By Craig Simpson
In the fall of 1948, Washington police for the second time broke up an interracial gathering when they raided a political fundraiser at the Laborers’ Union Hall at 525 New Jersey Avenue, NW, and arrested seven people and detained two-dozen others.
About 350 people were attending the dance that began Saturday night October 9, and continued past midnight. It was sponsored by the United Negro and Allied Veterans of America to support the Progressive Party campaigns of Henry Wallace for President and Dr. John E. T. Camper for Congress in Maryland’s Fourth District. The election was a mere three weeks away when this raid occurred.
When the police entered the union hall, the band struck up “The Star Spangled Banner,” which momentarily halted the police. But when the last notes faded away, police began herding attendees into lines. The crowd responded by singing Progressive Party songs.
“They [the police] brought in a batch of index cards and police would copy the names down on the index cards and several times they would jot down the source of the identification papers,” according to the Washington Daily News.
About two dozen people refused to give their names and were detained, taken to police headquarters and eventually released after establishing their identity. The Washington Herald published their names and addresses in the next day’s newspaper.
It was almost two years into the post-World War II “red scare” and the dominos were falling at the local level.
Progressive Party Fights Tide
Henry Wallace’s third-party campaign for president was a reaction to President Harry Truman’s move to the right following Franklin Roosevelt’s death and the end of World War II in 1945. Wallace stood for peaceful relations with the Soviet Union, repeal of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, universal health insurance, and civil rights.
Wallace refused to appear in segregated halls in the south and was often attacked with eggs and vegetables during campaign appearances. When his opponents tried to shout him down at political rallies, supporters would drown them out with labor and civil rights songs.
Dr. Camper was an African American physician who devoted his life to racial justice in Baltimore. He organized a group of African American physicians into MeDeSo (Medical-Dental Society), which helped provide the funding for many civil rights suits, including Brown v. Board of Education.
Along with Juanita Jackson Mitchell, he organized a 1942 march on Annapolis by 2,000 protesters demanding civil rights in Maryland. Dr. Camper was also a founder of the Baltimore NAACP. He was chair of the Baltimore Committee on Non-Segregation, which picketed the whites-only Ford’s Theater in that city for six years until the playhouse desegregated in 1952.
Kicking off his Progressive Party campaign, Camper said in part,
To the workers of the Fourth District who have witnessed the bipartisan attack on our living standards…I say that we stand for repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, for real price control, for a dollar minimum wage, and for wage increases to meet the rising cost of living.
No resident aware of the shameful betrayal of the Jewish people…and of the callous disregard of the rights of the Negro people can fail to support…Wallace.
Political Motivation Charged
The police denied any political motivations in breaking up the Wallace/Camper fundraiser and said they were just conducting a raid where illegal alcohol was being served.
However, the invitations to the party were under the names of Henry Thomas, leader of Laborer’s Local 74, who had helped lead police brutality protests earlier in the decade, Edward Fisher of Cafeteria Workers Local 471 that had engaged in the 11-week strike earlier caused by Cold War politics, and William Johnson of Local 209 of the Cooks, Pastry and Kitchen Workers union and a long-time civil rights leader in the city.
Among those arrested at the Laborer’s hall were Winston Edwards, national chairman of the veterans’ organization and Sidney Goldreich, acting chairman of Veterans for Wallace.
Local Progressive Party chair Clark Foreman, who was also national treasurer of the organization, said police broke up “parties composed of white people and Negroes, apparently on the theory that any such party is subversive,” according to the Washington Post.
The D.C. chapter of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) held a demonstration on October 18 where 150 people marched on police headquarters at 300 Indiana Ave., NW, carrying a coffin that read “Don’t Bury American Freedom” and carrying signs reading “Give Storm-trooper Tactics Back to the Nazis” and “Civil Rights Congress.”
Thomas G. Buchanan Jr., executive secretary of the local CRC branch, put perspective into the arrests saying, “The lottery charge is based on the allegation that veterans organizations were raffling off small prizes to those attending the party as a fundraising measure,” according to The Washington Herald. Such raffles were “a common practice among church groups and organizations of all types,” according to the Herald.
The CRC called for a police investigation of the incident and of police Captain Howard V. Covell, who had led the two raids. Covell responded, “There was nothing political about those raids,” according to the Post.
Earlier Raid on Interracial Party
But eight days earlier, Washington police raided an interracial housewarming party given by Julius Kaplan at his apartment. According to Kaplan, police showed up about 1 a.m. and pretended to be looking for a fictional person named “Mrs. Schwartz,” ostensibly to tell her about a refrigerator leaking gas.
An hour later, 20 police officers showed up saying there had been a report of a shooting in the apartment. By the time the police arrived, there was only one African American still present and police demanded to search him for a weapon, according to Kaplan.
Police arrested 14 people at the address and held them at the police station until 5 a.m. before releasing them. Kaplan said when the parents of one of the young women called the station to find out why she was being held, a police officer allegedly told them, “Communists are being questioned.” No charges were made related to a shooting.
Protests to Truman & DC Commissioners
The Progressive Party sent a telegram to President Harry Truman and the District of Columbia commissioners protesting the raids, saying in part, “We note that [Police Commissioner] Major Barrett has given as a reason for the high crime rate in Washington that he does not have enough police. We should like to call your attention that…he used nearly 50 police to break up a veterans dance on the pretext that certain individuals were selling liquor without a license and holding a raffle…”
The Washington Post editorialized that “Despite the explanation of Washington police that there was no political significance to Saturday night’s raid, local authorities have shown enough indifference to rowdyism launched against the Wallaceites to arouse suspicion that the arrests at this meeting were not entirely accidental. The case is at best a flimsy one, and, as police well know, illegal sale of liquor in Washington is by no means confined to Wallace rallies.”
The words may have rung true, but the political climate was stacked against those arrested.
Red Scare Takes Hold
Headlines about “reds” and “commies” filled the daily newspapers. The “Hollywood 10” had been convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to jail for refusing to answer questions about their political beliefs.
The U.S. government had instituted loyalty oaths for federal employees and indicted leaders of the Communist Party on the charge of advocating insurrection. They were scheduled for trial the day before the Presidential Election.
The anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, among its many provisions, effectively barred alleged communists from holding union office. It was used locally by a government-sponsored corporation to refuse to bargain with the cafeteria workers union, forcing an 11-week strike earlier in the year.
Wallace, a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Vice-President, and Secretary of Commerce, was personally attacked as a communist sympathizer. Baltimore-based, nationally known journalist H. L. Mencken wrote that Wallace and the Progressive Party were under covert control of the communists.
Wallace ended up finishing fourth in the presidential election with about 1.2 million votes, running slightly behind segregationist Strom Thurmond in the popular vote. John Camper won 10% of the vote in the Maryland Fourth District in a three-way race, despite evidence of vote rigging by the Pollack political machine in African American precincts.
Fight in Court Against Raid Arrests
Notwithstanding the minor charges growing out of the dance at the Laborers’ hall, federal prosecutors were determined to convict the men, while those arrested battled back in the legal arena.
Edwards and Goldreich had their arrests dismissed because no police officer had actually observed them selling liquor or “operating a lottery.” Instead, police had arrested them because they said they were in charge of the dance.
However, this victory was short-lived as both still ended up facing charges for the alleged alcohol sale and lottery operation. Separate trials were scheduled for the lottery and alcohol sales.
The “illegal lottery” trial took place January 5, 1949, with the assistant U.S. Attorney Arthur McLaughlin proclaiming that the four men arrested, including Edwards and Goldreich, acted in “open defiance” of the law.
When undercover police officers testified, the “open defiance” of the law that required 35 officers to suppress on a Saturday night turned out to be chances that were being sold for 25 cents each to win three prizes—one fifth of scotch, one fifth of bourbon and a Paul Robeson “Freedom Train” record.
Police Officer Suggested Raffle
When Edwards, the head of the African American veterans organization, took the witness stand and was being questioned by McLaughlin, he testified that undercover police officer Benjamin Chaplain was the person who suggested holding the raffle to raise money.
Police testified they seized $19.80 at the event as evidence, but when Edwards testified he said he counted over $200 in proceeds two hours before the raid. “I am wondering what happened to all the money,” he said on the witness stand.
In his closing statement, prominent civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston argued that the raffle was conducted for a “cause” similar to church bazaars and fairs where contributions were requested. Houston went on to say that criminal intent was absent.
All were found guilty and fined; three of them were fined $50 and one $25.
Those charged with illegally selling whiskey, including Edwards and Goldreich, had a trial that stretched over three days, from January 17-19.
Leon Ransom, another well known civil rights attorney, argued that the five men charged were accepting contributions, but not selling liquor. Nevertheless, all five were found guilty.
After the trial, juror Anne Mallory filed an affidavit stating that she and other jurors understood that they could find all five guilty or all five innocent. She further stated that she believed two of the men were innocent, but Judge Aubrey B. Fennell denied the motion for a new trial. Fennell imposed fines of $200 on all five defendants in February.
Further court appeals for both groups were unsuccessful.
Breadth of Suppression
In the overall context of the post World War II “red scare,” this was a minor incident. Those who were jailed or lost their jobs during that period suffered worse fates.
However, it illustrates the depth and breadth of the suppression of the country’s left wing movement during the period, including the use of fear and apprehension at being even remotely connected to progressive, socialist or communist issues and campaigns.
Police and the FBI routinely made files of everyone associated with left-wing activists or events. In this instance, it was those who attended a housewarming party or a dance. Authorities prosecuted minor offenses and created arrest records for others. An undercover police officer urged an act that police later conducted arrests for. Proceeds from the fundraiser went missing after police seized them.
Newspapers during this period published the names, addresses and often the employer of people even if they were not arrested or convicted of any crime. In this instance, The Washington Herald published the names and addresses of people who were booked for “investigation” and not for any crime. All the local newspapers carried the names and addresses of those arrested for minor alcohol violations in this case.
It also illustrates how those affected continued to fight back. They campaigned in elections, held demonstrations and waged court battles. The message of “Don’t Bury American Freedom” carried during the protest of these arrests turned out to be one repeated many times during the next decade.
Sources include the following newspapers: The Washington Post, The Afro American, The Washington Daily News, The Washington Star and The Washington Herald. Also consulted were “Hearings Regarding Communism in the District of Columbia” conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and “A Doctor’s Legacy: Dr. John E. T. Camper and the MeDeSo” by Jonathan Cahn.
Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.