Connie Hogarth, Civil Rights Activist

conniehogarth-tnConnie Hogarth is a co-founder of WESPAC, the Westchester People’s Action Coalition, as well as the Connie Hogarth Center for Social Action at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. She was an active organizer with the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns of Rev. Jesse Jackson. Her activism contributed to the closing of Indian Point, the ending of apartheid in South Africa, and spurred local movements in environmental protection, human rights, gay rights, civil rights, affordable housing and equal educational opportunities. She has lived in New York all her life, traveled extensively, and she continues to be active in the Beacon Sloop Club, the Duchess County and Fishkill Democratic Committees, and the Southern Duchess County NAACP. She currently resides in Beacon, NY, overlooking the Hudson River. She was a Clara Lemlich honoree in 2012.

Interview by Larissa Ross

I grew up in Brooklyn–in all its different phases and faces, Brooklyn is a great place.

My father was, in some part, a musician. He used to have a band in the Catskills, and he played the organ and the piano for silent movies.

As movies progressed and the talkies came about, he was out of a job. My uncle and my father got jobs as projectionists, and they had a strong union. I used to walk the picket line with my father when I was seven or eight years old. We won most of the labor struggles and I say that it’s possible: it is possible to be a community of workers, to resist and to win.

My mother was very feisty; rather a premature feminist. So, I had two positive role-models:A strong woman for my mother, and a father with a background of working-class success stories.

That was all in the Depression, and in those days, landlords would offer one month’s free rent to people moving in, so we moved a lot– just about every year. It created a lot of flexibility in me; in making friends and losing friends. By the time I got to high school, though, we actually bought a little house in Brooklyn.

I had an extraordinary, wonderful high school experience. It was the beginning of  the very positive effect of the Communist Labor Movement, of the Arts. Henry Foner taught at my high school, believe it or not. It was full of marvelous, progressive people and had a very positive impact on me.

I decided early on that I wanted to be a doctor, even though I loved painting and music and art. When I finished high school, I won just about every medal and award at graduation–I was an excellent student. Even with all this, I could not get into Barnard, because I needed a scholarship. It was a real rejection and I was quite disappointed.

Still, my parents always helped me to develop a confidence, a strong sense of myself, an ego. Despite the setback, I had to keep moving on. I went to Hunter College for a year and a half–commuting from Brooklyn. Then, I got a full scholarship to go to the University of Chicago. This grand disappointment turned into a positive–you can look at life that way if you see the possibilities.

I spent four years at the University of Chicago as a pre-med major, and as I graduated in pre-med,  I married my first husband–a man I’d known from high school–as he graduated from medical school. He took an internship at Mount Sinai while I applied to med schools in New York–that was about 1948. It was a tough road trying to get into medical school as a woman, who needed a scholarship. In the interim, I worked at Mount Sinai doing research on a drug for multiple myeloma.

In that time, I started to dance. I had danced in Chicago, but I got a scholarship to study modern dance in New York. I had to make a choice–do I want to keep trying to get into med school, or do I want to dance? I chose to dance.

That was well and good until one day I was working with some liver samples at Mount Sinai. Things were done differently then, we didn’t have as much knowledge about certain diseases. I used to be sent down to the morgue to take liver samples from some of the cadavers–I had to aspirate the samples myself, and I got hepatitis. I spent a month in the hospital with the illness which effectively ended my dance career–not my interest, just the formal career.

Shortly afterward, I left my marriage. We were moving in different direction; after his internship, he was ready to settle. He wanted the house and the children already and I was more of a free spirit. I got a little place in Yonkers and worked in hematology, while figure modeling for artists.

I was always political, but I started becoming more so. I  came to a much more conscious awareness of the politics of our lives. I began working for this doctor in the city. He was very political, his whole family was political;  he himself was head of the Soviet-American Friendship Committee. This was during the McCarthy period, and he was called up and went to jail one summer. They asked him to give the names of those on the committee, and of course, he refused. So I ran the office while he was in prison–these actors and writers and directors would all come in to get their B-12 shots. As I became involved, I was radicalized even more.

My first political trip was to march around the White House to protest before the murder of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg–I’m still in touch with their two sons. One lives here in Beacon, NY, and one is on the board of my center.

That march, that’s where I met my second husband, Burne Hogarth. He was a genius, an absolute genius. He founded the School of Visual Arts. We had so much in common; we had the same loves, the same causes. We married, and I stopped working. We moved to Jackson Heights and I had our two sons: Ross and Richard.

At one point, Burne was called before the McCarthy committee. They wanted to close down the school for Visual Arts. We had a Veterans Art Education program and the government cut our funding until we could prove we weren’t communists. Burne pled the 5th and 1st amendments; it was six years until we regained our grant. They tried to cut our water, very literally, but they didn’t succeed.

After that Burne and I moved to Westchester with the kids. The politics never ended.

I got involved with the environmental movement. The struggle against the Vietnam War became a huge part of my life. I was on the board of both the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the Women’s Strike for Peace (WSP), which was an immensely powerful force in New York.

Then I ran in the Democratic Primary for the New York State Assembly with the platform of  supporting women’s rights, and ending the death penalty and the Vietnam War–I lost, no surprise. Another setback, but that’s where I really learned to organize.

Towards the end of the war, I remember talking to Charlie Shiner, and we were discussing the creation of one, centralized peace and justice organization in White Plains. I still remind Charlie of this–he said, “we can’t not do it.” That was the beginning of the Westchester People’s Action Coalition, (WESPAC).

We worked with a core group of students–one of them runs an activist organization in Mexico. We keep in touch.

We rented an old print shop and had to refurbish the whole place. When I think of how we did it! We created a sort of wheel out of the center of which movements grew; a support for every major union organizing–they all knew they had a base at WESPAC. Movements for the environment, for peace, against racism, particularly in the justice system; for women’s rights, for gay rights, the list goes on. It was a startup, “The Nest.” We closed Indian Point, were a hotbed for the movement for Nonviolence and Pacifism. We were the founding of Clergy and Laity Concerned (CALC), a major clerical configuration. In 1984 and 1988, we were so close, so close to getting Jesse Jackson elected. Art and I worked so hard on that campaign. Still, to this day, I firmly believe we will not see a change in the direction of this country unless it is in the Labor Movement and in the rights and full equality of people of color.

Meanwhile, we moved to Pleasantville. In our home, the boys and their friends always knew they had a place to go. Young people loved to be with us. A lot of the adults didn’t feel comfortable talking about politics or things, so the kids would come and talk to me. We started calling it “Hogarth’s Halfway House.” I became a vegetarian and some of the kids decided to become vegetarians too.

There was always political work, wherever we went. We often would march in demonstrations through town, making trouble. It was an exciting time politically. There was a lot of civil disobedience; I’ve lost track of the number of times I was busted.

After 20 years, Burne wanted me to move with him to California. We were going in different directions, so that’s when we split.

In the interim, there were WESPAC missions to the Soviet Union, to Vietnam, to El Salvador, to Palestine. I moved to Yonkers, which is where I met Art Kamell–my current husband who died seven years ago. We worked together at WESPAC and at the College in my center. It was–and is–so rewarding to work with the young people. Some of the kids who worked on the signs at Pleasantville came from Chicago for my 90th. They’re still in politics.

We moved up here to Beacon, finally, right next door to Pete Seeger and his wife. I’m still working with the Beacon Sloop Club here.

After 22 years directing WESPAC, I decided to give up my directorship. That was meant to be my retirement. Just then, however, two professors from Manhattanville college who’d been involved with WESPAC came to me, asking to start the Connie Hogarth Center for Social Action. The Center is really a wonderful resource for politically awakening students. Many of the students from the college are now involved in WESPAC, and we’re working on fully incorporating the Center into the college.

My advice to young women would be to never give up the struggle. Even for the losses and disappointments, don’t give up hope; like Jesse Jackson said, “keep hope alive.”

MLK said that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” If you keep that in your head, even when you’re losing ground; without religion, even just the raw human components, you hope to make it happen.

I have great faith in the power of women. We all stand on the shoulders of powerful women; powerful precedents.

Interviewer and author Larissa Ross was enrolled in Fordham University professor Chris Rhomberg’s Fall, 2017 urban sociology class. Students profiled women honored as part of Labor Arts’ annual Clara Lemlich Awards, celebrating women in their 80s and 90s who spent a lifetime involved in social justice issues.  More at laborarts.org.

 

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