In these uncertain times, I’m finding it especially useful (and comforting) to remember days gone by – days, and people, who railed against the status quo, tirelessly pushed for progress, and stepped boldly into territory unconventional and untrod. Greenwich Village, luckily for us, was (and still is) home to scores of just such people. One of these characters is Arthur Garfield Hays. And, for that matter, the entire Hays family.
We’ll start with Arthur. Born on December 12, 1881 in Rochester, New York, he graduated from Columbia Law School in 1905 and started a firm with a couple of his classmates. During World War I, Hays and his firm gained notoriety for their involvement in cases of ethnic and racial discrimination – they often fought for the civil liberties of German immigrants and German-Americans, who found themselves discriminated against amid anti-German fervor in the U.S. Amid concerns of mounting “red scare” anti-communist witch hunts in America, Hays co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union, where he was the organization’s first general counsel. At the helm of the ACLU, he participated in landmark cases including the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 (questioning a teacher’s right to teach evolution in the classroom), the defense of due process for Sacco and Vanzetti (the defense team apparently met at landmark Webster Hall, too), and the Scottsboro trials – a series of trials involving nine young Black men in Alabama, who were accused of raping two White women in 1931. This trial was appealed many times, one of the accusers eventually rescinded her claims, and the ordeal even forced the stipulation that juries cannot be entirely comprised of White jurors. Charges were dropped for four of the defendants but all nine lives were irreparably damaged, and today the Scottsboro trials are considered a grave miscarriage of justice.
Hays even championed civil liberties overseas. In 1933, he traveled to Berlin to attend the Reichstag trial, where then-Chancellor Adolf Hitler was advocating for the suspension of the civil liberties of accused arsonists, who had allegedly set fire to the Reichstag, the German parliament. In Germany, this trial was used by the Nazi party to demonstrate how dangerous the communist party had become in the country. Hitler and the Nazi Party advocated for swift, extrajudicial action to silence the Reichstag arsonists and other communist sentiment. Ultimately, one confessed arsonist was found guilty and executed. A number of other accused communists, including the man for whom Hays was attending the trial, were exonerated. Of course, we know now that the Nazi Party would only heighten their assault on justice, civil liberties, and due process. Arthur Hays was at the forefront of the opposition of that trend, both in Europe and America.
Hays legal career continued long after World War II until his death in late 1954. It even included writing and filing the ACLU’s brief in support of the plaintiffs in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, which was decided just months before he died and ultimately led to the end of legal segregation in the United States
Hays wrote extensively on his beliefs. In his essay “Freedom is a Social Necessity” he says it about as plainly as can be: “I believe in the right of anyone to express any opinion, no matter how wild, radical, blasphemous, or loathsome such opinion might be; and no matter how unpopular, vicious, or discredited the speaker may be…. Thought must be free.” It makes perfect sense that Hays would set down roots in Greenwich Village, the epicenter of free thought and unconventional living. Many peers have said that the Hays family home was a welcoming Village salon – somewhere that fellow lawyers, NAACP leadership, or other neighborhood progressives could drop in for advice and discussion.
And this open atmosphere was cultivated not only by Arthur but by the rest of his family, too. In 1908, he married Blanche Marks in 1908 – she was involved in the Provincetown Players scene and counted among her friends and colleagues luminaries including Eugene O’Neill, Man Ray, Elsa Schiaparelli, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. She aspired to be an actress but worked more often on the side of activism and patronage. She spend her life immersed in the arts and theatre world, and was immortalized in the Academy Award-winning movie Reds, in which she is interviewed.
Arthur and Blanche divorced in 1924, and Arthur remarried to a woman named Aline Davis. Aline was also deeply involved in the culture of the Village and activism. Among other efforts, she was the first president of the League of Women Shoppers, a middle-class feminist organization that used the privilege and influence of its members to fight for fair labor practice and highlight workers’ struggles. Aline held many meetings for this organization in the Hays home on West 9th Street, or perhaps at 24 East 10th Street, where Arthur spent his later years. No matter the exact address, the Hays home must have gained quite the neighborhood reputation as a welcoming refuge and salon.
But the Village legacy doesn’t stop with Arthur and his wives. Both marriages produced children who became lifelong Villagers, including Lora Hays, daughter of Blanche and Arthur. Lora, following in her mother’s footsteps, cared deeply for the arts. She was a filmmaker, video editor, mentor, professor, and tireless social activist. She had an incredibly long career with many highlights, including editing a number of episodes of “You Are There” (hosted by Walter Cronkite). She lent her distinctive Hays style and depth to other documentary projects including “The Berkeley Rebels,” “16 in Webster Groves,” “From Montgomery to Memphis,” “Harlan County, USA” (Academy Award for best documentary in 1976) and “The Last to Know,” which premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1981. She grew up in the Hays home on West 9th Street, lived several places in the Village along the way, and spent the last 30 years of her life at 55 East 9th Street. Lora epitomized the Village lifestyle, always connecting people to each other, artfully crafting dinner parties, and mobilizing those around her to act, speak up, and make a difference. Lora died in 2009, but well into her ’90s she was still walking up to the Union Square Greenmarket and biking along the Hudson River.
I was lucky enough to speak personally with Lora’s daughter, Kate, who grew up on Bank Street, and Kate’s son Eliot who is, coincidentally, a historic preservationist living in Vermont and specializing in historic barns. The entire family speaks so highly of the legacy started by Arthur, Blanche, and Aline. Kate Hays fondly remembers her grandfather Arthur, whom she says everyone in the family called “The Chief.”And it’s not just his family who treasure Arthur Hays’ contributions to the Village, law, and civil rights advocacy. In 1958, NYU established The Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program, which awards fellowships to a small group of third-year students especially committed to civil liberties. Lora Hays was also deeply involved in the program and NYU’s film school, and in 1991 she produced a video showing the impact of the Hays Civil Liberties Program. Each year, the video is shown to all program applicants. There is a also a Hays room at the NYU Law School, which is full of memorabilia and information related to Hays’ career. Recently, Eliot Hays Lothrop brought his own children to tour the Hays room.
This week marks the anniversaries of both Arthur G. Hays’ birth on December 12, 1881 and his death on December 14, 1954. But as I mentioned earlier, I can’t think of a better time to ruminate on the Village’s history as an incubator for free thinking, activism, and progress. We’re lucky to count among us such tireless defenders of freedom and individual rights. And calling all Villagers – we just might find the need for more Arthur G. Hays’s in our near future.
Want to learn more about Arthur Garfield Hays and other Village civil rights and social justice pioneers? Check out GVSHP’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Map.