Black History Month in the Village: The NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr.
February is Black History Month. We here at GVSHP are celebrating it by highlighting different sites and locations of significance to African-American history in the Village. A great source for this is our recently-released Civil Rights & Social Justice Map. Here are just two incredible entries from there:
NAACP Headquarters (former location), 69 5th Avenue
Did you know the NAACP’s headquarters used to be located right on the Village’s doorstep? For many years in the early 20th century the civil rights organization was headquartered at 69 Fifth Avenue (since demolished), just north of 14th Street. In the 1930’s the NAACP made great waves here by hanging a (now-iconic) flag stating “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.” They stubbornly kept the flag up for months even after being threatened with eviction by their landlord. On our civil rights map, we not only recount this but also discuss a contemporary action taken by artist Dread Scott referencing the NAACP’s protest.
“In 1936, the iconic image of a flag with the words “A man was lynched yesterday” was taken outside the NAACP’s headquarters at 5th Avenue and 14th Street. The organization boldly faced the country’s culture of violence toward people of color. The flag flew for two years before the owners of the building threatened to evict the organization if it was not removed. Though the headquarters building is no longer standing, many of the other buildings seen in the historic photo still exist. Artists continue to be inspired by this stark image. Artist Dread Scott, in reaction to police violence against black men, created an updated flag for an exhibition at the Jack Shainman gallery on 20th Street.”
Howard Bennett Residence, 11 Greenwich Avenue
Not too far from the former NAACP headquarters is the site of what GVSHP research indicates was the childhood home of a man who, while not a household name, had a major impact upon our country. It is here that we believe that Howard Bennett was born and lived in 1911. Bennett was the one-time Labor Chairman of the NAACP, but his most enduring legacy may be that he spearheaded the 15 year campaign to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday. From our map:
“Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, sparked a fifteen year campaign spearheaded by Howard Bennett to make his birthday a national holiday – the first ever honoring an African-American. While Bennett is most commonly associated with Harlem, where he spent most of his adult life, New York City historic records state that Bennett was born in Greenwich Village, and research by GVSHP strongly indicates that he and his family lived in a now-demolished tenement at 11 Greenwich Avenue during the first years of his life (in 1930 the building was replaced by the elegant pre-war apartment building One Christopher Street). The site is not far from Gay Street, long known for its African American residents, and “Little Africa,” which was centered around nearby Minetta Street and Minetta Lane. Like many African-Americans living in the Village at this time, Bennett and his family moved north, to Harlem, in the later 1910’s. After serving in the Pacific Theater during WWII, Bennett became a leader of the 369th Veterans Association, the organization of the famous “Harlem Hellfighters”. He also served as Labor Chairman of the New York Branch of the N.A.A.C.P. and was a consultant and confidant of labor leader of A. Philip Randolph. Bennett and a group of friends, after attending Dr. King’s funeral in Atlanta, conceived of the idea of making the civil rights leader’s birthday a national holiday. In April 1970, Bennett and others presented six million signatures to Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and Detroit Congressman John Conyers to make King’s birthday a national holiday, and they proceeded to introduce such a bill. According to Bennett’s writings, there was much resistance to the idea, and not just by those who did not share Dr. King’s beliefs — he claimed that supportive members of Congress were hesitant to lend their names to the bill as well. Congress finally voted on the proposed holiday in 1979, when it fell a few votes short of passage. Sadly, it was not until two years after Bennett’s death in 1981 that the bill finally passed congress with a veto-proof majority and was signed into law by President Reagan, who had initially opposed the measure. Originally celebrated on Dr. King’s actual birthday on January 15th, the holiday has been observed on the third Monday in January since 1986.”
Want to see more? Check out the map here — there are nearly one hundred entries covering a civil rights and social justice history, including, of course, African-American history.