Shortly before the City of New Rochelle recently became nationally famous (or infamous ) as an epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, a controversy was developing over the threatened destruction of the Thomas Paine Museum Memorial Building on North Avenue.
The Thomas Paine National Historic Association, which owns the Paine Museum, has proposed to sell the now vacant building to raise funds for national projects promoting Paine’s legacy. Opposing this are a group of New Rochelle residents who have objected to the sale of one of New Rochelle’s most important historic places. City Councilwoman Sarah Kaye (whose district encompassed the Museum Memorial ) proposed that the City of New Rochelle designate it as a local landmark to prevent its destruction, a proposal which has generated some controversy.
Thomas Paine was rewarded with a farm in New Rochelle in 1784 for his service to the American Revolution. Thereafter he had a turbulent life in Europe, in which he was indicted for sedition in England, was a leading figure in the French Revolution (he narrowly escaped a death sentence during in the Reign of Terror), and was vilified as anti-religion.
He returned to New Rochelle in 1801, but left for New York City after being denied the right to vote in the 1806 New Rochelle elections. He died in 1809 and, after having been denied a a burial in the Quaker Cemetery at New Rochelle, was buried on his farm there at a small funeral. In 1839, the first statue in the country to Paine was erected on New Rochelle’s North Avenue.
Like many of his fellow Englishmen – but unlike many of this country’s founding leaders – Paine was a militant opponent of slavery: “So monstrous is the making and keeping them slaves at all, abstracted from the barbarous usage they suffer, and the many evils attending the practice; as selling husbands away from wives, children from parents, and from each other, in violation of sacred and natural ties; and opening the way for adulteries, incests, and many shocking consequences, for all of which the guilty Masters must answer to the final Judge.”
After the Civil War, with the failure of Reconstruction, interest in Paine rose. With the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1876, the political and legal rights promised to freed slaves by the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution were effectively abrogated.
African Americans throughout the South were first disenfranchised, and then ultimately, after the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, forced into segregation. Then the “lost cause” concept took hold, not just across the South, but across the nation. Numerous Confederate monuments were erected, and by the 1880s even communities in the North accepted blatant racism and denial of civil rights to African Americans and other people of color.
One group that didn’t, was the Thomas Paine National Historical Association. Formed in New York City in the 1880s, primarily by former unreconstructed abolitionists. Led by Moncure Conway, the author of the first full-length biography of Paine, the Paine Society made annual pilgrimages to the Paine Cottage (next door to the Museum) and the Paine Monument to call for the implementation of Paine’s ideas nationally. As conditions for African Americans went from bad to worse, the Paine Society would gain supporters, particularly in New Rochelle. (A number of Paine Society officers were also leaders of the NAACP.)
In 1905, (which Henry Louis Gates Jr. has called the low point in American race relations) the Paine Monument on North Avenue was renovated and rededicated. New Rochelle Mayor Henry Clark and 1,000 participants took part in a ceremony. At that time the New Rochelle City Council purchased the Paine Monument from the Paine Association for the City. They promised to protect and maintain it in perpetuity, as a monument to “this great man and the ideals of the equality of all men and democracy for which he stood.” Given the prevailing views in the country at the time, New Rochelle was called “progressive.”
In 1909, at the 100th anniversary of Paine’s death, Paine’s cottage was renovated and a small museum in his honor opened inside. The cottage became a regular destination for school children in New Rochelle and a tourist attraction visited by Paine enthusiasts from around the country. So many visitors came in fact, that it became necessary to build a larger facility. On Memorial Day in 1925, ground was broken on the Paine Museum, adjacent to the Paine Cottage. Three thousand people at the Museum’s ground breaking saw Thomas Edison, the First Vice President of the Paine Association, turn the first spade of earth on the new facility.
The new museum featured an auditorium that could hold much larger audiences, and served as a repository of artifacts and manuscripts relating to Paine, as well as an exhibition space. Later the Paine Association would move into offices there. As time went on the Paine Museum, along with the Paine Cottage next door (owned by Huguenot Historical Society) became the intellectual center of matters relating to Thomas Paine and his ideas in the country.
During the Second World War, seen by many as a battle against the prejudices of the Germans and Japanese, Paine and his ideas of racial equality became more popular in the North. In a fireside chat in 1942 Franklin D. Roosevelt quoted from Thomas Paine’s The Crisis.
During the “Freedom Summer” of 1964 young people from New Rochelle were among those who went to the South to fight to regain voting rights lost after Reconstruction. Among them was Michael Schwerner whose mother taught at New Rochelle Highs School. Schwerner and his compatriots Andrew Goodman and Michael Chaney were murdered by white supremacists, an act which shocked the North and is said to have been a factor in convincing President Lyndon Johnson to advocate for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Although considered one of the most effective civil rights measures in American history, it was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013).
The interest of the New Rochelle’s city government, and many in the community, waned. Fewer and fewer New Rochelle residents are aware of the history of the city, the civil rights movement, or the role played by the Paine Museum. In the late 1990s, under there own financial and curriculum restraints, New Rochelle fourth graders no longer made visits to the Museum, which then began to have financial difficulties of its own.
In 2003, there was considerable uproar when the Museum attempted to sell parts of their collection to maintain the building. With the support of the New York State Attorney General’s office, the Museum’s management moved its collection to a newly formed Thomas Paine Institute at Iona College and the Thomas Paine Society shuttered the building.
Recently the Paine Society has been seeking to sell the Museum and use the proceeds for an international effort to produce a multi-volume collection of Paine’s works and correspondence. The costs of maintaining the vacant Paine Museum are considered an impediment to their efforts.
Many New Rochelle residents, and apparently many public officials, had no knowledge of these plans. Geraldine Hogan Kaplan (my wife and a member of the Colonial Dames of America) took notice. A 37-year resident of New Rochelle, an educator whose children had visited the Museum when they were young, brought the issue before the New Rochelle City Council and the result was Councilwoman Kaye’s proposal for landmark status.
At a sparsely attended meeting of at the New Rochelle Historic Landmarks Commission (whose recommendation must be approved by the City Council) there were two distinct visions of how the legacy of Thomas Paine should be promoted. Gary Berton, speaking on behalf of the Paine Society, argued that the City of New Rochelle had in the last fifteen years shown only minimal interest in Thomas Paine or the work of the Society, and failed to support the Museum in any way.
In order to fulfill its mission, Berton argued, the Society, the City, and its residents, should not object to selling the former museum building to support its important scholarly work of cataloguing Paine’s writings. Geraldine Hogan Kaplan, speaking on behalf of a newly formed Committee to Preserve the Paine Museum, argued that the building was a priceless landmark and monument to the history of New Rochelle, in which the people of New Rochelle had invested themselves in over the past 100 years.
The City government has a duty to current and future citizens to protect such an important part of its history, she argued. While it may be true that the City and its citizens had been negligent in appreciating the importance of Paine, the Paine Museum management, including the Paine Society, was not wholly blameless. With proper support from local institutions such as the City government, the New Rochelle Board of Education and historical societies she said, this neglect could be reversed, returning the Museum to its role as an important City tourist and educational site.
The Landmarks Board voted to recommend landmark status to the City Council, where it will be subject to a hearing on Tuesday, April 21. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, no personal appearances will be permitted. Comments should be submitted in writing to the New Rochelle City Clerk, 515 North Avenue, New Rochelle, NY, 10801.
The Committee to Preserve the Thomas Paine Museum is urging interested parties, both in New Rochelle and elsewhere, to submit their written comments.
Photo: Thomas Paine Cottage, located next to the former Thomas Paine Museum.