On May 30, Lower East Side community activist Franz Lehman was hit by a car while delivering petitions for the repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws. Lehman died of his injuries on June 24. He was 85 years old.
New York City’s activists remember him as a tireless champion of social justice and tenants’ rights. Struggling in intensive care after the accident, Lehman was still anxious to make sure that petitions were delivered, says Abe Markman, chairman of Lower East Side Call for Justice, an anti-police brutality organization. Markman says this kind of dedication was absolutely typical of Lehman: “He was active in almost every progressive effort on the Lower East Side.”
Franz Lehman was born in Germany in 1915. In 1937, in danger from the Nazis, he fled to the United States. Drafted shortly after World War II began, and he was sent back to Europe to fight. Lehman came home from the war in the fall of 1945, and married his wife Rosel several months later.
In 1948, the Lehmans moved into Stuyvesant Town, a newly built, publicly funded housing complex for veterans. Franz and Rosel Lehman would live there for over five decades–but they risked eviction right after they moved in.
When Stuyvesant Town opened, Metropolitan Life, the company that ran the building, officially refused to lease to blacks. The Lehmans joined a group of tenants that began fighting the policy even before the building was finished. They signed petitions, picketed Met Life’s offices, and lobbied the City Council. When one of the tenant leaders invited a black family to stay in his apartment, Lehman and the other men in the group took turns guarding their door each night.
In August of 1950, Met Life announced that it would lease certain apartments in the complex to “qualified Negro families.” In 1951, largely in response to the struggle over Stuyvesant Town, the City Council outlawed racial discrimination in all of New York’s publicly funded housing.
Though his day job was as a railroad worker, Franz Lehman continued to work for tenants’ rights and racial justice for the rest of his life. He fought for tenants with the Metropolitan Council on Housing and Stuyvesant Town’s tenant association, wrote a monthly newsletter on railroad unions for Labor Research, was an active member of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty and helped elect City Councilwoman Margarita Lopez with the Coalition for a District Alternative.
“He would talk to anybody, in a way that wasn’t at all condescending or inflammatory,” remembers Dave Powell of Met Council. “I learned a lot from him.”