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Book sheds new light on Mollie Moon, socialite and economic strategist for the Civil Rights Movement

Mollie Moon probably wasn’t a name you learned about when you studied the Harlem Renaissance in high school English class, but she was the dynamic force behind much of the money that funded the Civil Rights Movement for decades. 

Moon was a Black woman who became the grand dame of New York society in the 1940s and ’50s. She raised millions to support civil rights through galas, fundraisers, balls and cabarets. And a new book tells her story in gripping detail.

It’s called “Our Secret Society: Mollie Moon and the Glamour, Money and Power Behind the Civil Rights Movement” by history professor and author Tanisha Ford. The Show spoke with her more about it — beginning with Moon’s early life in Jim Crow Mississippi. 

TANISHA FORD: She had really humble roots in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in the Jim Crow era. She was born into a working class family that didn’t have much in terms of monetary means but had a deep commitment to education. They encouraged Mollie to go on to receive a high school education, which wasn’t as common as one might think for African Americans in the early 20th century. Then she went on to do something even more astounding, which was to earn a degree in pharmacy from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, and embarked on a career as a pharmacist, thinking that she would step into this middle class bourgeois Black life, but quickly became disaffected by it.

She wasn’t pleased with what she saw. And so she fled New Orleans, where she was living with her first husband, and moved to New York City in the middle of this New Negro Renaissance, where people were changing the shape of ideas around Blackness and Black freedom and Black artistic expression. And she formed friendships with people like Langston Hughes and Dorothy West and Zora Neale Hurston, who we closely associate with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and thirties.

LAUREN GILGER: Yeah. And hers is not a name that you learn when you learn about the Harlem Renaissance. But she was right there in the midst of all of that. Talk a little bit about how she became an advocate for civil rights and what the historical record shows about her own beliefs in this.

FORD: Mollie Moon is part of this collective of young people in their 20s who were circling around Harlem and its artistic and intellectual scene. She went with them to Moscow to make this film about racial inequality in the United States and labor exploitation across the U.S. South. The film was never made. But she was deeply politicized by her experiences in Moscow in the early 1930s. And she comes back to New York City with a renewed purpose in the movement for Black freedom.

She becomes a social worker, where she works closely with Black migrant communities in New York City. And so her early education, if you will, in socialism while she was in Moscow really shapes how she approaches working alongside the Black working poor in Harlem to try to fight for economic justice.

GILGER: That’s so interesting. So how does she become a socialite and sort of associated with glamorous events like the Beaux-Arts Ball and things like that, when she was working as a social worker not long before, it sounds like?

FORD: Right. It seems like there’s this inherent contradiction there. And this is what I explore in the book, the fact that you have this woman from humble roots, who ran away from the Black bourgeoisie, who was deeply influenced by socialism and communism, who then becomes the face of social culture and conspicuous consumption. Right? It seems like, how could these two things coexist?

Well, what I was able to uncover in the record was that Mollie Moon had these deep commitments to the Black community and realized that her sphere of influence could be in mobilizing her Rolodex, right? The people that she had come to know in her social circles, both in New York City, in Washington, D.C. — where her third husband had opposed an FDR White House as a minor administrator.

So she realized that she could raise funds for these very left-leaning causes and organizations such as the Harlem Community Art Center. And doing this fundraising work could be her own unique contribution to the movement. And the more she got into the fundraising work — especially working with the National Urban League, one of the major Black civil rights organizations in the country — her social network began to expand.

So not only was it members of of this leftist community and also progressive members of FDR’s so-called Black Cabinet, now she’s rubbing elbows with the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts and the Javitses. And so it really realigns her social world. And in many ways, it leads her public facing politics, right? She has to appear more of a racial liberal, someone who sees the power in interracial activism and working within the system, even though her earlier political proclamations were far more radical than this.

GILGER: Yeah, that makes sense. That makes sense. Talk a little bit about what we know about her personality. She must have been magnetic in a way to expand this social world in this way, and to get into the social circles that she got into.

FORD: Yes. I mean, by all accounts, through interviews I’ve conducted with people who knew her, with people who are close to her and as well as media accounts. I mean, she was a very charismatic personality. She was charming, she was beguiling. She was extremely humorous. She knew how to hold court. She could make people just become enraptured in her words. She was an amazing cook, so people love to come to our house and eat her food. She had impeccable taste, so people love to come to her events.

And that’s what enabled her to build relationships with people like Josephine Baker and James Baldwin and Muhammad Ali and all these other luminaries who came to her events. And many of these people, even served as judges for her Beaux-Arts Ball, her annual costume ball and beauty pageant. And I even saw that she invited the former king of England and his American wife, Wallis Simpson, to be judges for one of the costume balls. Unfortunately they were out of town and couldn’t participate. But just the fact that this Black woman had that kind of reach and influence that she could even conceive of inviting the royals.

GILGER: Absolutely. Wow. OK. So tell us a little bit about the influence that the kind of money that she was able to raise had in the Civil Rights Movement. Like, you don’t think about civil rights and think about fundraising, but obviously it costs money to do that kind of work.

FORD: Most certainly. I mean, I think we can look at an event like the March on Washington, and if we start to think about a large-scale event like that that brought a quarter million people into Washington, D.C. — I mean, they needed charter buses, they needed trains and planes, they needed food. You know, all of those things cost money. It has to come from somewhere.

So Mollie Moon was really instrumental in using her National Urban League Guild, the fundraising arm of the National Urban League, to raise funds for causes like the March on Washington, large-scale voter registration drives, Freedom Rides, Freedom schools, youth programs that really help to bolster the this call for racial equality in the mid 20th century.

And so I really think we should think of Mollie Moon not just as a socialite — you know, someone who loved a beautiful gown in a in a lovely party — but someone who was an economic strategist who was thinking about how we can raise this money and how can we move it across the country to get it to communities who need it most.

GILGER: Before I let you go, Tanisha, I want to ask about your impression of her, especially as you writing this book. Like, was there something you learned that surprised you that you couldn’t wait to write about or that you’d love to tell everyone?

FORD: You know, what’s interesting is that I moved into Mollie Moon’s house while I was writing this book. I moved into her building, right? And so there was a way that I felt this cosmic connection to her as if we were neighbors in some other alternate dimension. And what that helped me to understand about her was that this was a Black woman who dared to dream big in the Jim Crow era in America, where having those kind of bold dreams really could get one murdered, right?

We saw this with so many civil rights leaders. So I just loved seeing this woman who was so unapologetic but who was so everyday just like us, right? That if Mollie Moon could do this work in the 1950s and ’60s, where there’s all kinds of economic oppression and, you know, anti-Black violence, then then we can do this work today, right?

And so I really wanted people to know her name because she’s the keeper to this really important American history, this slice of history that we just don’t know enough about.

GILGER: Yeah, absolutely. All right. We’ll have to leave it there for now. Professor Tanisha Ford, history professor at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York and author of the new book “Our Secret Society: Mollie Moon and the Glamor, Money and Power Behind the Civil Rights Movement.” Tanisha, thank you so much for coming on. I really appreciate you taking the time.

FORD: Thank you for having me, Lauren.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.