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.
Listening to the political rhetoric of this year and hearing over again that we need to “make America great again” has got me to thinking. How good were the good old days? When was America and our cities great or at least greater than today? We tend to harken back to a time gone by and think nostalgically about those days. The problems never seemed as bad as the current ones. But were they? If we turn back the clock was this country better off 50 years ago than today?
So think back to 1966.
There was a war in South East Asia that would kill American soldiers at a rate of about 100 per week and ultimately spark violent protests in cities and across dozens of college campuses. Segregation was still very much a fact in this country including Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. Those of us who grew up in this community in the 1950s and 1960s never saw a black or Hispanic family unless we ventured below 14th Street. And speaking of Stuyvesant Town, there was no air conditioning in the hot summer months when temperatures sweltered into the 90s. But at least we had the fountains in the Oval to cool us, and of course the ever present Sam the ice cream man who stationed his pushcart on 20th Street across from Lenz’s.
By Sabina Mollot
Lee Lorch, the leader of Stuyvesant Town’s desegregation movement, who died on February 28, was honored this week in Albany with a resolution introduced by State Senator Brad Hoylman.
Unlike a bill, a resolution of this nature is something that’s passed by the entire legislative body, and in this case was done to honor Lorch’s legacy as a civil rights hero.
“It’s an opportunity for the Senate to acknowledge, in an official way, someone’s life work,” Hoylman explained.
He got the idea for the resolution after it was suggested to him by former ST-PCV Tenants Association President Al Doyle. Doyle brought it up after Lorch died at the age of 98.
Lorch, who had a long career as a mathematics professor, moved to Stuyvesant Town after serving in the Army’s Air Corps during World War II. He believed that Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village should have been open to non-whites and practiced what he preached by letting a black family live in his apartment for a year while he was away on a job at Penn State. He also, with a small group of neighbors, formed the Town and Village Tenants Committee to End Discrimination in Stuyvesant Town. The group eventually swelled to 1,800 members and after a succession of political and court battles with owner Met Life, Met backed down on its discriminatory leasing policy. However, this wasn’t before Lorch lost his job as a professor at City College and later other colleges due to his activism and he was still eventually driven out from his Stuy Town apartment. In 1959, he moved to Canada and remained there until his death.
In his presentation to his colleagues in the Senate, Hoylman described Lorch as “an unsung, great hero of the Civil Rights Movement” and “a man of great courage and conviction.”