Friday, July 29, 2016

Lewi Tonks: Physics with a Side of Social Justice

It’s funny how the answer to a research request can pop up long after a patron requests it.  Back in January a patron contacted me to see if we had any information on GE physicist Dr. Lewi Tonks regarding his work with the Schenectady Human Rights Commission and his creation of a revolving bail fund. I checked our (usually trusty) family files and while we had a file for Tonko, there was nothing listed under Tonks. I scoured our website for any mention of him, nothing turned up. I checked our catalog, books on GE, and newspaper clippings files, still nothing. I found a few news articles online and a bit about his work while at GE, but not much regarding his social justice work in Schenectady.

Yesterday, I decided to open up the 1970 Schenectady Board of Representatives Proceedings. I don’t even really remember what I was looking up, but the first page I opened it to was a report on the Commission on Human Rights. The Commission on Human Rights was created in 1965 to foster mutual respect and understanding among all racial, religious, and nationality groups in the community. One of the Commissions main duties was (and is) to receive complaints of alleged discrimination and to bring these complaints to the State Commission for Human Rights for further examination.

What caught my interest on the page were the words Discrimination in Housing written in bold at the bottom of page 436. The report describes a black woman who brought a case to the Human Rights Commission claiming that she met with an agent of an absentee landlord who showed her a house.  The next day a white woman asked about the house and the agent stated that the neighborhood had an “anti-black attitude” and said “When they move in we are liable to have riots.” This event happened two years after the Fair Housing Act was enacted which prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin and sex. The case made its way to the State Division of Human Rights and the owners of the property were fined $200 (about $1,200 today) and restrictions were placed on the landlord to assure that they would comply with the act in the future. I flipped through a few pages to see who gave this part of the report and it was none other than Lewi Tonks.

Tonks was a physicist who, before working at GE, helped develop a supersonic submarine detection for the U.S. Navy. He joined GE in 1923 where he researched thermionic emission, ferromagnetic, thermodynamics of surface films, and other projects that I had to look up on Wikipedia in order to understand what they are. In 1946 he started working with the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory which was operated by GE for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission at the time. At KAPL, he served as the manager of physics and also worked on the reactor for the nuclear submarine the Sea Wolf. In 1955, Tonks also worked on designing the first fusion device.  So, He was obviously working on some amazing projects in the scientific community, but he was also heavily involved with social issues in Schenectady.

Lewi Tonks hard at work in room 401. He would stay in room 401 until 1938 when he moved up to room 505.
After retiring from GE, he started volunteering for the Commission on Human Rights where he volunteered at least five days a week. In the 1970 report to the County Board of Supervisors, Tonks requests assistance from the Board, specifically in the form of increasing the salary for a potential executive director to assist the sole full-time staff member Anne Donnelly. Donnelly’s main duties were coordinating the activities of the Commission and the various committees of the Commission, writing reports and minutes, attending meetings relevant to the Commission, attending legislative hearings and workshops, among other things. So, she had a bit of a full plate working for the Commission. Tonks takes a bit of a dig at the Board saying “We are paying very careful attention to the caliber of individual whom we would ask to take this responsible role. We are hampered in this search by the low salary level established by the Board of Representatives.” In 1969, the chairman of the Commission on Human Rights compared the budgets and staff of the Schenectady Commission to others cities of similar size in New York. Niagara Falls had a slightly higher population than Schenectady in 1969, but the budget for their Commission on Human Rights was $38,000 compared to Schenectady’s meager $6,520. So the increase of that Tonks called for was a drop in the bucket compared to cities of similar sizes.

"He frightened and angered those who obstruct justice, and he exposed those who still give lip service to justice and peace. And because hope is so necessary to us all, I shall see in every tiny hard-fought victory for human rights and dignity, and off-spring of his spirit and vision. And I shall be grateful to Lewi, and glad." - Friend of Lewi Tonks, Peter Crawford

Dr. Tonks saw the budget increase and hiring of an executive director for the commission in 1971. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack on June 30, 1971. In addition to his work on the Commission on Human Rights, Tonks was also involved with the committee of clergy and laymen concerned about Vietnam. His legacy lived on in the Lewi Tonks Revolving Bail Fund which was created by his family. The bail fund provided bail for people who could not afford it. In the 1971 annual report of the Commission, Anne Donnely stated that Lewi “died knowing that a director was being hired and that the job to be done was actually beginning. I am glad that Lewi Tonks chose to work with me – not only for what I learned from him but because our friendship deepened and added greatly to my life.”

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