The 1870’s were difficult years for our Nation. Economic depression had hit Europe and on September 18, 1873, it reached the U.S. with the failure of banking firm Jay Cooke and Company, which had been the main backer of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The country went into a steep economic downward spiral in what is known as the Panic of 1873. Particular animosities developed between railroad workers and the industry leaders, as unemployment grew and the railroad companies continued to cut jobs and decrease wages while increasing work hours. In July of 1877, workers received their second wage cut of the year by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. On July 14, railroad employees in Martinsburg, West Virginia, began what came to be known as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. The strike spread all over the country, completely halting freight traffic and spurring violence in various outposts. While New York was not known for being one of the country’s main hubs of agitation around railroad workers, an event in the East Village that year, inspired by the plight of these workers, left an indelible mark upon the neighborhood.
On July 25, 1877, twenty thousand people gathered in Tompkins Square Park to hear communist orators speak about revolution, the strike, and the policies of President Hayes. All speeches were repeated in German at a second stand, as the neighborhood had such a large German population at that time. One day earlier, the Working Men’s Organization of New York (an outpost of the international organization of union leaders that brought together anarchist, communist, and socialist political groups on the basis of class struggle and the working man) had obtained permission from Parks Commissioner Martin to hold this public meeting so long as it remained peaceful. David Conroy, Chairman of the WMO in NYC, in his written request to Mr. Martin, stated that the purpose of the meeting was to “harmonize the differences between the strikers and the railroad companies, and to urge the citizen soldiery to refrain from acting against the strikers.” Further, a NY Times article quoted him as saying that he “wanted the National Government to buy up the railroads and run them in the interest of the working men.” The twenty thousand attendees hoped to see a socialist republic in the U.S. According to Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States, the last words spoken on the platform that day were “Whatever we poor men may not have, we have free speech, and no one can take it from us.” New York City police and National Guardsmen then charged the crowd with billy clubs, later claiming that the rally had gotten out of hand and was not being held in a peaceful manner.
In the wake of this “riot,” the City, in conjunction with the War Department, established an official city armory program led by the 7th Regiment. Union and labor leaders were up in arms about this military intervention, but, nonetheless, a huge armory was built between 66th and 67th Streets to house this new troop. Today we know this as the Park Avenue Armory.
The Tompkins Square Communist Rally may have lasted just a few hours, but it only further cemented the park’s and the East Village’s status as a melting pot of free speech and radicalism. To learn more about the neighborhood and what you can do to help protect its rich cultural and architectural history, visit our East Village Preservation page.