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Fighting for Civil Rights at 80 Fifth Avenue

For its entire existence over twenty years, the International Worker’s Order’s (IWO) New York City headquarters was located at 80 Fifth Avenue. 80 Fifth Avenue, at 14th Street, is located in the historically rich but endangered area south of Union Square for which Village Preservation is seeking landmark protections. Our ongoing research about the area has uncovered the nearly-forgotten story of a prominent member of the IWO who worked out of 80 Fifth Avenue, whose experience embodies the groundbreaking work of the IWO, and the profound obstacles they faced in their social justice work.
80 Fifth Avenue, 1937. Photo courtesy of MCNY Digital Collections.

The IWO was a fraternal organization that worked to provide benefits such as quality health insurance for immigrants. At its height, the IWO had over 200,000 members. Though most of its members were not associated with the communist party, the governing politics of the IWO were viewed as communist. And many leaders of the IWO were also members of the communist party. In 1951 legal action was taken against the IWO by the State of New York; as a result, in 1952 six leaders of the IWO were deported. One of the six was Sam Milgrom, a Russian immigrant and the director of the IWO in New York City; he was denaturalized and deported to Minsk. Milgrom was deported on the grounds of involvement with the communist party. But what distinguished Milgrom’s work with the IWO was his steadfast support for African American civil rights and empowerment, as well as providing a progressive voice for Jews, which was so typical of the IWO.

Regarding “Negro History Week” to All National Society Secretaries; 1945. Letter courtesy of ArtStore Library. 

Black History week, or “Negro History Week”, was begun in 1926 by the noted Black historian and educator Carter G. Woodson. Woodson, who founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or the ASALH), chose the second week in February to coincide with both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln’s Birthdays. These were important dates of celebration for African Americans, and Woodson sought to build on this tradition and importance. Sam Milgrom, of the IWO, saw the importance of teaching and celebrating black history, and recognized it as one that is unmistakably part of the United States’ history which should be recognized as such.  

Portrait of American historian and educator Carter Godwin Woodson (1875 – 1950), 1910. Photo courtesy of Time Magazine.

Milgrom wrote to all the National Societies in the IWO across the United States and urged them to participate in the celebration of “Negro History Week.” He gave several pointers on how the Societies might go about celebrating this history. Milgrom encouraged the National Societies to invite Black leaders or educators to speak at their meetings on current issues, to write articles for their group paper on racial solidary and integration, and encouraged members to get involved in activities in Black communities. Sam Milgrom stated in 1945 that “full equality of the Negro people is a basic task for democracy for all” [New York Age, 1945]. Through Milgrom’s and the IWO’s efforts, over 5,000 Black men joined the organization by 1945. 

Milgrom was also in charge of the IWO’s involvement in “I Am An American Day” held on the third Sunday in May. The first “I Am An American Day” is believed to have been held on May 31, 1938, by Polish immigrant Mrs. Paul d’Otrenge Seghers. In 1940, Congress and FDR signed a joint resolution declaring the third Sunday in May “I Am An American Day”. This holiday was to celebrate newly naturalized citizens. In 1952, it was moved to September 17, to be celebrated along with Constitution Day. 

“I Am An American Day” Celebration Post Card 1945. Letter courtesy of Cornell Library. 

When mailing out these forms and encouraging participation in “I Am An American Day,” Milgrom encouraged reflection upon democratic principles, purchasing war bonds, and sending these signed forms to President Truman. This was a tactic used to help those still seeking citizenship and to demonstrate the IWO’s loyalty and commitment to democracy and the United States.

Sam Milgrom to Rubin Saltzman Regarding a Jewish Magazine, October 1944 (correspondence). Letter courtesy of Cornell Library.

In the 1940s, the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO) was the largest section of the IWO and had grown so large the order felt they needed their own publication. Milgrom encouraged the JPFO in this endeavor, stating that no such similar magazines were available to Jewish people. Milgrom also stated that every organization within the IWO should grow to the point of needing its own “organ” or publication. 

Milgrom and the IWO held meetings, published magazines, and wrote letters from the headquarters of 80 Fifth Avenue between 1930 and 1954. The organization fought for racial equality, fair treatment of immigrants, and social equity. However, such work made it the target of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which, along with the actions of New York State, led to it being disbanded in 1954. 

Village Preservation has recently received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union Square. For more information on the International Workers Order at 80 Fifth Avenue, please read the letter of support from Dr. Robert M. Zecker, Professor of History at Saint Francis Xavier University and the author of “A Road to Peace and Freedom”: The International Workers Order and the Struggle for Economic Justice and Civil Rights, 1930-1954.

To help landmark 80 Fifth Avenue and other buildings in this area, click here. To read more history of the buildings and area south of Union Square, and our preservation efforts in the area, click here. To learn more about Civil Rights and Social Justice sites in our neighborhood, click here.

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