The striking 12-story Beaux Arts style office building at 70 Fifth Avenue was constructed in 1912 for publisher George Plimpton. It housed an extraordinary array of civil rights and social justice organizations, philanthropic groups, publishers, and non-governmental organizations over the years. This includes the headquarters of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, the publishers of the first magazine for an African-American audience and for African-American children, and what would become the American Civil Liberties Union, among many other entities. Following a campaign led by Village Preservation, the building was designated a New York City landmark in 2021. As a part of VILLAGE VOICES 2022, Village Preservation’s outdoor public art and history exhibition, 70 Fifth Avenue features a bold and powerful 20 ft. high installation in the window’s ground floor building facing Fifth Avenue highlighting its remarkable civil rights history.
As per our submission to the Landmarks Preservation Commission arguing for landmark designation of 70 Fifth Avenue, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909 as a bi-racial social justice organization seeking to end bias and discrimination against African Americans and ensure their equality of opportunity in the United States. Founded by Dr. Henry Moskowitz, Mary White Ovington, William English Walling, Bishop Alexander Walters, Rev. William Henry Brooks, W.E.B. DuBois, and Ida B. Wells, among others, the new organization’s first public meeting was held a few blocks away at the Great Hall of Cooper Union. DuBois was named the organization’s Director of Publicity and Research. During this time, the status of civil rights for African Americans was arguably deteriorating in many ways in the United States; lynchings were commonplace and occurred with impunity; states were introducing legislation to ban interracial marriages; and in his first year in office (1913), President Woodrow Wilson officially introduced segregation into federal government agencies, establishing separate workplaces, bathrooms, and lunchrooms for blacks and whites.
The NAACP emerged in this challenging environment. The NAACP established its headquarters here at 70 Fifth Avenue in 1914, after it was founded in February of 1909. While other national organizations had been established to advance civil rights for African Americans, none lasted more than a few years, and none had the broad and growing institutional support the NAACP attracted. Having grown rapidly in just five years to have twenty-four branches and three thousand members, the organization needed more space, bringing them to 70 Fifth Avenue, a newly-constructed commercial building at 13th Street just below Union Square. Among the organization’s first campaigns while at 70 Fifth Avenue was to challenge the newly- instituted segregation within the federal government with a highly-publicized “Open Letter to President Wilson.” At this time, the NAACP also succeeded in securing the repeal of an American Bar Association resolution barring the admission of black lawyers and in the opening of the women’s suffrage parade in Washington D.C. to black marchers.
In 1915, their second year at 70 Fifth Avenue, the NAACP launched its campaign against D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of A Nation, which opened on February 8 of that year, arguing that it distorted history and slandered the entire black race. The wildly successful film was credited with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and an increase in violence against African Americans; its prominence was raised by being shown at the White House by President Woodrow Wilson, the first such showing ever in the presidential residence. That same year the NAACP participated for the first time in litigation to advance its agenda – the beginning of a long and storied history of the NAACP changing the national landscape through the courts, which later included the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, ending legal segregation and the doctrine of “separate but equal” in this country. The NAACPs’ founding President (1909-1929) Moorefield Storey, successfully argued the case of Guinn vs. the U.S. before the Supreme Court, striking down a ‘grandfather clause’ in the Oklahoma Constitution which effectively barred most black men from voting by limiting the franchise to literate men or those whose ancestors were eligible to vote before January 1, 1866. The NAACP also filed an amicus curiae brief in the case.
In 1916, the NAACP responded to the mutilation, burning, and lynching of an illiterate seventeen-year-old black farmhand in Waco, Texas, accused of raping and murdering a white woman. Labeled “The Waco Horror” by the NAACP, the organization sent an investigator to Texas whose report, including pictures of the horrifying act, was published in The Crisis and distributed not only to the magazine’s 42,000 subscribers but 700 white newspapers, members of congress, and affluent New Yorkers in an effort to gain support for the NAACP’s newly established anti-lynching fund. The NAACP’s anti-lynching organizing brought national attention to the oft-ignored crime and mobilized political and business leaders in both the North and South to speak out against this de facto state-sanctioned domestic terrorism.
In 1918, the NAACP secured passage of an amendment to the New York State civil rights law protecting African Americans – their first such statewide success, which they used as a model for progress in other states in subsequent years. After bitter resistance, the NAACP also finally secured a public pronouncement against lynching from President Woodrow Wilson, which he had previously refused to do. That same year an anti-lynching bill was introduced in the House based on a bill drafted by NAACP co-founder Albert E. Pillsbury. The bill called for the prosecution of lynchers in federal court and made state officials who failed to protect lynching victims or prosecute lynchers punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. It also allowed the victim’s heirs to recover up to $10,000 from the county where the crime occurred.
In 1919, the NAACP released its landmark report “Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918,” in which it listed the names of every African American, by state, whom they could document had been lynched. This continued to bring unprecedented attention to this longstanding and uncontrolled epidemic of violence in America. In the aftermath of the end of the First World War and the subsequent unrest and intolerance which gripped the nation, twenty-six race riots erupted across the country during that “Red Summer,” and a record number of lynchings took place. Membership in the NAACP grew to about 90,000, and circulation of The Crisis grew to over 100,000 after it published W.E.B. DuBois’ “Returning Soldier,” a report documenting the indignities suffered by black service members in France at the hands of the U.S. military.
The passage of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote gave the NAACP the opportunity to highlight the continued disenfranchisement of black women and men. They demanded that Congress investigate the systematic denial of the vote to African Americans in the South in the 1920 election and that those elected to congress not be seated where such discrimination was found. The revived Ku Klux Klan’s publication The Searchlight announced that the NAACP, which was increasingly active in the South, was its arch enemy.
Multiple accounts also say that the NAACP began flying its iconic flag printed with “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” in simple white sans-serif letters against a plain black background from its headquarters in 1920 and continued to do so until 1938 when they were forced to remove it or face eviction. While the sole photographic record of this appears to be an image from 1936 when the flag flew from their next location just up Fifth Avenue at No. 69 (demolished), if this frequently-cited date is correct, then this campaign began at 70 Fifth Avenue.
Also as per our submission to the Landmarks Preservation Commission arguing for landmarking 70 Fifth Avenue, the building also served as the headquarters of The Crisis magazine, the affiliated magazine of the NAACP, from 1914. The magazine stayed here until the mid-1920s when they moved publication up the block to the demolished 69 Fifth Avenue. The Crisis was founded, funded, and edited by W.E.B. DuBois. The magazine and the organization focused on the epidemic of lynchings of African-Americans and race-based violence taking place at the time, discrimination in voting, housing, and employment faced by African-Americans, and the proliferation of demeaning, derogatory, and dehumanizing representations of African Americans in media such as the film The Birth of A Nation. At the same time, their tenancy here coincided with and reflected a flowering of black culture with the Harlem Renaissance and growing African American aspirations for greater freedom and opportunity emanating in part from participation in World War I and the principles of democracy and self-determination, which were the premise for the United States joining the conflict, and the Great Migration which began at this time and saw more African Americans living in the North, Midwest, and West, where they encountered both new opportunities and new obstacles.
The Crisis (originally subtitled ‘A Record of the Darker Races’) was considered “the most widely read and influential periodical about race and social justice in U.S. history.” It called unprecedented attention to the lives and plight of African Americans, providing a forum for DuBois’ uncompromising philosophy of racial equality. In its first issue, DuBois said its purpose was to be “first and foremost a newspaper” that would “record important happenings and movements in the world which bear on the great problem of inter-racial relations, and especially those which affect Negro-Americans;” provide “a review of opinion and literature,” and “stand for the rights of men, irrespective of color or race” and vigorously defend the “highest ideals of American democracy.”
Particularly during its years at 70 Fifth Avenue (1914-1923), The Crisis was an incomparable showcase for black writers and artists, containing the first publication of the writings of Langston Hughes, as well as works by Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Arthur Schomberg, and Jean Toomer. From an initial circulation of 1,000 in its first year of publication, the magazine’s circulation peaked at 70 Fifth Avenue in 1919 at over 100,000, making it more popular than established journals like The New Republic and The Nation while also growing from twenty to nearly seventy pages. According to DuBois, its mission was to pursue “the world-old dream of human brotherhood.”
From its founding in 1910, The Crisis included both hard-hitting reporting about injustices faced by African Americans and DuBois’ pointed commentary – about lynching, Jim Crow, and the failures of political leadership to address these issues, as well as exposing readers to relevant international issues, such as the non-violent passive resistance efforts for Indian independence being led by Mahatma Gandhi in 1922. But starting in 1918, while published out of 70 Fifth Avenue, The Crisis also came to include a rich and influential array of literature and art. That was largely reflective of the influence of Jessie Redmon Fauset, an African-American editor, poet, essayist, novelist, and educator dubbed by Langston Hughes “the midwife of the Harlem Renaissance,” who began contributing to the magazine in 1912 and served as its literary editor from 1918 to 1926. By many accounts, she was also the main force keeping the magazine operating during that time, as DuBois was traveling the world. Both she and DuBois also introduced photography, painting, and drawing into the magazine to communicate its message and give African Americans a forum for expression.
In addition to civil rights and the arts and literature, The Crisis had a special emphasis on education, promoting the rise of African-American colleges and African American studies (DuBois himself would teach the very first course in African American history just feet from here at The New School in 1948). DuBois reported heavily upon both the successes and challenges of Black colleges and universities and dedicated two issues of the magazine each year specifically to the topics of education and youth, respectively. During these years, the Crisis also had a special focus on promoting emerging black cinema.
DuBois and The Crisis also had a notable commitment to gender equality. Aside from the significant role given to Fauset, the magazine showcased the works of many female writers and artists. And DuBois made that support explicit in his political writings as well; in 1911, in the pages of The Crisis, he wrote that “Every argument for Negro suffrage is an argument for women’s suffrage; every argument for women’s suffrage is an argument for Negro suffrage; both are great moments in democracy. There should be on the part of Negroes absolutely no hesitation whenever and wherever responsible human beings are without a voice in their government. The man of Negro blood who hesitates to do them justice is false to his race, his ideals, and his country.” In fact, DuBois’ perspective sometimes put him at odds with the more moderate and still predominantly white leadership of the NAACP at the time. The Crisis gave him an opportunity to express this more uncompromising perspective; DuBois sharply criticized President Wilson for segregating the Federal government in the pages of The Crisis. The Crisis also called for an outright ban on the film The Birth Of A Nation, based on its distortion of history and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and its flagrant denigration of blacks.
Read our full documentation of the history of 70 Fifth Avenue here.
The interactive installation at 70 Fifth Avenue will be on display from September 18 – October 31 as part of our 2022 Annual outdoor interactive public art exhibition: VILLAGE VOICES. Our exhibition features an engaging installation of exhibits displayed throughout our neighborhoods featuring photographs, artifacts, and recorded narration that provides entertaining and illuminating insight into the momentous heritage of the Village. You can donate to support our outdoor public exhibition here.