Columbus Hospital

Leaving Atlanta Penitentiary For New York

Don Pedro became eligible for a conditional release from prison — parole — in 1941. An FBI document detailed his response: “On November 4, 1941, he was eligible for conditional release but refused to execute the necessary conditional release papers on the grounds that by doing so he would be recognizing the United States Government, and, in view of his Nationalist beliefs, he could not acquiesce to these regulatory terms.” Don Pedro remained in Atlanta Penitentiary until being released on June 3, 1943. Continuing to resist the authority of the U.S. Government over him, he made it clear that once released he would consider himself free beyond any condition, and that he would not inform authorities of his residence each month or write to Judge Cooper requesting permission to stay in New York while he completed the final part of his sentence, as U.S. authorities had requested of him.

As the other nationalists were released some of them moved to New York, such as Clemente Soto Vélez, Luis F. Velázquez, and Juan Antonio Corretjer. Once there, they helped to strengthen the Party’s local chapter. The Nationalists opened three social-cultural clubs — one each in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx — that helped the Party economically. When Don Pedro was released from Atlanta penitentiary, the New York Chapter sent Corretjer and fellow nationalist Julio Pinto Gandía to serve as his escorts to New York. Vito Marcantonio also sent a lawyer, Samuel Newberger, to accompany Don Pedro on the trip to New York and provide any legal assistance. They rode a train back to New York in a private car of the train paid for by the Communist Party, USA.

When Don Pedro left Atlanta Penitentiary his health was still problematic. Just three days after leaving prison, he was admitted into Columbus Hospital on 19th Street between Second and Third Avenue. At admission, Don Pedro had symptoms including shortness of breath, tightness and pain in his chest, swollen glands in his groin, swollen legs, a feeling of paralysis on the left side of his body, and insomnia. His diagnosis was arteriosclerosis, coronary sclerosis, bronchial neuritis, and general weakness. Don Pedro’s doctor, Dr. Epaminondas Secondary, was a heart disease specialist trained in Austria said to be a refugee from Mussolini’s Italy that Vito Marcantonio arranged to care for him.

Two Years Of Recovery And Surveillance

For two years Don Pedro remained in Columbus Hospital as a patient. Despite the genuinely poor state of his health, Don Pedro’s long-term stay at Columbus Hospital was the subject of criticism by federal authorities. Director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover, for example, said the following in a report: “Albizu Campos is reported to be using his private room in the Columbus Hospital as the headquarters of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico in New York City and it has been said that he receives many notable visitors and holds meetings in this room, which, according to reliable sources, is paid for by the Communist Party, U.S.A. … Sources, who are deemed to be familiar with the instant matter, have indicated that it would appear that Albizu Campos continues to be hospitalized on his own volition in order to elicit sympathy from and appear as a martyr to the members and adherents of his party who are of the opinion that he was unjustly incarcerated in the Atlanta Penitentiary and that this imprisonment resulted in a breakdown of health.”

Federal agents conducted surveillance on Don Pedro while he was in Columbus Hospital. They were generally aware of the people that went to visit him, and also received information from informants. Electronic surveillance was also conducted through the placement of microphones in Don Pedro’s hospital room. In one of his visits to see Don Pedro, East Harlem Congressman Vito Marcantonio discovered one such microphone and immediately screamed obscenities into it, ripped it out of the wall, and threatened those who were listening to produce the microphone in a Congressional meeting.

The persecution Don Pedro continued to face, expressed most obviously by the surveillance conducted on him, seems to have been a serious concern. According to nationalist Gil Ramos Cancel, “his confinement in the Columbus Hospital was due to both health and safety reasons, to prevent him from being arrested for violation of the conditions imposed by his freedom, which he had not accepted or signed, but which were still in force.” When he left Columbus Hospital in November 1945, Don Pedro was in better physical condition but was documented as still suffering from arteriosclerosis. According to North American anti-imperialist Ruth Reynolds, he should not have left the hospital but did so due to economic reasons.

Ruth Reynolds

Many people visited Don Pedro at Columbus Hospital– one person that spent a lot of time with him was Ruth Reynolds. Very active around civil rights as a pacifist, Reynolds met nationalist leader Julio Pinto Gandía during a February 1944 demonstration in support of Mahatma Gandhi at the English Consulate. Told by Pinto Gandía that Puerto Rico’s own leader of Gandhi-like status was in Columbus Hospital, she accepted the invitation to meet him. Reynolds had heard of the Ponce Massacre, but also had a hard time believing her own government was complicit in such an event. When she went to see Don Pedro, a survivor of the Ponce Massacre, Carmen Fernández, happened to be present. After Don Pedro asked all other visitors to leave the room, Fernández took Reynolds to the bathroom and showed her the scars left on her by police bullets that day. Profoundly affected by what she saw, Reynolds from that day forward committed her life to the struggle for Puerto Rico’s independence.

In January of 1945 Reynolds helped to form the American League for the Independence of Puerto Rico, holding the position of Secretary. The League would take an active role in helping to bring awareness to Puerto Rico’s struggle in significant ways. In March, just two months after it was founded, they sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State to point out the recent U.S. effort to prevent Julio Pinto Gandía from speaking as a representative of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico at the founding meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco. The letter emphasized the importance of working to accelerate legislation that would secure Puerto Rico’s independence. In May 1947 Reynolds stood before the Subcommittee on Public Lands on the floor of the House of Representatives to speak out against a bill that would allow Puerto Ricans to elect their own Governor without actually changing the colonial relationship. The ability of the League to engage North American activists and intellectuals through its numerous meetings and events around Puerto Rico’s colonial case was significant.

In 1950 Reynolds was imprisoned in Puerto Rico following an island-wide revolt organized by the Nationalist Party, joining over a thousand people arrested for violating a recently passed law that criminalized all expressions of pro-independence sentiment. Having spent a lot of time with Don Pedro in Columbus Hospital and becoming a close friend of his, Reynolds was able to learn a lot about his life and character. Much of what she learned about him was later documented by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies during over one hundred hours of interviews with Reynolds conducted by Centro staff member Blanca Vázquez from 1985 to 1986. This oral history, and the related documents she donated, continues to be a notable resource for researchers of Don Pedro and the nationalist movement. A few years later, just months before her death in 1989, Hunter College published her account of the 1948 strike organized by students in the University of Puerto Rico that was at the same time very much a revolt against the colonial structure in Puerto Rico.


References:

  • El Movimiento Libertador en la Historia de Puerto Rico, by Ramón Medina Ramírez (San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1970).
  • Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas de la Aurora- Acercamiento a su Biografía, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2008).
  • The Ruth M. Reynolds Papers, Center for Puerto Rican Studies Library and Archives (Hunter College, CUNY).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s