Fondly, Pennsylvania

Morris Milgram and his (expected and unexpected) connections

Friday, 6/3/11

As part of the NHPRC Civic Engagement Project we’ve begun arranging the papers of Morris Milgram. This collection features portions of materials that are nicely organized as well as boxes of loose papers waiting to be sorted; it is a treasure trove of office records and personal documents offering a detailed account of the ins-and-outs of the fair housing movement and a panoramic picture of the 60’s milieu.

Morris Milgram was born in 1916 in New York City to Russian immigrants parents. After growing up in Brooklyn he became a college student at City College of the City University of New York from where he was expelled after leading a protest against visiting students representing Mussolini’s Italy. He then enrolled and graduated from Dana College (later Newark University, today part of the Rutgers University system) and found employment with the Workers Defense League. At this agency he started as executive secretary and eventually became national secretary, a position he held until 1947. Right after this Milgram joined Smelo, Inc., a construction company owned by his father-in-law where he learned the basics of the building business and familiarized himself with zoning laws and tax codes. Five years after joining the company he became principal partner and decided to put his knowledge and skills in the service of building integrated housing communities.

Milgram’s companies developed many projects of open housing among them Concord Park, Greenbelt Knolt, and Brookside in Pennsylvania. He also build communities in other states but after losing a legal battle against a neighborhood association in Deerfield, Illinois, he switched strategies opting to purchase already built apartment developments to change their rental policies in favor of a more integrated approach.

One of the criticisms frequently brandished against Milgram relates to the methods he used in order to achieve a racial balance in his projects. Milgram used a quota system where, for instance, a particular building would have its tenants divided as 45% black and 55% white. His critics argued that this was a form of discrimination. But Milgram also faced other more pressing challenges. A surplus of black applicants combined with not enough white tenants willing to stay in or move to a particular community made it very difficult to achieve a truly integrated balance. Milgram himself complained about setting up for integration and ending up with more ghettos. He also found that banks weren’t willing to loan money to back up his projects. Milgram ended up creating mortgages companies (and doing a lot of fund raising to keep them afloat) to help home buyers financially. It seems that all this work was not particularly successful from an economic standpoint but nevertheless Milgram insisted throughout his life on its moral and social merits.

Since the beginning of his open housing efforts, Milgram connected his social project with the civil rights movement’s philosophy. Milgram’s principal partner on his projects was James Farmer, one of the “Big Four” of the Civil Rights Movement and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Clinton in 1998. In 1975 Milgram and Farmer established Fund for an Open Society (OPEN), a non-profit organization promoting integration in all aspects of society. Milgram also attributed his becoming an advocate of fair housing to a poem written by Pauli Murray, civil rights activist, lawyer, and the first African-American women to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. Papers related to Farmer and Murray can be found among the many documents in the Morris Milgram Papers (Collection 2176). This collection also features a great deal of surprises; Milgram was connected to a considerable number of important figures and his records are full of letters and other documents reflecting this. Franco Modigliani, a Nobel Prize winning economist (more information here and here); Erich Fromm, psychoanalyst and social theorist of the Frankfurt School (more here and here); and Jackie Robinson, baseball star widely known as the player that broke the color barrier in the Major Leagues.

 

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