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Lee Lorch

Lee Lorch, mathematician and civil rights leader, has died. I don’t have much to add to what has been written elsewhere. The NYT has a lengthy obituary that I recommend. Some excerpts:

Lee Lorch, a soft-spoken mathematician whose leadership in the campaign to desegregate Stuyvesant Town, the gargantuan housing development on the east side of Manhattan, helped make housing discrimination illegal nationwide, died on Friday at a hospital in Toronto. He was 98.

His daughter, Alice Lorch Bartels, confirmed the death. Mr. Lorch had taught at York University in Toronto, and had lived in Toronto since 1968.

By helping to organize tenants in a newly-built housing complex — and then inviting a black family to live in his own apartment — Mr. Lorch played a crucial role in forcing the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which owned the development, to abandon its whites-only admissions policy. His campaign anticipated the sit-ins and other civil rights protests to come.

But Mr. Lorch’s lifelong agitation for racial equality, not just in New York but later in Tennessee and Arkansas, led him into a life of professional turmoil and, ultimately, exile.

[snip]

Mr. Lorch became vice chairman of a group of 12 tenants calling themselves the Town and Village Tenants Committee to End Discrimination in Stuyvesant Town.

“When you got into Stuyvesant Town, there was a serious moral dilemma,” he recalled in a 2010 interview with William Kelly of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Video Project. “In the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, people had seen the end results of racism.”

Some 1,800 tenants eventually joined the group. “Stuyvesant Town is a grand old town; but you can’t get in if your skin is brown,” went one of its chants, wrote Charles V. Bagli of The New York Times in a book about Stuyvesant Town’s history. A group of 3,500 residents petitioned Mayor William O’Dwyer to help eliminate the “no Negroes allowed” policy, and supported anti-discrimination legislation before the City Council.

But Metropolitan Life held firm. And in early 1949, Mr. Lorch paid the price. Despite the backing of a majority of colleagues in his department, the appointments committee at City College blocked his promotion, effectively forcing him to leave.

[snip]

in September 1950, he accepted a new academic post, becoming one of two white professors at Fisk University, the historically black institution in Nashville, Tenn. His wife, a longtime activist herself — she had led the Boston School Committee in its effort to stop women from being fired as teachers the moment they married, as she had been — returned to Stuyvesant Town, where the Teamsters union supplied protection for protesting tenants.

In January 1952, as tenants barricaded themselves in their apartments and picketed outside City Hall and Metropolitan Life’s headquarters, the company compromised: Mr. Lorch and two other organizers would move out, but the Hendrixes got to stay.

Seven years later, only 47 blacks lived in Stuyvesant Town. But the frustration the campaign helped unleash culminated in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing.

At Fisk, Mr. Lorch taught three of the first blacks ever to receive doctorates in mathematics. But there, too, his activism, like his attempt to enroll his daughter in an all-black school and refusal to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his Communist ties, got him in trouble. In 1955, he was again let go.

One of those three students at Fisk who received doctorates in math is Gloria Hewitt, who came to my own department here at the University of Washington to study algebra and went on to a distinguished career at the University of Montana.

I heard Lorch speak many years ago. I can’t remember where. Perhaps at an American Math Society meeting. That’s the extent of my contact with him. The video embedded above is a film by Rachel Deutsch, produced by Science for Peace,, which “explores his experiences with: social justice, civil rights, de-segregation, communism, housing, boxing, music, activism, love, memories, change.” I’ve watched part of it. I look forward to seeing it all.

Categories: Math, Obituary
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