It’s both Women’s History Month and the week before St. Patrick’s Day so it is totally fitting that we honor the most famous Irish woman who ever lived in Greenpoint- Kathleen Daly Clarke, who lived for many years on Russell Street and operated a candy shop on Nassau Avenue.
Like many women deserving of recognition, Kathleen is often overshadowed by her famous husband, the man who proclaimed the Irish Republic and was shot by the British after the failed Dublin rising of 1916, Thomas Clarke. Although Thomas Clarke was a dedicated revolutionary, he was only able to achieve what he did thanks to the emotional, intellectual, moral and financial support that Kathleen gave him.
Thomas Clarke arrived locally in the early 1880s from Dungannon, Co. Tyrone where he had become a fiery advocate of Irish political freedom and an enemy of British colonial rule of Ireland. He became involved in a local plot to bomb the British mainland led by Doctor Thomas Gallagher who practiced medicine on Manhattan Avenue. Clarke was arrested and sentenced to serve life for his crimes. He served fifteen years and the harsh conditions and psychological abuse broke Gallagher who lost his mind in prison.
While Clarke was in prison he befriended a County Limerick Irish Republican fighter named John Daly who would also be shot for his role in the 1916 revolt. Following his release in 1898, Clarke visited Daly and became enamored of Daly’s niece Kathleen who was twenty-one years his junior. Impressed more by his character and commitment to Irish freedom than his looks, Daly agreed to marry Clarke and in 1898 they moved to the United States.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month its time to recall that one of the early giants of both the Abolitionist movement and the women’s movement lived for many years in Williamsburg. Maria Stewart, who taught in Colored School #3 on Union Avenue, can claim a number of amazing firsts.
Stewart had a brief, but an extremely controversial career as a public orator in Boston where she became the first black American female to address a racially mixed audience. She also has the honor of being the first black American woman to lecture about women’s rights and black women’s rights. Stewart is even credited as being the first known American woman to lecture in public on political issues. As if these accomplishments were not enough Stewart also can claim to be the first black American woman to make public anti-slavery speeches. Speaking up also got her in a lot of trouble and that is part of the reason Stewart ended up here in North Brooklyn.
Maria Stewart was unique from her childhood. She was born free as Maria Miller in 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut, during a period when the state still practiced slavery. All that is known about her parents is their surname: Miller. At the age of five, her parents passed away and she was forced to become a servant in the household of a white clergyman where she lived for 10 years.
Although Stewart received no formal education, she taught herself literacy by reading books from the extensive family library. After leaving the family at the age of 15, she continued to work as a domestic servant while continuing her education at Sabbath schools.
The young Stewart moved to Boston where on August 10, 1826, she married James W. Stewart, a 44-year-old veteran of the War of 1812 who earned a good living by fitting out whaling and fishing vessels. At the time, African Americans made up only three percent of Boston’s population, and the Stewarts were part of an even smaller minority: Boston’s black middle class.
In 1829, Stewart died. Although Stewart left his wife with a substantial inheritance, the white executors of the will cheated her out of it after a court battle. Once again, Maria was forced to turn to domestic service to make ends meet. Continue reading →
The iconic industries of North Brooklyn were staffed by females who were underpaid and often worked in dangerous conditions. It’s high time we honor these anonymous, but heroic local workers. Some local industries preferred female workers.
Why? Well, there are a number of reasons, but more often than not factory owners could underpay female workers, especially immigrant women who often lacked the language skills and awareness to demand their fair wage and better conditions.
Some local female workers, however, were anything but docile. They fought for better wages and better conditions in strikes that often became violent. The American Manufacturing Company centered on West Street employed thousands of women, with many from Poland and Lithuanian. They were superior workers to men because the work making ropes required great manual dexterity and female hands outperformed men in making ropes.
The women worked long hours for poor pay, however, in 1910, the women organized a sit-down strike and engaged in a full-fledged street battle with the local police who tried to prevent them from taking over the sprawling factory. Polish women were also arrested when they violently confronted Italian immigrant workers hired to replace them. Later Puerto Rican women were brought from their native island to work in the plant, establishing a Puerto Rican presence in our area that lasts until today.
Another famous strike occurred at the Leviton plant on Greenpoint Avenue. Leviton manufactured pull-chain lamp holders for Thomas Edison’s newly developed light bulb, and in 1922 the company moved to Greenpoint. The massive factory took up two city blocks between Newel and Jewel Streets and produced over 600 other electrical items, from fuses to socket covers to outlets and switches.
The Leviton plant employed numerous women doing piecework. When inspectors came they saw guards on the machinery that protected the workers’ hands, but when the inspectors left the guards were removed because they slowed down assembly of the devices. Women at the plant lost fingers due to the lack of guards, which led to a demand for increased safety and union recognition in a long and bitter 1940 strike. The strikers were visited by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the first time in American history the First Lady addressed striking workers. The women won the long bitter strike achieving better pay and safe conditions. Continue reading →
March is Women’s History Month when we celebrate the achievements of North Brooklyn’s greatest women. Sarah Tompkins Garnet was not only the first black woman to serve as a principal in New York City, but she was also a fighter for women’s suffrage and for racial equality. She began her illustrious career locally in what was named “Colored School #3” right here in Williamsburg.
Sarah was born in the free black community of Weeksville in Bedford Stuyvesant, some buildings of which have survived and today form the basis of the Weeksville museum, a fascinating relic of Brooklyn’s 19th-century history. Her father, Sylvanus Smith, was one of Weeksville’s founders and one of the very few black Americans who were able to cast a vote in 1820 when New York State still had slavery.
African-Americans were only allowed to vote if they owned $250 worth of property- no small sum in 1820, but Sarah’s father was rich enough to meet the qualification. Her father was a strong advocate of black voting rights and Tompkins Garnet would continue his legacy, fighting against racial discrimination and for expanded voting rights. He also stressed that his daughters get educated. Garnet’s sister Susan McKinney Steward became the first black woman in New York State to earn a medical degree, and only the third in the United States. Continue reading →
Hurdler Connie Darnowski represented the United States in the 1952 and 1956 Olympic games and is the greatest female athlete our area ever produced. Her success is all the more amazing because she succeeded at a time before Title IX opened up women’s sports. She competed when there were only two women’s college track teams and Connie never had the chance to compete on the college level. Connie graduated from St John’s University in 1956, but the school had no college women’s teams. It is ironic that Connie is in the St. John’s Athletic Hall of Fame, yet never had the chance to compete for her school. Continue reading →
Belva Lockwood was an early feminist and one of the first women to ever run for president. She ran twice in 1884 and again in 1888 in the days before women even had the right to vote. While doing research on Greenpoint history I have come across sources, including Memorable Greenpoint by Professor Virginia Felter, stating Lockwood was from Greenpoint, however other sources contradict this claim. At any rate, her story is fascinating. Continue reading →
A lot of people know that movie star Mae West was born in 1893 on Herbert Street and that she became a and one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols, but a lot of people do not know that she was an outspoken feminist and a social progressive who successfully challenged bigotry and narrow-minded conventional morality.
West grew up at a time when women’s social roles were changing. She explained, “I was born just at the right time. A little earlier and they would have put a scarlet letter on me and burned me at the stake. A little later and they wouldn’t have been shocked any more.” West came of age at a time when vaudeville was America’s most popular form of entertainment, and Greenpoint had seven vaudeville theaters. West had little formal schooling, but her huge exposure to vaudeville theater shaped many of her avant garde ideas. In a day when most whites were prejudiced, her favorite male vaudeville actor was African American Bert Williams, from whom she took many of the aspects of her stage persona. She copied Williams’s uses of double entendres, innuendo and answers with multiple and conflicting messages where rebelliousness hid just below the surface. Later, when she directed plays, she insisted on racially integrated casts. Continue reading →
Sometimes an unexpected event is a turning point in a person’s life. The story of Mary White Ovington’s trip to Prospect Park was just such a turning point. Ovington was born in 1865, just at the end of the Civil War in Brooklyn Heights. Her defining characteristic was idealism, which she inherited from her parents, who had been upper class Brooklyn abolitionists and taught Mary to fight for social justice. Ovington attended Packer Collegiate Institute, and then went on to Radcliffe, where she was greatly influenced by the ideas of professor William J. Ashley who convinced her to dedicate her life to helping the underprivileged.
Ovington worked for social justice, instead of marrying and raising a family. Ironically, despite the fact that her parents were abolitionists, initially, her work did not focus on African-Americans. Deeply influenced by the ideas of Jane Addams and her charitable Chicago Hull House settlement house, which sought to help the millions of uneducated immigrants, living in dirty, overcrowded tenements, White dedicated herself to aiding poor immigrants. She soon met the millionaire oil refiner Charles Pratt, who built the Astral Building on Franklin Street as affordable model housing for our area’s poor. A vital part of this building was the settlement house, which taught local immigrants important urban survival skills. Ovington impressed Pratt greatly, and he chose her as co-founder of his Greenpoint Settlement House. For four years she taught the immigrant poor of Greenpoint the skills they needed to succeed in New York.
Local lawmaker Peter J. McGuinness began his first term as alderman at the end of World War I when female behavior was rapidly changing, outraging conceptions of proper female behavior. Young women called flappers defied traditional ladylike behavioral expectations by cutting their hair short, wearing pants instead of skirts, and—most shocking for McGuinness—even smoking in public. These rule-breaking new women, like Greenpoint’s Mae West, flouted conventions, shocking traditionalists like McGuinness. Smoking was not just considered unladylike; it was for many a black mark on a woman’s character. A Washington Post editorial in 1914 declared, “A man may take out a woman who smokes for a good time, but he won’t marry her, and if he does, he won’t stay married.”
In 1921, McGuinness, determined to protect public morality, proposed a notorious ordinance in the Board of Aldermen banning women from smoking in public places in New York City. The bill, though was misfiled as a law, although it was never enforced., which only added to the firestorm or controversy around it. McGuinness, asked to explain the smoking ban, answered:
“Young fellows go into our restaurants to find women folks sucking cigarettes. What happens? The young fellows lose all respect for the women, and the next thing you know the young fellows, vampired by these smoking women, desert their homes, their wives and children, rob their employers and even commit murder so that they can get money to lavish on these smoking women.”Continue reading →
Today we present the grand finale of our Women’s History Month interview series, which began in March and introduced us to some wonderful women through the thoughtful nominations our readers submitted. We’ve already posted interviews with six Greenpointers who are doing exceptional things in the neighborhood – Amy, Jay, Sogoal, Lauren, Nackie, and Meg – and today we have a unique final post to share.
Allow us to introduce two sisters-in-law, Elizabeth Thompson and Katherine Conkling Thompson, who both nominated each other! Their Greenpoint homes are just three blocks apart, on Milton and Calyer Streets respectively, so we arranged to sit down with them together at Katherine’s house on a misty gray Sunday evening. Her daughter Abby (17) and Elizabeth’s daughters Beatrice (8) and Penelope (4) joined us in the living room and took part in our interview. Katherine’s older daughter Charlotte (20) is away at college and was sorely missed, especially during the photos – and her eldest son, Eliot (22), also deserves a mention, as his childhood soccer adventures play a large role in why his aunt Elizabeth nominated his mom. Continue reading →