William Warren Barbour died when he was 55 years old, in 1943.
Most of us know very little about him now. He died before some of the issues he cared about most came to fruition, and for some reason — whatever reason, perhaps innate modesty — his fame withered.
But Warren Barbour, a New Jersey Republican from an old-line Protestant family — he was descended from the Mayflower on his mother’s side, and his father’s family were newcomers to this country only compared to his mother’s — went from being a boxer who could have been the Great White Hope had he decided to take up that racist mantle, but he refused; to being named to and then winning a seat in the Senate; to proposing legislation against lynching; to proposing legislation that would have allowed 100,000 Jews to escape Nazi Europe and find safe haven in this country.
Rafael Medoff, the historian who runs the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, will talk about Mr. Barbour for the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey on Sunday afternoon. (See box.) His interest in Mr. Barbour was piqued because, he said, “Most of what we read about the Holocaust has to do with the abandonment of the Jews, but as Dr. Wyman also emphasized, there is another aspect of the story.” It’s the story of “the minority of Americans who did speak out, and who tried to promote the rescue of the Jews,” and that is a major focus of his scholarship.
He’d done a little bit of research on Mr. Barbour before, Dr. Medoff said; the president of the Jewish Historical Society, Richard Polton, asked him to undertake more research, and Dr. Medoff was glad to do so.
Mr. Barbour is fascinating for many reasons, Dr. Medoff said. One is the narrative complexity of his story, another is the mystery (and perhaps the purity) of his motive — he’ll get into both of these issues on Sunday. A third is the “many contemporary parallels” that his story evokes.
Mr. Barbour was born in Monmouth County; his father was the founder of the Linen Thread Company in Paterson, one of that city’s many textile-related businesses. He had tuberculosis when he was a teenager; he fought it off through athletics. Eventually he became a boxer — but never a prizefighter, Dr. Medoff said. To be a prizefighter was to fight for money, but Mr. Barbour didn’t need money. “Interesting, his parents felt strongly that as a matter of principle he shouldn’t win any prizes,” Dr. Medoff said. It was ungentlemanly. Instead he was the amateur champion.”
Amateur or professional, he was famous, so famous that promoters asked him to fight against the heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, who was African American and therefore feared and loathed by many white Americans. But his mother advised him against it, and he refused to take up the mantle of a race warrior.
Still, he was very famous.
So the parallels to now — “Start with a celebrity becoming an elected official,” Dr. Medoff said. “He had been a household name across America. He didn’t try to leverage that status.” Ten years later, he ran for local office in Rumson, and he worked in his father’s thread company.
Another parallel, Dr. Medoff said, is that “he was an athlete who went into politics. It was unusual then — but there’s also Bill Bradley,” who of course also was elected to the Senate from New Jersey.
In 1931, when Senator Dwight Morrow (R-N.J.) of Englewood (who also was the father of four daughters, including the Elisabeth Morrow who founded the school and gifted it with her family’s house and her name, and Anne, who married the noted anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh) died in office, Mr. Barbour was appointed to his seat.
When he first got to Congress he “often was regarded as something of a curiosity, with attention focused on his physique and his background as a boxer,” Dr. Medoff said; a United Press correspondent wrote that “the size of W. Warren Barbour has impressed Washington, as has his fine head of black, curly hair.” (Remember that he was a heavyweight.) “One Republican senator characterized Barbour as ‘a whale’ and said he would like to have him on his side if he ever got into a fight,” Dr. Medoff continued. “Congressman Will Rogers Jr. joked that Barbour was ‘too big for a man and too small for a horse.’”
He also had a reputation for having money; Dr. Medoff said that another of his nicknames was “The Millionaire Kid.”
But Mr. Barbour was modest, and he did see himself as a freshman senator rather than a slumming celebrity. “He was scrupulous about being present for votes, but considered it bad manners for new Congress members to deliver speeches from the senate floor or participate in debates there,” Dr. Medoff said; Mr. Barbour was quoted as saying “It would neither be good judgment nor good taste for a ‘freshman’ to be self-assertive and I do not wish to be.”
The Senate in which he found itself was like today’s in some ways but vastly different in others.
“The Republican versus Democrat, conservative versus liberal divide didn’t apply in the same way then as it does now,” Dr. Medoff said. “They didn’t break down in the way that we would expect.” That was true of Mr. Barbour, who took positions that generally would be considered liberal and today are more likely to be taken up by Democrats. “In the case of Warren Barbour — and he wasn’t the only one — he came down on the side of what we call the liberal position, and Roosevelt and many of the Democrats came down on the other. We live in a topsy-turvy world.”
And that is another parallel.
Given that in the last week “the word lynching was the subject of a national conversation, one of the fascinating things in Barbour’s background was his effort to promote legislation outlawing lynching,” Dr. Medoff said. “It was part of a struggle between on the one side some members of Congress and the African American community and other supporters who wanted a bill to specifically outlaw and penalize lynching, recognizing that it was not ordinary homicide, and the Southern Democrats who were strongly opposed to it. Roosevelt repeatedly vetoed laws against lynching to appease them.
“Barbour supported the anti-lynching imperatives, and they failed, so he introduced an anti-lynching bill of his own, in 1940.”
Yet another parallel — then, as today, immigration was unpopular in much of the country, even as large numbers of people found themselves in desperate need of asylum. Warren Barbour saw that, and it bothered him.
“In 1943, Barbour proposed admitting 100,000 Jewish refugees,” Dr. Medoff said. “That ran directly counter to the president of the United States, and it was in the middle of a world war. Roosevelt said that nothing could be done for the Jews of Europe except to win the war.
“The resolution also was a significant deviation from America’s existing immigration system, which was harsh but enjoyed broad public support.” Very few people were admitted, “but here was a senator saying that 100,000 should be allowed in. That was bucking an overwhelming tide of public opinion, and during wartime, when normally you rally around the president.”
Why did Mr. Barbour do this? There were so many reasons for him not to, Dr. Medoff said. “Republicans in general opposed more immigration, so he also was defying the majority of his own party. And Barbour had very little to gain politically by proposing this resolution. He was not up for re-election this year. He was not Jewish. He had no special connection to Jewish refugees.” And Dr. Medoff could find no big Jewish donors among his supporters, and there wasn’t a particularly large Jewish community in the state then. “He had some connection to New Jersey’s Jewish community, but just what you’d expect, things like photos of him at community seders in the local Jewish press. There was no obvious electoral advantage. It is reasonable to rule out that he saw any real political gain or that there was any political self-interest in his activities on behalf of the Jews.
“And there was no evidence that he had any ambitions to run for president. In the mid-30s, some Republican party insiders were looking at him as a rising star, but nothing came of it, and he ruled it out. It does not appear that it was the result of political ambition.”
But there was something that made Mr. Barbour who he was.
“He was raised among the affluent,” Dr. Medoff said, “yet his literature bore the slogan ‘Friend of the Oppressed.’”
“These are paradoxes that we set out to explore” — we, here, are Dr. Medoff and Mr. Polton — “not knowing where they would lead us.”
W. Warren Barbour was not an easy person to research, because unlike most members of Congress, he left no archive, Dr. Medoff said. “That poses a formidable obstacle to a historian.
“It meant painstaking research in other collections,” looking through the papers left by people with whom he might have corresponded. “It took a long time, and we found a few letters, or mentions in a few memoirs. Nothing at all comprehensive.
“But each archive that I went to yielded another clue, and slowly but surely the picture began to come together.”
Dr. Medoff learned that although “what was publicly known was that in October 1943, Barbour posed the resolution that would have authorized the admission of 100,000 refugees fleeing racial or religious prosecution — which of course meant Jews.
“What I found, though, is that this was not some isolated gesture by Barbour, but instead it was part of a series of congressional initiatives that he undertook on behalf of mistreated minority groups. It was not just this one, and it was not just in 1943.
“Going back even further, to the 1930s, I discovered that Barbour had proposed a bill to link American trade with Germany to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. Linking trade to human rights anticipated the Jackson Amendment by four decades.” (That was the Jackson–Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974.) “It was unprecedented.
“What was becoming clear is that this was a man who had a longstanding interest in the plight of minorities generally, and primarily in the Jews.” Moreover, his findings show that “Barbour was deeply principled, and pursued this objective with no obvious political gain.”
In 1938, less than two weeks after Kristallnacht, Mr. Barbour became one of three men — none of them Jewish — who headed the new Council Against Intolerance. “It was not specifically focused on anti-Jewish prejudice,” Dr. Medoff said. “There were plenty of Jewish groups that already did that. it was to discredit all forms of bigotry, including anti-Semitism, by creating materials to be used in public schools and sponsoring public events that would celebrate examples of tolerance in America, including a public rally at the Statue of Liberty.
“Barbour was co-chair of that council, and from what I could tell he was actively involved in it, or at least as active as a senator would have time to be. He was not merely a figurehead. He was not just a name on the letterhead. He was involved in discussions of strategy. He felt strongly about it, and wanted to contribute in a practical way.”
In 1940, Mr. Barbour also introduced legislation aimed at combating anti-Semitic speech without clashing with the equally important need to protect the constitutional right to free speech. He tried to ban anti-Semitic speech from the U.S. postal system. “The actual wording was that it was going to outlaw scurrilous or inflammatory matter tending to arouse racial or religious hatred,” Dr. Medoff said. “It was a clever concept,” and of course it is parallel to the struggles we face today with how to restrain hate speech on social media’s privately owned platforms. But “it did not advance to the point of being adopted.
“Barbour’s public career involved proposing well-meaning and potentially important legislation that was not adopted,” Dr. Medoff said. “Presumably this was a source of great frustration to him, but it did not deter him. That very same year, 1940, he introduced a bill that if it had passed would have pre-empted the mass incarceration of the Japanese. It stipulated that there would be a one-year limit on the president’s power to suspend the civil right of any civilian.
“It showed that he was deeply committed to civil liberties, to human rights, and to defending threatened minority groups.”
There is much more information about Mr. Barbour’s activities that Dr. Medoff found. In 1943, for example, when a group of 400 rabbis went to Washington “to march to the White House to plead with Roosevelt.” (At least 10 of those rabbis were from New Jersey.) They were there to ask for a government agency to help rescue Jewish refugees. The march started at the Capitol, where members of Congress were asked to come to greet the rabbis. “Barbour was one of the handful who did that,” Dr. Medoff said.
In 1943, Mr. Barbour proposed the legislation that would have brought 100,000 Jewish refugees to the United States; they’d go back to Europe six months after the war ended. The proposal was intended to be less inflammatory and therefore easier to pass than a bill proposing that all the refugees could stay would have been.
“Keep in mind that there was no concept of asylum as we now know it,” Dr. Medoff said. “In those days, people fleeing persecution were no different than anyone else. Asylum only formally became a category in 1980. Temporary asylum was a somewhat radical idea. That’s why it was so important that Barbour elevated it to the halls of Congress.
“Introducing legislation really alters the contours of the conversation. It is a potential game-changer.”
But then everything changed.
“Only a few weeks after he introduced it, before the committee had a chance to consider it, he suddenly suffered a heart attack.” And he died.
It seems to have been sudden. “I saw no evidence that he’d ever had a heart attack before,” Dr. Medoff said. “But the absence of any papers makes it hard to know.”
The bill died with him.
“What often happens in Congress is that the bill is the initiative of one person.” That’s who supplies it with the passion, the oxygen, the energy that moves it through the house. When Warren Barbour died “the passion was gone, so the bill died.”
The question of immigration bounced around Congress for the next years or so; many of the results of that delay and refusal are heartbreaking. But there was one group of 982 Jews who were allowed into the United States as asylum-seekers. That was an indirect result of Mr. Barbour’s work; they lived in a camp in Oswego, in upstate New York. “Ultimately, he contributed to the process that led to 982 people being saved,” Dr. Medoff said.
So why did William Warren Barbour do what he did? What was his secret?
Dr. Medoff will discuss it at greater length on Sunday, but he thinks that the truth is simple. Obvious, even. Mr. Barbour was a good man. He wanted to do good in the world. He learned it from his mother, and he carried that understanding with him.
Are there parallels to that today?
Who: Dr. Rafael Medoff
What: Will talk about Senator W. Warren Barbour for the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey
Where: At the Art Factory, 70 Spruce St. in Paterson. (The building “incorporates portions of the original Barbour Mill and was the home of the Barbour Linen Thread operations for many decades,” the Historical Society says.
When: On Sunday, November 3; the free lecture is at 3 p.m., and a reception, which costs $25 per person, is at 2.
For more information: Call the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey at (201) 300-6590 or email email@example.com.