The story of Henry Thomas, one of America’s best historians

Remember “the ghetto” (aka “The Projects”) that once existed in many black neighborhoods?

Well, black neighborhoods were usually red brick structures, usually many stories tall, constructed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many were covered with tarpaulins, or architectural ornamentation took the form of groupings of pillars. Buildings were often small, and on several levels.

Anchored by the southern corner of 63rd street and South Artesian avenue, the projects also became a center for political and economic activity during the Progressive Era. Just like the Bronx, the projects were vibrant, noisy, and multi-ethnic.

Many in the Bronx at the time were politically conservative and opposed to urban renewal efforts, but a growing group led by the late Henry A. Thomas were promoting what became known as the single-family, brick, Central Bronx. They opposed the project because of the loss of affordable housing for African Americans.

Thomas, a young man, was facing a layoff from the legendary brick manufacturer Philip Brach in the shadow of the Bronx Building, which housed the ultra-Orthodox shops of Youngstown. By Dec. 15, 1922, Thomas accepted a contract with the Metropolitan Power and Light Company to cut wire.

Thomas’s father had just died, leaving him to run the family business with only a few workers. The story of the Thomas family, and its loss of control, is documented in Nick Paumgarten’s book, Anglo-American Nationalism: The Formation of NYC; 1862 to 1908.

After 10 years in the power industry, Thomas had left the area when he was recruited to manage the Union African-American Bank in 1925. He did just that for a year, but was hired again by the bank’s board of directors. The Bank wrote the largest check in U.S. banking history to the Harlem Renaissance Artist’s Collaborative in 1927.

It was at that time that the Thomas brothers’ business interests, along with their erstwhile political allies, thrived. The last night of Federal workers, and the thousands who rode the BQE, were replaced with hundreds of thousands of visiting day workers moving in from New York to Harlem. In 1932, Thomas and his brother, Samuel, were briefly associated with the American Bantustan Association.

When Robert Moses arrived on the scene, Thomas quickly sold his share of the Bank to Moses’ brother, Peter. By 1936, the Thomas brothers had completely fled the city, their political influence based on the Bronx building monopoly evaporating. Moses considered the family irrelevant in 1935.

Using eminent domain, Moses attempted to clear the area of all residences for a recreation center. Although a large majority of Bronx residents vehemently opposed the plan, Moses sought political support from the national Socialist Party. After the New York City Board of Ed was empaneled by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in 1938, the City Council then voted to amend the Municipal Code to allow eminent domain to be used in demolition cases and the plan for the Recreation Center to take place. It is often noted that no individual in the business community expressed strong opposition.

Robert Moses was contemptuous of the Thomas family and his attempts to suppress their development. He dubbed Henry Thomas the “Mayor of Inheritance,” and hinted that Moses could have the brothers removed from office because Moses, as successor, would terminate family ties.

Charles E. Henry, one of Moses’ most famous enemies and the Bronx district attorney, filed suit against the city for violating the 15th amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees each citizen a fair trial. The case was heard by the Supreme Court in 1938.

The Court ruled that the government had exceeded its legal authority by taking a family’s property, declaring that the government had violated Thomas family members’ federal constitutional rights. Moses and his backers were outraged, but Henry Thomas went into seclusion, as Moses’ supporters discovered his plans.

Robert Moses did not pay for the family members’ home and all the property that Thomas had either leased or owned, but not paid taxes on.

Suffice it to say that New York had a reputation for eliminating its own. However, the Thomas family has been reborn. There are today at least three thriving architectural preservation districts in New York.

Robert Naiman, staff attorney with the left-leaning Center for Constitutional Rights, is the author of Babylon: The Biography of Times Square, Jacobin magazine’s Resistance Handbook, and The Nourished Middle Class: A Roadmap to a Green Economy. He has been called one of America’s best historians and one of our most influential media critics.

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