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Henry Moskowitz – Social Worker, Civic Leader and a Founder of the NAACP
Editor’s Note: In response to the Springfield riot of 1908, a group of black and white activists, Jews and gentiles, met in New York City to address the deteriorating status of African Americans. Among the participants were veterans of the Niagara Movement (a civil rights group), suffragists, social workers, labor reformers, philanthropists, socialists, anti-imperialists, educators, clergymen, and journalists—some with roots in abolitionism. In the abolitionist tradition, they proposed to fight the new color-caste system with a “new abolition movement”—the result: The founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP pledged “to promote equality of rights and eradicate caste or race prejudice among citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for their children, employment according to their ability, and complete equality before the law.” The NAACP pursued this mission through a variety of tactics including legal action, lobbying, peaceful protest, and publicity. Henry Moskowitz (September 25, 1879 – December 18, 1936) was a leading member of this original group of white activists. Source: The Library of Congress > Exhibitions – https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/naacp/founding-and-early-years.html (Accessed: February 22, 2016)
Introduction: As noted above, the violent mob attack on black residents of Springfield, Illinois in 1908 galvanized a handful of progressive white social activists to reach out to African American leaders. Socialist William English Walling, settlement house worker Mary White Ovington, Jewish social worker Henry Moskowitz, and Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of The Nation, circulated “The Call” to protest the rise of racial violence and discrimination around the nation. They were joined in this venture by black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois. Long a critic of the “social uplift” agenda advocated by black educator Booker T. Washington, Du Bois saw the NAACP as both an opportunity to re-invigorate demands for full black civil rights and an important reminder of the national dimensions of Jim Crow. After a series of meetings held in 1909 and 1910, the NAACP emerged as an organization dedicated to protesting racial inequality in American public life.
Early Career: Henry Moskowitz (1879–1936), a Romanian Jewish émigréHenry was born on September 25, 1879 in Romania. He migrated to the United States in 1883. He attended the New York City public schools and then graduated from the City College of New York in 1899. In 1906 he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Erlangen in Germany. As a youth, he attended the University Settlement’s boys’ club. University Settlement was a community center designed to serve the poor immigrants living in the Lower East Side. Like other settlements of the time, University Settlement provided educational and recreational activities for children and adults. It also became a site for fostering social reform and activism. It was there he met fellow socialist William English Walling, with whom he later traveled to Eastern Europe in 1905 to study social and economic conditions.
The Origin of the NAACP: As noted above, for two days in the summer of 1908, a mob of white people, including some of Springfield’s “best citizens,” raged against the African-Americans of their city. As they killed and wounded them, and destroyed their homes and businesses, these racists shouted, “Lincoln freed you. Now we’ll show you where you belong!” The Origin of the NAACP. William English Walling and his wife, who were living in Chicago at the time decided to visited Springfield and investigate. Walling then wrote an article in the liberal journal The Independent describing the riot and the conditions of Black people in the area. There were other race riots throughout the country during this period, but no one described the atrocities as vividly as Walling did in his article, “Race War in the North.” He also asked an important question: “Yet who realizes the seriousness of the situation, and what large and powerful body of citizens is ready to come to their aid?”
Walling’s description of the race riot shocked many reformers and activists around the nation, including his friend and colleague Henry Moskowitz, and Mary White Ovington. After reading Walling’s article, Ovington, who for years had been studying the housing conditions, health, and work opportunities of African-Americans in New York City, and lived in one of their neighborhood tenements, wrote to Walling: “The spirit of the abolitionists must be revived.” The trio, having decided to call for a conference, reached out to Oswald Garrison Villard, president of the NY Evening Post, grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and member of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. It was he who drafted the “Call for the Lincoln Emancipation Conference to “Discuss Means for Securing Political and Civil Equality for the Negro” and widely disseminated it.
Later Career: In 1914, Moskowitz married Belle Lindner Israels (1877–1933). Moskowitz was a community leader and served on the Municipal Civic Service Commission and as Commissioner of Public Markets in New York City. He was also involved in several Jewish civic organizations and was founding executive director of the League of New York Theaters (today the organization that produces the Tony Awards). Henry Moskowitz was active in the Ethical Culture Society as an associate leader, and from 1913 to 1917 he served as chairman of several New York commissions. A close associate of Governor Alfred E. Smith, he coauthored Smith’s biography. Moskowitz’s involvement in the NAACP was indicative of early Jewish support; Lillian Wald, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsh, and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise were also founders. The Spingarn brothers served as officers, and Jacob Schiff, Julius Rosenwald, and Herbert Lehman contributed funds. Henry Moskowitz died December 18, 1936.