Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 1, 2013

Jewish leftist chicken farmers of the Catskills

Filed under: african-american,revolutionary organizing,trade unions — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

A couple of months ago I was exchanging email with Yevgeniy Fiks, the Russian conceptual artist who emigrated to the U.S. in 1994, and Allen Young, the veteran leftist who lived in the next village from me in the 1950s. Yevgeniy’s latest show was titled Homosexuality Is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America, a subject that was right up Allen’s alley. As the closeted son of Communist parents, he knew firsthand what it meant to be up against the “red scare” and “pink scare” simultaneously.

In trying to provide Yevgeniy with some background information on Allen’s past, I sent him a copy of the obit that Allen wrote for his mom that included this item:

An active member of the American Labor Party of New York State in the 1940s and 1950s, she helped organize a successful civil rights campaign in the 1950s to improve the conditions of migrant African-American laundry workers in Woodridge.

Allen wrote back letting me know that a woman named Beryl Rubens had worked closely with Rae Young and the other activists in the community. Furthermore, she was living on the upper west side and still going strong. I followed up with a phone call and made a date to interview her on December 5th.

The Glen Wild chicken farmers who provided the backbone of the organizing drive were Communists. They were also deeply principled and fearless. They stuck their necks out in a time when CP’ers were losing their jobs or facing prison terms for their beliefs.

In my comic book memoir I try to pay homage to these dedicated souls whose example should serve us well in a period of deepening reaction. In many ways, the struggle to organize a trade union at a steam laundry in my little village in the Catskills was like the one depicted in Herert Biberman’s “Salt of the Earth” inasmuch as it combined class and racial dimensions.

If I ever get around to writing a novel about life in the Borscht Belt in the 1950s, such heroes and heroines will play a central role.

8 Comments »

  1. The community at Golden’s Bridge received us with food and refuge , the Peekskill Concert guards,June 1949. Dick Levins

    Comment by Richard Levins — January 1, 2013 @ 6:15 pm

  2. Louis, I don’t remember the CP chicken farmers of Glen Wild, but I do remember the Sullivan County Steam Laundry, which I seem to remember was a large airplane hanger-type building near Woodrich. (Always pronounced “Voodritch” by my grandparents, who owned a small hotel a few miles out of town, across the county line in Ulster County on Route 52.)

    Comment by David Berger — January 1, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

  3. And though unconnected to the CP, Louis’s mother understood the nature of racism as it existed in our small Catskills towns in the 1950s. She was the first adult I encountered who spoke with anger about the treatment of blacks both locally and nationally. Her influence was felt.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — January 1, 2013 @ 6:38 pm

  4. wasn’t it “Herbert” Biberman?

    Comment by uh...clem — January 1, 2013 @ 6:42 pm

  5. Yes, it was. Will fix…

    Comment by louisproyect — January 1, 2013 @ 6:50 pm

  6. Stuff like this is really interesting. There is all this leftist history lying right underneath the surface. You never know when the old guy you give up your seat for on the bus used to be to working with International Labor Defense or organizing garment workers or docks. Yet this info very rarely comes up in “polite conversation.” Props to you for fishing it out. I would love to see more like this.

    I gotta ask though, how do chicken farmers end up on the Upper West Side? Did they move when that was still a working class neighborhood? Because rent over there now is absolutely nuts.

    And one more curiosity that strikes every time I see something like “he’s a conceptual artist.” How exactly does one make a living as a conceptual artist?

    I’m not trying to take the piss. I just wonder how they do it. My grandma painted her whole life, just because she liked to, never made a penny. How do some folks turn this into a career?

    Comment by Clark — January 2, 2013 @ 7:58 am

  7. We trade our tears and low self esteem for goods and services Clark. That’s how.

    Comment by Pandora — January 2, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

  8. Thanks for posting this , Louis. A great interview and source of information and inspiration. all the best.

    Comment by Stephen H — January 5, 2013 @ 6:56 pm


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