Tag Archives: Sexuality

Busting Out in WWII-Era Brooklyn

This piece by Emily Brooks is the first entrant into the Second Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest. We we invited graduate students to submit essays on theme of “Striking Gold,” whether lucre or archival treasures. Brooks’ interpretation of the theme hews to the latter, and she uses a memo discovered on a reel of micofilm to unspool a dramatic, cinematic story.

The nail file was a gift. Whether it belonged to Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, or Jean we will never know. What we do know, however, is that one of these 14 and 15-year-old girls acquired the file while on trial for juvenile delinquency at the Manhattan Children’s court in July 1944. This young woman then brought the nail file with her to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s Brooklyn shelter where the five white girls were imprisoned during the heat wave of early August 1944.[1]

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The four freedoms. Step right up folks, for the greatest ride in the world …“, Alfred T. Palmer, between 1941-1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

For these young incarcerated women, the nail file presented an opportunity. On the night of August 8, the five prisoners used the manicure file to scrape through a brass padlock securing the window in their dormitory. Once they had dispatched the lock, the girls crawled through the window and up a fire escape to access the roof of the building, carrying their bed sheets along. After reaching the roof, they knotted the sheets together and climbed down onto the roof of the Children’s Court building next door. The girls successfully evaded the court building’s custodian as he raised the flag on the roof the next morning, before escaping down the stairs and fleeing onto the street. They hailed a cab, despite lacking shoes and wearing white shelter uniforms. The quick-thinking young women informed the taxi driver that their clothing had been stolen while they were at Coney Island, and directed the driver to the apartment of a boyfriend on Madison Avenue.[2]

Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean’s dramatic escape created a number of public relations problems for New York City’s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Police Commissioner Lewis Valentine, and officials in the city’s court and police systems. The escape challenged the power of the state to control the behavior of young women during World War II, and forced city officials to reframe discussions around the necessity of this control. The superintendent of the Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children drafted a document for the head judge of the city’s Domestic Relations Court, innocuously-entitled “Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944,” which detailed the event and its subsequent irritations.[3]

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Mayor La Guardia speaks over WNYC on Grade A milk from Budget Room / World-Telegram photo by Fred Palumbo“, March 23, 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Decades later, during another hot New York City summer, I found this memo on one of the hundreds of microfilm rolls dedicated to Mayor La Guardia’s records at the city’s Municipal Archives. I came upon the document, as well as a number of letters related to the escape, while performing research for my dissertation on the activities of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) during World War II. Exploring histories of policing in New York City presents challenges for historians since the NYPD often declines to share records with researchers, and sometimes even “misplaces” them.[4] Those records that do exist can provide insight into official police policies, but evaluating the impact of such policies or finding resistance to them can prove more elusive. The “Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter” provides a rare glimpse into the lives of five teenagers affected by the NYD’s wartime campaigns against juvenile delinquency, and an illustration of how they sought to resist this type of surveillance.

During the war, although the overall number of police officers decreased as men joined the military, young women came under increasing surveillance from the NYPD. Officers monitored the city’s streets, particularly around hubs of entertainment and transit, searching for teenage girls like the escapees. Once arrested, many of these young women shared the fate of Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean, whose offenses included staying out late and spending time with older men.[5] Girls had socialized with men throughout the twentieth century, sometimes coming into conflict with their parents and the state because of it.[6] For many women of all ages, however, World War II, introduced new employment opportunities, and for some young women the war brought reduced parental supervision. As a number of historians have documented, new sexual possibilities and anxieties emerged along with the economic and social disruptions of war.[7] Historian Amanda Littauer has argued convincingly young people seized on these opportunities to engage in premarital sex at higher rates than their prewar counterparts.[8]

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Cure juvenile delinquency in the slums by planned housing“, Federal Art Project, 1935, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

At the same time as teenagers like the escapees explored new social and sexual freedoms, Valentine and La Guardia called for intensified NYPD campaigns against prostitution, juvenile delinquency, and other crimes of “vice.” New York City’s leaders, responding in part to federal demands to monitor Americans during wartime, framed policing Gotham as an essential part of the war effort. [9] The NYPD needed, officials argued, to protect enlisted men from sexually transmitted infections and to maintain “order” in an increasingly interracial wartime city. Throughout the war, the department’s campaigns against juvenile delinquency focused on arresting boys of color for supposed crimes of minor violence or theft, and monitoring young women of all races for inappropriate social or sexual activities.[10] In the case of young women, officials argued that monitoring their behavior and incarcerating them for violations served to protect both arrestees themselves and their male potential sexual partners.[11]

Although officials held that Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean’s disappearance endangered both the young shoeless women, and their potential male paramours, interactions between the state and Estelle’s mother following the incident belied this claim. Estelle’s mother, Elisabeth, visited the office of the society that ran the shelter to seek more information about her daughter’s escape. The superintendent described Elisabeth as “belligerent” and “a high-strung, nervous person.” The shelter’s representatives reminded Elisabeth multiple times that her own daughter and the other girls had run away from home before. The officials argued, therefore, that “nothing too serious could happen to her at this point beyond what has already happened to her.” Elisabeth returned the next day, seeking more answers. She asked for her daughter’s possessions and inquired how it had been possible for the young women to flee without shoes or street clothing. The superintendent lamented that by the end of her second visit Elisabeth had become “extremely suspicious and doubtful about the good faith of the representatives of the Society.”[12] Estelle’s mother also lodged complaints with members of the NYPD and the mayor. The mayor expressed limited concern, proclaiming that “when five girls use such extreme means to escape, it is almost impossible to restrain them.”[13] The dismissive responses to Elisabeth’s anxiety about the whereabouts of her daughter demonstrated by the representatives of Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Mayor La Guardia suggest that the protection of teenage girls was not the paramount concern of these city officials. The city seemed more concerned with controlling “all the female problems we have prowling the streets today,” as Police Commissioner Valentine had articulated a few months before the escape.[14]

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Collier’s House at PEDAC, New York City. Girl’s room I“, Gottscho-Schlesnier, Inc., 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What did Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean gain by fleeing the shelter’s confines to “prowl” the city’s streets? They gained freedom from the control of shelter employees and their families, as well as unsupervised access to the city, which they used to visit Harlem and Coney Island, among other places. What this freedom meant to the girls is difficult to say. For Jean, who lived with a foster family in New Jersey, it may have meant unrestricted access to the excitements of New York City. For Estelle, who sought out a boyfriend at Floyd Bennet Field in southeastern Brooklyn, perhaps these few days provided an opportunity to continue a prohibited relationship. For Margaret, who was the oldest of four in a working-class family, maybe the escape was a respite from familial responsibilities.[15] The “Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944,” provides a small window into a few days in the lives of five of the young women that police, court, and political leaders deemed so threating to the health of the city and nation in wartime. The details of their escape suggest that whatever a few days of unsupervised free time in the city meant to these young women, they went to great lengths to attain it.

Featured image (at top): Eggers & Higgins, 542 5th Ave., New York City. Six girls, Gottscho-Schlesnier, Inc., 1946, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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Emily Brooks is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her writing has appeared in the Journal of Policy History, processhistory.org, and the gothamcenter.org. She is currently working on a dissertation about anti-vice policing in New York City during World War II. 

 

[1] “4 Year Heat Record Set at 96.3” New York Times, August 5, 1944, 1. Throughout this piece I will use first names only to protect the identities of the young women and their families.

[2] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Joseph Goldstein, “Old New York Police Surveillance is Found, Forcing Big Brother Out of Hiding” New York Times, June 16, 2016.

[5] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[6] For discussions of the policing of young women in progressive-era New York see Cheryl Hicks, Talk with you like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010) and Ruth Alexander, The “Girl Problem”: Female Sexual Delinquency in New York, 1900-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995). For more on the development of juvenile delinquency laws governing girls see Mary E. Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the Unites States, 1885-1920, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[7] John D’Emilio Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Allan Berube, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (New York: The Free Press, 1990); Leisa D. Meyer Creating G.I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

[8] Amanda Littauer, Bad Girls: Young Women, Sex, and Rebellion Before the 1960s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 19-20.

[9] For examples of how officials handled these federal demands and wartime exigencies in Virginia see Pippa Holloway, Sexuality, Politics and Social Control in Virginia, 1920-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), particularly chapters 6 and 7.

[10] Luis Alvarez uses the zoot suit as a lens through which to explore racialized policing of youth during WWII in The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II (Oakland: University of California Press, 2009). Clarence Tayler discusses the efforts of the city’s Teacher’s Union to defend African American boys targeted by the police in Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era (New York City: Fordham University Press, 2011), particularly chapter 1 “To Be a Good American: The New York City Teacher’s Union and Race during the Second World War.”

[11] For a discussion about federal support for criminalization of female sexuality during the war see Marilyn Hegarty, Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality during World War II (New York City: NYU Press, 2007) and for the different ways that women’s sexuality was mobilized for the war effort see Megan K. Winchell, Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[12] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[13] From Mayor LaGuardia to Mrs. Elisabeth, August 14, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[14] “Mayor Asks More Help for Wayward Girl,” New York Times, May 26, 1944, 12.

[15] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37. Information on Margaret’s family from 1940 Census, accessed on ancestry.com, July 24, 2018.

 

 

10 Questions for Emily Landau, author of Spectacular Wickedness

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In the process of building a bibliography for New Orleans, fellow scholars repeatedly recommended Emily Landau’s Spectacular Wickedness: Race, Sex, and Memory in Storyville, New OrleansIn Spectacular Wickedness, Landau provides a window in the the Progressive Era politics that dominated the nation during the first two decades using the notorious Storyville neighborhood of New Orleans. Landau was kind enough to discuss with The Metropole: New Orleans, her work, and the value of sexuality as a historical lens for politics, culture, and economics.

What drew you to New Orleans as a topic of study?

To be honest, when I began the project I knew very little about New Orleans; I was drawn to the city through Storyville. What began as an investigation into the discursive construction of “the octoroon” became a history of New Orleans as I sorted through the various myths surrounding that figure in the city. It was important to me to understand and to show the historical background(s) and political contexts of the creation of the sexualized “light-skinned,” female slave, and her continued circulation, if you will, as a type through the nineteenth century, in Storyville, and, frankly, even today.

How would you describe your work, Spectacular Wickedness to someone unfamiliar with New Orleans?

First of all, the book is a history of Storyville, the red-light district, which opened in 1897 and closed in 1917. Thus, the book explores those twenty years in the history of New Orleans. It is hard to imagine someone unfamiliar with New Orleans’s reputation for sybaritic excess, but I suppose I would outline the broad contours of that reputation (and the history behind it) and then explain that Storyville was actually an attempt to curb rampant prostitution in the city, contrary to popular understanding.

Second, the book puts that history into a broader national narrative about the establishment of strict racial segregation. Storyville offered a wide array of entertainments for its visitors, but its most notorious attraction was the easy (and advertised) availability of women of color to white men. The book describes the goings-on in Storyville and analyzes them in the larger contexts of increasingly rigid racial segregation and contemporaneous sexual purity campaigns, both of which denounced sex across the color line. The argument, at its most simple and general, is that one cannot properly understand racial politics in that (or any) era without also understanding the social construction of gender and the politics of sex and sexuality. Storyville becomes a kind of case study, an extreme one, to be sure, of national attitudes toward race and sex, and therefore also about power.

Because I knew so little myself about New Orleans when I began, I felt compelled to include a fair amount of history in the book, going back to the earliest days of settlement, if you can call it that, in the area. This was partly to provide some historical background, and partly to show how Storyville’s promoters used the long history of “spectacular wickedness” in their city to promote more of it!

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Spectacular Wickedness uses the Storyville district of New Orleans to touch on a number of key subjects: Progressive Era politics, sexuality, race, and the economics of the New South. In many ways, it explores the tensions that exist between these forces/issues and the contradictions that emerge as a result. How did you begin to understand and sketch these connections through Storyville in your research and writing?

One of the first artifacts I saw from Storyville was a little guidebook to the district. As if this was not stunning enough on its own (a tour guide to a commercial sex district!!), the contents of the booklet were astonishing and dictated the direction my research would take. The book listed the women of Storyville according to “race,” so that there were women listed as “c” for “colored,” “w” for “white,” and “oct.” for “octoroon.” There was a rubric explaining all this at the beginning of the booklet, too. I was surprised that the district so blatantly advertised sex with women of color; I was also perplexed by the booklet’s use of the term, “octoroon” to describe women working there. I knew that the Plessy v. Ferguson case had sanctioned state segregation-by-race laws just the year before Storyville opened, so I was intrigued by what seemed a clear flaunting of racial proscriptions in the South. Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in that famous case, was himself a New Orleanian; his lawyer, Albion Tourgée, made much of his light skin, referring to him as an “octoroon” in his arguments. After the decision, that designation seemed entirely moot, atavistic. But Storyville’s promoters made much of that same category, in a modern way. It was important to me to show that Storyville was very much a product of its time and place—and not a throwback to an earlier New Orleans, on the one hand, or an exemplar of New Orleans’s “devil-may-care” attitudes about race-mixing and morality, on the other. The latter is most certainly part of New Orleans’s mythology, but it is not true. So, in order to pierce that mythology, I had to make the connections you mention in your question and show how Storyville fit into the larger web those connections create.

In recent years, historians have produced a number of works that use sexuality as a means to draw larger conclusions about politics: Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles, Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides and Stranger Intimacy, and Margot Canaday’s The Straight State serve as just a few examples (not all of which are urban history). Why is sexuality such a useful lens from which to study politics and economic trends, particularly in an urban setting?

While I can’t speak to the motivations of these other authors, I can say that social attitudes toward sex and sexuality more broadly are useful cultural barometers, worth probing. Anxiety about who is having sex with whom—and how society as a whole must deal with those relationships—reveals fundamental anxieties about the ordering of society; social hierarchies are inherently about power and powerlessness. Re-ordering society requires political access and clout. Urban spaces are both anonymous and intimate (sometimes at the same time). Looking at cities through the lens of sexual politics often can reveal the more subtle contours of those spaces and how they are mapped culturally, socially, and, of course, economically. Which urban spaces become “safe” spaces for what dominant society considers transgressive? (And how safe are they, really—and for whom?) Why are they where they are? Who is trying to find them and eradicate them? Again, why? Answering these types of questions requires some deep probing into the politics of space and representation, which revolve around questions of electoral politics and economics.

Contradictions abound in Storyville. For example, the district simultaneously celebrated the Old South while mocking the new acquisitive, model of the New South, yet it depended on the latter for a large chunk of its business. Interracial sex was celebrated openly but also still seen as inappropriate. One could go on. What does this tell us about New Orleans? What might this tell us about the United States during this period?

I would say that Storyville developed a marketing niche. The district celebrated a very particular aspect of the Old South: the sexual power of white men over women of all shades. This sexual power over women also translated into raw power over black men. (And, let’s be frank, white men had sexual power over black men as well; I am waiting for the scholarly work on that. Maybe it is out there or in progress, but I am not, as yet, aware of it.) By suggesting that Storyville could provide white men with that kind of sexual access and power, for a fee, Storyville’s entrepreneurs implied that all white men shared in the plantation legacy of absolute power and the sexual prerogatives that went along with it, at a time when that legacy was not so secure. The fantasy was aspirational, as slave-holding had been for many in the antebellum years. Storyville was a commercial enterprise, and its promoters availed themselves of modern advertising techniques, mostly in the blue books. It was a transgressive space, so the mocking of contemporary society must be seen in that context. Nobody thought of Storyville as legitimate or moral, obviously, and so there was a fair amount of winking in the ads for it.

In the foreword I wrote for Pamela Arceneaux’s study of the blue books I make this point, perhaps more explicitly than in my book. (See Guidebooks to Sin: The Blue Books of Storyville, New Orleans). The point is that the mocking is part of the transgressive fun—the customer is in on the joke and thus off the hook for the moral and social (and racial) transgression he is about to commit. Storyville was popular with locals and tourists alike. Nostalgia for the antebellum south was a national phenomenon, and this included a desire for a return to what seemed to many (white men) to have been a simpler and clearer race-and-gender order. One of my favorite books on this subject is Nina Silber’s wonderful The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900.

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Terminal Station, New Orleans, LA” between 1910-1920; its completion in 1908 contributed to Storyville’s decline as city leaders worried about the station’s proximity to the notorious neighborhood; Detroit Free Press Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

By the same token, Storyville seems almost a transitional space during its existence. It is created as a means to control vice, in a way, as an expression of Progressivism’s impulse to regulate all manner of social interactions (admittedly, I’m using Progressivism here broadly since it’s a fairly imprecise term considering the big tent nature of its beliefs). However, by the end this vice is what gets it targeted for elimination. Similarly, you use Storyville to encapsulate other shifts: the shift from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, from a nation divided regionally to a more national identity (consolidated arguably by WWI and the consumer culture of the 1920s that followed), from a rural population to an urban one, and from interracial sex as an expression of white male power and supremacy to a representation of the same as a weakness. To what extent do you think such developments were unique to New Orleans? Was this an aspect of the book you recognized early on or one that developed as you dug deeper into research?

One of the funniest things about Storyville is that both its creation and its closing down were pushed by “progressive” reformers. In the late 1890s their idea was to map the city according to morality. This was never about the women who worked as prostitutes, or even, really, the men who patronized them. The rationale was to preserve areas of the city for “legitimate” business. In this way, the creation of red-light districts might be seen in a similar light to the most significant urban mapping program of the day: segregation by race. I write about this in the book as well. By 1917, reformers who sought an end to any kind of tolerated vice had gained the upper hand, not least because of the war. There was a newly urgent imperative to keep young men “fit to fight” both morally and physically, and so the era of tolerated (or grudgingly acknowledged) red light districts came to a close.

Tracking the transitions within the Progressive Era through Storyville shows some of the shifts in the nation during those twenty years. Among the most important is the ascendancy of Woodrow Wilson and the southern progressives in his circle. Wilson’s progressivism included segregating the federal government and removing, where possible, African Americans from the civil service, or relegating them to inferior positions. By the time New Orleans “closed” the district, racial segregation was more or less complete, either de jure or de facto. It is a very dynamic period, containing not only the changes you list above, but the vigorous efforts of American citizens to combat them or move them more swiftly along. Storyville is an unlikely microcosm, but because it is so extreme an example, because, that is, its very transgressive nature meant it showcased a kind of underside of modern life that most reformers sought to hide, it is potentially very revelatory. Storyville was unique in many ways, to be sure, but it was not a secret. Its international reputation certainly had national implications.

Lulu White embodies the complexities of Storyville well. On one hand, the district offered her a level of agency, yet an agency that explicitly depended on a level of racialized subservience that bounded her and other women like her to a system of Jim Crow inequality. By the end of the book, she seems undone by the requirements of this limited agency, while her counterpart Willie Piazza, who to some degree took a different strategy in regard to race than White did during Storyville’s final years, appears to have done markedly better. How did your views of White evolve over the course of your research? Did you find any explanation as to why Willie Piazza seemed to do better in the aftermath of Storyville’s demise than her competitor/peer White?

I am not sure that I would juxtapose their different post-Storyville lives in terms of decisions regarding race. Willie Piazza seems to have been a much better money manager. She saved and made good investments. White, on the other hand, died poor, not having saved or invested. There is also a rumor that White was robbed or cheated out of whatever savings she did have. What I learned about Lulu White over the course of my research and writing was that I would never really know her as a person, and that there was always going to be more about her that I did not know, and never would know.

What promising trends do you see in future works on New Orleans? 

Historians are taking New Orleans seriously as a subject of scholarship. At the recent Organization of American Historians conference—in New Orleans—a scholar described her experience of being told NOT to write about New Orleans because no one would take such work seriously. I don’t think that would happen today. I can’t really speak to trends in urban history, sorry to say.

Do you have any favorite works of pop culture on New Orleans that you love or would recommend to others?

I am among the few who loved the HBO series, “Treme.”

What are you working on now or hoping to begin working on?

My next project will be a study of murder ballads and the culture that produced them. So, I will move away from New Orleans and into Appalachia, but continue to focus on gender, sexuality, race, and politics.