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Guide to the Paul L. Ross Papers
1933-1978
 MS 3138

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400


New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Andy Latoni and Larry Weimer

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on August 27, 2019
Finding aid written in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Biographical / Historical

Lawyer and constitutional rights activist Paul L. Ross (1902-1978) was born in the village of Linetz in the Ukraine. While still a child he immigrated to America in 1908 with his family. He graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1923. While in law school working at the firm of Sapinsky & Amster, he met Fiorello LaGuardia, then in private practice, who initially mistook the Jewish-American Ross as a fellow Italian-American. Ross remained connected with LaGuardia through his electoral campaigns in the 1920s and 1930s, eventually serving as Assistant Counsel to the New York City Board of Transportation under LaGuardia from 1936 to 1942.

In 1942 (which is the point in time where the bulk of the papers in the present collection picks up), Ross joined the Office of Price Administration (OPA) as Regional Enforcement Officer for Region II (the mid-Atlantic states). The role of the OPA was to impose price controls and rationing of certain goods during the World War II years. In 1945, Regional Administrator Daniel P. Woolley dismissed Ross, charging him with maladministration. Ross fought the charge and was exonerated in 1946, though he did not return to OPA. By then Ross had become engaged with William O'Dwyer's successful 1945 mayoral campaign and had joined the O'Dwyer administration as the new mayor's Administrative Secretary. In 1947, O'Dwyer appointed Ross to be Chairman of the Temporary City Housing Rent Commission responsible for, among other public policies, rent control.

In 1948, Ross resigned from the O'Dwyer administration in protest, at least in part, over O'Dwyer's decision to raise transit fares. Ross, a Democrat who had briefly joined the American Labor Party (ALP) in the 1930s, rejoined the ALP and became active in its politics. He ran on ALP's ticket in 1949 for City Comptroller and in 1950 for Mayor; he lost both races and never ran again for office. (Ross's ALP colleague and client on legal matters, W.E.B. DuBois, also lost his campaign for the U.S. Senate seat in 1950.)

At the time, Ross lived in the recently-opened Stuyvesant Town housing complex. Financed with both public funds and private investment by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, the buildings had a "No Negroes Allowed" policy. Ross was among the tenants who formed the Town and Village Tenants Committee to End Discrimination in Stuyvesant Town. The efforts of Ross, Lee Lorch, and others eventually led in 1950 to Met Life agreeing to admit three black families. Met Life then sought to evict Ross and other activist tenants before dropping the matter in 1952. Ross moved around this time to 31 Grace Court in Brooklyn Heights, the four story townhouse then owned by Ross's client, W.E.B. DuBois and his wife, Shirley.

Around 1949, Ross joined with others to form the law firm Wolf, Popper, Ross, Wolf & Jones (now Wolf Popper). As anti-Communist fervor increased in the 1950s, Ross took on various cases in support of civil and constitutional rights, including acting as counsel for the singer Pete Seeger at Seeger's House Un-American Activities Committee hearing. Ross himself would be named as a Communist by Dr. Bella Dodd in 1956, a charge he both effectively refuted and challenged on constitutional grounds. A major emphasis of his into the 1970s was defending clients against efforts to repress or silence defense counsel in civil rights or political cases. In the 1960s, Ross was Co-Chairman of the Citizens Committee for Constitutional Liberties (CCCL), which was formed in 1961 to advocate for the repeal of the Internal Security Act of 1950, also known as the McCarran Act. Among other features, the act allowed the preventive detention of those deemed by the government as likely to engage in certain subversive activities. Ross and the CCCL's fight intensified in 1969 when, in the swirl of national unrest over the Vietnam War and racial injustice, the Nixon administration sought to expand the use of preventive detention in the name of "law and order."

Ross retired in 1971, moving to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. But he remained active, including researching a book (apparently not published) on constitutional liberties and taking some cases, such as the appeal of Gail (Madden) Glenn of her 1974 murder conviction in New Jersey. That case was a result of an incident in Plainfield, NJ, in which a police officer was killed during a confrontation with African-American residents. Paul Ross died at his home in Fort Lauderdale in 1978.

(The above note was based primarily on documents in the collection and information from the collection's donor.)