Thursday, July 23, 2020

Crystal Eastman

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Coming across a name twice in one week is a good sign to dig a little deeper, and this is how I was introduced to Crystal Eastman. Turns out not only did this woman have connections to Elmira, women’s suffrage and Mark Twain, she was among the first American women to receive a law degree. She was the first woman appointed by a New York Governor to a state legal commission dealing with employment - a group she was later elected to lead – and she was co-founder of both the National Women’s Peace Party and the American Civil Liberties Union (commonly known as the ACLU). Amazingly, she accomplished all of this before her untimely death at the age of 48.

Crystal Eastman

Crystal Eastman was born in 1881, the second of four children to Samuel Eastman and Annis Ford Eastman. The Eastmans had married after meeting as students at Oberlin College. Samuel was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, and his first assignment was to Canandaigua’s First Congregational Church.

Samuel and Annis Eastman

Samuel Eastman had served in the Civil War, and had suffered from terrible pneumonia. His health went on to bother him throughout his life. Soon health issues forced him to resign his Canandaigua ministry, and his wife Annis took up teaching to raise money for the growing family. They had four children. Annis soon discovered a talent for speaking and was asked and accepted offers to preach at various local churches. She became an early feminist and popular speaker. Notable speeches she gave were before the Congress of Women and the National Council of Women of the United States.

In 1892, Annis became the first woman Congregational minister, and was ordained by a council headed by the Reverend Thomas K. Beecher of Elmira. The Eastmans and Beechers became lifelong friends and colleagues. When Reverend Beecher died in 1900, both Eastmans were appointed to take his place and they moved their family from Canandaigua to Elmira.

Revs. Thomas K. Beecher, Annis and Samuel Eastman

Other members of the progressive congregation included Samuel L. -also known as Mark Twain - and Livy Clemens. They knew the Eastmans so well that when Twain died, Reverend Annis Ford Eastman was asked to give the eulogy at his funeral. She wrote the eulogy, but her failing health prevented her from delivering it. Her husband spoke on her behalf.

The Eastman’s oldest child had died early from scarlet fever. Now there were three children and Crystal was their only daughter. She left Elmira to study at Vassar College, with plans to pursue advanced studies in NYC while her brother Max finished up at Williams College. 

Vassar College

The family’s financial plans required her to compromise. Her parents decided Crystal would pursue her master’s degree in sociology from Columbia, while Max took a year off. Crystal would then return to Elmira and work while Max finished his studies. Everyone agreed, and upon completing graduate school, Crystal returned to Elmira to teach high school English and history for two years.

In 1906, Crystal returned to New York City to enroll in law school at New York University. The program had recently began to admit women students, and she earned her degree in 1907. She was particularly interested in labor issues and worked on a project called the Pittsburgh Survey. This was an in-depth look at workplace injuries, employment, and unemployment issues. Her scholarship on the project brought her to the attention of the NY Governor. Governor Hughes appointed her to the New York State Commission of Employee’s Liability and Causes of Industrial Accidents, Unemployment and Lack of Farm Labor. Crystal became the first woman appointed to any state level commission in New York, and went on to be the elected Secretary of the commission. 

Following in her mother's footsteps, Crystal became active in the suffrage movement. Ironically her first contribution to the cause was to help her brother Max establish the Men's League for Women's Suffrage, and important organization that fought alongside and boosted women's rights.

Crystal married Wallace Benedict and they left New York for Milwaukee, his hometown. In Wisconsin, she campaigned for suffrage issues which went on to be soundly defeated. Within the year, she moved back alone to NYC. The couple divorced two years later.

By this time, World War I was looming. Crystal, along with other prominent activists, turned their attention away from women getting the vote to working on Peace and anti-Militarism campaigns. Concerned about the state of civil liberties for all citizens, she co-founded the National Woman’s Peace Party to defend free speech during wartime. Her advocacy work gained her international experience, and she traveled and lectured throughout Europe. She worked closely with prominent social reformers, activists and radicals of the day, including Walter Fuller who became her second husband. Walter was an Englishman, poet, anti-war activist, intellectual and editor, and together they had two children.

In 1920, when the US Government began to suppress free speech and freedom of the press, Crystal co-founded the National Civil Liberties Bureau later known as the American Civil Liberties Union. This was her most significant legacy.

Her work to protect citizens’ civil rights targeted her, and she and her husband were blacklisted by the government. Unable to find work, they fled the country to work in London, England.

In 1927, Walter had a stroke and died. Crystal returned to the US only to die six months later from inflammation of the kidneys. She was 48 years old. Crystal Eastman is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Canandaigua, NY.

Monday, July 20, 2020

How Racism Kills

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist


Shortly after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, a young researcher asked me if anyone in Elmira had ever died because they were Black. The only answer I could give her was, well, it’s complicated. It’s complicated for a couple of reasons. Firstly, no one has ever died because they’re Black. They’ve died because the people and systems around them were racist. Secondly, it’s complicated because racism in Elmira has never taken the form of lynch mobs yelling racial slurs. No, our local brand of racism is far more subtle, but no less dangerous.

Take, for example, the case of Bessie Berry. In 1981, she became the first Black woman to work as a Corrections Councilor at the Elmira Correctional Facility. Despite being fully qualified for the position with bachelors and masters degrees, over 10 years’ experience as a probation worker, and high test scores on the civil service exam, she was given the run around throughout the hiring process. In 1986, she was placed in charge of a state-mandated program designed to provide work and retraining opportunities to inmates. For the next year, she struggled to implement the program with no support and lots of pushback from her coworkers and superiors. They finally agreed to sign off on her plans after a class-action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in work placement was filed by a group of inmates. By then, Berry was so stressed out from all of this that she had a heart attack and was forced to retire. You can hear all about it in her own words in an oral history interview she gave in 1989.

Studies have shown that dealing with everyday racism can have profoundly negative effects on the health of African Americans, leaving them more prone to stress-related ailments such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and other such issues. Research also shows that racism can actually cause premature aging, as well as psychological illnesses like depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. What’s more, Blacks often have a harder time receiving proper health care. Not only are Blacks 1.5 times more likely than whites to be uninsured, they are less likely to receive quality medical care when they do go to a doctor. As late as 2012, a study revealed that 40% of American medical students believed the myth that Black people have thicker skins than whites. Black patients are 22% less likely than whites to receive pain medication after surgery and are 5 times more likely to die in childbirth. The health effects of everyday racism are deadly.

Dr.George Murphy and nurse with patient, 1936

Encounters with police can be dangerous too. In September 2000, a boyfriend-girlfriend fight at a teen dance devolved into a melee between police and about 200 teens. The police broke up the fight using pepper spray, physical force and attack dogs. Following the incident, eight families filed complaints against the department with the Chemung County Commission on Human Relations alleging excessive use of force, especially as directed towards Black members of the crowd. The police launched their own, internal investigation and the FBI was also called in to review for civil rights violations. While the Elmira Police Department concluded that their officers did nothing wrong, the Commission on Human Relations eventually concluded that the police “overreacted” and used excessive force which escalated the incident from an argument between four teenagers into a brawl. They made a series of recommendations regarding police training and public outreach.

Studies show that across the nation police disproportionally stop, arrest, and use excessive force against Blacks. A 2000 study found that, while Blacks made just 12.5% of Elmira’s population, they represented 41% of police stops. In the last decade, approximately 1,000 people were killed by police nationwide each year. In 2017, the Elmira Police Department killed two men, both of them white. Nationally, the majority of individuals killed by police are also white, but, when their overall percentage of the population is taken into account, Black men are estimated to be between 2.5 and 3.5 times more likely to be shot by police than whites. Implicit bias, or our unconscious assumptions about race or other characteristics, play a large role in accounting for the disparity. American society teaches us through film, television, and the stories we choose to tell that Black people are inherently more dangerous, often leading police to be more aggressive with Black suspects. The second of the two men killed in 2017 was suffering from mental illness, which Americans also have strong implicit biases against. People with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other civilians. One of the main arguments of the movement to defund the police is that unarmed social workers would be less likely to kill people while performing wellness checks.

Image courtesy of The Society Pages

I wish I lived in a world where I didn’t have to explain to a ten-year-old the ways that racism has killed her neighbors. I hope with knowledge and some societal self-reflection, we can stop it from killing more.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Bird Brains: Gulls on the Chemung River

by Erin Doane, Curator

In 2009, ring-billed gulls were the scourge of downtown Elmira. The nearly 800 nesting pairs that called the small island between the Main Street and Clemens Center Parkway bridges home did not stay on the river. They flew over shops and restaurants, landed on roofs and stoops, wandered parking lots, and left their calling cards everywhere they went. Business owners and residents demanded that the city do something about the gull invasion. The birds had been coming to Elmira for over 100 years with no trouble. Why was 2009 different? 

Ring-billed gull, from
The Chemung River has not always been the nesting grounds for hundreds of gulls. In 1893, they were such a rare sight in the area that when one was shot by a boy while he was out hunting, it was big enough news to make it into the Star-Gazette. In February 1904, the newspaper ran another story when a flock of gulls came to Elmira. They were still seen near the river in March and a local reporter was pleased that no one had shot any while they were visiting.

By the 1910s, gulls were a regular, seasonal sight in Elmira. They would come back to their old haunts in early winter. If they were late, locals would grow concerned, and would then heave a sigh of relief when their feathered friend finally arrived. Pedestrians on the bridges would stop to watch the birds “describing graceful circles in the air or floating, peacefully down the river with the current.” It appeared that most residents and business owners in downtown were quite fond of the gull’s annual visits.

An amusing article from the Star-Gazette about negotiating to keep the birds in Elmira, March 21, 1910
The gulls were typically just daytime visitors to Elmira. They spent the night in Watkins Glen and flew down to the Chemung River every day to find food. When the river froze over, locals became concerned that the gulls may starve, so they threw food scraps out onto the ice for the birds. During World War I, the gulls were treated particularly well because it was thought that they could be used to detect submarines during their season at sea. The birds followed the trails of refuse dumped by the submersibles. Elmirans were encouraged to continue feeding the gulls during their short stay on the Chemung River “for every little bit helps when the nation is trying hard to win the war.”

The gulls were considered harbingers of winter. It was thought that when the birds arrived, cold weather was right behind them. Their late arrival predicted a mild winter, and their absence for a season was a sign of an early spring. The number of birds that arrived was also seen as an indicator of how harsh the season would be. If large numbers of birds showed up, then it was going to be a particularly severe winter. In 1931, very few gulls visited Elmira and it was “almost unprecedentedly mild.”

After the 1930s, reports of the gulls’ seasonal visits to the Chemung River stopped appearing in the local newspaper. They were likely such a common sight by then that their arrival was no longer considered news. It wasn’t until the new millennium that the birds again became newsworthy. In the early 2000s, some dredging was done in the river. As a result, a small island, roughly 100 yards long made of dirt and stone, was left in the river between the Main Street and Clemens Center Parkway bridges. The gulls found it a perfect place to nest. Within a few years Gull Island, as it was dubbed, was home to one of the most accessible ring-billed gull breeding colonies in the Northeast. Birders flocked to the area to get an up-close look at the birds as they nested then raised their young in the middle of the city.

Portrait of a ring-billed gull, from
Many locals and visitors were still quite fond of the gulls as their short winter visits became long summer stays. Gull Island was mentioned when the American Institute of Architects was working to recognize “hidden gems” in the area in 2006. The island also showed up on lists of reasons why Elmira was a great place to live in 2005 and 2007. Unfortunately, that many birds in one place also created a huge nuisance. The scavengers were drawn into downtown by food sources. They had the potential to carry diseases and were not shy about leaving droppings whenever and wherever the urge came upon them. By 2009, the frustrations of downtown businesses and residents had come to a head and they demanded that the city do something about the gulls.

Many suggestions were presented for ways to get rid of, or at least lessen, the gull population on the river. Some suggested playing sounds of fireworks to scare them away. Others proposed moving the island on which they nested farther down the river to a more wooded area. Those who suggested killing the birds or destroying the eggs were quickly shot down, however. Ring-billed gulls are designated a protected species by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In September 2009, the city approved a $4,160, three-year contract with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Wildlife Services for the removal of gull nests and eggs from the island. Those efforts helped to some extent, but gulls tend to return to the same nesting site year after year.

In 2011, the Elmira City Council adopted an innovative new way to deal with the birds. Sammi, a 7-year-old female Border Collie, donated by Elmira Animal Control Director Craig Spencer, went to work harassing the gulls into leaving. The plan to use Sammi for bird control was such a novel idea that the story was picked up by newspapers throughout the country. Sammi’s exploits appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Northwest Herald (Woodstock, Illinois), Sioux City Journal (Sioux City, Iowa), The Burlington Free Press (Burlington, Vermont), Wisconsin State Journal (Madison Wisconsin), Daily News (New York, New York), The Signal (Santa Clarita, California), and Kenosha News (Kenosha, Wisconsin).

Ring-billed gull in Elmira, April 2020
Today, ring-billed gulls can still be spotted on the Chemung River, but there are not nearly as many as there were 10 years ago.