When you travel Texas highways, you see historical markers that tell some of Texas’ best tales. For several years I wrote some of those marker stories and in the process I discovered a lot of Movers & Shakers that history books never mention. I plan to share some of the stories in my blogs.
I first heard of Rabbi Henry Cohen when I received a fat folder of information that had to be squeezed into a historical marker story of not more than 24 lines. In that sparse space I tried to capture the life of the extraordinary man whose boundless energy and love of humanity burst from every page.
In 1888 the wiry little man, barely five feet tall, with a booming British accent arrived in Galveston to serve Temple B’nai Israel. He wore black, tuxedo-type suits, starched white bow ties, and white shirts with stiff cuffs on which he wrote his appointments and sermon notes. (I imagine his wife loved getting those cuffs clean.) Dressed in this formal getup, he rode about Galveston on a bicycle from jail cell to hospital bed to Galveston’s red-light district ministering to and helping every person in need regardless of his or her faith or lack thereof. He was known for saying “there is no such thing as Episcopalian scarlet fever, Catholic arthritis, or Jewish mumps”.
He may have been small but he showed a giant’s determination when facing injustice. Hearing of a girl being kept in prostitution against her will, he tore across town on his bicycle, barged into a whorehouse, and found the girl half naked. Wrapping her in a blanket and walking with one arm around her and the other guiding his bike he led her to a clothing store where he told the merchant to “fit her out from head to foot”. Then, he took her home to his wife and found her a job. His fearlessness quickly created a name for himself in the back streets of Galveston. When a woman on her deathbed asked to be given a “Christian burial”, Rabbi Cohen received the call to conduct the service. Not bothering to ask what kept a Protestant minister from showing up, Rabbi Cohen marched to the cemetery where he found a large crowd had gathered from the bordellos. He led the service using prayers from the New Testament.
Millions of European Jews arrived on the East Coast without the means to survive in the strange new world. They settled with fellow emigrants in the slums of New York’s lower East side where whole families crowded into tiny rooms, even sleeping in hallways. Unable to speak English or find work, they huddled in congested, impoverished conditions that led to child labor and crime. Many in the Jewish community that had come to America and prospered became embarrassed at so much suffering. They devised a plan that allowed immigrant ships to bypass Ellis Island and go instead to Galveston where Rabbi Cohen set up an immigration office and met most every ship.
Since he traveled extensively preaching in cities and towns that did not have a rabbi, he had developed a network of contacts in communities that let him know what occupations they needed. It might be cobblers, hat makers, tailors, carpenters or clerks. El Paso for example asked to have trunk, harness and saddle makers, whereas Corsicana needed weavers, spinners, and doffers for its new textile industry. Between 1907 and 1914 Rabbi Cohen and his group placed 10,000 immigrants in jobs and homes west of the Mississippi.
After World War I the Ku Klux Klan began making inroads in towns across the South and Midwest. When the Klan came to Galveston and tried to get a parade permit, Rabbi Cohen and his friend Father James Kirwin used their considerable influence with the city commissioners to block the parade. The Klan never got a foothold in Galveston.
Rabbi Cohen worked for prison reform, often having prisoners paroled into his care. He found them jobs, loaned them money, and remained in touch with them after they began new lives. After he heard of a man raping a twelve-year-old girl and being set free, Rabbi Cohen worked for years to get legislation to raise the age of consent in Texas from ten years old to eighteen.
My favorite story concerns Rabbi Cohen hearing that an immigrant had arrived illegally and faced immediate deportation. In his usual dramatic fashion, he boarded a train for Washington D.C., and demanded a meeting with President William Howard Taft. And he got it. Explaining to the president that the man faced a firing squad if he returned to his own country, Rabbi Cohen added that he could find the man a job in Texas.
President Taft listened courteously, and then said he could do nothing for the gentlemen. The president added, “I certainly admire the way you have gone to so much trouble and expense for a member of your faith.”
“Member of my faith! This man is a Greek Catholic. A human life is at stake.”
President Taft picked up the phone and arranged for the man to be released to the custody of the fiery little rabbi.
Rabbi Cohen was fluent in eleven languages; he held the respect of presidents, governors, and cardinals; he wielded influence in state and national legislatures; but the legacy that he would claim with pride was that he made life more bearable for thousands of his fellow human beings.Rabbi Cohen played a major role in providing jobs and homes for immigrants throughout the South and Midwest. From 1880 to 1920