Tuesday, November 10, 2015

MILHOLLAND | John E. and the NAACP

Jean Milholland (L) and John E. Milholland (straw hat R),
in Holland in 1913 after Inez married Eugen Boissevain.
November 10, 2015–This post is inspired by the appointment of Cornell Brooks as President of the NAACP, the death on August 15 of former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, and the recent production of a play by Clare Coss on Mrs. Mary White Ovington and W. E. B. Du Bois. It is also inspired by a visit I made with Alice Tepper Marlin to the Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore last Sunday.

There I picked up a well-documented biography of Ovington by Carolyn Wedin, entitled Inheritors of the Spirit: Mary White Ovington and the Founding of the NAACP (Wiley, 1998).

At the time of the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Booker T. Washington was the primary organizer of African Americans in the United States. He favored long-term projects like schools that allowed for gradualism in advocacy, a kind of Fabian advocacy of civil rights. For example, he was okay with the concept and goal of segregation, i.e., separate but equal communities, according to Wedin (p. 131).

W. E. B. Du Bois, a sociology professor at Atlanta University, was opposed to segregation and wanted faster movement toward civil rights for people of color. In 1903 he wrote a challenge to Washington in an essay "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others" in his book Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement, an organization by and for black people, and would become the first employee of the NAACP.

My purpose here is to explore the role in this process of John E. Milholland, whose role is left out in some of the NAACP's own histories of its origins. John E. Milholland and Mary Ovington helped Du Bois create the NAACP (p. 95) as a successor to the Niagara Movement that included whites.

Milholland's status as an American was recent. He was born in upstate New York but his father, an Irish immigrant, was forced to return temporarily to Ireland after a fire. On their return, John E. was able to attend NYU thanks to the generosity of a Congressman who saw a young man of promise. John E. then became a reporter for, and subsequently editor of, the Ticonderoga paper. Following that, he came to New York City to write for an then edit the Tribune, which was a liberal Lincoln Republican newspaper that was headed for years by Horace Greeley, whose statues may be found near City Hall and in Greeley Square.

Milholland was a second-generation Scots-Irish Presbyterian who was in the first decade of the 20th century at the peak of his wealth. He was modestly prosperous when he worked at the Tribune and his  brother headed the printer's union. Between them they settled a strike and he may have been rewarded for that.

At any rate, Milholland soon after invested in a pneumatic tube company based on the expertise of B. C. Batcheller. He became President of the Batcheller Pneumatic Tube Co. and became very wealthy based on Wall Street's ratcheting up in paper securities the value of his future prospects.

With his new wealth, Milholland was able to pursue his Presbyterian religion-inspired vision of a world in which wealth was more equally distributed and civil rights were widely respected. He worked first with Booker T. Washington but became impatient with Washington's gradualism. Following critiques of Washington by Du Bois in 1900-01, Milholland decided to shift his financial resources away from Washington and toward Du Bois.

There is a direct connection between Milholland's religion-fired activism on behalf of African-Americans and the rapid loss of his fortune. Milholland attacked for racism Woodrow Wilson's Postmaster-General–the same man with control over lucrative contracts that were the basis for with the Batcheller Company's prosperity. His gifts to, and statements on behalf of, the cause of civil rights had an immediately negative impact on his business. He and his family paid dearly for their support of civil rights and the NAACP.

The 1904 edition of Polk's directory shows the Batcheller Pneumatic Tube Company as a going concern with Milholland as President and B. C. Batcheller on the board. In 1905, the company had offices in New York City and Philadelphia as well as in London, Paris and Berlin. By the Poor's directory of 1917, John E. Milholland was replaced as President and no longer on the Board.  Instead, his son-in-law Eugen Boissevain was on the board. 

Milholland's wealth acquired in the pneumatic tube business financed the expenses of Mary Ovington in working with the poor and disenfranchised blacks in New York City and states in the Deep South (Alabama and Georgia). Milholland's money was an important enabler for Ovington's work for the NAACP.

Milholland met Ovington in early January 1905 at a Sunday supper at Greenwich House in Manhattan. She conveyed to Milholland her interest in working on low-income housing and he offered to take her idea to Henry Phipps.  Phipps had just walked away with $2 billion (in 2015 dollars) from the creation of America’s largest corporation, Carnegie Steel, in 1901. Just as railways and railway-car manufacturers had been rolled up into giant companies in the prior two years, Carnegie Steel acquired J. P. Morgan's steel mills and thereby allowed the three largest shareholders in Carnegie Steel to cash out.

Two of those steel magnates are well known – Andrew Carnegie and his designated Chief Operating Officer Henry Clay Frick. The third one, Henry Phipps, was the less-known bookkeeper. Phipps had a social conscience because he had grown up in poverty in Pittsburgh. He was a strong supporter of  Teddy Roosevelt-era progressivism. From his new fortune Phipps took $1 million (equal to about $30 million today) and by 1906 began construction work on "improved tenements" to be located on the far east side of Manhattan at 31st Street. Several iterations of the Phipps Houses were eventually built – they would become the oldest and largest nonprofit affordable housing in New York City.

Ovington proposed that a settlement-house component be included in the first, Tuskegee Model Tenement. Although Henry Phipps was initially receptive to the idea, he backed away from it at the last minute – probably because in February 1908 he opted suddenly to side with Booker T. Washington's all-deliberate-speed approach to social change (Wedin, p. 93).

Unexpectedly without a patron for her work, Ovington went back to the man who had found Phipps for her, John E. Milholland. She became a regular visitor to Milholland at his office and his apartment at the Manhattan Hotel. She said she didn't get as much time with Booker Washington as Milholland did because she was "a woman of verity moderate means who, if she subscribed at all to his school, would not be able to get beyond the ten dollar bill" (Wedin, p. 67).

Ovington visited the Adirondacks for several weeks in July and September 1905. Her biographer believes she visited Milholland at that time and supports the idea that Milholland was having an affair over several months and that it was with her (Wedin, p. 67).

Besides the Phipps tenement, Milholland and Ovington worked on the Constitution League, which was a forerunner of the NAACP. The first offices of the NAACP were at the offices of the Constitution League, at 500 Fifth Avenue – at 42nd Street overlooking the New York Public Library – in Manhattan.

Milholland's activities in support of Du Bois were not unnoticed by Booker Washington. According to Du Bois' biographer, Washington threatened to use his contacts with the U.S. Post Office to terminate the Batcheller Company's large contracts for delivering mail by pneumatic tube (Wedin, p. 70), and his threat became a reality in 1916 at the time of Wilson's reelection.

In 1905-06, Ovington was the link between Du Bois' Niagara Movement and Milholland's Constitution League. Her work in this arena would pay off when she started working for Du Bois and then assembled lists for the "Call" to create the NAACP in 1909.

First, Ovington brought Oswald Garrison Villard into the Du Bois camp, with several articles in the New York Evening Post, which he owned, reporting first on Du Bois' Niagara Movement meetings  at Harper's Ferry in mid-summer of 1906 and then in August on Washington's Negro Business League in Atlanta with a subtly inserted Du Bois perspective (Wedin, pp. 74-76).

A month after the Negro Business League meeting in Atlanta, the worst race riots of the decade occurred in this city. The Du Bois followers saw this as a failure of Washington's League. Milholland promised to pay Ovington's expenses to report on the riots and poverty in Georgia and Alabama and  Du Bois supported Ovington in this project.

Ovington reported from the south until March 1907. Conditions, she said, were much worse in Atlanta than had appeared in the newspapers. No white man had gone to jail for killing a Negro. Whites freely purchased firearms whereas "colored fathers, in their homes, were forced by the militia to give up their means of defense" (Wedin, p. 80).

The year 1908 was a difficult one for Mary Ovington because as mentioned the commitment that she believed Henry Phipps had made to her was suddenly withdrawn. A crystallizing moment for her was an article by a white journalist, William English Walling, "Race War in the North," in the Independent of September 1908. Walling was the first person to throw down the gauntlet to all Americans, to fulfill the promise of Abraham Lincoln. As Ovington wrote at the time:
Here was the first person who had sent a challenge to white and colored to battle, as the abolitionists had battled, for the full rights of the Negro. Drums beat in my heart. (Wedin, p. 106).
She immediately sent a letter to Walling, but several months went by and he did not answer. After she heard him speak in New York City, she went up to him and proposed that they create a new organization. She followed up with a second letter, and this time Walling answered, suggesting they meet with Charles Edward Russell. In January 1909 she arrived at Walling's apartment. Russell did not show up, but sent Henry Moskowitz in his place.

At that meeting, the NAACP was created. They drafted a "Call" for a meeting, to be issued on Lincoln's 100th birthday. The only one of the original three who was able to make the "Call" an interracial one was Ovington, based on her many contacts during the period when she was traveling around with the support of Milholland. The signers of the Call – 53 people in Ovington's version, 60 in Villard's – did not all know one another, but they all knew Ovington (Wedin, p. 106).

An invited interracial organizing meeting of 300 people met in the Charity Organization building. An informer for Booker Washington reported that those present included: "Du Bois, Waldron, Walters, [Upton] Sinclair, Max, Barber, Wibecan, Dr. Moselle, Bulkeley, [John E.] Milholland, Ida Wells..." A public meeting at Cooper Union attracted 1,500 people. The resolutions "sounded much like those of Milholland's Constitution League and Du Bois' Niagara Movement". Ovington was distressed that the platform was "denounced by nearly every white man", while "a large number of colored people thought it unwise". A Committee of Forty was created to pursue the organization of the NAACP. (Wedin, pp. 110-111).

The Wikipedia entry on the NAACP once said that it was founded by black men and Jewish men, which based on Wedin's account would eliminated any recognition for the huge role of gentiles and women, including Milholland and Ovington. The historical record that Wikipedia keeps for each entry should show that I corrected the statement on May 18, 2008. Here is what I wrote on the Boissevain.us web site that I was then contributing to.

5/18/08 John E. Milholland Added to NAACP Entry in Wikipedia as First Treasurer. Until today, the Wikipedia entry for the NAACP omitted Milholland from its description of the founders. The founding was scheduled for February 12, 1909, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, and this is considered the founding date of the NAACP although it actually took place in May. The entry reads as of today: "On May 30, 1909, the Niagara Movement conference took place at New York City's Henry Street Settlement House, from which an organization of more than 40 individuals emerged, calling itself the National Negro Committee. Du Bois played a key role in organizing the event and presided over the proceedings. Also in attendance was African-American journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett, co-founder of the NAACP. At a second conference, on May 30, 1910, members formally called the organization the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and elected the first officers (as reported by Mary White Ovington): • National President, Moorfield Storey, Boston • Chairman of the Executive Committee, William English Walling • Treasurer, John E. Milholland (Lincoln Republican and Presbyterian from NYC and Lewis, NY) • Disbursing Treasurer, Oswald Garrison Villard • Executive Secretary, Frances Blascoer • Director of Publicity and Research, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois."
As mentioned, the National Negro Committee was first located in John E. Milholland's Constitution League office at 500 Fifth Avenue. After Villard was persuaded to come aboard, the office was moved to space that he provided. The NAACP name was not established at the second annual meeting, on May 12, 1910. It expanded the Committee of Forty to 100, with a requirement that each of them give or raise $100. The Executive Committee was set at 30 members. The first Executive Committee created officers of the NAACP – Walling was Chairman, Milholland was Treasurer and Villard was Disbursing Treasurer.

On June 28, 1910 six members attended an Executive Committee meeting. Milholland moved and Ovington seconded a motion to hire W. E. B. Dubois as director of the Department of Publicity and research of the NAACP. Later in life, Dubois remembers Ovington, Walling and Villard as the founders of the NAACP. But if Ovington was the engine that drove the creation of the NAACP, the fuel to run it was provided by Milholland. The NAACP spelled the end of the Niagara Movement, because Du Bois saw quickly that an organization with establishment sponsors could generate more money to pay for staff, starting with himself. By the third and fourth meetings of the NAACP in Boston and Chicago in 1912, the NAACP was well established (Wedin, pp. 120-135).


Carolyn Wedin, Inheritors of the Spirit: Mary White Ovington and the Founding of the NAACP (Wiley, 1998).

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