(A History of) The Harlem chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality

Gladys Harrington (1961-1963)

A middle class Black woman employed as a social worker, Harrington was a veteran of the Tallahassee, Florida bus boycotts of the mid 1950’s. As the Northeast Regional representative, she was also a national officer.

Before becoming chair, Harrington was the former chairman of the housing committee for New York CORE. She made use of classic CORE strategy. A fictional married Black couple would be sent to a real estate agent’s office in order to rent or purchase a property in a White area of the city. When denied, a White couple would be sent in after the exact same property. If they were offered the property, CORE would demonstrate against the real estate agents until they agreed to change their policy. When Harrington played as a wife and was refused the right to rent an apartment in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn, the resulting sit-in led to several members being arrested. They were represented by Percy Sutton who, like Mark Lane, served as New York CORE's attornies (5). According to CORE, these were the first convictions handed down in a civil rights demonstration in New York State. Sutton believed the charges marked the first time a New York State court ruled on the legaliity of the sit-in as a technique in protesting against racial discrimination in the North.

In the summer of the March on Washington in 1963, a series of campaigns was initiated around the construction industry. Federal Plaza at Foley Square in downtown Manhattan and Harlem Hospital were targeted. At issue was the use of government funds by construction companies that would not hire Blacks and Puerto Ricans. Hundreds of people marched on City Hall. New York CORE members sat-in at the Mayor's office and Governor’s office while others picketed the construction sites. Mass arrests were a consequence, including Harrington who was arrested for climbing to the top of a construction crane and refusing to come down (6).

The organization behind such mass demonstrations was for New York CORE similar to that of the other chapters. The hierarchy consisted of chairman, vice chairman and at least one person, referred to as the executive director or office manager, who was responsible for the majority of the administrative work in the office on a daily basis. They would each be paid a stipend of approximately fifteen dollars a week. Bernadine Wesley, a Black engineer, served as vice chairman at this time. Joanne Shane , a young twenty-something Jewish woman, was Executive Secretary. Other than her, there would only be one or two others working in the office (7). Each of these positions was also included in the ten member executive committee made up of the most active members.

The members themselves would decide on the campaigns New York CORE pursued. These projects first had to be proposed at a meeting and voted on. Those members interested would organize themselves into a committee and choose a chairman. Eva Kerr, for example, a White social worker, was chairman of the Education Committee in 1963. She led the City Hall sit in protests along with Black member Velma Hill, a veteran of the earlier housing protests. Once a project was decided on, their list of volunteers would then be contacted to see who could participate in the decided on ‘actions’ (defined as any acts of civil disobedience).

Elections took place annually between late October and early November. Meetings were held weekly on Wednesday night. The closed meeting of the executive committee followed the general meeting which was open to the public. Because members came and went, only active members could vote. One had to put in consistent work to be considered an active member. Aware of agent provocateurs at an early date, members were not automatically accepted. There was a procedure which could include following new members for a time.

In the fall of 1963, Harrington ran as the incumbent chairman against Marshall England and Blyden Jackson, both Black men. Jackson, a socialist and integrationist, proposed the group relate more to the working class as opposed to the middle class of the Black community. The race caused such in-fighting a supervisor was requested from the national office to oversee the election.

When Harrington withdrew from the race, Jackson lost and went on to form the East Harlem chapter of CORE. Also known as East River CORE (and sometimes the River Rats), it included other former HC members such as Karen Birg (White), Marlene Nadle(White), Zungara Tina Lawrence (Black), Ernest Russell (Black), Wayne Kinsler (Black), Charles Saunders (Black), Penn Kemble (White), Stuart Wechsler (White), Teri Perlman(White) and Omar Abu Ahmed (Black) and was located on the east side of 125th street.