The history of the unprotected area south of Union Square for which we are seeking landmark protections is one where commerce and industry, art and culture, and politics and activism intersect in a way they do perhaps nowhere else. One bright example is civil rights and anti-war activist Igal Roodenko, a leader in a number of the most significant social movements of the twentieth century. Roodenko spent 20 months in federal prison for being a conscientious objector, and the year after his release was arrested while participating in the first Freedom Ride. For the next three decades, he served on the executive committee of the War Resisters League, the country’s oldest secular pacifist organization, and was an early figure in the gay rights movement. According to Roodenko’s recollections, he was also “a pretty good printer.” Roodenko’s print shop, where he helped serve the many causes and movements of which he was a critical part, was located at 36 East 10th Street — one of many points of intersection between the leftist and publishing histories of this unique and vibrant area.
Roodenko was born on February 8, 1917 to first-generation Jewish immigrants parents from Ukraine. Roodenko grew up in New York City speaking both Yiddish and English, and was raised a Zionist. According to the finding aid of the Igal Roodenko Papers held at Swarthmore College, Roodenko hoped to settle in Palestine, and pursued a degree in horticulture at Cornell, which he believed would facilitate this goal. However, by the time of the Second World War, Roodenko remembered, he had become “aware of the conflict between my pacifism and my Zionism, and then ceased being a nationalist.”
Roodenko spent his years at Cornell fighting for world peace, and when he received his World War II draft order in 1942, he began declaring his conscientious objection. By the following year, he was one of many conscientious objectors required to report to Civilian Public Service Camp #52 in Powellsville, Maryland. Roodenko later transferred to Civilian Public Service Camp #111 in Mancos, Colorado, where he joined campaigns to raise the minimum wage for camp workers, and to combat the camp’s censorship of workers’ mail and reading materials. While participating in a strike, he was arrested for his refusal to work and ended up serving twenty months in federal prison, from April 1945 to December 1946. Here he wrote letters to government officials and other figures about securing amnesty for imprisoned conscientious objectors, and received replies of support from Albert Einstein, Emily Greene Balch, Eric Sevareid, and Dorothy Thompson.
Roodenko was also a member of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial organization that emerged from the pacifist group Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1942. In 1947, CORE organized the “Journey of Reconciliation,” which sent sixteen black and white men through Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Mississippi to test the enforcement of a recent Supreme Court decision preventing racial segregation on interstate bus travel. Bayard Rustin, who lived below Roodenko’s apartment at 217 Mott Street, and who would become Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s chief advisor, was another member of the group. In North Carolina, both Rustin and Roodenko were among those arrested for sitting in interracial pairs in the white section of a bus.
The Journey of Reconciliation is today remembered as an early demonstration of the power of nonviolent action, which would go on to define future Freedom Rides and the civil rights movement as a whole. After his arrest, Roodenko wrote an article about his thirty day sentence, which involved serving on chain gangs. His piece went on to influence North Carolina’s subsequent decision to abolish the chain gang system.
In 1950, Roodenko established a press in New York City, which he maintained for the next twenty years. He had previously started the Libertarian Press with another formerly imprisoned conscientious objector named Dave Dellinger, which sought to publish authors who did not otherwise have opportunities to showcase their work, and to “help people live more sensibly and more beautifully.”
In his oral history, Roodenko remembers his own press, which by 1957 was located at 36 East 10th Street:
“The printshop was a marvelous excuse for not doing anything, because I was printing for the movement. I know in a historical perspective, we were being as courageous coming down to North Carolina in ’47 as others were in going down to Alabama in ’61, within its own context.”
Roodenko had a long relationship with the War Resisters League (WRL), serving on its executive committee from 1947 to 1977, and acting as Vice Chair from 1958 to 1968 and Chair from 1968 to 1972. In 1955, Roodenko prepared the WRL’s first annual “Peace Calendar,” likely using his print shop. As illuminated in a WRL article about the history of the Peace Calendar, “the calendar became a significant part of how people who cared about peace and justice encountered WRL, learned of our commitment to nonviolence, and joined us in the goal of ending war and the causes of war.”
Roodenko remained a staunch advocate for the anti-war and civil rights movements throughout his life. In 1963, he led the first demonstration against the United States military’s involvement in Vietnam, and in his later life he spoke openly about being gay and supported the Gay Liberation movement. Upon his death, Roodenko was part of the group Men of All Colors Together, which confronted racism in the gay community and sought to create an interracial, progressive gay men’s movement.
Igal Roodenko is one of many printers, activists, and leftists who called the neighborhood South of Union Square home. Check out our Leftist and Labor Tour, Civil Rights and Social Justice Tour, Publishing Tour, LGBTQ History Tour, and Jewish History Tour to learn more about the extraordinary people and places we have documented in this historic neighborhood. Here you will find a trailblazing labor organization at 80 Fifth Avenue, the New York City Woman Suffrage League at 10 East 14th Street, the headquarters of the NAACP at 70 Fifth Avenue, and much more:
1957-1961 City Directories, Ancestry.com