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Scarsdale History: Fifty-Seven Years Ago: Scarsdale Residents Aid the Freedom Riders Despite Vociferous Opposition

freedomridersThe following article was submitted by teacher, historian and Scarsdale Thomas Quirk who grew up in Scarsdale and attended Greenacres Elementary School, Scarsdale Jr. High and Scarsdale High School (class of 81). He has been a certified Special Education/ Humanities teacher since 1990 and taught at Lexington High School in Massachusetts since 1996. He has been researching and writing about civil rights history in and around Scarsdale, Westchester County since then.

This story is especially timely given the passing of activist and Congressman John Lewis who was on the bus of Freedom Riders.

In March 1962 a benefit to raise money for the Freedom Riders was held at Scarsdale High School. Pete Seeger, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee performed. The New York Times reported, “[A] racially mixed crowd of 1,282 persons filled the Scarsdale High School Auditorium.” Featured guests at the concert were Freedom Rider Reverend Austin McRaven Warner and Harold Taylor, the former President of Sarah Lawrence College. The secretary of the Westchester Committee for the Freedom Riders was Harriet Gelfan, a Scarsdale resident, housewife, and mother of six. The concert was necessary because Freedom Riders jailed in Mississippi in May 1961 had not yet posted bail and were still serving time at the notorious Parchman Farm. Their crime had been trying to integrate rest areas along southern highways that were supposed to be desegregated because they were federally controlled. The Freedom Riders had been brought to Mississippi under the protection of the Mississippi National Guard, by order of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, after their bus had been firebombed in Anniston, Alabama. They were promptly arrested in Mississippi for “creating a disturbance.” 

The attempts of a few Westchester County residents to help the jailed Freedom Riders would have been lost to history except for the fact that the concert was vociferously opposed by a small group of anti-communists, led by the Scarsdale American Legion and Mrs. Otto E. Dohrenwend and Mrs. Theodore E. Wetzel, whom The New York Timesidentified as “Wives of Stock Brokers.” The women sued Scarsdale Public School Board District 1 to prevent the concert because it “created dissension at a time of great crisis,” according to their attorney, William A. Egan Jr. What made news was not the concert, but the lawsuit. 

Mrs. Dohrenwend’s husband, Otto E. Dohenwrend, had been the leader of the infamous Committee of Ten, which charged that Scarsdale’s school system had been infiltrated by communism during the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s. According to Carol A. O’Connor’s Scarsdale: A Sort of Utopia: 1891-1981, the Committee of Ten had disrupted school board meetings in an effort to expose reading material they considered to be communist, particularly Howard Fast’s novel, Citizen Paine.  

The plaintiffs in the Freedom Riders’ Concert case took issue with the communist background of Pete Seeger, and furthermore, accused featured performers Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee of knowingly supporting organizations that were known to be communist fronts. Sadly, it was easy to pin the “Red” label on those who had supported civil rights before World War II because the Communist Party was one of the only organizations in the United States to openly oppose lynching. The plaintiffs also accused Harriet Gelfan of being a Communist because she had been a member of the Institute of Pacific Relations and twice visited the Soviet Union in that capacity. During hearings led by the Senate Internal Security Committee in 1952, Mrs. Gelfan refused to acknowledge whether she had ever been a Communist, stating that her answer might incriminate her. Amidst the hyperbolic frenzy of the Red Scare, The New York Timeshad reported the story with the headline, “Woman Won’t Say If She Was a Red.” The ardor of the committee in going after Harriet Gelfan may have stemmed from the fact that her maiden name had been Moore, which was the same name as one of the founders of the Communist Party in the United States. Her former boss at the Institute, Edward G. Carter, had suggested to the Senate Committee that the charges against Mrs. Gelfan were “a case of mistaken identity.” The Institute of Pacific Relations had its nonprofit status revoked in 1952, but it was reinstated in 1960, presumably because the federal government did not consider it a communist front. This was not enough for the Scarsdale American Legion and Mrs. Dohrenwend and Mrs. Wetzel. 

According to Harriet Gelfan’s son, Peter, the lawsuit seeking to prevent the Freedom Riders concert brought up painful memories for his mother and father, Dr. Samuel Gelfan. In 1952, when the charges of being a Communist were leveled at his wife, Dr. Gelfan had been a neuroscientist at Yale University. Amidst the controversy that followed his wife’s 1952 testimony, Dr. Gelfan lost his position at Yale. Years later the University apologized for its actions, but Dr. Gelfan’s promising career had already been destroyed. Despite what happened at Yale, Dr. Gelfan defended his wife, stating to the Scarsdale School Board that his wife was a loyal American and that “she does not have to wave a flag to prove it.”

The New York Timesreported that 10 picketers stood outside the concert with placards that read “Is this a Little Red School House?”; “Turn Left for Scarsdale”; “We’re not afraid of fallout, we’re afraid of Sellout”; and “Doing the Moscow Twist.” Mr. Dohrenwend was present outside the high school but not on the picket line. The court had ruled that the entertainers and Reverend McRaven could not give any speeches during the concert. Pete Seeger wore red socks in protest. The event raised $3,758.50, which was turned over to the Congress for Racial Equality. The money was used as intended, to defend those who had dared to bring attention to the continued existence of segregated rest areas on federal highways in an effort to demonstrate that southern states were violating federal laws. 

Quirk added this footnote to the story: 

thomasquirkAuthor Thomas QuirkAccording to author Taylor Branch in his book on the civil rights movement Pillar of Fire, "The Scarsdale concert and the local reaction to it influenced Dr.King's SCLC to become more vigilant about purging any activists with Communist backgrounds. They were very worried about losing financial support based on the controversy in Scarsdale caused by the Freedom Riders Concert. The F.B.I. also took notice. Director J.Edgar Hoover found the Scarsdale concert instructive. The F.B.I. stepped up efforts to brand Dr.King a Communist, going so far as to place false news articles in the national press.

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