New York’s Fifth Avenue rarely conjures up images of radicals or revolutionaries; it’s more commonly associated with high-end shopping, well-heeled cultural institutions, and corporate headquarters. But cross 14th Street, and all that changes, especially if you step back into the 20th and 19th centuries, when Fifth Avenue south of that great dividing line (and South of Union Square) was one of the most “subversive” addresses in America.
In the latter part of the nineteenth and for much of the twentieth centuries, the area South of Union Square was a great mecca for socialists, communists, and union organizers. On Fifth Avenue, unions and and other organizations located in architecturally striking buildings used their voice to advocate for workers, marginalized communities, and artists. The sheer number of organizations located investigated by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 20th century would seem to convey a virtual Bolshevik Revolution brewing right here. In fact, many of these organizations were simply advocating for changes many workers and average citizens of the country aspired to see implemented.
One example is the Trade Union Conference, which took place in the summer of 1933. The committee for this conference was located in the same building as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 70 Fifth Avenue. The conference sought to shed light upon the shortcomings of the New Deal for the American worker. Today we look back to the New Deal with admiration as a major aid in getting the country out of the Great Depression and in putting millions of Americans back to work. However, at the time, some of those workers viewed the effort differently.
Some Trade Unionists took issue with the large sum of money the first part of the New Deal gave to banks, railroads, and insurance companies, while unemployment insurance and wages were cut. By 1940, though Roosevelt had been reelected, many Americans felt the New Deal had failed (in fact, many would argue that ultimately it was World War II, not the New Deal, which fully brought the United States out of the Depression). Many Americans were still out of work, and those who were back to work were in some cases receiving a very low wage. Additionally, welfare didn’t reach many workers, and the New Deal disproportionately helped White people rather than Black people. Under the New Deal, Black men were segregated, and when the New Deal eventually began to help women, it undeniably neglected Black women. And though the New Deal reversed the Dawes Act of 1887 and sought to preserve Native traditions, it also did little to help the economic situation of the indigenous people.
Just to the south at 64-66 Fifth Avenue, the first Dance Congress League was held in the spring of 1933. Dancers had little authority over their work, had no union to turn to, didn’t have a typical scale for payment, and didn’t have a way to define a “professional dancer.” This congress was a call to action for dancers and performers to address their professional life’s ambiguity. The end goal was to unite a professional organization of dancers across the United States, address the economic insecurities of dancers, and get the audience involved in the great aspects of American dance. Of notable involvement and leadership in the Dance Congress were Martha Graham, the founder of the Martha Graham studio at 64-66 Fifth Avenue, and Anna Sokolow, “the rebellious spirit of modern dance” who studied and taught here.
From this location, Martha Graham not only helped dancers find their voice, but she used hers to decline a Nazi invitation to dance in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Martha wrote, “I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time. So many artists whom I respect and admire have been persecuted, have been deprived of their right to work, and for such unsatisfactory and ridiculous reasons, that I should consider it impossible to identify myself, by accepting the invitation, with the regime that has made such things possible.” Graham’s name also repeatedly appeared in HUAC reports over the course of the later 1930s and 40s.
These and many other organizations and individuals located on these blocks were investigated by the HUAC. They were investigated on the grounds that they were tied to the Communist Party, spreading un-American propaganda, and/or were infiltrated by foreign countries looking to attack the rights guaranteed by the constitution.
Some other organizations and publications in this area that were investigated by the HUAC were the Communist Workers School at 35 E 12th Street, the Garland Fund at 2 West 13th Street, Labor research association at 80 East 11th Street, Progressive Women’s Council at 80 East 11th Street, Southern Tenant Farmers Union at 50 E 12th Street, Young Pioneers (communist subsidiary) at 80 Fifth Avenue, Defense Committee for Civil Rights for Communists at 799 Broadway, Working Woman (published by the Communist Party) at 50 East 13th Street, and Il Nuovo Mondo (an Italian newspaper) at 85 East 10th Street. Click here to explore our leftist and labor tour to read about the changes the organizations were seeking while they were investigated, shut down, ransacked, and their foreign-born leaders often deported.