The Writing on the Wall

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The writing on the wall of Squadron A Armory on 94th Street and Madison Avenue. Photo: JH.

Thursday, June 4, 2020. A nice sunny day, yesterday in New York, with temperatures in the upper 70s and some spritzes passing through (rain was predicted but it was brief and light). It’s the kind of weather that brings New Yorkers outside but the foot traffic is still light. Most commercial doors along the streets and avenues are still closed. The road traffic along the avenues and highways — West Side and FDR — were busy but lighter than usual for a midweek in New York.

Waiting for the light to change at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 85th Street, heading into the 86th Street transverse, I couldn’t resist a shot of nature’s sumptuous and rich bounty of green.

In my neighborhood there were lots of mothers and nannies out with their little ones, as well as people with their dogs to and from Carl Schurz Park. Nevertheless, the atmosphere is still fraught with fear. The apartment building directly across the way from me boarded up their first floor windows in the afternoon. These windows cover the rooms and offices of a school for children with hearing problems.

The boarded windows across the avenue from me, anticipating an out of control crowd of protesters.

I wondered why they were boarding the windows but at around 7:15 p.m. I was seeing a lot of people (not a crowd) walking up the avenue, like yesterday, toward the Mayor’s house. Checking it out with my camera I could see a very large crowd already assembled from the corner of 85th and East End all the way up to the front of the Mayoral property. From my photos I could see that the age range ran from the 20s well into the 60s.

As it was on Tuesday, I was unaware they were coming this way again. The greatest number of participants hadn’t arrived via the avenue as much as from the 86th Street environs. I had no idea what if anything was going on outside of Gracie Mansion. By 7:15 it occurred to me that the curfew for the night was less than 45 minutes away. Then at 7:30 I could hear chanting and it sounded like it was coming our way.

I rushed back out to the terrace where the assembled were now marching south on the Avenue.  It wasn’t the same size as Wednesday’s, but it must have been two or three thousand marchers passing by on their departure from the Mayor’s house.

View of the gathering protesters from 85th and East End looking toward 87th Street and the Mayor’s property.

The thing about these demonstrations of protests in the name of George Floyd is the reminder of previous events in our history.

These marching last night or the night before in this neighborhood were not looters and rabble, but honest protesters for “justice” — the one word you could hear from their group shouts.

Watching them pass by was for me, and no doubt many others of my contemporaries, a retrospective of the days of mass protests in the 1960s and early 1970s for Civil Rights and against the War in Vietnam. Millions of Americans participated in them and often frequently. And in August 28,1963, 57 years ago, more than A QUARTER MILLION Americans participated in the Great March on Washington.

The Great March was organized by Bayard Rustin and A Philip Randolph with an alliance of civil and economic rights for African-Americans. They gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his now immortal “I Have A Dream” speech. The march was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in US History. It was also credited with helping pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and later encouraged the Selma Voting Rights Movement which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Yesterday I received a message from Louise Mirrer, the President of the New-York Historical Society that next Monday, June 8th, at 6 p.m.:  “The social unrest we are experiencing in New York and around the country today contained threads from events in the past that go all the way back to the Civil War and beyond. Inspired by a suggestion from our Chairman Emeritus Roger Hertog, we’ll examine how American leadership has grappled with social unrest throughout history with a new, free online program on Monday, June 8th at 6 pm. A panel of  scholars — Harold Holzer, Randall Kennedy and John Farrell — will look at events like the the New York Draft Riots of 1863 and Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement protests.”

Ms. Mirrer’s message came with a rendering of a violent four-day riot in New York a hundred years before the Great March on Washington. Known as the Draft Riots, the largest civil uprising in our history, occurring on Monday, July 13, 1863, mobs wreaked havoc in the streets, looting, attacking police, soldiers and especially African-American civilians, setting fires to homes and businesses. The mobs ransacked and burned mansions along Fifth Avenue, and then turned their rage against African-Americans, beating and murdering innocent civilians as well as destroying their property.

The Riots in New York: Destruction of the Colored Orphan Asylum. Illustrated London News, August 15, 1863, p. 168. New-York Historical Society Library.

The issue of the revolt was the first Draft Law for the Civil War. Many poor and immigrant whites — largely of Irish descent — were afraid that if the North won the war, more African-Americans (slaves) would be free to move to New York and take the jobs of the immigrant Irish. Most horrendous was that they set fire to the Colored Orphan Asylum with more than 200 children inside. Amazingly the children all escaped but the building was completely destroyed — after the rioters helped themselves to the furniture and belongings of the children.

An image from the Illustrated London News shows the rioters and looters walking away with beds, mattresses and trunks, even baby clothes, and preventing Engine Company No. 18 from putting out the fire. More than 119, almost all people of color, were killed, many of whom were free African-Americans. Many of the children were sent to a building on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island).

Although Dr. King was murdered, his message in “I Have a Dream” remains our guide two generations later. It was visible early last evening as the thousands passed by our neighborhood.

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