It was October 31, 1929, and the genteel residents of Lefferts Manor were still reeling from a stock market truncheon blow that had knocked the nation into a financial coma just a week earlier.
A panicked selloff over the preceding months climaxed on October 24, when Wall Street plunged 13-percent. The grisly spectacle came to be dubbed “Black Friday.” While not yet apparent at the time, the Great Depression had been set into motion.
The reverberations no doubt shook the foundations of Lefferts Manor, an exclusive Flatbush enclave comprised of architectural marvels, and inhabited by the cream of the professional classes. Once sturdy net worths had sustained damaging broadsides from across the East River. Fortunes that had been giddily piled high during the Roaring Twenties were now teetering.
So it can be assumed with confidence that the area’s denizens were already unsteady that Thursday morning when they took note of a peculiar, painstakingly crafted sign that had been affixed to the lower facade of 54 Midwood Street, the home of brassy widow Ellen E. Morris.
“FOR SALE..FOR RENT.”
“To Colored People Only!”
In racially primitive 1929, that exclamation point amounted to a superfluous but telling flourish. The advertisement – which included the name of a broker to contact – triggered an alarm that rapidly began to blare across the normally tranquil grid.
No Twitter needed. Word of the sign sprinted up and down the manicured block and onto neighboring blocks – turning corners, scaling fences, and climbing stoops.
Before long, a nattily attired congregation had gathered in front of Morris’s home. Her phone began to clang. Threats were being levied.
Ms. Morris was not, however, an early practitioner of affirmative action. The impetus behind her exclusion of white applicants and the embrace of black ones wasn’t rooted in racial progressivism or admirable principle.
No. Ms. Morris, who lived alone in the massive home while her son attended school at N.Y.U., was simply incensed that the notoriously imperious Lefferts Manor Association was hassling her about taking in boarders – and she wanted to exact a very particular form of revenge.
“They have hurt me plenty,” she told The Brooklyn Eagle at the time. “Now I’m going to hurt them all I can.”
She bristled at the area’s single-family restriction that prohibited renting out rooms. She was especially aggrieved because the prohibition was only selectively enforced at the time. It is a complaint that occasionally roils the enclave to this day.
The confrontation began roughly eight months before the sign was posted. Some officious neighbors noted a pair of unfamiliar persons frequenting Morris’s home and eventually gleaned that she was hosting boarders.
“They wanted to know if my guests ate at my table,” she recalled. “They said if I didn’t eat there I was operating a rooming house. I told them that in that case my own son, Robert, was to be classed as a roomer, since he is a student at N.Y.U. and doesn’t eat at my table.”
Introducing black residents into the enclave would irritate her bigoted combatants like nothing else, Morris theorized.
“I’m tired of it all,” she said, “And I’ve made up my mind what to do. Since I put up the sign, I’ve received threats and there have been people who said they’d break the windows in my house if I didn’t change my mind. For them I’d like to say that my son Robert, who is 6 feet 4, and my police dog, Rip, are ready to protect me. I’ve put up the sign and I’m ready to move out.”
Morris operated with remarkable stridency, considering the power wielded by some of her better known neighbors. Lefferts Manor was studded with local honchos – including then Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Dodd and several influential members of the clergy.
It was a sensational story at the time – and Morris delighted the local press by naming names with aplomb. The Manor insurgent accused Matilda Rion, of 36 Midwood, of signing a petition against her boarders while herself keeping an apartment for a second family.
Rion was “one of the most flagrant violators of the restrictions,” Morris seethed.
While the vast majority of her neighbors rallied against her, Morris said that she did receive a few furtive expressions of support for the legitimacy and verve of her revolt.
Despite deepening pariah status, she continued to post the sign for months on end – and eventually turned up the heat by whitewashing the “For Rent” portion of the ad. With a few swipes of a paintbrush, Morris silently intimated that she planned to sell to black buyers in order to make their entry into Lefferts Manor permanent.
The controversy persisted as Morris’s neighbors speculated about her plans. The story exploded back onto the front pages the following May, when rumors began to swirl that she was moving out – and that a black family was moving in.
With speculation whipping around her, Morris remained coy. “I’m not saying anything until I move away from here,” she said, refusing to confirm or deny word that she was renting or selling to black applicants.
From there, the remarkable story of Ellen E. Morris’s campaign runs cold. Perhaps she simply moved out quietly without following through on her promise. Maybe she fielded a better offer from a white applicant and extracted herself from the imbroglio.
If I’m able to disentangle the conclusion to this story I will certainly relay it in a future post.
Finally, without wanting to be intrusive, I researched the current owner of 54 Midwood Street, the former home of Morris’s sign.
In deference to his privacy I won’t post his name and this assumes that the records are still current. But the occupation of the listed owner cannot pass without mention, given the history of this lovely home.
Note: Information for this Flatbushed.com post was gathered from The Brooklyn Eagle.