If you doubt just how widespread the reach of the United Daughters of the Confederacy was (see yesterday’s post for that), go into any 42nd Street entrance at Times Square subway station, the nucleus of New York City’s transportation network, and look up.
The tile mosaic ceiling trim running throughout the concourse depicts, at regular intervals, a hanging Confederate battle flag.
Adolph S. Ochs, the publisher of the New York Times from 1896 to 1935, built the skyscraper over the station (which opened on the subway’s first day of service in 1904). He was one of the most powerful men in New York City, and also he happened to be the son of Bertha Levi Ochs, a Bavarian-born Jew, Confederate, and charter member of the UDC.
Bertha was once arrested for trying to smuggle drugs to Confederate soldiers in a baby carriage. In her later years, she vindicated herself by throwing herself into the UDC. She died in 1910, near the peak of the group’s powers in changing landscapes and textbooks alike, with full funeral honors from the group—she refused to allow her casket to be draped in the U.S. flag, insisting on the Stars and Bars.
In 1917, during an expansion of the station, the head architect, Squire J. Vickers, and his head tile man W. Herbert Dole, appear to have tried to please Ochs by embedding Confederate flags throughout the train station beneath the headquarters of New York’s “Gray Lady” newspaper.
The MTA objects a little too quickly to this discovery. “It is a geometric pattern, not a flag design, and has no reference to anything beyond a pattern,” said spokesman Kevin Ortiz. “Similar patterns in other palettes of colors are found in various subway stations.”
But despite its official protests, there is no way for the MTA to know for sure. Two years ago, I spent several hours going through the Vickers pages at the MTA’s archive in downtown Brooklyn, but neither Vickers nor Dole left behind any notes that hint at why the Confederate flag motif was chosen. The documentary evidence doesn’t support a definitive denial, but paying tribute to a moneyed patron has always been a solid reason.
It’s also said that when Ochs died in 1935, the UDC sent a pillow embroidered with the rebel flag to be placed in his coffin, sending the Confederate flag to lay beside the publisher of the New York Times for eternity.
What all of this means is that for a century, starting within living memory of the Civil War, a Rebel flag has flown proudly over the heads of unsuspecting Yankees.
Click here to read about another secret in plain sight in the Times Square subway station: the Knickerbocker Door.