“To be the first woman, and the first Negro, to serve in the Mayor’s Cabinet..."
By Jennifer Scanlon
Once the festivities ended and she was on her own in City Hall, Anna Hedgeman faced a strange reality: she had no office, no specific assignments, and no designated appointment with the mayor. When her friend — now deputy mayor — Henry Epstein discovered her at a desk she had secured in the hallway, he took her to lunch, where she explained her dilemma. Hedgeman also shared her concerns with her allies in the black press, who immediately drew attention to the injustice. Within a week, the new mayor’s assistant had a portfolio, which included welfare, civil service, libraries, museums, air pollution, and the United Nations. She also had an office, albeit in the basement. The black press, which had been reporting on what they had called the “strange goings-on” at City Hall, was quick to point out that African Americans were no more fond of basements than they were of back doors, but Hedgeman was pleased just to have her own space in what was by all accounts a crowded building.
This post is excerpted and adapted from Until There Is Justice by Jennifer Scanlon with permission from Oxford University Press USA. All rights reserved. Copyright © 2016 Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press USA.
She began to communicate with multiple city departments, write speeches for the mayor, give talks on her own, and work with Democratic political clubs across the city. As usual, despite the fact that her portfolio was not race-based, she spent a tremendous amount of time working with New York’s communities of color. She read and responded to complaints of racial discrimination, including one from a woman who was accosted by police while walking to buy a newspaper, and another from a corrections officer who wanted a change of assignment, but whose requests were repeatedly ignored or denied. She worked closely with the city’s many voluntary agencies on a plethora of welfare-related issues, including the needs of the city’s youth and aging populations. She wrote frequent newspaper pieces and appeared on numerous radio programs, including that of Mary Margaret McBride, the popular “First Lady of Radio.” Hedgeman was widely fêted across the city during these years at testimonial breakfasts and dinners.
Quickly establishing a reputation as a savvy emissary for New York City generally and its black constituents in particular, Anna Hedgeman viewed government as an ally, but a reluctant one, believing that the black community had to make demands of the city and also of its members. Thirty years earlier, while working at the Harlem Y WCA, she had learned from her boss, Cecilia Cabaniss Saunders, that people had to literally invest in their communities to feel invested in them. She used that version of black self-help now to harangue her audiences into paying union dues, supporting their churches, and joining civil rights organizations. “If you don’t pay for your struggle for freedom, what will you pay for?” she demanded of an audience of postal workers. Hedgeman wanted her neighbors as well as her nation to live up to democratic ideals. She worked hard on legislation that would help the most impoverished New Yorkers, taking a special interest in the housing issues that had plagued her community since the 1920s. She helped pass the Sharkey-Brown-Isaacs Law (1958), the first in the nation prohibiting discrimination in public housing on the basis of race, religion, or nationality; when the legislation made its way to state-level consideration, Hedgeman represented the City of New York at the hearings.
Well aware of the many other women in New York who hoped to gain a foothold in politics, Hedgeman found ways to encourage and help those who had supported her, white as well as black. She organized political workshops for women because, as she saw it, “I knew they had to have a bigger role than they’d ever had.” In Harlem, black women outnumbered black men on the voting rolls, and gender was growing as a legitimate political concern. It also became increasingly apparent that having women in office could make a difference in women’s lives. Just a year into Anna’s service in the mayor’s office, fellow Democrat and Theresa Hotel resident Bessie Buchanan won a seat in the New York State Assembly, the first black woman elected to such an office.
The first bills Buchanan introduced targeted gender-based discrimination in employment and race-based discrimination in banking, education, and insurance. The following year, Anna Hedgeman was appointed by Governor Averell Harriman to an advisory group to the Woman’s Program of the New York State Department of Commerce. Their work was so thorough that it foreshadowed themes that President John Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women would take on a few years later.
By the mid-1950s, although “ ‘women’s lib’ was not yet in vogue,” as Hedgeman recalled, she was in great demand to talk about the intersections of race, gender, and class. Always frustrated by wasted talent, she grew increasingly committed to the empowerment of black women, who, living those inter- sections daily, had so much to offer their city. Dubbing them “pioneers,” a term she had long appreciated, she penned a column titled “Negro Women Fought Hard for Recognition,” explaining that “each of them might well be called ‘everywoman.’ ”
Two things became clearer to Hedgeman as she worked in City Hall: all the problems she cared about, from jobs to housing to education, were linked, and there was far too much calcification in government. And as much as she tried not to be cynical, she felt mistrust when men offered women opportunities, or when whites offered blacks opportunities. The whole political enterprise required a shift in focus, a new level of self-awareness, a new level of commitment. She was an early proponent of what we now call diversity and inclusion, truly believing that a multitude of people, perspectives, and positions would make for a better city. She became determined to educate and inspire the many disparate groups of people with whom she worked, including women, the elderly, schoolchildren, teachers, parents, civic leaders, clergy, and social workers. She gave talks during the workday and on her own time, filling her nights and weekends, urging people to take charge of the city they could all call their own. Despite Merritt’s objections, Anna was always on the go. “Negroes sent for me around the country,” she explained, “as kind of Exhibit A.”
On top of her more local concerns, Hedgeman took on the role of host to New York City’s many international visitors. She especially loved taking foreign visitors to Harlem, showing them the community that made her feel both pride and indignation. She served as a liaison to the United Nations, where she took a particular interest in international efforts to improve housing for the world’s poor. The bleak housing situation for black New Yorkers must have seemed terribly ironic in that global context. Indeed, she grew more and more vocal about the ways her global consciousness informed her thoughts about race at home. When she was in India, she remembered Mississippi. Now, listening to stories about the struggles of colonized and formerly colonized people around the world, Hedgeman thought of Harlem. She hoped to help eradicate poverty for white Americans as well as for Americans of color, but she could not help but see the links that tied black Americans to black Africans, as well as other marginalized people of color across the globe.
By all accounts, Hedgeman was a powerful speaker who used the podium to promote activist as well as legislative agendas. One night, at a crowded civil rights event at the Waldorf Astoria, she took the stage as the keynote speaker after a long list of powerful orators had delivered sharp demands for racial justice initiatives. “Militancy was the vehicle and action was in the driver’s seat,” wrote journalist James L. Hicks. “The audience was in no mood for moderation.” But, he continued, “let it forever be said that Mrs. Hedgeman rose to the greatness of the honor.” During her nearly one-hour address, “she lashed out from her international background as a fighter for full freedom, she drew on her national experience to strike at the defects of her nation’s democracy, she rapped New York’s schools from her vantage point as the mayor’s assistant, and she ‘came home’ to her audience as a grassroots organizer.” Hedgeman drew a standing ovation and brought the audience to tears. As Hicks explained, “Despite the sharpness of Mrs. Hedgeman’s criticism, despite the impatience with which she demanded action, and despite the cold and calculating way in which she looked at things, there was still warmth and hope and great inspiration in her plea.”
A self-taught historian with a developing expertise in black history, Hedgeman visited innumerable elementary schools, high schools, and colleges, delivering lectures, challenging teachers to prepare more inclusive lesson plans, and sharing some of the many reading lists on black history that she would develop. The children responded enthusiastically to her larger-than-life presence, and she saved many of the endearing thank-you letters they sent her. “Someday I hope you will become the first lady President of the United States,” one child wrote, while another told her, “Since you made your speech I have been trying to study and do my work better. As you said that you hope one of us will be in the White House one day, I am hoping I will be one of them.” Yet another student explained the impact of her address in some detail:
I used to be embarrassed when people talked about our ancestors being slaves. Since I heard your speech this feeling was erased from me. You made me feel proud and also very happy. I wish I had the nerve to get up in front of white people and talk the way you did. I hope that you will go to some of the other schools in this city and speak to them the same way you spoke to us. I think the children in my school gained a lot by your speech. I hope that someday you will be President, and remember when you are eligible my vote is yours.
Hedgeman responded to every letter, encouraging the students to study black history, work hard in school, and go to the library. She gave this last student some additional advice, enlisting her as a civic soldier. “Many people in our community fail to register in order to be able to vote,” she instructed the young girl, “and you can help by telling people that they must register and vote as soon as they are old enough.”
As much as she served as the voice of a Democratic mayor, Anna Hedgeman remained aware of the vagaries of Democratic support for black New Yorkers and lamented the power the party held over Harlem. She grew increasingly frustrated with the tired approach of white Democratic leaders, who took so little time to actually observe Harlem and tally its needs. Inevitably, they turned to one black voice among the entire chorus of white voices, always a man, to repre- sent black New Yorkers. Such feeble approaches, she observed, generally came to no good. “No one man can have all the answers,” she explained, “whether he be Negro or white.” She joined the Committee for Political Equality, which encouraged voter registration and participation among Republicans. In a newspaper column after she left City Hall, she laid out her argument: “Harlem is registered 75 percent Democratic and only 20 percent Republican. It is for this reason that 100 percent of Harlem gets bad housing, bad schools, and medical care.”
Like many African American women of her generation, Anna Hedgeman saw no conflict between her religious life and her political or civic life. She regularly invoked God or, more often, Jesus, in her public addresses. And as the years went by, she grew more and more certain that the Jesus she believed in was an active god who supported political and civic activism, and she felt a need to share his revolutionary inspiration with others. “We had too often presented him in elegant robes, looking anemic, and showing his wounds,” she complained. “There was too little realization of Jesus of Nazareth -- the tough guy.” The Son of God she lived to emulate did not stand on the banks and urge fishermen to bring in the fish. Instead, he joined right in, pulling in the huge and heavy nets of fish that would feed the poor people of “his world.” Hedgeman believed religion transcended race, but she also believed that the black religious community had fostered a quality of faith that black Americans could share, as an invaluable gift to their nation. She felt no compunction about speaking that truth in public, even referencing her faith in the account she gave when she left the City Hall post, explaining that she made the decision “as a Christian, as a citizen and as a Negro.”
“To be the first woman, and the first Negro, to serve in the Mayor’s Cabinet was a joy,” Hedgeman later wrote, but she grew frustrated with her lack of power, disillusioned with politics in general, and enormously frustrated with Mayor Wagner. Unlike his father, whom she viewed as particularly effective on behalf of civil rights, she thought the mayor’s approach could be summed up as “don’t rock the boat.” When he stalled on enacting progressive housing policy, he not only let Hedgeman down on one of her most pressing concerns but, more importantly, as she saw it, also lost one of his most promising opportunities to better the lives of his constituents. When several black appointees were not reappointed during Wagner’s second term, she grew even more cynical. In one case, giving in to Cold War paranoia about Republican judge Hubert Delany’s civil rights work, the mayor failed to approve his reappointment. Hedgeman knew the family well. She was friendly with Delany’s sister, Bessie, a Harlem dentist who took care of so many people in need that Anna teased her about being a social worker rather than a dentist. That the mayor would not stand up for Judge Delany, who had given so enormously to the Harlem community, and who could by no means be considered disloyal to his country, really rankled.
On top of that, Hedgeman’s frustration with gender discrimination in local Democratic clubs, in City Hall, and in city and state political offices grew exponentially. Women’s participation in New York City government, she believed, provided all New Yorkers the opportunity to realize “that total human wisdom does not repose in a single sex,” but few seemed to be listening. She was especially irked about the effect of sexism on life in Harlem, where the assumption that masculinity was a characteristic of able leadership went uncontested. “It was obvious,” she observed later, “that women are second-class citizens in politics. Even cigarette smoking does not mean inclusion in the smoke-filled room where policy decisions are made.” Hedgeman could easily draw a crowd of five hundred when she gave a speech, but it too often failed to translate into other kinds of power.
Hedgeman began to feel that she might be more effective at influencing City Hall from the outside. “I had had enough of the cynicism of a large city political machine and its worshipers,” she wrote later. “I knew that there was strength in many communities of the city and wondered whether these communities could move City Hall.” So, even though it antagonized some people in Harlem, she left City Hall less than a year into Mayor Wagner’s second term, determined to find a better way to influence the politics of the city. She submitted her letter of resignation on September 25, 1958, wishing the mayor well in his “arduous task.” She followed up with a second letter, praising her two secretaries, Anna Paris and Constance Tamalio, requesting that they be treated well following her departure.
Hedgeman issued a public statement, “Why I Left City Hall,” in which she proclaimed, “I am coming home to Harlem and the other Negro communities of the City of New York. It is my conviction that the Negro communities of this city and across the country have within them the experience, the ability, the faith, and the potential courage to meet their needs and to give inspiration to America in her moment of world crisis.”
Looking for new ways to have an impact on her community and, of course, still needing to earn a living, Hedgeman accepted an offer from S. B. Fuller, the millionaire founder of the cosmetics firm Fuller Products. He hired her, at double her City Hall salary, to run the public relations division of his company and serve as an editor at his newspaper, the New York Age. For about a year, she wrote a column in the paper, “One Woman’s Opinion,” sharing her insights into New York City politics and culture. But her foray into the business world was short-lived; within a year she was planning a run for Congress. In the end, staying true to the “declaration of independence” she and Merritt had signed together more than twenty years earlier outweighed the security of Fuller Products and the salary that came with it.
Just weeks after Anna left City Hall, she and Merritt celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Friends at St. Mark’s Methodist Church threw them a party and gave them the symbolic gift of silver service. The Reverend Horatio Hill, who had married them all those years earlier, paid them a tribute, and Merritt gave a speech and sang a rendition of “I Love You Truly.” Anna was delighted: to have left City Hall; to celebrate a silver anniversary with the person she still felt close to, in love with, and supported by; and to be marking the occasion among a few close friends, in her church and community, where she felt so much at home.
Some people found Anna and Merritt’s relationship hard to understand. They had always been more like partners as we think of them now than as a couple playing out the traditional Cold War–era roles of husband and wife. Even friends who appreciated them and the way they functioned together found it hard to escape the terminology that marked Anna and Merritt as strange or deviant. “Merritt was really like the wife,” one friend explained. “He took care of the domestic side of their life. Anna was the hardworking politician and activist. But it worked for them. They were very happy.”
It is unlikely that Anna or Merritt would have seen it in exactly those terms. Merritt was, by all accounts, far more private than Anna, uninterested in if not disdainful of party politics, and married to a public person. He supported her work and appreciated her public persona but did all he could to stay out of the limelight himself. And however much Merritt participated in the running of the house, he did not play the role of the traditional wife. He had a successful career as a singer, traveling to performances and pursuing training in Boston as well as New York. Like Anna, he worked irregular hours and devoted a good deal of time to his career. And although Anna had a very active career, she too worried about, and attended to, her spouse’s professional concerns as well as his general well-being. They were certainly an anomaly at a time when both “public women” and “private men” caused undue concern, but Anna and Merritt found nothing odd about their relationship. They carved out a way of being married that worked for them, a way that would gain respectability several decades later.
In 1960, the East Bronx Independent Committee for Political Reform, a reform Democratic club, approached the Bronx County boss, Charles Buckley, with a demand: it wanted the Democrats to run black and Puerto Rican candidates for office. The southeastern Bronx district, now considered part of the South Bronx, was roughly 75 percent black and Puerto Rican, but without formal black or Puerto Rican representation the community found little advocacy for the social problems that came with such segregation. Neither the large-scale problems the group identified, including inadequate housing, poor education, and scarce jobs, nor the specific solutions, including more classrooms, housing rehabilitation programs, improved bus service, and an increase in the number of affordable hospital beds, got much traction from white elected officials. Like Hedgeman, the members of this group believed that they had to follow the lead of the Irish, Jewish, and Italian communities that peopled the Bronx before them. The Irish, by moving solidly into the Democratic Party, also made their way into New York City’s other institutions, including the courts and the police and fire departments. It was time for blacks and Puerto Ricans to do the same.
Charles Buckley’s inflammatory response to the insurgents, that black and Puerto Rican residents of the Bronx were “not ready” to represent themselves, may well have provided the impetus for Hedgeman to run for a congressional seat on a slate of black and Puerto Rican candidates. After all, she had heard something similar when she was told that the Manhattan borough presidency was no place for a woman. This time her race was the deciding factor. She also found appealing the determination of the black and Puerto Rican communities to work together and form one ticket, reminding her of her own efforts in Harlem during the Great Depression. As Sixto Laureano, who shared the ticket with Hedgeman, explained, “Ours is a grassroots movement. Negro and Puerto Rican have tried to go it alone and failed. Now we’ve found we have common objectives and we are working together.”
Anna Hedgeman was certainly qualified. In addition to her years in City Hall, she had lived in the area when she and Merritt lived with his parents, and had served on the board of the Bronx’s Forest Houses, the city’s first successfully desegregated public housing project. She was also well connected to the Eleanor Roosevelt–Herbert Lehman reform Democrats, who viewed this election year as critical in their attempt to rid New York City politics of Tammany, the infamous Democratic political club that had controlled Democratic nominations for more than a century and had refused to support Anna in the previous election. Photographs of Anna Hedgeman flanked by the former First Lady and Senator Lehman, formerly governor of New York, graced all her flyers. “Feel Neglected?” the flyers asked. “Want a Voice in Washington to Speak for You?”
The reform ticket faced an uphill battle, even with the support of the Roosevelt-Lehman coalition. It lacked sufficient funding, most of its candidates aside from Hedgeman had little name recognition, and the opposition’s tactics included attempts to paint them as reverse racists and anti-Semites. Hedgeman scrambled to meet with Jewish leaders and with Senator Lehman, who in the end felt greater pressure to support Jewish candidate Jacob Gilbert than he did to support the reform coalition. She enlisted support from the press, pleading in the New York Times for “civic angels” to come forward with funding, and defending the black–Puerto Rican coalition by arguing that racism created rather than defined the slate. Had they not faced discrimination, she argued, these candidates would have been elected to office years earlier. New York newspapers took her candidacy seriously, with one article pointing to a potential “major upset” in the primaries. Another defended her candidacy against the charges of racism, instead vouching for her ability to give all of the neglected people of the district a voice.
Nonetheless, the press found it necessary to focus on her gender and thus, intentionally or not, undermine her candidacy. One profile, “Will She Be 1st Negro Lady in Congress?,” acknowledged that Hedgeman tried to avoid questions about cooking and shopping but also described her “lovely cotton and Dacron dress,” in which she was “becoming but chic,” as well as her apartment, which “fairly sparkled,” and a particular chair that “in a shade of rose adds a note of empathic warmth.” The article concluded that Hedgeman had the brains and the courage required to become the first African American woman to serve in Congress, but by paying far greater attention to her clothing and decor than her political smarts, the article reduced her to a caricature, that of the happy housewife, which did not apply to her life at all.
The most formidable obstacle to the success of the reform ticket was the Democratic machine’s determination to undermine the solidarity blacks and Puerto Ricans had worked toward and truly needed. Worried that the insurgents might prevail in the primaries, party boss Charles Buckley appointed, for the first time, a five-member committee of Puerto Ricans to bring out the Puerto Rican vote for the establishment candidate. He also began to spread the word that blacks, Anna Hedgeman among them, were trying to dominate the coalition. In the end, the insurgents were unable to mount a successful counter assault against the specious claims, and they were defeated at the polls. Hedgeman tried to place their defeat in the most favorable of lights. “I am pleased with the results,” she told the press. “We have just begun to fight, because you don’t kill corruption in ten minutes.”
Hedgeman attributed the loss to three factors. First, people of color were accused of being “racial” the minute they tried to mirror the solidarity that had long been a formidable feature of New York City’s white political landscape. Second, white politicians still wanted to exercise significant influence over, if not control of, these ostracized communities. Finally, when blacks and Puerto Ricans worked together to focus on what they shared rather than what set them apart, white politicians who would otherwise be allies balked. Anna Hedgeman would return to these lessons again and again in the coming years, as she tried to move the country forward on its long march toward justice. But in the immediate aftermath of her electoral loss, she had to secure a living, one that would provide not only security but meaning.
Jennifer Scanlon is Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at Bowdoin College.
Anna Hedgeman believed that neither Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. nor Manhattan borough president Hulan Jack provided Harlem with the leadership the community needed, but Powell’s charismatic leadership and Jack’s Democratic connections, coupled with their constituencies’ automatic support of male political leaders, kept the men securely in office for years. Powell gave her particular pause, as she believed he took credit for the work she and others had undertaken to open 125th Street for black employment. Powell “was there all right,” she wrote, “but only after he saw that we were successful.” With an incisive insider’s view, she wrote a book, All Shook Up, about Powell, Jack, and the destructive politics of Harlem. But fearing that its publication would mean the end of her political career, she wrote it in the first person, using the voice of a male political operative. The book got little traction, in part because she published it using an assumed name; political debates are seldom launched anonymously.