When Diego and Frida Came to Columbia

In the spring of 1933, Diego Rivera was working on a mural commissioned by the Rockefellers for their new RCA Building (now known as Rockefeller Center). Donald Henderson CC 1925, MA 1926, was a politically active economics instructor at Columbia. In one week in May 1933 both found themselves targeted for their political beliefs. 

Diego Rivera addresses strikers at the Sun Dial, May 1933. Scan 5298, Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

When Diego Rivera took on the Rockefeller mural project, he had already been the subject of the MoMA’s second ever one-man show (1931) and had completed well-known mural commissions in San Francisco (1931) and Detroit (1932-1933). But on May 9, 1933, Rivera was called from the scaffold and the work was halted. Rivera was paid in full but his employment was terminated. He was not permitted to return to the building as he had refused to replace Lenin’s face on the mural.

Meanwhile, up in Morningside Heights, the Columbia campus was consumed with the case of Donald Henderson, the “activist” economics instructor who had not been reappointed. Henderson was what we would now call an activist. In the spring of 1932, he joined students in demonstrations in defense of Reed Harris CC 1932, the Spectator editor who was expelled (but only temporarily) for his criticism of the administration. Henderson led students on a trip to Harlan and Bell Counties in Kentucky to see first-hand the conditions at coal mines. (They were denied access.) And, in the fall of 1932, he was arrested and sentenced to 6 months’ probation for disorderly conduct during campus demonstrations at City College over the dismissal of instructor of English Oakley Johnson.

In April 1933, Columbia did not renew Henderson’s appointment but instead offered him a one-year fellowship (with a smaller stipend than his instructor salary) to conduct research in the Soviet Union. The University claimed this was to help Henderson complete his doctorate – but his dissertation topic was on the History of the American Communist Party and had nothing to do with the Soviet Union. And so, just a year after the (successful) campus demonstrations on behalf of Reed Harris, the students were again on a campaign, this time to secure Henderson’s reappointment. There were leaflets, mass meetings, letter writing campaigns, editorials, even a meeting with President Nicholas Murray Butler. After three campus protests, the Columbia Joint Committee for the Reinstatement of Henderson called for a student strike for Monday, May 15, 1933.

“Reappoint Henderson” strike program. Scan 5299, Historical Subject Files, University Archives.

Among the invited speakers to address the striking crowd at the sundial was Diego Rivera, the artist who had just been dismissed from his commission a week earlier. In an interview with the Spectator the night before the student strike, Rivera compared Henderson’s dismissal to his situation with the Radio City murals: “Capitalism will dismiss a college instructor on one hand, and pay $21,000 on the other, just so as not to be criticized.” The campus gathering featured 22 speakers and a very large crowd of supporters and members of the opposition, which went from yelling, to egg throwing, to fighting. The New York Times headline the next day was “1,500 in Fist Fight at Columbia Rally.” The Henderson campaign, much like Rivera’s murals, was ultimately unsuccessful: Henderson was not reinstated and the murals were covered up and eventually destroyed in February 1934.

And Frida? In the Times coverage of the protest, we learn that Rivera “and his wife, Carmen,” encouraged the students, in French, to “wrest control of the university from Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler.” Carmen’s full name was Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón. The Spectator also noted her presence on campus: Albert the candy man sold a pair of ice creams to Mr. and Mrs. Diego Rivera.