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Help Us Celebrate Justus Schwab!

“On Saturdays when I did not have to lecture, we used to visit the saloon of Justus Schwab, the most famous radical center in New York. Schwab was the traditional Teuton in appearance, over six feet tall, broad-chested, and strait as a tree. On his wide shoulders and strong neck rested a magnificent head, framed in curly red hair and beard. His eyes were full of fire and intensity. But it was his voice, deep and tender, that was his peculiar characteristic. It would have made him famous if he had chosen an operatic career. Justus was too much the rebel and the dreamer, however, to care about such things. The rear room of his little place on First Street was a Mecca for French Communards, Spanish and Italian refugees, Russian politicals, and German socialists and anarchists who had escaped the iron heel of Bismarck. Everyone gathered at Justus’. Justus, as we affectionately called him, was the comrade, adviser, and friend of all.  The circle was interspersed with many Americans, among them writers and artists. John Swinton, Ambrose Bierce, James Huneker, Sadakichi Hartmann, and other literati loved to listen to Justus’s golden voice, drink his delicious beer and wine, and argue world-problems far into the night.”

These are the words of anarchist Emma Goldman (1869-1940) used to describe her friend Justus H. Schwab and his saloon at 50 East First Street in her autobiography, Living My Life.

To commemorate the life of Justus H. Schwab and the role he played in the social movements that shaped the East Village and the Lower East Side in the late 19th century, GVSHP and the Two Boots Foundation will have a ceremony on Wednesday, May 30 at 6 p.m. unveiling a plaque on the building at 50 East First Street. The celebration will feature live folk music and Two Boots Pizza and is open to all.  To learn more about Justus and his saloon, please keep reading.

 Justus H. Schwab (1847-1900) was a German born immigrant who came to the United  States in 1869.  Trained as a mason he found himself out of work, like so many others, following the financial Panic of 1873.  He joined the German Workingmen’s Association and demanded that the City provide aid to the throngs of unemployed affected by the depression. On January 13, 1874 an estimated 10,000 workers gathered in Tompkins Square Park, including 1,200 members of the German Workingmen’s Association, to peacefully demonstrate for their cause the creation of a public works program to create jobs.  Without the organizers’ knowledge, their permit to assemble in the park had been revoked and they faced 1,600 policemen who brutally dispersed the crowd.  After the police attacked the demonstrators, one man defiantly marched through the park waving a red flag while singing La Marsellaise and was quickly arrested.

“One tawny-bearded, magnificent-looking man, who reminded some people of a hero in a Wagnerian opera, carried a red flag.  Such a flag had long been a symbol of defiance in France in 1790 and in 1791.  The flag carrier was Justus Schwab, a former mason well known among German refugees.” – America Before Welfare, Franklin Folsom

Schwab’s Saloon

Schwab soon opened a saloon at 50 East 1st Street, the building at which he also resided with his family.  The saloon became a home base for like-minded radicals.  His saloon had a library, featured lively performances, and was where many revolutionaries were such regulars that they received there mail there.  Samuel Gompers described the saloon as “the post office and information center for the underground of revolution.”

Schwab’s activism did not end with the riot at Tompkins Square Park.  He became a member of the Socialist Labour Party, was an editor of Johann Most’s anarchist newspaper Freiheit (Freedom), and was the delegate for the Social Revolutionary Club of New York at the 1881 Chicago Congress of Social Revolutionaries.

In 1895 Schwab became ill with tuberculosis and never fully recovered.   He died on December 18, 1900.  This account of his funeral procession from The New York Times gives an impression of how much Schwab meant to the community of the East Village and Lower East Side:

“As the hearse started slowly down Second Avenue, followed by a few carriages, nearly 2,000 people many of them in tears fell in line behind it.  The procession passed the little saloon where Schwab had lived and then proceeded slowly to the ferry at the foot of East Houston Street. All along the route the windows of the tenements were filled with people.” 

Please join us on May, 30 at 6p.m. at 50 East 1st Street for the unveiling of the plaque honoring the remarkable Justus H. Schwab

For a little more history of this block and its role as the “nexus of the universe,” click HERE.  For more about the labor activism in the Village please read this previous post.

And, don’t forget that the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District will have a hearing before the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday, June 26.


4 responses to “Help Us Celebrate Justus Schwab!

  1. I lived in 50 East 1st as a little boy with my father stepmother brother and a sister for several years. It was a great place to grow up in. I used to clean the Bochi courts to earn my keep. Everyone knew each other. And it was very family oriented. Church Of All nations was a Mecca for kids. When they tour down the building we lost a part of our history. Roy Rodgers donated the money to build the swimming pool where I learned to swim.

  2. I lived at 50 E. 1st St. for several years in the early 1970s. It was a hippie commune, with residents expressing many radical views. I’m sure none knew of its storied history.

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