I am the great-grandson of Mano Swartz, founder of Mano Swartz Furs (established in 1889), America’s oldest furrier.
The story of this company begins with a transatlantic voyage, a two-week tutorial in American history narrated by an old Union soldier speaking to a young boy from Mitteleuropa.
The veteran befriends the child because of the boy’s ability to speak German and thus to convert the guttural pronouncements about departure and arrival times—their departure time, via steamship—into intelligible English. And he teaches the young Mano Swartz about a country torn asunder by every drop of blood drawn with the lash and repaid by another drawn with the sword; and then, in an attempt to bind up the nation’s wounds, in this reconciliation between those devoted altogether to saving the Union without war and those insurgent agents seeking to destroy it by making war, the president of the United States, a man with the devotion of Abraham and the vision of Moses, is felled by an assassin’s bullet before he can cherish a just and lasting peace among his fellow citizens and with all nations.
I picture my great-grandfather on that boat, a five-dollar silver certificate bearing the portrait of Ulysses S. Grant in his pocket, a gratuity for ensuring that the veteran made it aboard the ship, and I try to imagine their entry into the Port of New York. The Statue of Liberty would have been under construction, covered in scaffolding and catwalks, a copper-colored goddess free of the ravages of oxidation, smoke, pollution, and neglect, a little over a mile from Manhattan and the island’s soot-covered tenements and neo-Gothic spires.
His New York, with its blend of fellow Eastern European Jews and Yiddish speakers, a stratified island of Knickerbocker wealth and Dutch ancestry, was not separated by fences, though there are images aplenty of Fifth Avenue mansions with iron bars and ornate finials. Instead, it was enclosed by invisible walls of class and power—from the temples of finance and the House of Morgan to internecine warfare among the poor for patronage jobs and the stabbings among Irish gangs. Mano Swartz entered a city of tribes, toil, tears, vengeance, and graft.
I present the story of that man because his humanity infuses my office with the spirit of love and loss, with the brightness of the morning and the darkness of mourning, and with the euphoria of success and the struggle for survival that is life itself.
I know how his story ends, yet I work to ensure that his name is eternal. That story is my inheritance—I am its custodian, not its owner. The difference between the two is stark, because it is one person’s responsibility—it is this writer’s duty—to perpetuate family customs while avoiding the temptations of the quick buck, the sellout, and the worship of mammon.
Mano Swartz, 1864–1941 James Swartz, 1896–1977 Mano Swartz II, 1922–2009
To go after a quick buck would be a betrayal of everything Mano Swartz is. If I did so, I would be unable to look at the portrait of my great-grandfather and the one of his son and of his son’s son, my father, each one a reward for a minimum of forty years of work. The paintings are a sequential alignment of over a century of history. Three of them hang in my office, and if I betrayed our values, I would have them removed from the wall, exposing pale spaces of dustlike ashes that would symbolize my indifference toward the events each man represents.
Gone would be the battle for civil rights, a struggle for the ages (and a pursuit that will last the ages), were I to forget my grandfather’s refusal to accept the terms and conditions of a manifesto of hate, enforced by silence and policed by threats and violence.
Gone would be a history of private heroism, advertised to no one but known by everyone: that Mano Swartz Furs would not maintain the color line, that the company would not be an accomplice to a moral crime with a legal mask, that it would not run a segregated or exclusionary business where blacks could not work or shop with whites.
What does it matter to today’s consumer, more than a half century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, after the crucible of Birmingham and Memphis, after the assassination of a King, and after the election of the son of a Kansan and a Kenyan, that my grandfather decided not to go along just so his business could get along?