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GVSHP’s First Historic Plaque, On First Street

This is an updated version of a previous post by Andito Lloyd.

On May 30, 2012, GVSHP officially launched its historic plaque program in partnership with the Two Boots Foundation with the unveiling of our very first plaque, commemorating 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. This first of what are now nine plaques throughout our neighborhoods (see them all here) was placed on the building at 50 East First Street in 2012. Join us for the unveiling of our tenth plaque on June 20 at 27 Cooper Square — learn more and RSVP here. In commemoration of that wonderful beginning, we thought we’d look at who Justus Schwab was, and why he was worthy of a plaque.

“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… 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. At one point she listed her return address as 50 East First Street. 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.

The 1874 Tompkins Square Riot.

“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 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.” 

The New York Times, December 21, 1900
Explore all our historic plaques from West to East Village here, and don't miss out on the opportunity to join us for our tenth plaque unveiling on June 20 at 27 Cooper Square by RSVPing here.

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