Karl Grossman
Karl Grossman

Robert Moses: Biased Against Blacks and Latinos and Difficulty with His Judaism

A bill to change the name of Robert Moses State Park off Long Island because of the racism toward African-Americans and Latinos of long-time New York State public works and parks czar Moses has been introduced in the State Legislature by Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell of Manhattan.

Not only was Moses prejudiced against African-Americans and Latinos, he had great difficulty with his Judaism. He was born to a prominent German-Jewish family in New Haven, Connecticut—his father, Emanuel Moses, owned a department store there.

But after college, Moses converted to being an Episcopal.

His only run for political office came in 1934 when he ran for governor against Herbert H. Lehman, also born to a German-Jewish family but Lehman was a proud Jew and active in Jewish affairs through his life. Lehman won resoundingly, by a two-to-one margin.

After his defeat, Moses moved to heading governmental commissions and authorities to achieve power. Lehman went on to be elected to the U.S. Senate and, as the obituary by the Jewish Telegraph Agency noted upon his death in 1983, he was “one of the foremost active leaders in many Jewish causes for many years” and “universally acclaimed as the ‘elder statesman’ of American Jewry.”

Lehman was a strong supporter of the state of Israel. Liman, a moshav in the western Galilee, was named in his honor.

Lehman was also the founder of the Joint Distribution Committee, the global Jewish humanitarian organization.

At the funeral for Moses at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Bay Shore on Long Island in 1981, the Rev. Lawrence Ginley declared that as head of the various commissions and authorities did more “than the Pharaohs did for Egypt,”

The legislation of Assemblyman O’Donnell, an attorney who grew up in Commack on Long Island, and is an older brother of Rosie O’Donnell, the TV personality and author, declares that “Robert Moses repeatedly abused his power to entrench racial and economic segregation.”

Examples cited: when Moses built Jones Beach State Park off Long Island “he intentionally ordered the overpasses of the connected parkway too low for buses, so that poor people, particularly African-American families, could not access the beach.” He “built most public parks, playgrounds far from Puerto Rican and African-American neighborhoods.” And he “pursued the systematic displacement and segregation of families of color” to build Lincoln Center in Manhattan and “effectively allowed for the discrimination against black veterans and their families in the Stuyvesant Town development” also in Manhattan.

“The names of great state parks serve as powerful symbols of which people…celebrate,” the O’Donnell bill says. “The state of New York needs to begin the process of accounting for the historic harm done to communities of color by people like Robert Moses, whose actions still affect many African-American and Hispanic New Yorkers to this day.”

The measure provides for creation of a commission “to choose a new name” for the 875-acre state park that dominates the western portion of the Fire Island barrier beach.

Moses’ racism has long been described, including in a recent book “Saving Fire Island From Robert Moses: The Fight For a National Seashore” by Christopher Verga, who teaches Long Island history at Suffolk County Community College.

Bridges on both Moses’ Southern State and Northern State Parkways on Long Island were built low because, relates Dr. Verga, Moses didn’t want buses to pass under them taking African-Americans and Latinos from New York City to Jones Beach and other parks on Long Island.

“He was very biased,” says Verga.

In conducting research on Moses, Verga went through the Moses archive at the New York Public Library and says in one box he found numerous letters from rabbis to Moses saying that Moses’ stance on blacks in New York City was comparable to Hitler’s attitude towards Jews. Verga said Moses rebuffed these letters by writing back that he was an Episcopolian, “and then stopped responding to them.”

Robert Caro, himself a Jew, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses, “The Power Broker,” published in 1974, has described him as “the most racist human being I have ever really encountered.”

Opposing the renaming of Robert Moses State Park—for an unusual reason—is writer Rebecca C. Lewis in a column with a headline: “Robert Moses State Park already has the perfect name for a notoriously segregated region.”

She wrote this month on cityandstate.com: “The temptation to remove the honor for a legendary mid-century builder, whose legacy has been tarnished by revelations of racist views and exclusionary policies, is understandable. But no one better reflects the history of the island—racist, segregated, car-dependent, but blessed with beautiful public beaches—than Robert Moses.”

Racism “is embedded in Long Island’s history, whether we like it or not. It’s built into the very foundation of its suburban neighborhoods, as minorities were steered into communities away from white families with brokers that outright refused to sell to non-white homeseekers. Levittown, the nation’s first true modern suburban neighborhood, was literally built for whites,” she continued. “Long Island today remains incredibly segregated.”

This is true—and, indeed, an exemplary investigative report this month by the Long Island newspaper Newsday is current documentation on how blacks and Latinos are steered (illegally) to different neighborhoods than whites.

And in running this “Long Island Divided” series, Newsday went out of its way to publish an “acknowledgement” in an editorial that the newspaper “missed a critical chance to lead” in regard to Levittown. Newsday boosted Levittown although blacks, it noted in this journalistic reckonng, were “barred…This was no secret. The covenant was in every early lease, in caps: THE TENANT AGREES NOT TO PERMIT THE PREMISES TO BE USED OR OCCUPIED BY ANY PERSON OTHER THAN MEMBERS OF THE CAUCASIAN RACE.”

That was shameful. And the continuing racism on Long Island is outrageous.

In southern states of the United States, there has been a reckoning in the last several years that has involved efforts to end the display of the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate leaders.

There needs to be a similar reckoning when it comes to Moses, a resident of Babylon on Long Island where a bronze statue of him was put up in 2003.

Full disclosure: Moses got me fired in 1964 from my first job as a reporter because of an article I wrote about civil rights activists being beaten by private security guards on opening day of the New York World’s Fair, which he ran, as they demonstrated against racism in its hiring.




About the Author
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury who has specialized in investigative reporting for 45 years. He is the host of the TV program “Enviro Close-Up,” the writer and presenter of numerous TV documentaries and the author of six books.