Saturday, May 25, 2019

1970s Plattsburgh Elks Resisted Local Integration

Context is everything. So, without cherry-picking, here’s the exact, complete quotation from a longtime member and former leader defining a prominent group in Plattsburgh back in 1976. “The Elks are a fraternal organization based on the principles of charity, justice, brotherly love, and fidelity. Membership is open to men 21 years of age or older who are citizens of the United States, believe in God, and have not been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor involving moral issues. There is no discrimination against race, religion, politics, economic status, or any other circumstances.”

Such beautiful words and noble sentiments … who wouldn’t want to be a member? But in a sense, that description is taken out of context, and the bigger picture is important. The Elks were formed in February 1868, so in 2018 the organization celebrated its 150th birthday. But for its first 104 years, its constitution was unambiguous about who was welcome among their ranks. “No person shall be accepted as a member of this Order unless he be a white male citizen of the United States of America, of sound mind and body, of good character, not under the age of twenty-one years, and a believer in God.”

In case you missed it, a very important word appears just before “male citizen.” That’s right: the Elks were exclusively white for more than a century, and ironically, there was nothing “benevolent” about the official change to non-racism, which was virtually forced upon them. (Note: There is the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks of the World (IBPOEW), referred to as the Black Elks on the BPOE website, but that group is not part of this story.)

As you might have read here earlier this year, the most prominent person in Clinton County who battled for the rights of underdogs and minorities, including blacks, was Jacqueline Archer. As president and longstanding member of the local NAACP chapter (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), she was much more high-profile than her husband, Lloyd, who ran a business in Plattsburgh.

The incident we’re concerned with began innocently enough. The local NAACP was planning a dance and needed a venue. George Cook, chairman of the dance committee, called the Elks Club and spoke with the lodge steward, who provided four vital pieces of information: the building would probably be available on the date requested, the rental cost of the hall was $50, a special liquor license was required for an additional $30, and final approval was in the hands of the Elks executive committee.

It was all standard stuff — until Cook made a second phone call to confirm the booking. That’s when he was informed about a fifth requirement: without confirmation that 50 percent of the would-be dance attendees were Elks members, the rental would be denied. Cook advised NAACP president Jackie Archer, who decided to file a complaint with the NYS Human Rights Commission (HRC). It seemed obvious to her that the Elks steward wasn’t initially aware of the organization’s whites-only policy, and before Cook’s second call, Elks executives had consulted the steward on how not to grant the rental request.

The state investigation examined voluminous records of past events, including special requirements imposed by the Elks, and contacted a long list of groups that had rented the Elks’ facility. I often am dismayed by TV reporters and “analysts” who say someone was “perhaps” untruthful, inaccurate, not exactly correct, or their claims don’t bear out. So I’ll just say it plainly: the Human Rights Commission found that the Elks Club was lying to them.

The Elks claimed they were not a place of public accommodation (defined as a government-owned or privately owned entity that is open to, or offers services to, the general public). The HRC proved that the Elks had rented their building to 15 organizations during a recent year and were proprietors “of a place of public accommodation.” The evidence was irrefutable.

The Elks claimed that the 50-percent rule might have been in error, and that maybe “40 percent would suffice.” The HRC found that most if not all renters were “unaware that there was any requirement that any given number of persons in attendance of the function would be required to be Elks.” Again, they were flat out lying.

A commissioner described the issues in plain English. “It is fact that the membership of the Plattsburgh Chapter of the NAACP is predominantly Negro [several whites belonged as well]. It is further true that Elks Lodge 621 at Plattsburgh, in accordance with national rules, does not admit Negroes to membership. Under these circumstances, the effect of the rule is that the lodge is, in fact, to exclude an organization that is all-Negro or predominantly Negro in its membership.”

His findings were presented to attorneys for the lodge, but they neither accepted nor refused his ruling, instead asking for time to consult with state Elks officials before taking a stance.

Meanwhile, Reverend Richard Janke of the Plattsburgh Human Rights Commission voiced a positive view of the situation to reporter Kathy Brothers of the Press-Republican. The local club could take a giant step forward by amending their ruling, he said, and “petitioning the national organization for a change…. I am sure there are enough men of good will in the Elks who will want to sit down and discuss a change in the bylaws…. Right now, the local Elks have the opportunity to do something really great in the cause of human relations.”

And that brings us to the most depressing, dismaying part of the story. As it turned out, the chance to do something great in the name of humanity and race relations was quite resistible after all. So much for “benevolence,” defined in the dictionary as the “desire to do good to others; goodwill; charitableness.”

Their decision instead was stunning, uncharitable at best, and overtly racist. Rather than allow black people to use their facility for a dance, they opted to surrender their designation as “a place of public accommodation.” Foregoing all the income earned annually from renting the Elks building to the public was preferable to letting people of a different skin color dance on their floor, which was reserved for white people only.

Next week, the conclusion: standing up unflinchingly to racism.

Photos: headlines, Plattsburgh Press-Republican (1967)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

20 Responses

  1. Tom Vawter says:

    Thank you, Lawrence. We need more grassroots historians telling history as it was, without the usual heroic gloss. What is the current status of the Plattsburgh Elks?

    • Thanks Tom. As I note at the end of part two (the conclusion, coming soon), the Plattsburgh Elks were notified earlier this year to shut down due to low membership numbers. The deadline given was March 20.

  2. CommunityGuy says:

    Excellent essay about an important and recent local issue of racism. Especially cogent in these times of resurgent racism.

    Thank you for the education.

  3. Beth Rowland says:

    Another excellent piece, Larry. And a reminder that no part of this country gets the high road when it comes to race. The sooner we all realize that, and stop scapegoating certain parts of the country and honestly face facts, we can begin to find solutions and learn to treat all people equally.

    • Thanks Beth. And you’re right … it’s disturbing how pervasive it is.

    • John Warren says:

      There is racism everywhere, but there is simply no comparison between “certain parts of the country” and Northern New York.

      The South has not been “scapegoated” – a frankly outrageous claim – it is still home to America’s cesspool of bigotry and misogyny by every measure.

      • Beth Rowland says:

        Sadly, you are so very wrong but I do not see benefit in discussing it with you, John, as you as you are so entrenched in your view and do not consider any view but your own. I know it makes others feel better to look down their noses at other parts of the country but it misses the point—as in Larry’s piece—that so many are guilty. I simply believe we must, as a country, face that fact honestly and move toward a universal solution. Too many prefer to gloss over their own history and culpability and point fingers at others (see “motes and planks”). Amy Godine’s work in this area is excellent; I would recommend her piece “The Closet” in ADIRONDACK LIFE last year or her presentation on the history of Blackface in the North Country. In any event, I wish you nothing but peace, John (you always seem so bitter and angry). Have a lovely evening.

        • John Warren says:

          You’re just an apologist for white supremacists whose historical revisionism – on Memorial Day no less – is appalling.

          • Beth Rowland says:

            No, John, no support here for white supremacists—ever. And perhaps we should honor those who have died in the service of their country every day, and not just Memorial Day. A good way to start might be respecting others’ freedom for viewpoints you don’t happen to agree with, those who you insult regularly.

            • John Warren says:

              You’ve been on here defending the Confederate flag and now calling for an end to “scapegoating” the South.

              You’re a neo-confederate. You will never get a free pass to spread that traitorous and bigoted nonsense here.

              • Beth Rowland says:

                You are so wrong. You completely misunderstood what I said about the Confederate flag and never listened to any point of view other than your own so I gave up trying to discuss anything with you. A neo-confederate? Calling me that reflects more on you, John, than on me as my friends and colleagues in the history field know the truth. But it apparently fills some need in you to insult others and misogynistically mansplain how the world works. Your bombastic approach reminds me of those on the right you purport to oppose—yet you sound just like them. A Ted Cruz of the left. Why not use your platform to promote healing and reconciliation and and unity and positivity? Why be as ugly as they are? Do you seriously expect to change any hearts or minds with your spewing of venom?In any event, I’m all done here. Go in peace.

                • John Warren says:

                  “Gee, since the KKK also carried crosses (along with the US and Confederate flags) I guess we’ll have to take down that symbol too. Churches are really going to be mad about that.” – Beth Rowland opposing taking down a local Confederate flag practically flying over the graves of the men who died fighting the Confederacy.

                  • Beth Rowland says:

                    Yes, calling for discernment is always troubling to a zealot.

                  • Beth Rowland says:

                    And this is perfect example of what dogma does for rational discussion. Will you also post my call to place items like the flag and statuary in museums? Or to use plaques to place them in context? To create teachable moments? Nah, of course you didn’t.

                    • John Warren says:

                      You never made those claims here, because the discussion then was about a private citizen flying a Confederate flag not some memorial to slavers and their supporters. And the discussion here is about you claiming the South is being scapegoated.

                      It’s not dogma to oppose the Confederacy or their modern day supporters, or to call them out when they try to raise their ugly justifications, qualifications, or false comparisons. As I recall you were also parroting Southern white supremacists in claiming that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but some kind of war of Northern aggression against poor white people who didn’t own slaves, but just wanted states’ rights (to allow others to own slaves).

                      Your words speak for themselves and you’re obviously free to have whatever opinions you want. I’m the person who has provided this forum for you to do that, but don’t expect to go unchallenged with this nonsense.

  4. William says:

    Yawn…so you had to write a story about the Plattsburgh Elks club, and their policy or “code” of racial exclusion. This is worn out information, and reflects formal and informal patterns of racism from another era. These exclusionary practices, codified or otherwise, were prevalent in clubs and organizations across America in the 20th century. Times have changed, and these problems have been largely rectified in a de jure sense.

    Of course racism still exists, and you can’t forcibly purge men’s hearts of this evil. You can, however, force correction of misguided policy as it existed in your article. This has been accomplished….we are in a better place now. It would have been far better, to write an article that highlighted the positive changes that have been made in regional clubs and organizations, rather than “kicking the same old dead horse”.

    • Boreas says:

      What would be the point of only publishing uplifting historical articles? Pointing out the bad parts of history helps us to evaluate it in current context and hopefully keeps us from the social retrograde we are starting to hear and see more of these days.

    • sula says:

      You think times have changed and we’re in a better place now? The BPOE have always been a club for a bunch of old farts to hang and get plastered. Not that that’s a bad thing.

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