35 East 12th Street: A Home for the National Negro Congress
As we continue to research the area south of Union Square, we uncover more incredibly important history along these streets. One example is the longtime presence of the National Negro Congress and the Southern Negro Youth Congress at 35 East 12th Streetreet.
This nine-story brick loft building was erected in 1896 by builder P. Gallagher and designed by Albert Wager. The building has a through-block connection with addresses at 50 East 13th Street and 35 East 12th Street. The address of 50 East 13th Street was widely known as the headquarters of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUS) through the 1930s. It was frequently involved in investigations by the House of UnAmerican Activities (HUAC). Quite interestingly, when the HUAC questioned defendants accused of involvement with the communist party about their presence at this location, they would deny ever having been to 35 East 12th Street but invoke the Fifth Amendment when specifically asked about 50 East 13th Street, even though the two are connected and essentially the same building. But the CPUS wasn’t the only group making and waves and affecting social change from this location.
From its beginnings in the 1930s, the National Negro Congress (NNC) was closely associated with the Communist Party in the USA, one of the few major political entities at the time which called for complete equality along the lines of race. The Congress was founded in response to the oppression Black men and women historically faced in the workforce, and quickly began working to address a whole range of issues facing African-Americans at the time. The Congress was developed following a meeting held at Howard University in 1935 to discuss the economic status of Black people in the United States.
The Congress fought for equal opportunities for Black people in the New Deal amid the Great Depression, but it went on to work towards much more. It joined forces with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), located at 70 Fifth Avenue from 1914 to ca. 1924, and then after that just up the block at 69 Fifth Avenue for over a decade, on many of its goals, including tirelessly fighting for passage of an anti-lynching bill. The NNC consistently fought for the President and Congress to support this bill and spoke out against those who opposed it. The NNC also protesting both retailers and universities that refused to admit Black people, and fought against discriminatory hiring practices locally.
While the National Negro Congress organized to address the issues facing black adults in the U.S., the neighboring organization at 35 East 12th Street was organized to address the needs and concerns of black youth. The Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) was actually born at the 1937 National Negro Congress convention.
The first meeting of the Southern Negro Youth Congress was held in Virginia. Five hundred thirty-four delegates represented 250,000 youths across 23 states with an estimated 2,000 observers. The SNYC was so important to the youth of the South that it garnered support from Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and W. E. B. DuBois. Its early members included Esther Cooper Jackson and James Jackson. The president of Howard University, Dr. Morderci Johnson, addressed the SNYC expressing his belief that the emergence of a new school of thought and a group of young people to push it forth would move society as a whole forward. Dr. Johnson said the greatest threat to America “is not Communism or Socialism, but the political situation in which most men are no longer free to express themselves – the shame of a man is to eat without working; to have without giving; to have community standing without service.” To better their entire community, two of the main problems the SNYC tackled were lynching and poll taxes. The Youth Congress remained active until 1949, with one of its offices located at 35 East 12th Street through the late 1930s.
The area south of Union Square for generations drew Black authors, writers, artists, and civil rights leaders. The work of the National Negro Congress and the Southern Negro Youth Congress furthered the civil rights movement tremendously, complementing the work of the NAACP, the International Workers Order, and many other civil rights groups embedded in the area south of Union Square.
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