York, had been a donation library-a windowless one-room affair with dark, sagging shelves and listing, soft-edged discards-the library in Greenacres Elementary School had glass and air, and level, stout shelves packed with new, vertical books, every single one of which I read that first year after our move, including Albert Camus’s The Stranger– the cover of which I can still recall, with that thick-spoked  Algerian sun. (What, I remember wondering, are inexorable cries of hate?).” (Jen Tiger Writing 101).

At Scarsdale High School Lillian Jen was the editor of The Literary Review. She took the name Gish after the silent film star Lillian Gish while taking a film class at Scarsdale High School. Gish attended Harvard University and then Stanford Business School. She temporarily became the black sheep of her family when she dropped out of business school to pursue writing. Her parents did not speak to her for several months. Things improved when Gish was written up in the Chinese language newspaper The World News. Gish is married to David O’Connor. They have 2 children. She has lived in Cambridge, MA for many years. Gish credits her time in Scarsdale with helping her to become a writer:

Certainly, there were a lot of views about what a nice Chinese girl did and that did not include becoming an author, I hardly need to point out. There was a way that, if I had not grown up in Scarsdale, New York, in a culture where writing was this great thing, I don’t know that I ever would have thought to pick up a pen. So, in that way, I’m deeply grateful to the mainstream culture. (Gish Interview with Bill Moyers).

Screen Shot 2019-04-18 at 7.26.42 PM




Leave a comment

Filed under Civil Rights in Scarsdale-Westchester County- New York

Robert Dentler’s Trial by Fire: The Magowan Lawsuit

        Dr.Robert Dentler recalls in his autobiography The Looking Glass Self that when he agreed to work on desegregating The White Plains Public School system in 1964, Dr.Kenneth Clark, who had performed the famous doll test that was instrumental in convincing the Supreme Court to rule against segregation in public education in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision,  warned him that he would end up working on desegregation for the rest of his career to the exclusion of all other sociological endeavors. He was correct. The integration of The White Plains Public Schools served as a trial by fire for Dr.Dentler due to a 60 million dollar lawsuit brought against him, his employer Columbia University and The White Plains Public School District by Malcolm and Claire Cathleen Magowan. The Magowans were angry that White Plains Schools’ Superintendent Carroll F.Johnson had allowed Dr.Dentler and his associates to give their 11 year old daughter Claire and her classmates  a Racial Attitudes Test without their permission.

Superintendent Carroll F.Johnson declared  the integration of The White Plains Schools a success in 1968[1] and credited Robert Dentler and his team from The Center for Urban Studies for helping to make the transition smoothly. The Magowan’s lawsuit proved to be a trial by fire for both men. The conservative John Birch Society funded the lawsuit, which allowed it to drag on for three years. Dentler was prevented from using his racial attitudes test, a tool that would have provided valuable insight into how integration impacted the attitudes of students in The White Plains Public Schools.

According to his biography, The Looking Glass Self, Dentler took a position as Professor of Sociology at Columbia University in New York because it paid $2400 more per year than his position at Dartmouth college did[2]. His associate at Columbia, Dr.Bernard Mackler, believes that Robert Dentler needed to be in New York City because he had a passion for improving Urban Education. “Robert was born and raised in Chicago, he and I met at The University of Kansas where he was getting his Doctorate in Sociology. Robert hated Kansas. He needed to be in the city. Dartmouth was too isolated for him.”

Dentler founded The Center for Urban Studies which later became known as The Center for Urban Education (CUE). The primary focus of Dentler’s work for CUE  would be the desegregation of urban school districts. He worked for New York State Education Secretary Dr.James Allen’s taskforce to advice how to desegregate The New York City Public Schools. Dr.Kenneth Clark also served on the taskforce. Although their recommendations were not implemented Dentler was recommended by Dr.Allen to Carroll F.Johnson the Superintendent of The White Plains Public Schools, who was determined to integrate his school system.[3] 

Johnson and Dentler were like minded when it came to the issue of school integration. Johnson was born in Georgia and had witnessed first hand how segregated schools resulted in inferior education for minority students. Both Dentler and Johnson felt that it was high time to honor the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education deciscion which by 1964 was a decade old.

Dr.Dentler believed that a racial attitudes survey test was an important desegregation tool. Studies had shown that children ages 6-12 had not internalized racial prejudices of their own but did reflect attitudes learned at home. Dentler gave his own children Deborah and Eric the test. Deborah Dentler recalls feeling guilty for saying that she would not want Hungarians for neighbors because they were Communists. The question had listed ethnic groups and asked if there were any that you wouldn’t want for a neighbor. The plan was to track student answers to test questions for a five year period. The goal was to develop quantifiable data that could demonstrate the positive impact of school integration on racial attitudes of the students who were integrated.[4] One of the more alarming statistics from the data Dentler had already collected was that segregated Black and Latino students had more negative views of themselves than the white students who were surveyed did. These results, for students in the metropolitan New York area, were for students in predominantly Black and Latino schools ten years after the Brown Decision. Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll tests had found similar results and helped to sway the Warren Court to issue their ruling against segregated public education in 1954 .

On June 15,1964 Dr.Dentler and his associates from CUE gave the Racial Attitudes Test to a group of 6th graders at The Post Road School in White Plains. Young Claire Cathleen Magowan told her parents about it after school. That same evening there was a PTA meeting which Dr.Dentler attended to explain the tests. The Magowans and some other parents were very upset that the tests had been given without their knowledge or consent. Concerns about how the information gathered from the tests would be used were expressed. Dentler insisted that confidentiality would be maintained but that the tests would continue. One parent was so upset that she fainted and had to be carried out on a stretcher.[5] 

Parents later explained to reporter Mary Flynn that they were bothered by the questions on the test.[6] :

Given a Negro, a Russian, a German, a Japanese and an Irishman, Who would you like as a friend? Who would you like to have in your club? Who would you have over for dinner?

Given a Negro boy and girl and a white boy and girl, who would you sit next to on the bus?  Which one gets into trouble? Which one concentrates on Math? Which one would you play with? Which one wouldn’t you like as a friend?

Agree or Disagree

Negro children are dumber than white children.

Negro boys use more bad words than white boys.

Negro children are as smart as white children.

The parents were upset by their childrens’ reactions. Some kids felt the questions were not very nice. One child said he knew the test was about the busing. One child told his mother that one question had a picture of “two Negro kids and two regular kids.”


The White Plains chapter of the  NAACP was opposed to Dr.Dentler’s Racial Attitudes Test. In a newspaper article listed as exhibit 13 in the Magowan v Johnson, Dentler, White Plains Board of Education case states that they asked  school superintendent Dr.Caroll Johnson to destroy the tests and not use them in the future. Albert Corum, President of the NAACP Chapter for White Plains, stated that their request to see Dentler’s test was rejected. The NAACP issued this statement regarding the Racial Attitudes Test

 “ The thoughts of citizens, whatever they may be, must remain inviolate… certain questions posed to young children tended to raise doubts and give the impression of seeds of truth and formed an atmosphere of prejudice in minds that had not been conscious formerly of false stereotypes.”

Superintendent Johnson decided that the tests had to be destroyed. A Notary was hired to watch Robert Dentler burn each test on July 3, 1964. Dentler lamented the loss of valuable information. He tried to look over the tests but there was not enough time. The Magowans were not satisfied. They demanded to see the original test. Dentler refused. In May 1965 The Magowans sued him and The White Plains Public School System for 60 million dollars claiming that Dentler had planned to profit from the tests, that the tests were given without permission and violated their young daughter’s Constitutional rights.

Malcolm and Claire Magowan were not happy with Johnson’s decision to destroy the tests. They still wanted to see what the actual test looked like. Dentler notes in his autobiography that his old enemy The John Birch Society paid for the Magowan’s lawsuit. “Turning over the test would be tantamount to publishing an upcoming exam in the school newspaper,” he explained.[7]

Providing legal support for the Magowan’s lawsuit fit neatly into The John Birch Society’s playbook. This secret group of far right anti-Communists was created in 1958 by a Massachusetts candy manufacturer named Robert Welch. Renowned conservative William F.Buckley Jr. described the organization for Commentary Magazine:

Welch refused to divulge the size of the society’s membership, though he suggested it was as high as 100,000 and could reach a million. His method of organization caused general alarm. The society comprised a series of cells, no more than 20 people per cell. It was said that its members were directed to run in secret for local offices and to harass school boards and librarians on the matter of the Communist nature of the textbooks and other materials they used.[8]

Certainly Dentler’s Racial Attitudes Test qualified as “other materials”.

        The case dragged on for three years. The Magowans lost their first lawsuit but the judge allowed them to have it retried. As they waited for their case to be heard by The New York Supreme Court, Claire Magowan was quoted in The Amsterdam Recorder Sept.16, 1967:

 “All we wanted to find out was who gave the test, and we still can’t. They keep saying,’Trust us. We know what’s best for your child.’ We will find out who gave that test if we have to go all the way to the Supreme Court. They just won’t talk to us. that is all. It is sad when you have to hire an attorney to talk to the superintendent of schools. We’ve gone through all the channels. It costs a lot of money to protest. But we will see it through, regardless of what it costs.” Justice Joseph P. Hawkins presided over the Magowan’s appeal. He was sympathetic to them. Quoted in the same article for The New Amsterdam Record as Mrs.Magowan he “chided the defendants for their ‘patronizing’ approach.”[9] 

According to Dentler’s autobiography, Hawkins initially ruled in The Magowan’s favor. Dentler’s  lawyers found out that the clerk who drafted the decision, was a friend and neighbor of the Magowans. The judge ruled for the defendants. They would not be liable for the 60 million dollars demanded by the plaintiffs.

        Superintendent Johnson noted in an article he wrote about The  White Plains Public School’s Integration success that there was a small group of vocal parents who strongly opposed integration. They complained that resources that could have been allocated elsewhere were being drained by the cost of busing Negro students throughout the White Plains School District.

        The idea that the Civil Rights Movement was a Communist Conspiracy was  a fundamental tenant of the John Birch Society during the 1960’s. The year the Magowan’s filed their lawsuit, The John Birch Society set up an office in White Plains and claimed to have doubled their membership in the New York suburbs[10]. In his opposition to the plaintiffs motion to dismiss the case dated 12/27/1968, The Magowan’s attorney  Robert A. Clark asserted that there were links between Dr.Dentler’s testing plan in White Plains and Communism. He targeted the fact that Dentler’s Institute of Urban Studies received a $7800 grant from THE NEW WORLD FOUNDATION (Clark capitalized all the letters of the foundation). He found the New World Foundation’s mission statement to be concerning:

The right education for children; The relationship to life and the ethics, of industry and commerce etc… as is set forth according to its articles of incorporation which is set forth in Exhibit 2.

Clark maintained that the grant meant that Dentler had received monetary compensation for his work with the White Plains School District.  He went on to cite the reading list provided by The Institute for Urban Studies for curriculum consultation  arguing that known communists were on the list. Herbert Aptheker Secretary of the Communist Party U.S.A. was listed as the author of a book on The History of the Negro in America. W.E.B. Dubois presence on the list for his famous work The Souls of Black Folk also drew Clark’s ire. “The list ends up with W.E.B. Dubois whose ideas and beliefs need no introduction.”

        Clark entered Dr.Dentler’s 1960  doctoral dissertation Attitude Change in Volunteer Service Groups: Group Composition, Solidarity and Environment as Correlates of Change. Clark notes that the authors Dentler cites in his paper state that the best years to achieve social change are from the third through the sixth grades. This was not a secret. Dr.Dentler wanted to study children who were too young to form their own racist attitudes but were old enough to articulate racial attitudes they may have picked up from their parents.

        Attorney Clark’s concerns that integration efforts manifested by men like Caroll Johnson and Robert Dentler were a form of Communism is reflective of the great shift in Americans’ views about race and bigotry. During the early 1960’s conservative commentators openly expressed concerns that mixing people of different races or religions would hurt families because bigoted family members would not tolerate it.[11] By 1968 no one was claiming the right to be a bigot or worried about protecting those who were bigoted. Instead arch conservatives expressed the concern that external forces were forcing people to change their personal beliefs against their will. Attorney Clark interprets this as Communist in his formal complaint. The John Birch Society’s official attitude towards the civil rights movement was that it was working to create a Negro Soviet Republic in The United States.[12] 

        Ultimately, the 60 million dollar lawsuit was not about protecting young Claire Cathleen Magowan’s civil rights. It was aimed at making life difficult for those who were trying to implement the Brown v Board of Education decision ten years after it had been made.


[1] Johnson, Carroll F.  Achieving Racial Balance- -The White Plains Story. A Comprehensive Report. Jan 68.Journal Cit- School Management; v12 n1 Jan 1968.

[2] Dentler, Robert A. The Looking-Glass Self: A Memoir. Technical Publications Inc. Waltham, MA. 2002. P. 166.

[3] Dentler, p. 176.

[4] Dentler, Robert A., Elkins, Constance Intergroup Attitudes, Academic Performance, and Racial Composition, The Urban R’s: Race Relations as the Problem in Urban Education, Dentler, Robert A., Mackler, Bernard and Warhauer, Mary Ellen. Published for The Center for Urban Education by Frederick A.Praeger New York, 1967.

[5] Dentler, Robert The Looking Glass Self.

[6] Flynn, Mary, Destruction of Tests Honored, Parents Told. The Reporter Dispatch, 17 June 1964.

[7] Reporter Dispatch, Destruction of Tests… 17 June 1967

[8] Buckley, William F. Goldwater, The John Birch Society and Me. March 1, 2008. Commentary Magazine. Viewed 12/4/2016.

[9] Parents File Two Suits Over Racial Test Given Pupils,Amsterdam Recorder,  16 September, 1967. P. 18. Viewed December 4th, 2016.

[10] Birch Society Begins Big Membership Push.Knickerbocker News. P 18. Albany, New York. Fulton Viewed December 8, 2016.

[11] Sokolosky, George. “The Scarsdale Case.” Editorial. Ironwood Daily Globe [Ironwood, MI] 20 Jan. 1961: 4. Web. 30 June 2011

[12] Tabachnik, Rachel The John Birch Society’s Anti-Civil Rights Campaign of the 1960s, and Its Relevance Today. Political Research.Org. viewed December 4th, 2016.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil Rights in Scarsdale-Westchester County- New York

Robert A. Dentler Desegregationist


Dr.Robert Dentler





Memories of desegregation in Boston during the 1970’s are still raw. People forget what Boston’s public schools were like before desegregation or that Boston’s insular neighborhoods could be very dangerous to outsiders. It is fair to surmise that despite the hardships and the violence wrought by desegregation, the process enabled Boston to enter the 21st century as a more cosmopolitan city that is more inclusive and less hostile to outsiders than it was before the 1970’s.

Boston University Sociologists Dr. Robert A.Dentler and Dr.Marvin A. Scott were the  experts hired by Judge Arthur Garrity  to implement  Boston’s desegregation plan.  Dr.Scott states that Robert Dentler was comparable to the radical abolitionist John Brown with regard to Dentler’s passion for the cause of ending segregation in The United States.

In 1972 Robert Dentler had relocated to Boston University after ten years at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. Three years later Dentler was tapped by Judge Arthur Garrity to plan for the desegregation of Boston’s public school system, something the city’s leaders had avoided doing for many years. A group of parents had successfully sued the school system to force change, and the judge asked Dentler to devise a new approach to public education which would be imposed on the city by the federal court in the “remedy phase” of the lawsuit. It would prove to be a  painful process for the city but for Dentler it was the culminating experience of his professional life. He was never subjected to threats, hate mail or violence (unlike Judge Garrity and his family, who were the targets of relentless threats and bomb scares and Dr.Scott who was chased by a mob in South Boston). He was secure enough with his own life experiences and strong moral sense  that he was able to persevere with the desegregation of the Boston Public Schools despite The Boston School Committee’s intense hostility towards it and their relentless efforts to undermine it.

Robert Dentler was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1918. His father Arnold Dentler was a German immigrant and his mother Jennie was of Norweigan descent. Dentler’s parents instilled in him a  sense of moral rectitude and  a strong work ethic. Concerned that his children not experience discrimination as German-Americans, Dentler’s father banished all traces of German language and culture from their home.

After his father sent him to military school Dentler attended Northwestern University. He attended college with returning veterans from World War II, several of whom became his close friends and roommates and some of whom suffered from what would later become known as P.T.S.D.- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Although he had been to young to go to war, his beloved older brother had served in Europe. The experience of World War II and the revelations of the horrors of the death camps had changed him. He states on page 59 of his memoir:  “The end of World War II created a vacuum for some of us. A million deaths later, we were not going to be the people we were expected to be.” In Dentler’s case this meant becoming a Sociologist who devoted his life to desegregating and improving public education.

Dentler had become alienated from his father and the strict dogma of his Lutheran upbringing. He became dissatisfied with the athletic fraternity he had joined and unsure if he could continue with his studies. He wrote reams of poetry and dreamt of becoming a writer. He was fortunate to meet  a woman named Helen Hosmer during his freshman year. She encouraged his love of poetry and introduced him to more liberal religious and political views. He was able to forge a strong bond with her that enabled him to do what he did best, writing and research. After earning his undergraduate degree in Political Science, he went on to earn his Master’s Degree in Literature.

The Dentler’s were expecting their first child when Dentler learned he was about to be conscripted. The Korean War was highly unpopular and not going well. On the day of the Dentler’s wedding the U.N. forces in Korea suffered their greatest defeat of the war. Given the choice of serving on the ground in Korea or serving a new organization in Northern Virginia called The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Dentler chose the CIA. He heard lectures from both John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen Dulles about how scholars were going to help provide information to be stored in a large computer, information that would serve the noble goal of defeating Communism and ensuring world peace.  Instead, Dentler spent most of his time typing up reports from field offices in The Middle East. It turned out that he was working on the plot to overthrow Prime Minister Mossadegh, the democratically elected leader of Iran.When Robert and one other operative expressed their opinions that Mossadegh was not a threat, they were reassigned. After Mossadegh was overthrown, the Dentler’s decided Robert should not remain with the CIA because it was contrary to their values.

Robert resolved to become a teacher. He began his studies at American University, where he earned a second master’s degree, and eventually earned his Doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1960. He worked three jobs to put himself through graduate school and support his growing family. By 1962 the Dentler’s had a daughter and two sons. The family moved frequently as Robert sought a tenured faculty position in Sociology. He taught at the University of Kansas and then Dartmouth. Robert was hired by Columbia University Teacher’s College  and moved his family to New York.

Helen and Robert had to find a home in the New York area but finding an affordable rental that could house a family of 5 in a good school district proved difficult. They were surprised to find an affordable home near the Hartsdale Train Station in Scarsdale, New York. Robert was pleased to find that the town did not live up to its W.A.S.P stereotype. He found that Scarsdale had become a religiously diverse community that was ⅓ Protestant, ⅓ Jewish and ⅓ Catholic.

Twenty years later, in a 1986 critique of Common Ground, J.Anthony Lukas’s book about Boston’s Busing Crisis,  Dentler speculated that some of the hostility expressed towards desegregation by whites of Irish descent in the neighborhoods of Charlestown, South Boston and West Roxbury could be explained by the fact that they were losing the political hegonomy that they had enjoyed in the past. This was certainly the case with Scarsdale’s W.A.S.P’s, who had a reputation for great hostitlity towards Jews before this attitude was exposed by a local Episcopal Rector named George French Kempsell, Jr. a year before the Dentlers arrived in town.The Reverend Kempsell Jr. was featured on page 1 of The New York Times after he preached a sermon condemning parishioners who belonged to the Scarsdale Golf Club because a fellow parishioner had been barred from a dance there because he had a Jewish father.

Although Robert did not notice any problems between religious groups in Scarsdale, his middle son Eric recalled “that lovely town was very divided.” In fact Scarsdale was transitioning from being a W.A.S.P enclave to a more religiously diverse enclave. But Reverend Kempsell had received hate mail and death threats as well as accolades for his stand against anti-Semitism. In 1963 Kempsell was forced to leave his post as Rector of Scarsdale’s oldest Episcopal church.

During his time in Scarsdale, Robert Dentler became active in The First Unitarian Church of Yonkers. Robert had adopted Helen’s Unitarian childhood faith when they married, and they raised their children is a succession of Unitarian Universalist churches around the country. The Unitarians believed in social activism and were active in the civil rights movement.

At Columbia, Robert Dentler was recruited to run the Center for Urban Development (CUE). Dentler was proud of his mixed race staff of men and women.  CUE had been tasked to create a report on how to desegregate New York’s Public School System. Dentler also worked on desegregation efforts in nearby White Plains, New York. In 1964  he was alarmed to see one White Plains parent foam at the mouth at a school board meeting after he and his colleagues had caused a stir by distributing questionnaires to  White Plains Public Schools’ students on their racial and ethnic prejudices. Although CUE had promised to keep the questionnaires confidential, a group of White Plains parents complained that their children’s rights to privacy had been violated because they had been told to sign their names on the questionairres. Dentler and his staff had to destroy the responses of any student whose parents did not approve of the questions.

One family, The Magowans, were not satisfied with how CUE’s racial survey test had been handled. According to The Tarrytown Daily News,  They sued The New York State Board of Education, The White Plains Board of Education, The Superintendant of the White Plains Public Schools, The University of Columbia Board of Trustees and Robert Dentler for $49.2 million dollars( a separate suit for $70,000 was filed against The White Plains Public School System and Dr.Dentler) The case went to the New York Supreme Court three years later.

The Tarrytown Daily News reported that New York Supreme  Court Justice Justice Joseph F. Hawkins dismissed a motion brought by Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm G. Magowan, who wanted to see a copy of the test and have the right to examine the drafter of the test, Dr. Robert Dentler of Scarsdale. Although the lawsuit would go on for 4 years, Dentler never turned over the questionnaire.He maintained that it was the property of Columbia University Teacher’s college.  The Magowans and their financial backers The John Birch Society,  wanted the preliminary examination to help to frame a complaint.

Although Justice Hawkins held their motion as legally insufficient, he had some sharp words for the White Plains school authorities and Dr. Dentler and his organization, the Institute of Urban Studies of Columbia University. He said that Dr.Dentler and the university “have been less than candid” with either Magowans or the court and added that he is not entirely convinced that the tests and the resulting data derived from them “have not been used for the pecuniary advantage for either or both of said defendants.” Justice Hawkins went on to state that  it was the courts, not academics who had laid the groundwork for desegregation.

The Amsterdam Record quoted Mrs.Magowan in an 18 September article about the case: “All we wanted to find out was who gave the test, and we still can’t. They keep saying, ‘Trust us. We know what’s best for your child.’ We will find out who gave that test if we have to go all the way to the Supreme Court. They just won’t talk to us. that is all. It is sad when you have to hire an attorney to talk to the superintendent of schools. We’ve gone through all the channels. It costs us  a lot of money to protest. But we will see it through, regardless of what it costs.” The Magowans lost their lawsuit against Robert Dentler but it would not be the last time that angry parents questioned his academic approach to desegregation.

When Dentler became the expert in Boston Public Schools’ Desegregation during the 1970’s, he would be aligned with a federal judge who was determined to implement Dentler’s recommendations. Dr.Marvin Scott, Dentler’s Boston Associate in the desegregation case, recalls that Robert Dentler enjoyed staying up late and pouring over cases and court documents involving segregation and desegregation. In their book Schools on Trial, Dentler and Scott make a point of stating the difference between integration and court ordered desegregation, noting that the later is far from perfect.

Dr.Dentler often recommended curricula that allowed for discussion of racial and socio-economic differences among students. He was usually rebuffed by school administrators who believed that such discussions were contrary to a “color blind curriculum.”. Unfortunately, a color blind curriculum often ignored the fact that segregation existed in the north and not all people experienced equal rights.

During the 1960’s as the leader of Columbia University’s Center for Urban Development, Robert Dentler was involved with desegregation cases throughout the United States. In his spare time he spoke on the issue of desegregation closer to home in Westchester County, New York. Joan Intrator reported in  The Greenburgh Independent reported 10 October, 1966  on Dentler’s  lecture to The Ardsley Fair Housing and Human Relations Committee for the local PTA titled “Integrated Education in The White Ghetto.”  The goal of the lecture was to give suburban parents an idea of how to raise their children without teaching them anti-minority prejudices. Dentler stated that children who grew up in affluent white suburbs would not be prepared for the socially inclusive  world they would live in as adults.

“Public education,” said Dr. Dentler, “fosters a larger degree of social acceptance and friendliness; it can affect the general attitudes of our children In ways where they are not reached by trie homes and churches of the white suburban community.” For ‘this reason, he continued, many sociologist and educators are strongly advocating that the white suburban public schools consciously seek ways better to reflect the real, rather than the false, picture of our world and of our society. The public school is the best way to teach children about the socially inculsive world they will have to function in. Dr.Dentler said to sociologists it appeared that Integrated housing is the last way in which children of the suburban white ghetto  meet children of  minority groups; it is in the final analysis the public school which can do the most to foster intergroup acceptance.’

Dentler never did convince parents in his home of Scarsdale, New York to desegregate their renowned public school system. He would be given the authority to try out his beliefs in Boston but only the city and not its outlying suburbs during the 1970’s.  Dentler believed that this factor greatly inhibited the success of Boston’s desegregation policy.

The 1960’s proved to be a very happy time for Robert and Helen Dentler. They were pleased with the changes taking place in society. They were unhappy with the Vietnam War and protested against atomic weapons but the fact that the government was committed to civil rights and a war on poverty gave them hope. They worked on Robert Kennedy’s senate campaign, Helen ran  RFK’s local campaign headquarters and Robert served as Kennedy’s education advisor. Kennedy’s staff hinted that Robert might be tapped for a position in education if RFK took the White House. The couple was devastated by Kennedy’s assassination during the primary, and Robert attended the huge funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

When Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 his administration systematically defunded Johnson’s War on Poverty programs, Dentler’s work at CUE was in jeopardy. He remained at Columbia for three more years before taking a job as Dean of the Teacher’s College at Boston University. Dentler was hired by BU President John Silber.

The Dentlers assumed that they were moving to a liberal city when they moved to Boston. He notes in his memoir that they were in for “a rude awakening.” They bought a home in Lexington, the site of the first battle of the American Revolution. In 1974 Dentler was asked to advise the Federal Court in Boston about the desegregation of Boston Public Schools. In 1975 he and his associate Professor Dr. Marvin B.Scott  were hired by Judge Arthur Garrity to be  primary advisors on implementing court ordered busing to end the segregation of Boston’s school system. Despite the widespread protests and violence that ensued, Dentler considered his work for Judge Garrity to be the pinnacle of his career as a sociologist.He also enjoyed working away from university politics.

In an interview with Boston Globe journalist Manli He, Dr. Dentler stated “Solutions come out of developing the collective will of the community… Dr.Scott and I have access to needed data and some experiences with what people have tried in other communities and that’s all ‘experts’means.”  He explained that the reason for Judge Garrity’s take over of the Boston School system was representative of the “determination of the courts to move on (21 years after the Brown v. Board of Ed).” For Dentler, desegregating Boston’s Public Schools was a matter of Social Justice. When the Boston School Committee filed a lawsuit to remove Dr.Dentler as a desegregation expert due to the fact that he had been a dues paying member of the NAACP, Dentler stated that he was not an active member but hoped he paid his dues. Judge Garrity kept Dentler as his expert.

Central to his vision for the city’s schools was the idea that desegregation planning should be a vehicle for improving and strengthening the quality of education delivered in all the schools of the city, and thus the plan he helped design not only integrated classrooms but shuttered or repaired decrepit school buildings and revitalized the entire system by tying integration to program improvement and the creation of magnet schools that focussed curriculum around specific subject areas and career paths. Critics of desegregation in Boston’s Public Schools often pointed out that Judge Garrity and his experts Dr.Dentler and Dr.Scott all lived in the western suburbs which were not impacted by Judge Garrity’s desegregation orders.  Robert Dentler was bitterly disappointed that outlying suburbs successfully resisted the region-wide integration plan he and Judge Garrity proposed, leaving the schools of the greater metropolitan area largely divided by race, class and ethnicity.

Dr. Dentler had some qualms about the way  the so-called Boston Busing Crisis was portrayed in the media and in what he referred to as “local legends”, the stories the people of Boston tell to explain what happened to cause the riots and attacks on blacks and politicians who supported busing. As someone who had worked on the desegregation of public school systems throughout the country during the 1960’s and 1970’s and would continue to work on them as late as 1994, in Dentler’s experience most if not all school boards had members as resistant to busing as Louise Day Hicks was in Boston. Dentler was more concerned that black citizens were being denied their most basic rights. He felt that the white communities of Charlestown and South Boston and the political leaders who supported their hostility to busing sought to exculpate themselves from the violence that was perpetrated by blaming specific Boston’s leaders: Louise Day Hicks, Arthur Garrity, Mayor Kevin White and Cardinal Medieros.

In his and Marvin B. Scott’s book Schools On Trial: An Inside Account of the Boston Desegregation Case, the authors make a strong case that Judge Garrity had to take over the Boston Schools because The Boston School Committee not only refused to honor a court order to desegregate, but because the Boston Schools were in terrible shape. School buildings were antiquated and often dilapitated, school employees were given positions based on political patronage instead of  their academic qualifications and there was one man who had all the power with regard to doing maintance on school buildings. In this environment none of the schools was very good. Schools in black and white neighborhoods were in appalling condition. Black citizens had no representation on the school committee.

Dr.Marvin A. Scott worked side by side with Robert Dentler for a decade.During a recent telephone interview Dr. Scott recalled that he and Dentler carpooled each day  from Lexington to the BU campus. One week “Bob” would drive his car, the next week Marvin would drive his car.The most difficult thing about this arrangement was that Dentler was a chain smoker.  Scott recalls that his friend Bob Dentler was a fierce defender of his colleagues. Once you had earned Bob Dentler’s trust it could not be broken. Dr.Scott and his wife were good friends with Robert and Helen Dentler. Dr.Scott recalls that Helen was “the perfect companion for Bob, his guiding linchpin. Bob was not distracted by outside things. He was task oriented and never slacked.”

Although B.U. President John Silber shared many of Dentler’s views on the importance of desegregation. He and Dentler developed a strong dislike for each other. Silber believed that education should be a field that demands the best and brightest without exception. Dentler believed that exceptions should be made for the socio-economic and discriminatory conditions a person had experienced.Dentler made a point of telling  journalist Nina McCain in a Boston Globe article dated  30 October 1976 that the elitism championed by Silber in a recent speech at Fanieul Hall was a destructive force in higher education because an elite based on grades and  test scores had little to do with one’s capacity to learn.

Silber believed in academic testing and became the grandfather of the Massachusetts Competency Assesment Standardized Tests (MCAS) which became mandatory for all high school students to pass in order to earn their high school diplomas. Dentler believed that teaching and learning were far more important than standardized tests. Marvin Scott worked for both men. He believed that ultimately the two men simply could not stand each other. When Dentler led a no confidence vote against Silber during the 1980’s, Dr.Scott witnessed two trustees offer Dentler the Presidency of Boston University if Silber was to leave. Dentler turned the trustees down, much to Dr.Scott’s surprise and dismay. In hindsight, Marvin Scott believes this was who Robert Dentler was, a man with strong principles who could not and would not waver from them.

Although Boston is known as the Cradle of Liberty the fact is that for almost 100 years it had been failing to live up to its reputation by denying 20% of its citizens their right to equal education. One reason Boston’s future is bright is that it is now able to portray itself as a diverse, cosmopolitan city, the Athens of America. It is a city of many neighborhoods but it is becoming one community. According to his daughter Deborah, Robert Dentler’s vision of American Society was one in which we were all in the same boat. He ended his memoir with this Unitarian Universalist Hymn:

We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken

We’ll build a land where captives go free

where the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning

and  we’ll build a promised land that can be.




Author’s note: Information for this article is primarily based on Robert Dentler’s memoir: The Looking Glass Self, which I was able to see at the University of Massachusetts Boston Archives located on the 5th floor of The Healy Library. Two boxes containing Robert Dentler’s academic papers, family photographs and articles and minutes from CUE meetings are also available for public view. Robert Dentler’s daughter  Deborah provided additional insight and information for which I am eternally grateful. Dr.Marvin A. Scott also provided many memories of Dr.Dentler during a telephone interview. Newspaper articles concerning Dr.Dentler’s time in New York were obtained from the excellent website, which contains a huge archive of New York newspapers.


Leave a comment

Filed under Civil Rights in Scarsdale-Westchester County- New York

The Cockburn Legacy and Northern Jim Crow

The Cockburn Legacy137 501 Fort Hill Road anchor A

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Civil Rights in Scarsdale-Westchester County- New York

The Cockburn’s house in Edgemont Hills 1937

The Cockburn's house in Edgemont Hills  1937

They built and owned it but they were not legally able to live in it. A Deed Covenant attached to all neighborhood properties stated that anyone with Negro Blood could only be there if they were employed as servants.

1 Comment

February 21, 2013 · 9:37 pm

The Cockburns in Edgemont Hills: February 1937

The Cockburns in Edgemont Hills: February 1937

Joshua and Pauline Cockburn appeared in Life Magazine on February, 15th 1937. A brief article accompanying this photo and one of their new home explained their legal situation.

Leave a comment

February 21, 2013 · 9:32 pm

Kernan’s Road to Certainty

Kernan’s Road to Certainty

Overview: William C.Kernan was an outspoken anti-Fascist during the late 1930’s and early 40’s, as well as an advocate for social justice. During the late 1940’s and early 50’s he became a fervent anti-Communist, eventually becoming the spokesman for The Committee of 10. This committee tried to purge Scarsdale’s public school system of any and all materials that were believed to have any relationship to Communist ideas.

For William C. Kernan “the bomb fell” in January 1938. This is when he began a life of political activism aimed at preserving American Democracy. Kernan was the Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Bayonne, New Jersey. He had been alerted to the fact that Mayor of Jersey City Frank Hague, the political boss of Hudson County, New Jersey had refused to allow ACLU. founder Roger N. Baldwin give a speech on the grounds that Communists were involved. Kernan believed that the right to free speech must not be abridged. Despite the opposition of his vestry, he allowed Baldwin to speak at Trinity. The New York Times reported the story on January 15, 1938.
In Jersey City, anyone who spoke out against Frank Hague was considered a communist. Hague had stated as much to his Chamber of Commerce on January 12, 1938. “You hear about constitutional rights, free speech and the free press. Every time I hear these words I say to myself, ‘That man is a Red, that man is a Communist!’ You never hear a real American talk like that.” Kernan was certain that preventing Baldwin’s right to free speech was a violation of a sacred American civil right. He not only let Baldwin speak but cheered loudly throughout his speech. After the speech Kernan joined a group of young activists to form The Bayonne Council for Democracy. They appointed him President. According to his biography the Bayonne Council for Democracy held some private meetings and two public meetings, one that was broken up by organized hecklers.
Labor leaders were trying to run a socialist candidate against Mayor Hague. William C.Kernan had grown up poor. He had lost his first church after the stock market of crash of 1929. He believed that labor had a God given right to organize. He was happy to work with socialists because it was possible for them not to be associated with totalitarian governments like the ones in The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which had proven themselves to be godless regimes that turned their subjects into slaves of the state. Time Magazine 13 June 1938 reported that The Hague Administration in Jersey City had taken on aspects of “a fascist cell”.
Time cited the case of Kernan’s anti-Hague associate Rabbi Plotkin, who was evicted with his congregation from The Jewish Community Center in Jersey City because he had spoken out against Hague’s refusal to allow free speech. Other Jews in Jersey City had gone along with the eviction, stating that Plotkin was a Communist. If one used Frank Hague’s definition of a Communist, he was. Kernan worked hard to oppose Hague’s dictatorial rule in Hudson County but had little to show for it. He and his associates had no money and little political power. Those who had jobs or rented property in Hudson County knew that they or their family members had a lot to lose if they ever spoke out against Frank Hague.
For those who lived under Frank Hague’s rule things were not always so bad. Hague was a Catholic who was supported by Hudson County’s working class, most of whom were Catholics. In his 2011 biography of Frank Hague, author Leonard F. Vernon goes to great lengths to explain why he was popular with many of his constituents. Those Catholics who could recall their ancestors earlier experiences in Hudson County recalled years of Protestant oppression, when their faith was disrespected and they had no control over their own lives because Protestant politicians held the reigns of power. Frank Hague had provided safe neighborhoods for a generation. He had used tax revenues to build a municipal hospital that served Jersey City’s residents, often at no charge. Hague’s resistance to labor unions had allowed sweat shops to thrive in Jersey City, but there was work for those who needed it, no small feat during the Great Depression.

Ten months later an incident occurred at Trinity Church that provided Kernan with a clearer focus about how to direct his political activism. One of his parishioners was fixing a light in the church when Father Kernan saw him. The parishioner informed his pastor that thanks to the radio priest Father Coughlin he now knew “the truth about the Jews.” When Kernan asked him “what truth?,” the man responded that Coughlin’s radio broadcast had taught him that the Jews were Communists who started the revolution in Russia and “were responsible for bad conditions in Germany.”

At this precise moment Kernan found himself “burning with indignation.” He realized it was futile to preach the Gospel of love and justice if people like his parishioner could be convinced to hate Jews simply by listening to Father Coughlin on the radio. He realized that “millions of Americans were in a frame of mind to turn statements into the kind of propaganda that had been part of the enslavement tactic of the Nazis. Suppose it should happen here!” He told his parishioner to “get down on his knees before the altar and implore God’s mercy and forgiveness” because the fact that he had listened to and believed Father Coughlin “was a most serious threat to his soul’s salvation.”

Kernan traveled to New York City “to find out exactly what Coughlin had said and trace down his source material. I spent days in New York in pursuit of this purpose. I searched newspaper files, interviewed people in order to gather facts and to get leads that might produce more facts, read pertinent official documents in the British Library of Information and inquired into the religious and national backgrounds of the men who were responsible for the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.” Kernan then wrote an article titled “My Answer to Father Coughlin” which was published in The Nation as Coughlin, The Jews and Communism.

He and his friend Bob Ambry went to WEVD in an effort to obtain broadcat time to oppose Frank Hague’s dictatorial rule in Jersey City. WEVD had been started by socialists, its initials are those of the Socialist leader Eugene V.Debs. The station had no interest in Kernan and Ambry’s broadcast plans. As the two men were walking out of Producer George Field’s office, Ambry turned around, pulled Kernan’s Nation article out of his pocket and handed it to Field. “How about an anti-Coughlin broadcast” he said. Field was interested in that. WEVD, the radio station that had aired Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitic broadcast, agreed to have Father Kernan give his rebuttal to Coughlin’s accusations, after which Kernan became a regular speaker on WEVD’s Thursday night radio program. For the next decade, William C.Kernan would have a part time career as a radio speaker. As the United States remained on the fence with regard to participation in the war in Europe, Kernan would speak out against fascism and communism. But as the 1940’s progressed he also took part in the program Meet the Critics, often giving “The Christian Point of View” on topics of the day or discussing the latest bestsellers with other critics.

Father Coughlin would no longer be broadcast on WEVD because he refused to submit a text of his speech 48 hours prior to speaking. In effect, the Reverend Kernan had replaced Father Coughlin. He would speak for justice and human rights and against totalitarianism. He would also speak against The Christian Front, an organization that had formed to protest the fact that Father Coughlin had been banned from WEVD. The Christian Front advocated The Christian Index, a pledge not to do business with, buy from or hire non-Christians. Kernan realized that was the same type of boycott that had removed Jews from participating in public life in Germany. The Reverend Kernan made it his cause to oppose “Commu-Nazism,” which he defined as propagandists who misused the right to free speech and assembly to advocate Communist or Nazi ideas in an effort to bring totalitarianism to the United States.

For the next two years this would mean primarily opposing organizations like The Christian Front and The German-American Bund, which advocated fascist ideals while cloaking them with American or Christian icons or sacred words. For example, The Christian Front distributed a pamphlet stating that Jesus Christ supported The Christian Index. As an Episcopal priest, the Reverend Kernan was deeply disturbed by this misuse of Christianity. He felt it was his sacred duty to oppose those who were taking advantage of America’s freedoms and libeling Christianity.

The vestry at Trinity Church in Bayonne was opposed to the Reverend Kernan’s political activism. He resigned as Rector during the month of December 1939. The Bayonne Council for Democracy disbanded as well. The young man and woman who had urged Kernan to form the council and become its president informed him that they were proud Communists. Kernan briefly notes this fact in his biography.

Stalin and Hitler had recently signed the German-Soviet Non-Aggression pact, giving Father Kernan further proof that both Communists and Nazis were cut from the same totalitarian cloth. Then they had attacked Poland and precipitated World War II in Europe. The United States remained neutral but President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government arranged to support Great Britain. This was controversial: the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans had begun.

Although there was little money in it, Reverend Kernan vowed to keep up his public battle against Commu-Nazism and for social justice in The United States. He and his wife Jean had three children and another on the way. In his autobiography Kernan recalls: “I had no job and could count immediately on no regular income from any source. But we never lived our lives together with security as the main objective. We were trying to do the will of God as he gave us light to see it, and when principle came into conflict with security, we chose principle even if it meant the temporary sacrifice of security.” He had been advocating for The United States to take a strong stand against totalitarian aggression abroad while at the same time fearing totalitarian subversion on the homefront. He had come to believe that a “Fifth Column” was active in The United States and that the people in charge of it wanted to bring about totalitarian rule in The United States. He no longer believed that free speech should be protected in all cases.A 24 June 1940 New York Times article reported that Kernan had urged the outlawing of 5th column elements comprised of Nazis, fascists and communists in the United States. Kernan believed that agents of this 5th column misused the Bill of Rights in an effort to take over the nation from within.

Jean Kernan found a house for her family on Ferncliff Road in the prosperous suburb of Scarsdale, New York. Kernan would recall that the first few months in their new home “were marked by more hardship than we cared to admit to ourselves. There was no question of trying to keep up with the Joneses. We could not even keep up with the milkman. He was a nice person, but once we owed him so much money that I dreaded the sight of him.” Kernan and his wife were “painfully conscious” of the contrast between themselves and their wealthy neighbors. They were put more at ease by the fact that although they were the only Roosevelt Democrats in the area, their neighbors “were good and friendly” and all of them helped to look when three year old Peter Kernan wandered off; not giving up their search until he was brought home by the police.

The Episcopal Church of St. James the Less was one place in Scarsdale where the Reverend Kernan felt at home. He was a “high churchman” which meant that he believed that The Episcopal Church was one branch of The Universal Catholic Church that had been founded by The Apostles. Like The Eastern Orthodox Church, The Episcopal Church had broken with The Roman Catholic Church but maintained many of its sacraments. Not all Episcopalians believed in High Church principles. This lack of certainty bothered Kernan. One thing that immediately appealed to him about St.James the Less was that its rector James Harry Price had once given an address in which he had stated that “some things in life never change, such as the existence of God, the Ten Commandments and the multiplication table and that from these we may draw certainty in a world rapidly drifting into confusion and chaos.”

Father Price asked Father Kernan to be his part time assistant minister. Kernan was happy to find a kindred spirit as well as a paying job. “We were both worried about the lack of certainty regarding the nature of Truth which we encountered everywhere.” Kernan relates in his autobiography that Price eventually convinced him that there were “absolutely devastating effects on man’s life once the conclusion is reached that there is no Truth-can be no Truth-because, as so many affirm, all Truth is relative.”

Father Kernan arranged to work for three days at St. James the Less as assistant minister and to spend the other four days of the week in Manhattan. In New York City and elsewhere he would work for three things: support for President Roosevelt and the need for the government and people of The United States to aid the allies against Germany, opposition to “shifting attacks upon American Democracy” by Commu-Nazi organizations in the United States, and social justice for all Americans regardless of race, creed or color. He had a weekly radio show on WEVD and was given an office there to answer the voluminous amount of mail his speeches generated. Some of the mail contained hateful attacks by racists and anti-Semites.

To encourage American involvement in the war in Europe he joined The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. This group opposed America First, an organization led by Charles Lindbergh that wanted to prevent American involvement in the war. Kernan did not believe America First misused free speech. Although he was opposed to the organization’s goal he recognized that it was comprised of Americans using their right to free speech, as he stated in a letter to The New York Times. He spent a lot of time at Freedom House, an organization dedicated to promoting American Democracy at home and abroad. He would eventually be appointed to its board of directors. To fight for social justice for the poor, organized labor and minorities he became a founding member of The Liberal Party, a new organization created by the right wing of The New York State American Labor Party because they believed that people “in the communist camp” controlled the labor party.
During his three days a week at St. James the Less, Kernan found himself in agreement with Father Price’s emphasis on education. Price was an outspoken critic of modern education. On April 29, 1940 The New York Times reported that Price stated in a sermon at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine “Modern education is not necessarily irreligious or anti-religious, it is just that it is secular and worldly and little attention and consideration are paid to the fundamental truths about life and living-the things that make Western Civilization great.” Price was upset by the fact that “very modern parents” don’t allow their children to receive religious instruction “until they are old enough to decide for themselves.” Price believed that religious instruction should be like academic instruction or personal hygiene, something that parents started their children on at an early age. On September 20, 1943 The New York Times reported that he had founded Education for Freedom, an organization that would use famous educators and other well-known people to warn Americans of the crisis in Education and the need to raise educational standards. This information would be provided in a series of radio broadcasts by Red Barber, Walter Lippman and others.

Kernan joined Price in applying their educational ideas to their religious instruction at St.James the Less. They believed that “Education ought to liberate man from the tyranny of appetite, and that required discipline-and you could not have discipline without Truth from which come standards in the light of which, discipline was undertaken.” The two priests sought to teach the young people at St.James the Less to “learn to subject their instincts and passions to the control of reason and will.” One of their students was Nancy Moore. She felt that Father Price and Father Kernan truly challenged their pupils in an engaging, respectful manner.

These are her recollections from an email dated December 7, 2012:

“Very important to us were two occasions during the year: one was the Christmas pageant, which was directed by a parishioner and the music director, and the other was a Passion Play which we called the “Mime” because it was done in very slow pantomime. One of the clergy was at every rehearsal at the beginning, and began with a prayer. Instead of teenagers “hacking around” we turned into serious young people with the heavy responsibility of portraying the Stations of the Cross. One went from role to role as one grew older: from a Woman of Jerusalem to Mary Magdalene to Veronica to the Virgin Mary for the girls, or, if you were a boy, from a centurion to John or Simon of Cyrene or maybe Pontius Pilate — and maybe eventually to the central figure — the “Christus.”

Father Kernan’s handsome son Patrick played the Christus several times, as I remember. I remember the year my brother Bob was the Christus: it was so moving I had to go out to the cemetery to have a good cry! The special music played by the organ to accompany the movement had been arranged by Hugh Ross, who had been the organist at the time the tradition began, thanks to a parishioner who had gone to Paris to study mime with Marcel Marceau’s teacher, whose name I don’t remember for sure. (Etienne Descreux, I think.)

Anyway, this experience might have been the kind of educational approach that you have heard about, although I don’t know that for sure, either. I just know that actually going through the Passion story with my body was an example of learning as a whole person, not only with my intellect.

We also had the opportunity, as girls (who could not yet acolyte — that was still “boys only”) to join the Junior Altar Guild, which gave us a hands-on experience of preparing the altar for services and thus contributing with our work to the liturgy. I vividly remember the altar guild chairperson advising us to be as careful in our work with the linens and vessels to make everything as perfect as we would “if we were giving a dinner party” (a comparison that stuck with me, probably because my mother was more casual when she had company!) But, again, there is the example of our being taken seriously, which was the most important aspect of our Christian education!

But our intellects were engaged often and quite seriously. We had to learn the whole catechism in the back of the Prayer Book by heart, for example, to prepare for confirmation. It is fortunate that we did, because the bishop quizzed us about it (possibly at the instigation of the clergy!).

Nancy recalls a specific time that Father Kernan had her make an appointment to speak with him about a question she had. It was the first time in her life that she had an adult conversation. The experience made her feel intelligent and valued. The fact that Kernan believed Father Price’s views on education to be correct further convinced him that “We could consider objectively the disastrous effects of uncertainty and confusion in the world.” He was troubled that this same uncertainty plagued The Episcopal Church of St .James the Less.

Throughout the decade, parishioners often left the church because its form of worship was too high and Price and Kernan were too demanding with regard to their expectations,.such as the requirement that church members attend church every Sunday. Kernan noted that this problem had existed before he joined St.James the Less. He felt it was directly related to the fact that the elected parishioners who ran the church, the vestry, had too much power over the church’s clergy. In fact the vestry had the power to fire its clergy if so inclined.

Although The Kernan family had come to Scarsdale in 1940, it must have been easier for them to fit in during the war years. Rationing was a great equalizer. What the family could not afford did not matter as much with Word War II going on and most material good forsaken for the war effort. By the end of 1945 The Nazis and The Japanese had been defeated but for the rest of the decade it appeared that the Communists were winning the war for hearts and minds in Europe and Asia. Indignant over the fact that many of his liberal friends did not share his loathing of Communists or his belief that they could take control in The United States, Father Kernan had resigned from the Board of Directors of Freedom House. He no longer considered himself a liberal because the liberal movement “had become Godless.”

In 1949 A female parishioner at St.James the Less took him aside one January day to ask if he could look into the background of a prominent educator who had been chosen to speak before her chapter of The Daughters of The American Revolution. One of the members said the educator was a Communist. She asked Kernan to find out. Just as a bomb had dropped regarding Father Couglin and fascism in 1939, now a bomb was being dropped regarding communism in 1949.
Eleven years earlier, Kernan had researched Father Coughlin’s accusations that Jews were Communists and begun a decade long anti-Fascist, pro social justice crusade. Now he would again do research into accusations of Communism and reach a different conclusion. He was directed to Otto E. Dohrenwend, a New York businessman and Scarsdale resident who had become a self educated expert on Communist subversion after serving as a juror on a 1947 U.S. Federal Grand Jury investigating activities of Communists in the State Department. Dohrenwend provided Kernan with the names and backgrounds of several people who were associated with Communist fronts who had been allowed to address the Scarsdale PTA and the Scarsdale Teachers Association.
Dohrenwend related to Kernan the fact that Attorney General Clark had warned that Communists were trying to indoctrinate young children to their ideology. As proof that this had already occurred in Scarsdale, Dohrenwend pointed out that admitted Communist Howard Fast had eleven novels on the shelves of the Scarsdale High School Library. There was also a poetry anthology that contained work by Langston Hughes, whom the House Un-American Activities Committee had listed as being associated with 71 Communist front organizations.

Kernan had enough facts from Dohrenwend. He was dismayed to hear that Mr.Dohrenwend had already spoken to the head of the Education Committee at The Scarsdale Town Club, Scarsdale’s governing body, Vernon Smith the superintendent of Scarsdale Public Schools and A. Chauncey Newlin, president of The Board of Education.

Nothing was being done about what Kernan and Dohrenwend saw as an obvious case of Communist infiltration. In 1940, Father Kernan had written The Ghost of Royal Oak a book that outlined his opposition to fascism and communism. He referred to people who pushed the fascist or Communist agenda as propaganda termites because “Like termites which eat the stout timbers of a strong house until they have destroyed it, these Nazi and Communist agents, spies and sympathizers in America are undermining our democratic institutions, our churches our schools, our trade unions and our homes.”

The fascists had been defeated yet Communists were tolerated in liberal circles, especially if they had renounced any previous communist affiliations. Father Kernan believed that “both Communism and Nazism were palpably evil.” He had been traveling a majority of the time during the previous decade, promoting his social justice, anti-totalitarian agenda. Now that he was back in Scarsdale with Jean and their six children he had another battle to fight against Communist propaganda termites in the Scarsdale Public Schools. Kernan the socialist was about to become Kernan the red-baiter, a term that he did not find offensive. In fact, he had stated in his 1940 book The Ghost of Royal Oak that red-baiter was a sinful word created by Communists to prevent decent people from criticizing their methods.

Father Kernan and Otto E. Dohrenwend joined with eight other concerned citizens of Scarsdale to form The Committee of 10. The group was non-sectarian and non-denominational. The Committee sent communications to The Scarsdale Inquirer, periodically mailed newsletters to every resident of Scarsdale and held neighborhood meetings. The committee targeted the novels written by Howard Fast, who had joined the Communist Party in 1943. Father Kernan read excerpts from Fast’s novel Haym Salomon, Son of Liberty, a historical novel set during the Revolutionary War. He cited passages from the book that spoke negatively of war profiteers in Philadelphia, asserting that these passages were evidence that Fast was trying to incite class hatred.

The Board of Education disagreed with Kernan’s assertion that Fast’s novel was Communist propaganda. Fast could no longer find a publisher in the United States and the U.S. Government had revoked his passport because he refused to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He eventually published his novel Spartacus on his own and it went on to become a bestseller and a popular Stanley Kubrick film starring Kirk Douglas. (Spartacus was the Roman slave who led a rebellion against The Roman Republic. He and his followers were eventually captured and crucified along The Apian Way, 40 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.)

The Committee of 10 turned its attention to books by Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes. A Robeson biography was on a recommended reading list for eighth graders; it was removed from the list but remained on the library shelf. Books by Arthur Miller and W.E.B. Dubois were objectionable to The Committee of 10 as were others by various authors who had been blacklisted in other parts of the United States. Kernan and The Committee of 10 had certainty that they were defending democracy by demanding the removal of the books but they could not convince the Scarsdale Public School system to remove them. Superintendent Newlin stated that Scarsdale schools would continue to expose their students to a variety of points of view. Kernan and his fellow committee members were outraged.

The Committee of 10 began naming Communists and those who had participated in Communist fronts when they found out that they were speaking or appearing in Scarsdale Public School buildings. According to Kernan’s biography, the Committee of Ten attracted over 1,000 members and changed its name to The Scarsdale Citizens Committee. Throughout 1951, two professors and a dancer with Communist ties spoke to students or performed for students in the Scarsdale Public Schools. Father Kernan was especially galled that Dr.Bernard F.Reiss, Psychologist and Professor at Hunter College had been permitted to speak to 11th and 12th graders on career day. He pointed out that Reiss had signed a statement for The Daily Worker in 1943 that defended The Soviet Union’s hanging of two Jewish anti-Nazi labor leaders in Poland in 1941.

Father Kernan was greatly influenced by the book Men Without Faces by Louis F .Budenz. He had been a Communist Party member during the 1930’s but had rediscovered his Catholic faith in 1945 and become an important F.B.I. informant and the man Senator Joseph McCarthy would rely on for his Senate hearings investigating Communist activity in the United States government. Budenz maintained that Communists wanted to infiltrate the high society of Westchester County by having “concealed communists speak before community organizations as experts on foreign policy, pro communist books would be plugged at informal dinner parties, in women’s clubs, study groups and educational institutions” (italics mine). Kernan felt that he and The Committee of 10 had uncovered the Communist plot Budenz had written about a year before Men Without Faces was published.
The citizens of Scarsdale opposed to The Scarsdale Citizens Committee mobilized as well. Eighty-one prominent Scarsdale residents signed a petition condemning “book banning.” The Board of Education eventually refused to let members of the Scarsdale Citizens Committee speak at its meetings. New School Superintendent Archibald B.Shaw read a compassionate statement swearing to the loyalty of Scarsdale School Teachers at a special public hearing before the Board of Education on June 19, 1950.

Kernan felt this was manipulative because his committee had not specifically accused the teachers of disloyalty. In fact the Citizen’s Committee had stirred up such a negative atmosphere that one former student recalled “half of the Scarsdale High School faculty were accused.“ A popular history teacher named Dorothy Connor told her class “All my life I have tried to give my students a love for their country. And to be called a Communist is pretty hard to take.“ She then broke out in tears. Like the Reverend Kernan, Connor had been a Roosevelt Democrat and a New Deal Liberal.

The president of The Fox Meadow Elementary School PTA apologized for allowing the Communist dance instructor Pearl Primus to perform at Fox Meadow. She was not re-elected. The Scarsdale Women’s Club, the PTA’s. The League of Women Voters, and The Scarsdale Inquirer all came out against The Scarsdale Citizens Committee. The motto of the committee’s opponents was “Save Our Schools.” Again, Kernan was flabbergasted; he felt that he and his fellow members of The Scarsdale Citizens Committee were the ones trying to save the schools.

The Scarsdale Citizens Committee held a special meeting at Edgewood School on March 27, 1952. Father Kernan states in his autobiography that between 700-900 people attended. He, Otto E.Dohrenwend and the other speakers had prepared questions asked of them by sympathetic crowd members. Opponents criticized this as a fascist tactic but Kernan felt this was hypocritical because it was he and his supporters who had been silenced at Board of Education meetings. A. Chauncy Newlin wrote an open letter to The Scarsdale Inquirer the following day stating that if something were not done to silence the committee, people would lose good teachers and be unable to attract new teachers to the Scarsdale public school system.
The Board of Education was reelected and the furor subsided although Kernan maintained that he and his supporters continued to believe that their evidence showed the Communist influence in the Scarsdale Public School System. Scarsdale Town Historian Eric Rothschild, son of the Edgewood Elementary School librarian during the early fifties Amalie Rothschild, recalls that the last time Kernan was at the Board of Education meeting he stormed out of the building yelling “Is this America? Is this Democracy?” because he had not been allowed to speak.

Father Kernan had been having spiritual doubts while waging his anti-Communist crusade in Scarsdale. He found that he sincerely believed in several tenets taught by the Catholic Church, such as the immaculate conception of Mary, invocation of the saints and the sacrilege of birth control. These were not tenets of the Episcopal faith and he had to keep silent about them. The uncertainty of The Episcopal Church troubled him. “I sought Christ’s Truth which cannot change or mean something different to every man.” He could no longer accept that spiritual truth in The Episcopal Church was open to interpretation from parish to parish. Father Kernan wanted one universal truth that could provide him with certainty because it was “the Truth of Christ.” He had become good friends with fellow citizen’s committee members Mr. and Mrs. Robert Fitzpatrick. They introduced Kernan to Father Ferdinand Schonberg a Jesuit based in Philadelphia. Kernan began consultation with Father Schonberg about his crisis of faith. He realized he needed “real authority- as the power to require acceptance of the teachings of the Church by its members.” Schonberg gave Kernan books to study about Catholicism. He became convinced that The Episcopal Church was not part of The Catholic Church. “They can not have now what they rejected at The Reformation four hundred years ago.”
On Monday, May 5 the vestry of St .James the Less called Father Kernan in for an emergency meeting. He was informed that he had to give up his anti-Communist activities with the Scarsdale Citizens Committee or resign as assistant minister. The stated reason was that people were leaving the church and it was losing money. When Kernan said he could not give up his work with The Citizen’s Committee, the vestry consulted the Bishop who suggested a cooling off period.
Father Price refused to let Kernan go, and Kernan took a week to think about this situation. He decided that it was the answer to his prayers because he wanted to convert to Catholicism. He stated his beliefs and his intentions in a letter to Bishop of New York Horace Donegan. On May 21 he made his profession of faith at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Scarsdale and was baptized by Father Schoberg.

Kernan’s departure from St.James the Less and subsequent conversion to Catholicism caused quite a stir. It was reported in The New York Times and Time magazine. Bishop Donegan took exception to the departure for the Catholic Church when he gave a sermon installing a new rector George French Kempsell, Jr. in 1953. Father Price had left St.James the Less and converted to Catholicism a year after Kernan had. Donegan stated that the Episcopal Church was democratic because the Laity voted for their clergymen. Kernan responded at a Communion breakfast in New York City that “Bishop Donegan would be hard put to it did he try to prove that in founding his church, Christ gave power to the laity.”

William C.Kernan had found certainty in an institution that was based on the one totalitarian leader he could trust in, God. He became a lay worker for The Christopher’s, a Catholic aid organization. For the next ten years, he would travel to give speeches to Catholic groups about his experiences. Jean and all six of his children all converted to Catholicism. He always stated that The Catholic Church gave him moral certainty. On 14 May 1967 The New York Times reported that Kernan was Director of Training at Horn and Hardart. He had applied the educational methods he and Father Price had utilized twenty years earlier at St.James the Less Church in order to give 13 juvenile delinquents a chance to work in the cafeteria business. He told the reporter John M.Taylor “It’s unfair the way society pins a label on these kids. Sure they dropped out of school and got into trouble. But they’re fine youngsters and I’m proud of them. I just hope we can teach them to be proud of themselves.” The last written record of him appears in a letter to the editor of The Long Beach (California) Journal in 1973. He adamantly stated why an editorial sympathetic to abortion was wrong. He made his case with great certainty. He lived to be 92 years old.

Author’s Note: Material for this article has been gathered from The New York Times articles, which have been cited in the text. William C. Kernan also had three published “Letters to the Editor” of The New York Times that presented his views on the misuse of free speech by enemies of The United States, his opposition to the internment of the Japanese during World War II and his belief that there were certain truths (such as the belief in God and the correctness of The American Creed) that all Americans should agree upon. Text that appears in quotations are the words of William C. Kernan and have been quoted from his books The Ghost of Royal Oak (1940) and My Road to Certainty (1953). I have used information from to determine that William C. Kernan died in 1992 at the age of 92. Information about Frank Hague was drawn from Time Magazine articles and The Life and Times of Jersey City, Mayor Frank Hague “I Am The Law” by Leonard F.Vernon. Charleston: The History Press 2011.


Filed under Civil Rights in Scarsdale-Westchester County- New York

Fifty Years Ago: Scarsdale Helps The Freedom Riders

Fifty Years Ago: Scarsdale Helps The Freedom Riders

Overview: In March, 1962  The Westchester Committee for The Freedom Riders held a concert to help those who had participated in the Freedom Rides but were still languishing in jail. They were vociferously opposed by a small, but well known group of anti-communists.

Fifty Years Ago: Scarsdale Residents Aid the Freedom Riders Despite Vociferous Opposition.

In March 1962 a benefit to raise money for the Freedom Riders was held at Scarsdale High School. Pete Seeger, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee performed. The New York Times reported, “[A] racially mixed crowd of 1,282 persons filled the Scarsdale High School Auditorium.” Featured guests at the concert were Freedom Rider Reverend Austin McRaven Warner and Harold Taylor, the former President of Sarah Lawrence College. The secretary of the Westchester Committee for the Freedom Riders was Harriet Gelfan, a Scarsdale resident, housewife, and mother of six. The concert was necessary because Freedom Riders jailed in Mississippi in May 1961 had not yet posted bail and were still serving time at the notorious Parchman Farm. Their crime had been trying to integrate rest areas along southern highways that were supposed to be desegregated because they were federally controlled. The Freedom Riders had been brought to Mississippi under the protection of the Mississippi National Guard, by order of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, after their bus had been firebombed in Anniston, Alabama. They were promptly arrested in Mississippi for “creating a disturbance.”

The attempts of a few Westchester County residents to help the jailed Freedom Riders would have been lost to history except for the fact that the concert was vociferously opposed by a small group of anti-communists, led by the Scarsdale American Legion and Mrs. Otto E. Dohrenwend and Mrs. Theodore E. Wetzel, whom The New York Times identified as “Wives of Stock Brokers.” The women sued Scarsdale Public School Board District 1 to prevent the concert because it “created dissension at a time of great crisis,” according to their attorney, William A. Egan Jr. What made news was not the concert, but the lawsuit.

Mrs. Dohrenwend’s husband, Otto E. Dohenwrend, had been the leader of the infamous Committee of Ten, which charged that Scarsdale’s school system had been infiltrated by communism during the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s. According to Carol A. O’Connor’s Scarsdale: A Sort of Utopia: 1891-1981, the Committee of Ten had disrupted school board meetings in an effort to expose reading material they considered to be communist, particularly Howard Fast’s novel, Citizen Paine.

The plaintiffs in the Freedom Riders’ Concert case took issue with the communist background of Pete Seeger, and furthermore, accused featured performers Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee of knowingly supporting organizations that were known to be communist fronts. Sadly, it was easy to pin the “Red” label on those who had supported civil rights before World War II because the Communist Party was one of the only organizations in the United States to openly oppose lynching. The plaintiffs also accused Harriet Gelfan of being a Communist because she had been a member of the Institute of Pacific Relations and twice visited the Soviet Union in that capacity. During hearings led by the Senate Internal Security Committee in 1952, Mrs. Gelfan refused to acknowledge whether she had ever been a Communist, stating that her answer might incriminate her. Amidst the hyperbolic frenzy of the Red Scare, The New York Times had reported the story with the headline, “Woman Won’t Say If She Was a Red.” The ardor of the committee in going after Harriet Gelfan may have stemmed from the fact that her maiden name had been Moore, which was the same name as one of the founders of the Communist Party in the United States. Her former boss at the Institute, Edward G. Carter, had suggested to the Senate Committee that the charges against Mrs. Gelfan were “a case of mistaken identity.” The Institute of Pacific Relations had its nonprofit status revoked in 1952, but it was reinstated in 1960, presumably because the federal government did not consider it a communist front. This was not enough for the Scarsdale American Legion and Mrs. Dohrenwend and Mrs. Wetzel.

According to Harriet Gelfan’s son, Peter, the lawsuit seeking to prevent the Freedom Riders concert brought up painful memories for his mother and father, Dr. Samuel Gelfan. In 1952,when the charges of being a Communist were leveled at his wife, Dr. Gelfan had been a neuroscientist at Yale University. Amidst the controversy that followed his wife’s 1952 testimony, Dr. Gelfan lost his position at Yale. Years later the University apologized for its actions, but Dr. Gelfan’s promising career had already been destroyed. Despite what happened at Yale, Dr. Gelfan defended his wife, stating to the Scarsdale School Board that his wife was a loyal American and that “she does not have to wave a flag to prove it.”

The New York Times reported that ten picketers stood outside the concert with placards that read “Is this a Little Red School House?”; “Turn Left for Scarsdale”; “We’re not afraid of fallout, we’re afraid of Sellout”; and “Doing the Moscow Twist.” Mr. Dohrenwend was present outside the high school but not on the picket line. The court had ruled that the entertainers and Reverend McRaven could not give any speeches during the concert. Pete Seeger wore red socks in protest. The event raised $3,758.50, which was turned over to the Congress for Racial Equality. The money was used as intended, to defend those who had dared to bring attention to the continued existence of segregated rest areas on federal highways in an effort to demonstrate that southern states were violating federal laws.

In his biography of the King years Taylor Branch noted that the controversy over the Freedom Riders Concert in Scarsdale impacted the way both The F.B.I. and Dr.Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference handled the issue of Communism as it pertained to The Civil Rights Movement. The S.C.L.C. determined not to employ anyone with ties to The Communist Party and promplty fired the editor of its monthly magazine. F.B.I. Director J.Edgar Hoover took notice of how damaging the connection to Communism could be and encouraged his agents to increase efforts to connect Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his associates to The Communist Party, even if it had to fabricate evidence to do so.


Filed under Civil Rights in Scarsdale-Westchester County- New York