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The Scopes Monkey Trial and its origins in Greenwich Village, south of Union Square

On July 10, 1925, what would come to be known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial” began in Dayton, Tennessee. This sensational court case, organized by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), challenged the constitutionality of the Butler Act, a Tennessee law that prohibited the state’s public schools from teaching evolution. Garnering international attention, the case was the first trial to be broadcast live on the radio, giving millions a new awareness of the recently formed ACLU. Lesser known, however, is the case’s origins 800 miles from rural Tennessee — in Greenwich Village, and specifically the area south of Union Square (which we’re trying to get landmarked).

“Scopes Monkey Trial” showing Clarence Darrow (standing) conducting an interrogation of William Jennings Bryan (sitting) in the outdoor trial in Dayton, Tennessee, 1925. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Two buildings in this area played a key role in making this history-changing trial possible. Throughout the early-to-mid 20th century, the 12-story Beaux Arts-style office building at 70 Fifth Avenue was the home of a staggering array of political organizing and social activism. The many organizations located here included The Citizen’s National Committee for Sacco-Vanzetti, the American Friends of Spanish Democracy, the League for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, the League for Industrial Democracy, Students for A Democratic Society, the Woman’s Peace Party, the Church Peace Union (now the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs), the Relief Fund for the Women and Children in Serbia, the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief (now the Near East Foundation), the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, the New York City Teachers Union (the largest chapter of the American Federation of Teachers), and the NAACP.

70 Fifth Avenue, 2012

While located here, leaders of the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) founded the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB), which later became known as the ACLU. Led by Crystal Eastman, Lillian Wald, Oswald Garrison Villard, Norman Thomas, and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the AUAM advocated for peace policies while organizing public demonstrations to challenge mainstream opinions around peace. In 1917, Roger Baldwin began working with the AUAM, where he was responsible for developing legal defense for conscientious objectors. That same year, as the AUAM faced extreme pressure following the United States’ entrance into World War I, both Eastman and Baldwin worked to organize a separate legal bureau that would protect democratic rights throughout the wartime period. The Civil Liberties Bureau of the AUAM was formed in July 1917, becoming the National Civil Liberties Bureau, a separate organization with its own executive committee and staff by October. The NCLB was located in the same building as the AUAM, at 70 Fifth Avenue, where it worked to protect free press, free speech, freedom of assembly, and liberty of conscience. In 1920, the NCLB adopted a new name: the American Civil Liberties Union.

John Scopes, June 1925. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Located within a neighborhood at the center of the twentieth century’s radical political world, 70 Fifth Avenue was not simply a collection of individual offices. The building fostered an intimate community of like-minded progressive organizations that shared members and leaders, and collaborated with one another to fight for common causes. The “Scopes Monkey Trial” was no exception. Leo Casey, the Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute, writes that the New York City Teachers Union worked with the ACLU to prepare for the lawsuit. According to Casey, it was Henry Linville, the Teachers Union president, who recruited public school teacher John Scopes to challenge the law against teaching evolution in Tennessee schools, and who invited the ACLU to participate. The ACLU subsequently urged lawyer Clarence Darrow, a founder of the League for Industrial Democracy (also at 70 Fifth Avenue), to defend Scopes in the legal proceedings.

Around this time, John Scopes came to New York City and stayed at the Hotel Albert at 61-67 University Place/23 East 10th Street/40-52 East 11th Street. The Hotel, comprised of four buildings that have been combined over the years, was yet another crucial site in the history of American art, literature, music, and radical politics. Here, just two blocks south and one block east of 70 Fifth Avenue, Scopes met Darrow, an already legendary defense attorney for leftist and labor issues, for the first time.

Hotel Albert, 2020.

From July 10th until July 21st of 1925, Scopes and Darrow worked with ACLU General Counsel Arthur Garfield Hays (another one of the organization’s founding members) to argue before a jury in Dayton, Tennessee that the Butler Act was unconstitutional. The Bible, they argued, should not be construed as an authority on truth in a public institution. Simultaneously, the prosecution – led by former presidential candidate and Secretary of State, populist, and fundamentalist Christian William Jennings Bryan – sought to prove Scopes guilty of breaking the law.

After eight, sweltering hot days of an outdoor trial, the jury ultimately determined John Scopes to be guilty, and the court fined him $100. Though the ACLU hoped to propel the case all the way Supreme Court, a state supreme court reversal on the verdict brought resolution and struck down the law even sooner. Still, the pioneering, headlining case dramatically swayed public opinion against laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution, and led to the eradication of such laws in 22 states. Meanwhile, the events of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” were depicted in the 1955 play and its 1960 film adaptation Inherit the Wind.

Inherit the Wind film poster, 1960. Photo courtesy of cinemagia.ro.

Strikingly, a number of the people involved in the formation of the ACLU and the development of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” were residents of Greenwich Village, just a walk away from the Albert Hotel and 70 Fifth Avenue. Arthur Garfield Hays lived at 24 East 10th Street; Roger Baldwin, co-founder and director of the ACLU, lived at 282 West 11th Street; and Crystal Eastman, yet another ACLU co-founder, lived in a number of places throughout the neighborhood, including 27 West 11th Street and 115 Washington Place.

Today, the neighborhood South of Union Square – including 70 Fifth Avenue and the Hotel Albert – is facing increased development pressure, exacerbated by the construction of the 14th Street Tech Hub, the demolition of the St. Denis Hotel (80 East 10th Street), and the completion of the woefully out-of-scale tech office tower at 808 Broadway. The time is now for the city to act to protect this incredibly historically rich but endangered area.

Village Preservation has received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union SquareClick here to send your own letter of support.

To read more about our campaign and the history of 70 Fifth Avenue and the Hotel Albert, click here, here, and here. To learn more about Civil Rights and Social Justice sites in our neighborhoods, click here. To learn more about the Social Change Champions who lived in the Greenwich Village Historic District, check our our interactive map tour here.

Sources:

“ACLU History: the Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’,” ACLU

Crystal Eastman: A Revolutionary Life by Amy Aronson

In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU by Samuel Walker

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