A Glimpse of Black Life in Beacon, April 1941

fowler report

Manet Fowler’s typewritten report, with her corrections, is part of the collection at the Dutchess County Historical Society.

In April 1941, Manet Helen Fowler (1916-2004) — later to become the first Black woman in the U.S. to earn a doctorate in cultural anthropology — visited Beacon and other Dutchess County communities to speak to African American residents about their views of the national defense (the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor in December, drawing the U.S. into World War II), race relations, migration and education, among other topics.

It’s unclear who commissioned the typed reports, or if they have ever been published, but in 2020 the Fowler family put them up for auction with Swann Galleries in New York City. Bill Jeffway, president of the Dutchess County Historical Society, paid $3,640 and donated the documents to the society. Below are excerpts from Fowler’s report from Beacon.

Three or four blocks from the [Baptist] church we met the first Negro we had then seen in town — Mr. F., the handyman, who was dressed in a fisherman’s hat, leather jacket and high boots, and who, after the “ground” was broken, talked willingly — on the street, in the rain — for more than half an hour. He is a tenant of Mr. and Mrs. A., living in a small shack in their backyard on Hudson Avenue, and he suggested that I contact them….

Mr. G. of the Beacon News was interviewed in his office. He was cordial, gracious and, though busy, typed out a list of “Negro” names who might be found helpful.

The first of these was that of Mr. and Mrs. W, of the Beacon Inn, described as a “restaurant,” where we might be able to have dinner and to gain other contacts. At this Inn (referred to by Beacon Negroes as a “saloon” or a “beer garden,” but never once as a restaurant!), we were finally served dinner, cooked to order, having interviews meanwhile with Mr. and Mrs. W, the former brickyard workers, the aqueduct worker and the itinerant Philadelphia mechanic-carpenter.

The Inn is on lower Beekman Street, the “Negro” street up from the Hudson River where a large number of colored people live and conduct their limited businesses. Rev. and Mrs. W. and Mrs. C live on this street, diagonally across from the Inn, and they were interviewed in their homes. Mr. and Mrs. J, who maintain well-appointed rooms for transients, gave their answers in their home, where we stayed overnight….

Mr. B, on leave from Fort Dix, [was interviewed] in the Congo Inn, the town’s other colored “saloon” “beer garden” “restaurant,” which, as one interviewee put it, “appeals to the younger crowd,” while the Beacon Inn is frequented by the older working class. Mr. and Mrs. T do not live on Beekman Street (those people who do have a complex about it, and feel that “the minute you say you live on Beekman Street in this town, you’re disgraced!”) but on Ferry Street, nearby; they were interviewed at home, after Mrs. C had invited us to Sunday morning breakfast.

In all cases, opinions were freely given, completely without reticence. Here there seemed little need to “feel the way” in view of being an “outsider.”… Perhaps it was because, of the interviewees, only Mrs. C. (and a few of the younger people of high school age) had been born in Beacon — gaining thereby the true in-group attitude. The others were immigrants, mostly from the South, who had been in the town a long time or short, but had, nevertheless, an objectivity which was colored in large part by a sense of affiliation “at home,” wherever that might be, but of transition-residence in Beacon. No matter. Even though most of the opinions drifted in the same direction, the people — all of them — talked… .

Manet Helen Fowler

Manet Helen Fowler, in a 1951 painting by her mother (Yale University Art Gallery)

Superficially, race relations offer no problem (this, in fact, was the opinion of Mr. G. of The News, in regard to Beacon: “Everybody got along fine; relief authorities made joblessness impossible — Negroes, everybody, always worked”); Negro and white boys and girls attend school together — but after school, with or without graduation, the future for the Negro boys and girls is limited. They are not accepted for work in downtown factories except at Gloversville, a non-union furniture factory out from town, which employs about 40% Negro men. (Miss H., a very light Negro girl with hazel eyes, a high school student now, and intelligent, made application at the National Biscuit Co. but has never been called, and was never allowed to speak with anyone in greater authority than a secretary-receptionist.)

The difficult thing with this non-acceptance, Beacon Negroes think, is that it is so rarely explicit, but subtle. Applications are accepted for jobs, but no one is ever called, nor is the applicant told that no disposition of his case will be made because he is colored. Miss H. felt that much could be gained in at least an understanding on both sides, if the Negroes could sometimes gain an audience with a personnel manager, instead of a receptionist, who, she felt, will often block the way. Two other Negro women have worked in downtown factories, however, but the other Negros discount this as an achievement for the group proper — since, they say, “They were both so ‘pink’ nobody could tell the difference.”

As in Poughkeepsie, also, the housing situation is bad in Beacon, although recently there has been a sudden spurt of Negro homebuyers, mostly among Castle Point employees. Even so, on all streets — even Beekman — some whites live side by side with Negroes and, in some cases (varying, of course, with individual personalities), limited social relations are indulged. But among the Negroes themselves there is the old problem of disunity — stratification into brickyard and hospital worker classes; between church people and saloon people; between young people and old… .

As for the young people and the saloon, there are fewer other places for them to go. The Baptist Church has no Young People’s Forum, no clubs, little but a Young People’s Choir to sing hymns. Mr. and Mrs. A., from their meager funds, charter a bus each Sunday to gather young people for the Methodist Church Sunday School… .

In the town of Negroes, there are, therefore, the two churches, the two saloons, two barber-shop-beauty-parlor combinations, and one business headquarters, for a man who sells life insurance and exhibits colored educational films, for a New York company. At the moment, the young people are very anxious to have something in the nature of a Community Center, or clubhouse, or whatever — where they might meet and have meetings and programs of a progressive, civic nature… .

Economically, the Castle Point Hospital employees are the “upper class.” These live in nicer homes in town, if they do not occupy the attractive quarters furnished on the hospital grounds and many are now buying. One of the reasons for the inadequate Negro census figures for Beacon may lie in the fact that numbers of Negroes live “on their jobs,” as in the case of the Castle Point workers — numbering, according to vague estimates, almost “as many as 327 themselves.”

The now-unemployed brickyard workers are the Beacon Inn nucleus — working men who pick up what they can, and their wives or sweethearts, who work as domestics. In all cases the idea proposed by Mr. G. that “there was no Negro (or any!) unemployment in Beacon — in fact, “too much work” was greeted with much cynical levity from interviewees. “Jobs,” they answer, “but what kind of jobs?” Relief authorities encourage work, it is true, they say, but “you must take what you can get — and, for the Negro, that is always next to nothing!”

The case of Miss H. — who “cleans a large, 8-room house each Saturday for a white housewife at a $1 salary — excused because she is “a schoolgirl” is in point. Mrs. W., who works as the theatre attendant part-time now, was extremely bitter about the housework situation, and has resolved that “working for Jews at the theatre is better; they don’t pay much, but at least they treat you right.”

At the time of the interviewing, some men were employed on the New York State aqueduct project, which was a union job requiring much standing in deep water and mud. Invariably, in regard to unions, there was much bitterness from the men, they are never called except for the dirtiest work, they are not allowed to join unions calling for skill: “Unions are controlled by Communists anyhow, Communists are white — no white man will give a Negro a job when he can give one to his own.” Although admitting that the best jobs open in Beacon to Negroes were the Castle Point Hospital jobs, the attitude of these laborers was that it was only because Castle Point is a tuberculosis hospital that Negroes form such a large percentage of the employees; orderlies and maids are Negroes and doctors and nurses white… .

[The uneven distribution of jobs] is continually resented. It should not be a surprise that this resentment is reflected in some quarters in a complete isolationist stand: “We got nothing from the last war — why fight in this one?” On the other hand, Mr. T., veteran of the last war, and now economically well-fixed, felt that “regardless of how we are treated in America, we are still citizens, and as citizens of this country, I think we should help if the rest do.”

The itinerant mechanic-carpenter from Philadelphia had traveled, after the last world war, in Europe, and had developed affection for the German people as a group. This man insisted that the greatest contribution the Negro in America could make to his own welfare was to stay out of this war, since he believed strongly that Negroes were being made victims of “propaganda” in regard to Germans. “Wherever an American or English white man had set foot in Europe, and I went there,” this man said, “I was discriminated against. But when I went to Germany, the Germans treated me just like any other man. Personally, I hope Hitler wins the war!”

This man, who served in the last war, felt that if Negroes did wish to participate in the defense industry, their only chance for equality would be if the government took over.

Another speaker believed that all anti-alien, anti-Red and anti-union drives would prove beneficial to Negro workers. “Whenever they throw out the foreigners, the Reds and the unions, there can’t help but be room for Negroes, for we are Americans, and so few of us are either Communist, or allowed in the good unions. CIO [the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a union open to Blacks] is helping some, but [Henry] Ford has been better to Negroes than most unions, regardless of what they say about him and Hitler.”

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