Living in Sin

My courtship of Tee took place in part, on long drives to Washington, D.C. to protest the impending execution of the Rosenbergs. They had been convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage on scant evidence and much hyperbole about their membership in the Communist Party. The case polarized the country: On one side were those who saw any communist activity as treasonous, meriting the harshest punishment possible and on the other side, were those who understood that from the selection of the judge to the imposition of the death penalty, the case was intended to be a warning to any who dared question the status quo. In those few months before the execution, Tee and I walked the picket lines in front of the White House. We took our turns in the dead of night suffering cold, bitter weather, but we also enjoyed each other’s company on the long drive back to the city in the early morning. There were 40 or 50 people picketing at a time. We walked the line in shifts, spending a couple hours walking, going back to a makeshift dormitory, grabbing a few hours of sleep on the floor, and then returning to the 24-hour picket line. In those days Washington, DC was a southern town. There were only a few places to eat that were not segregated, most of them Mayflower Donut Shops. Although I will be eternally grateful to that chain for being there so we could get sustenance without separation, I did get tired of a diet of donuts and pancakes and, perversely, today donuts remind me of the bad old days when our nation’s capitol was a segregated city.

___ had heard that the subject was among those picketing the White House prior to the execution of the Rosenbergs and that the subject has made frequent trips into the Harlem Section of New York to demonstrate his active belief in racial equality. FBI Files of LPB New York, 5/18/55

That winter and spring were busy times for both Tee and me. I was working on my Master’s dissertation; Tee was finishing up courses at the New York University School of Film. We were both struggling to make a living at the same time. I, as usual, had waited until the last minute to finish my thesis; fortunately for me Tee was a good typist and offered to help with the final draft. I had said I would pay her, but my meager resources made this difficult, so this is what happened: my gig at the Seminary was coming to an end and I had to find a place to live; Tee was running behind in her rent and facing eviction, so I cashed in my last remaining assets ($200 in savings bonds, which my grandfather had given me), paid Tee’s back rent, and moved in with her in June of 1953.

Records at Columbia University, Morningside Heights, New York City, were rechecked by SE ___ which reflect that the subject received his Masters of Arts degree. FBI Files of LPB, New York, 11/12/53

Tee was living in a floor-through apartment on the top of a four story walk-up tenement at 69 East 125th Street. She had moved in there several years before with two (white) roommates, Olga and Joyce, who were also Party girls – Communist Party, that is. In later years I occasionally met people who remembered the days when that apartment was a popular – some even said notorious - interracial meeting place for young radicals. I never asked Tee what was notorious about it and she never told me, but I suspect part of the reason was that I was neither her first lover, nor her first white lover. By the time I met Tee, both Olga and Joyce had married and moved out. They had been replaced by Eugene Mellenders and Edna Gaynor, both of them were nurses at Sydenham Hospital in Harlem. Tee had met Edna through her brother, Wardell Gaynor, who was an animation cameraman in Tee’s union. Wardell and his wife, Florence, became a part of our circle of friends. Florence later became the executive director of Sydenham Hospital – the first African American to hold such a position in the city. We shared the rent and housekeeping chores with Gene and Edna.

Tee occupied a living room and small bedroom, barely big enough for a twin sized bed, in the front of the apartment. This allowed us to keep track of the nightly coming and going of fire trucks from the station down the street as well as other community events. 125th Street was the main commercial corridor in Harlem, so there was activity there at all hours of the day and night. We shared the kitchen, bath, and small interior dining area with Gene and Edna who had their own large room in the rear. Our landlady was an elderly Swedish woman whose roots in the community went back to the time before World War I and the Great Migration of Blacks from the South, when Harlem was a mostly Scandinavian community. The building was well maintained by the standards of Harlem (outside of Sugar Hill and Strivers Row): the lock on the front door and the mailboxes were usually in working order, the paint in the halls was peeling in only a few places, the banisters were attached to the walls, and the public areas were cleaned often enough to be generally free of the smell of urine. The $200 a month rent reflected the inflated costs in the neighborhood. When we moved to Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn the following year, we had the same amount of space for $125 a month.

I got my Master’s Degree from Columbia in the spring of 1953 after two semesters of work. The summer of 1953 was a pleasant interlude getting to know each other while waiting for the dreaded draft notice, which did not arrive until September. Beyond that I had no specific plans. I worked as a house painter and repaired my bank account – at least enough so that I could indulge my passion for collecting books on Africa and African-American history at the bookstore down the block from us run by Richard B. Moore. I spent long hours browsing there and talking with Richard about his life as a Black radical (and former Communist) in Harlem. Today every commercial bookstore has a Black Studies section, but back then there were few books in print on the subject and few stores where they could be found. One was Moore’s store, a treasure trove for me. Another was the Workers’ Book Shop where Tee used to work. The only other comparable place was around the corner from Moore’s at Lewis Micheaux’s National Memorial Book Store, but this is where the Black nationalists hung out and even then, although my presence was tolerated, I felt less comfortable there than I did at Moore’s establishment.

Our social life was centered on the apartment of the Reverend Mother Lena Stokes. She was a short, large motherly woman in her late fifties, who had embraced the Progressive Party campaign in 1948 and was still an active organizer and street speaker for progressive political action in the neighborhood. She was unlike many storefront ministers in that I never heard her preach or proselytize. Her religion was based on service and helping people to help each other. When her living room was not serving as a church, it was home to a continuing salon for an integrated group of left wing people in the arts who didn’t have much money. Good company and food were always plentiful there. A pot of greens and ham hocks was always simmering on the back of her stove. I am under the impression that her largess was made possible, in part, by some association with the local numbers game, but I never enquired too closely about this. I contributed to the mission by building some cabinets for her kitchen.

Although New York City had been my home ever since I was an infant, this was the first summer I had ever spent in the city. It hadn’t occurred to me before that some unfortunate people actually stayed in the city all summer. In those days air-conditioning was rare or non-existent for us and our circle of friends – indeed for most New Yorkers. I soon found out why those who could leave did so. One night in a desperate effort to find relief from the heat we opened the windows, left the front door of the apartment open for cross ventilation, and finally fell asleep naked on a couch in the middle of the living room. We had mistakenly believed that it was too hot for a potential intruder to climb four flights of stairs. Early in the morning I became aware of a commotion next to me and awoke to find a stranger in our bed fondling Tee. He was obviously stoned and fled when I yelled at him before he did any harm to Tee. I was not so fortunate, as I described in this letter to my parents, which did not tell the whole truth.

August 1, 1953 North Haven, ME Dear folks,

…The other night I had an accident, which you should know about, but not get worried about, since everything came out all right. I was up at Tee’s late Friday night. Her two room mates were having a little social with us in the front of the house, but I was very tired and had gone back to take a little nap. I was awakened by a prowler who had come in the back way, which had been left open. He did not resist much when I drove him out, but I soon discovered that he had had a razor in his hand and had cut me several times on the left fore arm and chest. Tee’s roommate, Edna, who is a nurse at Sydenham [Hospital] had me bandaged in no time and her boy friend, Gene [Mellenders], who also works at S. as an aid took me to the emergency room where they sewed me up. I just had the stitches removed yesterday, and the doctor said I had healed very well. I can go back to work Monday. I know you might well worry a lot about this. All I can say is please don’t. I’m perfectly all right. This might also increase you concern about the kind of life I have chosen to lead, and strengthen certain stereotypes of what life in Harlem is like, but please think carefully and use your head. This sort of thing can be regarded only as an accident, and it could happen anywhere in the city.

I wanted to be honest and open with my parents, besides I knew they would eventually need an explanation for the scars which are still visible on my arm and chest, but I stopped short of complete candor. I did not tell them that I had moved in with Tee, or that we were lying naked in bed together at the time of the incident.

Moving into her apartment had just seemed to both of us to be the natural and sensible thing to do. Having done so, we sort of mutually decided we ought to get married. I don’t remember that I ever actually proposed to Tee. Living in sin – as it was quaintly called in those days – was common among our acquaintances, although not in society in general, and I think both of us would have been happy to do so for an extended period of time, but there was a special consideration in our case. The Communist Party was puritanical and politically correct before the concept had a name; although no one from the Party gave us a direct order, we knew that because of the history of sexual exploitation of Black women by white men, it was important for us to marry as soon as possible in order to avoid the appearance of white chauvinism and male exploitation. It’s ironic, I think, that we decided to get married in the face of communist pressure—not to please either of our parents or society at large