Thursday, July 12, 2012

Who was Arthur Capper?

Arthur Capper public housing was open from 1958 to 2005 right across the freeway from Garfield Park in Ward 6. Who was Arthur Capper?

Arthur Capper was born on July 14, 1865 into a family of slavery abolitionists. His father, Herbert, had moved to Kansas "to provide one more vote" for the abolition of slavery (Socolofsky, p. 1). Herbert was a radical Republican, meaning at that time that he actively fought against slavery and for radical social change. Herbert married Isabella McGrew, daughter of "the fighting Quaker" Simon B. McGrew, who, it is said, was against violence and war but kept guns for defense against pro-slavery militants. Arthur Capper married Florence Crawford, the daughter of Kansas Governor Samuel Crawford, who as colonel commanded the 2nd Regiment Kansas Volunteer Infantry (Colored).(1) 

Arthur Capper continued his family's traditions. Capper was the first President of the Topeka branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and on the national board of the NAACP for over 30 years (Leon Graves)

Capper had a great influence on the city Washington, DC. Capper worked as a journalist and then as a newspaper publisher before becoming a politician. In Kansas, he fought "boss rule" and became the state governor. In 1919, he left for DC to take on his role as senator. Upon his arrival in the Senate, he was immediately put on the District of Columbia Committee. By his second term, Capper was considered an unofficial "mayor of Washington" (Socolofsky, p. 146). I don't know what DC residents thought of him at the time, but "Capper was one of the most popular senators of his time. It was said that he received more personal mail than any member of Congress" (Shideler, p. 49). He was a senator for five terms. 

Capper was also a long-time supporter of cooperatives. Upon his arrival in DC, Capper submitted a Senate bill (S. 3066) to allow the formation and incorporation of cooperation in DC itself. In 33 U.S. states, special laws facilitated cooperative institutions, but DC did not yet have such laws. Capper had hoped that Congress would allow DC residents to create cooperatives functioning according to Rochdale Principles. In the 1920s, he also called for legislation to "curb profiteering" (Socolofsky, p. 149). As a member of the Farm Bloc, he successfully sponsored the Capper-Volstead Act of 1922 and later acts legalizing cooperative marketing and producers' associations. These laws allowed farmers to form cooperatives to market their own goods, rather than being at the whim of larger corporate distributors. According to USDA (p. 20), by 2000, there were over 3,000 agricultural cooperatives in the United States. (2)

Arthur Capper died in 1951. Capper had helped sponsor the legislation, which created DC's public housing authority, the National Capital Housing Authority (NCHA). To honor Capper, the NCHA named one of its first new public housing projects after him. The significance of this naming becomes apparent when we recognize that across the freeway Ellen Wilson public housing already existed. Ellen Wilson public housing was named after the wife of Woodrow Wilson, who had segregated the federal government in DC. Ellen Wilson public housing was built for white residents. Thus, using Arthur Capper's name signified a different kind of politics, a politics against segregation, slavery, and racism. 

Interestingly, Arthur Capper remained influential in the public housing project long after his death. Arthur Capper public housing created one of the nation's first food cooperatives in a public housing project. The MLK Co-op Food Store opened in 1970 at the Arthur Capper Community Recreation Center (5th and K SE), after functioning as a food-buying club for 18 months. The main organizer of the food co-op was Beatrice Gray. The store was managed by Raymond Sadler. The Board of Directors was chaired by Marie Nolan, with the following other members: Annie B. Jewell (vice-chairman), Addie May Harper (treasurer), Parline Cole (assistant treasurer), Sandra Hester (secretary), Barbara Wilson (assistant secretary), and Nathaniel Graham. They hoped to make the MLK co-op Food Store a model for all NCHA projects. The Urban Law Institute provided legal assistance. Giant, Safeway, Greenbelt cooperatives, and some churches provided management and financial capital. The MLK Co-op Food Store was run by Arthur Capper Consumer Federation, Inc. Arthur Capper influenced Ward 6 in a wide variety of ways.

(1) This was an all black unit with white officers (like Samuel Crawford) founded in 1863, after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation allowed black military service. Many blacks served in Kansas, the Carolinas, and elsewhere "illegally" well before that. The term "colored" was the official term in the 1860s.
(2) The USDA voiced concerns about the consolidation of farming cooperatives: "Just 200,000 farmers now do essentially what 7 million did 50 years ago: feed and clothe our nation and much of the rest of the world. Cooperatives have also consolidated during those years. In 1950, USDA reported that 10,035 farmer marketing and farm supply cooperatives had $8.7 billion in sales. By 2000, the number of farmer cooperatives had fallen to 3,346 while total net business volume jumped to nearly $100 billion" (p. 20). 

Sources: Homer Edward Socolofsky. 1962. Arthur Capper: Publisher, Politician, and Philanthropist. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press; Announcement of talk by Leon Graves on Arthur Capper; James H. Shideler. 1963. Book Review of Arthur Capper: Publisher, Politician, and Philanthropist, Agricultural History 37(1): 49; US Senate. 1919. "Incorporation of cooperative associations in the District of Columbia," Washington, DC: The Government Printing Office; USDA, "Agricultural Cooperatives in the 21st Century"; "Food Co-op at Capper Housing," DC Gazette, Feb. 1970, p. 3.

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