By Sabina Mollot
Even seven decades later, the fact that Stuyvesant Town was the site of an epic battle for racial equality is well known among the complex’s residents. It is, after all, hard to forget how members of the community first developed their reputations as fighters, warriors even against formidable opponents, when the cause is important enough.
What perhaps not everyone knows is that it was mainly 21 activist families who’d put their own leases on the line by demanding the landlord, then Metropolitan Life, de-segregate the complex and allow black veterans to move in. This activist group, the Committee to End Discrimination in Stuyvesant Town, was led by Lee Lorch, a mathematics professor who’d allowed a black family, the Hendrixes, to live in his apartment when he left to teach at Penn State. The late Lorch is still a well-known figure, at least by historians and local activists. But little has been said over the decades about the Hendrixes’ role in the story, specifically their quiet brand of activism, simply living their lives — albeit illegally — in Stuyvesant Town.
The members of the Hendrix family (Hardine, his wife Raphael and their son Hardine Jr.), like Lorch, are now deceased, Hardine Jr. having died before his parents in a car accident. Hardine, an army veteran, died in 1999 at the age of 78 and is now buried at Calverton, a brief bio on the website ancientfaces.com states.
As for the family’s younger years, prior to moving into Lorch’s apartment, the Hendrixes stayed in the Stuy Town home of Jesse Kessler while he and his family were on vacation, Town & Village reported in September, 1949. When the Kesslers returned from a vacation, Lorch offered the use of his apartment on East 14th Street. A 2010 Times article by Charles Bagli noted that prior to moving to Stuyvesant Town, the Hendrixes had lived in a cramped, rat-infested apartment in Harlem.
In a recent interview with Town & Village, Alice Lorch-Bartels, Lee Lorch’s daughter, remembered when her family left their apartment to the Hendrixes. This was after her father’s activist efforts had cost him a teaching job at City College and he moved on to Penn State to become an assistant math professor. But before Lorch found housing for his family in Pennsylvania, Raphael and Hardine Jr. moved in with Lorch’s wife Grace and the young Lorch-Bartels temporarily. Hardine stayed elsewhere.
Lorch-Bartels remembered Hardine Jr., who was nicknamed Dean, as “a really nice kid, very gentle.” The two children, who were the same age, especially appreciated each other’s company as neither had any siblings. She also recalled Raphael, known to her as Ray, as being quite friendly, although Lorch-Bartels didn’t know the elder Hardine too well as he would be out working all day. A 2006 Times article by Amy Fox says at that time Hardine was an art student who worked in a warehouse.
Through staying in touch with the family over the years, Lorch-Bartels learned about Hardine Jr.’s death, that he’d been married and that his parents had gotten divorced. This was by 1974, when Raphael came to Lorch-Bartels’s mother’s funeral.
“She was very active and she was very present in my memories of what was going on in Stuyvesant Town, things I saw like meetings,” Lorch-Bartels said of Raphael. “My mother and she got on very well and I think my mom was very glad to have her company. It was kind of a tough time for her and a tough time for the Hendrixes, too.”
But despite the ongoing pressure from the landlord, there was no harassment of the Hendrixes by neighbors.
“The residents were very supportive,” said Lorch-Bartels. “They had a (survey asking about integrating Stuyvesant Town), but before that they did a random sampling and those were all veterans. Among the veterans, there was hardly anybody who wasn’t in favor of integration.”
Because the numbers were so high, the activists assumed that they must have done something wrong.
“So they did it twice,” said Lorch-Bartels. “They (the tenants) weren’t all active,” she added, “but I don’t know that anybody refused to sign the petition. One of the people in Peter Cooper was Karl Malden, the actor, who was very supportive as well.”
Lorch-Bartels, added that it was women, including her mother and Raphael, who were the real driving force behind Stuy Town’s integration movement.
“The women were really the main organizers,” she said. “The men were supportive but it was mainly the women that did everything. The men had a more prominent role in the end when things were becoming more political. I’m sure that was because the men would be taken more seriously.”
And things definitely got political. And more serious.
“When (my father) had the job at Penn State, they made him an offer: you can keep your job if you kick out the Hendrixes,” said Lorch-Bartels.
Ultimately, Lorch lost his job and his apartment in an eventual agreement reached with the owner that allowed the Hendrixes to stay as legitimate tenants if the Lorches agreed to move out.
Reflecting on her family’s consent to leave Stuy Town, Lorch-Bartels said while her father had wanted to remain in New York, where he had relatives, “It wasn’t a loss. Because the Hendrixes could stay. It was a win.”
Liz Fox, another former resident who experienced the integration efforts through the eyes of a child, also spoke with Town & Village about her memories of the Hendrixes.
Fox recalled how not long after moving in with her family when she was three, her parents got involved in the Committee to End Discrimination and she had a number of play dates with Hardine Jr., who was roughly her age. In playgrounds and in apartments, the children played while their parents strategized.
“My memories are of the families getting together and we were involved in the protest activity,” Fox said. “I don’t think there were a lot of children my age, and my parents made a point of my getting to know Dean and we had some play dates. I remember (Dean’s parents) as soft-spoken. They were lovely people and they were identified as a good potential family to move into Lee Lorch’s apartment. It was illegal to sub-let to anyone black or white, and this was a test case to see what would happen and Met Life did not like that.”
In the 1949 T&V article, Lorch denied the arrangement was a sub-let because he wasn’t accepting rent money from the Hendrixes. But apparently Metropolitan Life disagreed and eventually began the process of evicting Lorch as well as the other activist families.
In a 2010 interview conducted with Lorch by Stuyvesant Town resident William Kelly for use in an upcoming documentary, “The Burden of Eden,” the professor described Metropolitan’s no-nonsense methods.
“In our case and in the case of the Hendrixes, they served eviction notices on the husband, the wife and the child, the five-year-old child. Each had their own eviction notice,” Lorch said.
But then, on the day the tenants were supposed to vacate, labor leaders joined tenants in their apartments and those apartments were stocked with food for the impending crisis.
Fox was six years old when this happened. She recalled how half of the targeted families, feeling the pressure from the landlord, had moved away by then, while the rest were given eviction notices. It was the day of the eviction when the landlord folded in the face of tenants’ very public protests.
“There was support from the unions and the police never came around,” said Fox, whose family was amongst those given the boot. Not knowing what to expect, the men of the house had stayed home that day while their wives and children went elsewhere. So while Fox didn’t witness any actual rallying, she said, “My understanding was the unions were surrounding them and it was pretty intense or I don’t think they would have backed off.”
The evictions were also stopped with the intervention of the City Council whose president Rudolph Halley negotiated with Metropolitan.
As T&V reported on January 24, 1952, “Persons close to these negotiations express no doubt that the insurance company felt, in the face of the violent public reaction, that it was in a ‘tight spot’ and was relieved when the intervention of Mr. Halley presented a mechanism of ‘getting off the hook’ in an acceptable manner.”
Previously, the tenants had their appeal to the evictions denied in a Municipal Court, which ruled in 1951 that the insurance company had a right to refuse to renew leases.
Additionally, along with the landlord, there were some tenants who were not in favor of integration. While there was no confrontation between black and white residents that Fox is aware of, she described a kind of tension at times, “a feeling of being ostracized, like, ‘Why are you trying to ruin this beautiful place?’”
However, those with this view were in the minority. In the documentary interview, Lorch discussed how tenants had conducted a survey to ask neighbors what they thought of Metropolitan Life’s no-negroes policy. The results, which were published in Town & Village, showed that two thirds of the population opposed it.
Of course, even among those that were in favor, not everyone wanted to get involved in the fight.
“People were supportive but afraid and wouldn’t participate. Not everyone has that inner strength,” said Fox. Asked if she thought people today would stick their necks out for their neighbors as the early activists did, risking their affordable apartments, Fox, who now lives in Boulder, Colorado, said it was hard to say.
“I think there was something about that generation,” said Fox. “People were willing to put everything on the line. They were in World War II and this wasn’t much later.”
She noted how her own father was disturbed to see “whites only” signs when he was stationed in Mississippi, as opposed to how in New York, racial discrimination was less obvious.
Lorch-Bartels took a similar view, saying being in favor of integration wasn’t an unpopular position to take.
“The committee was quite a lot of people,” she said. “The veterans were all in it together in a sense. It was my dad’s job and apartment so he got the most credit, but a lot of people had the right mindset. A lot of people don’t understand that; they think everyone in the 1950s were jerks.”
Lorch-Bartels is a resident of Ontario, Canada, where her father also lived his later years, after being unable to find teaching work in the United States.
Fox recently published a book that makes mention of her parents’ activism in the community, We Are Going to be Lucky — A WWII Love Story in Letters.
Kelly’s documentary, “Burden of Eden” is currently in the late stages of production.