Until There is Justice: Anna Arnold Hedgeman Returns to NYC

By Jennifer Scanlon

When Anna Arnold Hedgeman returned to the United States from India in the spring of 1953, a significant political shift was underway. Dwight D. Eisenhower had succeeded Harry S. Truman in the White House, and the Republicans held both the presidency and the Congress for the first time in twenty years. In keeping with common practice, most Democratic officeholders in the capital had already submitted their letters of resignation. Hedgeman joined them, asking only that her assistant at what was now the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare be kept on... [She and her husband] Merritt had grown to love living in the nation’s capital, but after ten years they also looked forward to returning to New York City. They “bravely packed up,” as she remembered later, and headed north. It was a bittersweet return. Both her parents and Merritt’s had died, there was no longer a house or a family waiting for them in the Bronx, and they felt displaced. Still, for both of them, Harlem beckoned, and as they rode the train north, they took great pleasure in seeing the Manhattan skyline in the distance... she needed New York, and she hoped desperately that her city would feel the same about her. Even more, she felt inspired to engage again in something big and meaningful, and she embarked from the train ready to challenge New York to embrace something powerful yet undefined, some sort of “genuine ‘We The People’ movement” through which she could help further democracy and promote justice.

Hedgeman stands in the office of Mayor Robert Wagner with the former President Harry S. Truman. Courtesy National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center

Hedgeman stands in the office of Mayor Robert Wagner with the former President Harry S. Truman. Courtesy National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center

Jennifer Scanlon’s recently published book, Until There is Justice: The Life of Anna Arnold Hedgeman, explores the life and work of a central but until now largely ignored civil rights activist and policymaker. This excerpt, adapted from Chapter 9 of the book, focuses on Hedgeman’s years in New York City politics, where Hedgeman served as the first African-American and first female member of a mayoral cabinet, that of Mayor Robert Wagner, Jr. Copyright © 2016 Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press USA. All rights reserved. You can read part II of this excerpt here.

Settling in for what they initially assumed would be a temporary stay at Harlem’s Theresa Hotel, Anna and Merritt set about looking for employment and permanent housing. The housing situation proved dismal: the postwar prosperity so much in the news in 1953 seemed to have missed Harlem almost completely. Because of continued racial segregation in housing, real estate operators knew that black tenants had few choices and treated them that way, renting poorly appointed apartments as “furnished” and charging inflated rents. Anna and Merritt decided to stay on at the Theresa, which offered them a suite of rooms at a reasonable rate, a central location, and a bit of celebrity.

When they left New York City for Washington, the stately white terra cotta and brick hotel had only recently opened its doors to black guests, but now a bevy of black entertainers, artists, and socialites called the “Waldorf of Harlem” home. Others stayed at the hotel temporarily while they visited Harlem for a night at the fights or a night at the opera. The tallest building in Harlem, standing on the corner of 125th Street and 7th Avenue, now Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, and near Frank’s Restaurant, the Apollo Theater, the Harlem Opera House, the African Memorial National Bookstore, and Blumstein’s Department Store, the Theresa literally offered a window on Harlem’s political, social, and cultural life.

Anna and Merritt would become two of the hotel’s high-profile residents, a group that included writer Zora Neale Hurston, socialite Grace Nail Johnson, Negro Yearbook editor Florence Murray, and entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Both Hedgemans became involved in the life of the Theresa and the surrounding neighborhood. Merritt resumed his New York performing career; when the hotel hosted a party for UN mediator and Nobel Peace Prize–winner Ralph Bunche, he provided the entertainment. The studio for WLIB, the leading black radio station in New York, was in the hotel, and Anna was a frequent on-air guest. In part because of her status and demeanor, in part because the Theresa housed its share of rowdy entertainers, prizefighters, and their fans, Anna was considered one of the hotel’s “society ladies.” Hotel manager Bill Brown was a ladies’ man, with a reputation for slipping into women’s rooms, but everyone knew he would not dare try anything like that with Anna Arnold Hedgeman.

Some years later, when Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam and founded the Organization for Afro-American Unity, he set up shop in the Theresa; before it closed in 1967, the hotel saw its last celebrity resident, Jimi Hendrix. But by then Anna and Merritt were long gone, having moved, in 1958, into the brand-new Lenox Terrace, a six-square-block apartment complex filled with professionals and celebrities, dubbed “Harlem’s Best Address” by the New York Times Magazine.

As exhilarating as life was at the Theresa, Anna Hedgeman sought out experiences at once more simple and more complex than those available at the hotel. She returned to her church, St. Mark’s United Methodist, searching for all the things the black church provided: social life, civil rights activity, and spirituality. She joined the national board of the Council of Church Women, the Christian Social Relations Committee of Church Women United, and two National Council of Churches commissions, one on the church and welfare, the other on the church and politics. She also returned to the New York branches of the National Council of Negro Women and the NAACP.

Still, Hedgeman found that Harlem had changed in ways that she had not anticipated, and she had to re-establish herself. Cecelia Cabaniss Saunders had retired from the YWCA, which appeared to have lost both its vitality and its standing in the community. Some of the religious leaders with whom Hedgeman had worked closely, including her mentor John H. Johnson, who had fostered the “Buy Where You Can Work” movement to open up employment on 125th Street to black residents of Harlem, had retired. Many community leaders had moved to Queens or to the Westchester suburbs, and the political scene in New York City seemed lacking to Hedgeman — and contentious.

Soon after Anna and Merritt’s arrival, a group of Harlem leaders asked Anna to put her name forward for the position of Manhattan borough president. Robert F. Wagner Jr., the current borough president, was running for mayor and pulling together a Democratic slate, and a good number of people believed she should join the ticket. She initially put them off. Merritt wanted her to rest a bit before taking on too much, but she had also witnessed the fate of other women who had run for elected office. Her close friend Pauli Murray had run as a candidate for city council from Brooklyn in 1949, alongside Herbert Lehman, candidate for the US Senate, and Robert F. Wagner Jr., in his candidacy for Manhattan borough president. The Liberal Party endorsed the entire ticket, but the Democratic Party endorsed only the two men. Wagner and Lehman won in the general election; Murray lost. Ella Baker, head of the New York City branch of the NAACP, ran for the same council seat in 1953, the year Anna’s name was brought up for Manhattan borough president, but as a third-party candidate, also on the Liberal Party ticket, Baker had little chance of winning. The Democrats, to the dismay of women in general and African American women in particular, proved reluctant to support women. Hedgeman was reminded of yet another friend, Ruth Bishop, the white woman with whom she had traveled to San Francisco for the founding of the United Nations. She considered Bishop “much more politically astute than many contemporary men in politics,” but she watched, exasperated, as her friend was repeatedly relegated to “quiet fund raising” for the party. Pauli Murray would later share her own exasperation with Hedgeman. “I have tended to my knitting,” she wrote, facetiously, “while the ‘boys’ went into electoral politics.”

The advocacy group persevered, though, and Hedgeman agreed to let them form the Harlem Citizens Committee for Hedgeman for Borough President, and fundraise and advocate on her behalf. “I grinned to myself,” she remembered later, “as I imagined the amazement of the ‘political boys,’ who were certainly not looking for a woman as part of their team.” The committee met the reception she had forecast: the black Democratic Party leader, Hulan Jack, who had benefited from a previous collaboration with Hedgeman when she was at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, said, simply, “That’s no job for a woman!”

“I am anxious,” Anna Hedgeman responded dryly, “to see women join the human race.”

It became clear to Hedgeman fairly quickly that Wagner viewed her as an ally but not a potential running mate. Even after the Republicans announced that they would put forward a black candidate for Manhattan borough president, and the Democrats realized they had to do the same, Hedgeman was passed over in favor of Hulan Jack. Wagner and Jack won in the general election, but Jack’s office was soon beset by scandal, and he was forced to resign.

Anna Hedgeman began to articulate a greater sense of frustration about the discrimination women faced. “From a political standpoint then, I had four strikes against me,” she wrote about the experience, “my absenteeism from the city, my being a woman, a Protestant, and a Negro. The woman aspect was the greatest handicap. At that time, it would have been easier to be a Negro, Spanish, and Jewish at the same time than to be a woman in the political life of New York City.”

Although she failed to obtain the nomination, the experience whetted Hedgeman’s appetite for electoral politics, and over the years she would run for office three times. In the meantime, she signed on as a manager of Robert F. Wagner Jr.’s mayoral campaign. Regardless of her frustration with Wagner, she viewed him as a promising candidate. The son of Senator Robert Wagner, who had led the passage of historic labor legislation, Bob Wagner had been active in housing issues, one of her key concerns, during his tenure as borough president. If she could not succeed him in that position, she could at least help him secure a more powerful office, one that would allow him to bring about positive changes in Harlem and elsewhere.

Hedgeman turned down an appointment as manager of the women’s division of the campaign. “Segregation is segregation is segregation,” she explained. She objected as much to the actual duties they assigned women, including organizing teas, fashion shows, coffee klatches, and cocktail “sips,” as she did to the designation. In much the same way that she had avoided a racial portfolio in the Federal Security Agency, she was determined to resist a gender portfolio now. But in protesting this routine segregation, she offended women as well as men. Some women felt protective of their small corner of power, and took the alleged slight so seriously that Hedgeman had to enlist Evelyn Brand, an active Democrat and Brooklyn attorney, to convince Democratic women that she had not turned against them.

Once she got to work on Wagner’s behalf, Hedgeman drew on some of the lessons of the Truman campaign; among other efforts, she targeted the black community by enlisting Eleanor Roosevelt to chair a reception for black donors. She communicated with and looked for ways to support the heads of all the committees, including a housewives’ committee, a beauticians’ committee, a musicians’ committee, a church women’s committee, a businessmen’s committee, and so on. She readily worked with them, but she resisted being tagged in such narrow ways herself.

Hedgeman, with Eleanor Roosevelt. Courtesy National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center

Hedgeman, with Eleanor Roosevelt. Courtesy National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center

Once Wagner won the election and began to put together his cabinet, he again heard from Hedgeman’s supporters, this time to let him know that the cabinet seat he had all but promised Harlem rightfully belonged to her. Over the next few days, several names were mentioned in the press, including Hedgeman’s, and Wagner finally offered her the position of secretary to the Board of Estimate.

“There it was again — color,” she fumed. An African American woman, Ruth Whitehead Whaley, was on her way out, so of course an African American woman would follow her in. The savvy Hedgeman gently tried to shift Wagner’s perspective: “Mr. Mayor, it would mean more to you politically if you appoint me to a position not currently held by a Negro.” His next suggestion was that she serve as deputy commissioner of welfare, but this too infuriated Hedgeman, who knew that a group of influential Democrats, including her former boss, Oscar Ewing, the former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Senator Herbert Lehman, had recommended that Wagner make her the commissioner, not deputy commissioner. She pointed out that a well-qualified woman was already in line for the deputy post and raised the possibility of serving as the mayor’s policy assistant. He told her he would think about it.

Wagner alternately resisted and yielded to the pressure he felt from the black community. With only two African Americans in policymaking positions in the city’s forty-two departments, and those “only token appointments,” according to the Amsterdam News, he still did not appoint Hedgeman welfare commissioner. But on the night before the inauguration, following weeks of intrigue, tension, and speculation, Hedgeman received a phone call informing her that she was to be appointed assistant to the mayor of the City of New York. Fearing she might be left out of the inauguration when it actually took place, she did not invite her extended family to the ceremony. She was particularly wary of inviting her two nieces, Carolyn and Julie: “One tries to save youth as long as possible from this ‘race business.’ ”

Hedgeman’s initial treatment in the administration seemed to justify her caution. Once she was officially sworn in, with a salary that was roughly half what her white peers received, she was left out of the subsequent “stag” events at which important political maneuvering was taking place. It became clear to her that only one kind of woman was welcome in that environment, a “perfect” woman, one who, as she saw it, “takes orders and never asks questions.” Anna Arnold Hedgeman had never been such a woman.

Despite the administration’s uncertainty about how to treat her, Hedgeman returned from the swearing-in a celebrity. The Hotel Theresa lobby was crowded with well-wishers, the switchboard flooded with calls. One man brought his five- year-old daughter to meet her and present her with a bouquet of flowers. Veteran reporter James L. Hicks was on hand, celebrating the new mayor’s decision as a “master stroke” through which Harlem “planted its foot firmly in the door of big time politics.” Hicks delighted in Hedgeman, since what he called her “courage in refusing to take a job from any other colored person,” combined with her “daring in ‘asking for something big’ as Harlemites put it,” earned her the loyalty of anyone who had not by now already joined her camp of devotees. The next day, a group of five prominent black women arrived at the Theresa Hotel to escort her to her first day on the job.

Jennifer Scanlon is Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at Bowdoin College.