Map of the Borough of Brooklyn : Showing Location and Extent of Racial Colonies. Ohman Map Co. Inc. ca. 1920. Brooklyn Historical Society Map Collection
This “Map of the Borough of Brooklyn : Showing Location and Extent of Racial Colonies” (featured on the blog in March 2012) published by A. R. Ohman in the early 20th century has always piqued the interest of researchers and visitors here at Brooklyn Historical Society. There is in fact a pair of maps showing what the map terms ‘racial colonies’ in New York City: one shows Manhattan and the Bronx, the one shown here depicts Brooklyn. Dating this map was a challenge, for the map itself has no date information on it. I had noticed NYPL had dated their map of Manhattan to 1920, although there was no indication of the origin of that date. I wondered if they surmised the information was based on 1920 census data and formulated a date based on that assumption.
I found the answer by searching Google Books, where I discovered that Angela M. Blake discusses these Ohman maps in her book, How New York Became American, 1890-1924 (Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). I quickly found the book at the public library, and learned that these Ohman maps are 1920 commercial versions of maps produced in 1919 by the New York State Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate Seditious Activities, popularly known as the Lusk Committee. In other words, they are the result of a dark period in American history: in 1919 the United States was in the grip of a Red Scare, the result of a confluence of national and international phenomena, including the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the rise of other international leftist movements, a fervent patriotism and xenophobia sparked by the war, the growing immigrant population in the U.S., a series ofbombings and attempted bombings in the U.S. by followers of anarchist Luigi Galleani, and heightened labor unrest, including several national strikes.
Detail, Map of the Borough of Brooklyn : Showing Location and Extent of Racial Colonies. Ohman Map Co. Inc. ca. 1920. Brooklyn Historical Society Map Collection.
The legend shows that immigrant Europeans are by far the most numerous ‘colonies’ tracked on this map. Blake notes that the color red—a great deal of it– is used for those grouped as Russian, Polish and other Jews, a color suggestive of danger as well as socialism and communism. She also notes how these highlighted, seemingly unassimilated colonies seem to encircle the unshaded, ‘native’ areas. This is especially evident in Manhattan and western Brooklyn.
The original maps created for the Lusk Committee contained much more information. According to the finding aid for the Lusk Committee papers in the New York State Archives, in addition to showing ethnic enclaves by color, the 1919 maps were indexed and numbered to show locations of suspected radical group meetings and publishers. The Manhattan map lists 63 meeting halls and 44 newspapers, while the Brooklyn map lists 23 such halls.
While the Committee was active, thousands of raids were conducted, thousands of people were arrested, and five Socialist members of the New York State Assembly were expelled. The Committee also produced a four-volume report, Revolutionary Radicalism: Its History, Purpose and Tactics with an Exposition and Discussion of the Steps being Taken and Required to Curb It, which makes for daunting reading, but is testimony to the Committee’s relentless thoroughness and zeal for their task.
Only a few dozen convictions were realized out of the thousands arrested. Despite the enormous disruption of individual lives and the effective suppression of radical points of view with the seizure of print runs and presses of raided newspapers, the influence of the Lusk Committee and its report on state government did not last. The Committee fell out of public favor with its excesses, particularly after the expulsion of 5 Socialist members of the New York State legislature in 1920. Its legislative successes were the loyalty oaths and licensing requirements for educators enacted in in 1921, but even these measures were repealed by Alfred E. Smith when he returned to the governor’s office in 1923.
What could the commercial appeal of these color block maps have been? I imagine they would have been of use to people in business, real estate, law enforcement and government, and it is conceivable they informed institutions considering investments in housing, money, manpower and infrastructure. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we find these maps intrinsically interesting, for the racial diversity of our communities is a source of pride and interest. This was not the case a century ago. Interest and alarm over immigrant communities continued well beyond the worst of this scare. One visible result was the Immigration Act of 1924, which imposed the immigration quotas which remained in place in the U.S. (with periodic adjustments) until 1965.
As often happens when I start to investigate a seemingly straightforward question—how do we know when was this map was published?—I find a story. I am far from alone, for Blake writes that the first three months of her archival research for this book was spent consulting the extensive map collection at New York Public Library from which she pieced together her basic narrative. This map led me to her book, and her book has led me to others on this period of radicalism and repression.
The story is fascinating, and not irrelevant to our own time. Although New York State may have weathered the consequences of the Lusk Commission investigation in the short term, the perceived threat posed by radicals—in this instance, outside agitators, labor organizers, anarchists, socialists, and communists–and government reaction to repress it crops up again and again throughout the twentieth century. The long-standing House Un-American Activities Committee and the FBI infiltration of student and civil rights organizations are two obvious instances. Even now, in the post-9/11 era of U.S. and global surveillance of political and religious radicals, I wonder how the twenty-first century will be different.
Jaffe, Julian F. (1972) Crusade against Radicalism : New York during the Red Scare, 1914-1924. Port Washington, N.Y. : Kennikat Press.