02 September 2013

Forgotten History: Father James Renshaw Cox

The annual Labor Day march through downtown Pittsburgh streets always gets me musing about another proud march for cause, orchestrated in 1932 by Father James Renshaw Cox, Pittsburgh's original outspoken pro-Labor priest.

Father James Renshaw Cox. Father Cox Papers, University of Pittsburgh

Born in 1886 to a Pittsburgh mill family in Lawrenceville, Cox's nearly 30 year pastorate of Old St. Patrick's Church in Pittsburgh's Strip District changed the nation. St Patrick was the oldest Catholic parish in Pittsburgh. The edifice that Cox knew was built in 1865 and stretched for a block along Liberty Avenue at 17th Street. It burned in 1935, and has since been replaced by a more modest building and merged with another parish.

St Patrick Church, second building on the site, circa 1865-1935

Shrinking congregations aren't anything new in Pittsburgh: when Cox arrived at St. Patrick in 1923 he found that most of the residents of his Strip District parish had been pushed out of the area by the expansion of businesses, particularly the produce industry. His ministry, based on putting the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church to practice, revitalized St. Patrick's parish and its mission.

Cox began daily Mass radio broadcasts from St. Patrick, a practice that lasted for 33 years. Such was the draw of this priest's compassion and oratory that when the effects of Great Depression gripped this town, St. Patrick was surrounded by one of Pittsburgh's Hoovervilles, known as Shantytown. No need to worry about a dwindling congregation!

"Pittsburgh's Hoovertown" by Brady Stewart
Collections of the Pennsylvania Department,
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Shantytown, Pittsburgh's Hooverville in The Strip

Rows of shanties housing some 300 unemployed men and some women of all races occupied almost an entire city block, stretching from the Pennsylvania Railroad Station to the 17th Street Bridge. 

Shantytown sketch by Pittsburgh Press artist Ralph Reichhold, 6 November 1931

A contemporary description of the scene: "Old boards, tar paper, burlap, are neatly carpentered. A sign, "Landscape architect," decorates one shanty, touches the scene with faint irony. Here Father Cox was made Honorary Mayor last year...."

Pittsburgh Press, 26 September 1931

There aren't many photographs of Shantytown, but the images that do exist are striking. Some can be found online at The Brady Stewart Photo Collection. The collection of Photographs by Edward P. Salamony is housed at the Photo Antiquities Museum of Photographic History.  Images from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette archives can be found HERE.

"At Shantytown, at Seventeenth Street, where homeless men have built a kingdom, men were busy today shoveling paths." Pittsburgh Press, November 27, 1931
Pittsburgh Press, 27 July 1933

Shantytown, 1930. Father Cox Papers, University of Pittsburgh
The sign in the middle is advertising "washing fluid" for sale there for 25¢ and reassures
"You are not DONATING you are BUYING a NECESSITY....profits go to Father Cox."

One of a series at Shantytown images taken by Pittsburgh photojournalist Edward Salamony.
First printed in the paper he worked for, Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, on 13 March 1936,
it was later published around the country.

Under Cox's supervision, St. Patrick Church became a large scale relief center. It distributed free meals, food, clothing and fuel not just for the Shantytown inhabitants but for all of Pittsburgh's poor and needy. The Pittsburgh Press described the operations in The Strip :
The baskets and meals are given out with no questions asked. They don't care who you are. Your race or religion makes no difference. If you're hungry, they feed you. If your clothes are threadbare, shoes worn out, serviceable clothing and shoes are provided. Food and clothing given to the needy are either donated directly or purchased with funds contributed voluntarily....
Pittsburgh Press, 23 April 1932

Cox was proud of the men who lived in Shantytown.  
These men in Shantytown aren't bums, because bums don't build cities. The houses these men live in are the result of their own labors. The shanties are home, in truth, to these fellows. The depression hasn't caused a single one of them to lose hope for his country, its flag, and its institutions.
Although Shantytown expanded, conditions deteriorated as the Depression continued. In 1934, its conscience perhaps pricked by Father Cox's ministry, the City of Pittsburgh housed some 250 Shantytown residents at the former Ralston Industrial School at 15th and Penn. Renovations were undertaken to make this circa-1860s school building habitable, with individual cubicles constructed for each resident at the "Hotel" (as it came to be known).

Having passed its point of usefulness and deemed a public health nuisance, on 15 June 1934, the Strip Shantytown was deliberately burned to the ground in a planned fire.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 16 June 1934

Pittsburgh Press, 16 June 1934

But even with Shantytown demolished, Father Cox's reputation as Pittsburgh's "Pastor of the Poor" remained intact.

Father James R. Cox, c. 1930. Father Cox Papers, University of Pittsburgh
His appearances on WJAS radio became more than just piped-in Masses, for he used the airwaves to preach as an outspoken advocate for the poor and disenfranchised. Cox was able to leverage funds from individuals and corporations, proudly noting that "Our work is carried on entirely by volunteer contribution."

Fr. Cox and the bread line distribution. Father Cox Papers, University of Pittsburgh
Cox's Army

Father Cox took the community organization aspect of his ministry seriously. In January 1932, he led 25,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians, dubbed Cox's Army, on a protest march to Washington DC to encourage Congress to begin an extensive public works program and provide direct federal relief to the needy.

According to news reports, many of the Pittsburgh men wore their WWI uniforms, while others were raggedly clad in blankets and old overcoats against the freezing rain. They were accompanied on the journey by two brass bands and some 600 cars and trucks. Towns along the way provided shelter and coffee for the men, and the caravan merrily careened fare-free past toll collectors on the Turnpike.

Cox's Army in the Capital. Image from ExplorePAhistory.com

Cox thought he knew what this trip meant to the men, many of whom had never before visited the nation's capitol. As their caravan pulled into Washington DC after two nights on the road, Cox commented that the men caught sight of the Capitol dome and "...forgot that they were hungry; they forgot that their clothes had not dried from the rain. They stared like pilgrims viewing some sacred shrine--and it was a shrine for them. It was a symbol of all they hope and believe that America should mean to its citizens."

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 8 January 1932

One of the most intriguing stories associated with the march concerns another Pittsburgh luminary, Andrew W. Mellon, the nation's banker. During Mellon's 1935 tax evasion trial, a letter from a trustee of the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust to the IRS was made public. The letter alleged that the Trust had assisted in transporting many stranded Cox's Army marchers back home:
....in January, 1932, assisted in the transportation to Pittsburgh of a large number of unemployed men who came to Washington from that city as a part of "Father Cox's Unemployed Army" and were left destitute in this city.
In fact, Mellon had used his personal charity to pay train fares for 276 men and also "quietly ordered" his Gulf Oil gas stations to dispense free gas to marchers. These were no small gestures given the cost of fuel at the time -- and given the political climate. At the time of the march, newspapers reported that "Relief funds were brought into play to provide thousands of gallons of gasoline for the cars."
Andrew W. Mellon. 
Collections of the Pennsylvania Department,
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Mellon's motives for providing such relief remain mysterious, given that he can hardly be viewed as a friend to organized labor and welfare efforts. Ever a proponent of laissez-faire philosophies, in his role as Secretary of the Treasury Mellon had continuously encouraged President Hoover to allow the Depression to run its course without intervention. But embroiled as he was in politically motivated impeachment proceedings designed to make him the fall-guy for Hoover's embattled administration, perhaps Andrew Mellon saw here an opportunity to embarrass Hoover while supporting hometown efforts. Such petty revenge seems to me to be rather out of character for Mellon, but he certainly had no desire to emulate Hoover's attitudes at this point. I think his generosity was also grounded in his belief that charity should be a morally imperative, financially responsible, discreet endeavor. Mellon gave regularly but usually privately, and often on a grand scale to those individuals and causes that were significant to him. Aloof he might have been, but he was not cold-hearted. This seemingly contradictory help for poor stranded Pittsburghers (who also happened to be Catholics and liberals and union organizers, oh my) may well have sprung from a sincere desire to privately help hometown men in need.

At any rate, Cox stated in a radio interview from the Washington march: "We're glad to be here. God only knows how we'll get back, but we're not worried."  No worries indeed...perhaps he knew that A.W. Mellon was playing on his team!

Fr. Cox traveled to the White House itself in a sedan with 14 of his "followers." President Hoover grudgingly met with Cox and his delegation, knowing that he couldn't avoid doing so with the largest protest march in the nation's history camped on his front lawn. He accepted no blame for the economic situation and made no promises. Father Cox later stated "While I, out of respect to the Chief Executive of the nation, did not comment then, I can say now that his plans for relief are utterly inadequate."

Pittsburgh Press, 7 January 1932

When presenting their petitions, Cox stated "The right to work belongs to every man. It is a God-given right and we demand it of our Congress."

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 8 January 1932

Hoover and Congress declined to act on the requests for aid that Cox presented. The President responded with platitudes about how much was already being done for the men, made promises for public works projects, and reiterated his opposition to costly direct government relief efforts.

Ever mindful of his role as an earthly guardian of souls, Father Cox gave the Army of the Unemployed a special Friday dispensation to eat meat when the men returned to Pittsburgh the next day. They were greeted in Pittsburgh as returning heroes and provided "soup, sandwiches, sauerkraut, wieners, and coffee" in the basement of St. Patrick's Church. It was the first meal many of the marchers had had since leaving for the march. Fr. Cox then said a special Mass that evening which included prayers for several marchers who had been injured in auto accidents or taken ill on their journey. 

"If They're Going to Play Politics, So Are the Unemployed"

Pittsburgh Press, Feb 1932
The Cox's Army "hunger march" inspired the formation of the Jobless Party, which supported government public works and labor unions. A few weeks after the Army of the Unemployed march, on the eve of the first rally of the Jobless Party "Blue Shirts" at Pitt Stadium, Cox decried the entrenched political system and denied charges of socialism and Communism leveled at him: 
This was not a political movement. This was an economic movement, but it has turned into a political movement...We expect nothing from the Republican and Democratic parties, who represent Wall Street and Smithfield street. The Jobless party will represent Main street, and if the unemployed hope to better their condition they had better take politics in their own hands.
Cox was invited to speak at the WWI veterans Bonus March in DC six months later. This event degenerated into violence, and Hoover ordered General Douglas MacArthur to disperse the veterans from DC using infantry, cavalry and tanks.

In the face of such entrenched governmental hostility to the common man, Cox decided to follow his advice to take politics into his own hands. He became the Jobless Party's first presidential candidate later that year.

Father James R. Cox addressing members of the Jobless Party. Father Cox Papers, University of Pittsburgh
Ultimately the rigors of the campaign trail and its financial demands tabled Cox's long-shot populist candidacy. There was no A.W. Mellon to bail him out when Cox had to cut short a cross-country tour when his campaign ran out of money: "Campaigning for idealism brings as much suffering and privation as came to those who first crossed Route No. 66 in covered wagons." Cox eventually withdrew from the race, and supported the Democratic ticket and Franklin Roosevelt.

Pittsburgh Press, 13 June 1939
After the presidential election of 1932, Cox continued his relief work and became a member of the Pennsylvania Commission for the Unemployed. Some years later, President Roosevelt appointed Cox to the state board of the National Recovery Administration.

Cox ruffled plenty of feathers, and his public life weathered its share of controversy. He made headlines not just for his good works but for accusations of being aligned with socialists and Communists. Not surprisingly, he was investigated by Hoover's administration on suspicion of being a 'radical.'  This was despite his clear disavowals of Communist connections as far back as his 1931 march. No matter, that; he'd made enemies, and their knives were out for him.

Cox was later acquitted on Federal charges of mail-fraud and lottery charges. Cox also attracted attention when he drew an ideological line in the sand by publicly condemning Depression-era demagogue Father Charles Coughlin's anti-Semitism.

Pittsburgh Press, 7 July 1947
In his later years, Cox traveled extensively abroad, leading pilgrimages of Pittsburgh faithful.  Having served as a WWI hospital chaplain in Angers, he maintained ties with that town and in 1948 was made the only American Canon of a French church at  Cathedral of Angers.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1 April 1950

Suffering strokes in 1942 and 1948, Cox withdrew from constant public political advocacy to focus on spiritual ministry. However, he served as a mentor to Father Charles Owen Rice, who would go on to inherit Cox's role as Pittsburgh's labor priest.

James Renshaw Cox died at age 65 of a final cerebral hemorrhage on 20 March 1951 at Mercy Hospital. He was eulogized as "the poor man's priest" and as a man of both action and prayer, and laid to rest in Pittsburgh's Calvary Cemetery.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1948


Further Reading

Cox in Denial Hoover Enemy Backed March 
Father Cox and the Great Depression 
Father Cox, Andrew Mellon and a Huge March on Washington  
Father Cox's Candidacy Stirs Interest in Status 
Mellon Income Tax Suit Turns to Trust Fund....Banker's Philanthropies Included Help to Stranded 'Unemployed Army'
Remembering Shantytown: Photos depict life in Depression-era Strip District  
Saint Patrick Church 
The Coxes Were Methodist: Son--A Priest--Wants Hoover's Job 
Treasured items recall impact of "radio priest" 

Heineman, Kenneth J. A Catholic New Deal: Religion and Reform in Depression Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania State U. Press, 1999. (print)


  1. I have a card in my possession mailed to a Rev. John Diedrich, C.S.S.R. in Saint Louis by Father Cox,Old St. Patrick's Church, Pittsburgh from Oberammergau, Germany. The card is franked with a Hindenburg stamp and postmarked 19 July 1934 with afancy cancel celebrating the 300th year of the Passion Play. It is signed on the back with what looks like "Renshaw Cox". Looks like he sent out a number of these from Oberammaergau in 1934. Have you ever seen any of these cards?

  2. Sorry for the delay in responding! No, sadly, I've not seen one like that. I know the passion plays make Oberammaergau a pilgrimage site. We know that Cox did journey to Europe before the war and it wouldn't surprise me if Fr. Cox timed a trip to enjoy the 300th anniversary of the passion plays. Perhaps he was a spiritual leaders of such a pilgrimage. At any rate, I think you've got a treasure there, because 1934 was the only year the passion play was performed under the Nazi regime. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Father Cox was a first cousin to my grandfather and I was thrilled to find all this information. My grandfather talked about him so when I started my genealogy, I decided to find out more about him. A colorful figure in history and I’m proud he was part of my family.