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Monday, December 14th, 2009

Time Event
Hunting for the Home of First Fandom's Warren Fitzgerald
I may be on the trail of the birthplace of science fiction fandom (for certain values of "birthplace").

Last week Rob Hansen pointed out, to Boingboing and Tor.com, that 11 December 1929 was the occasion of the founding meeting of the Scienceers, which seems to have been the first science fiction fan club, at least the first club where the members met in person rather than corresponded.

Science fiction fandom is still going strong after 80 years, and many of us are curious about its early history. Rob has wondered if more information can be found about Warren Fitzgerald, who hosted the first meeting at his home.

An account of the Scienceers by Allen Glasser recalls that Fitzgerald and his wife were black, and they lived somewhere in Harlem in late 1929. They hosted multiple meetings of the Scienceers at their home. Fitzgerald also joined the American Interplanetary Society in 1930; its founders included David Lasser, Nat Schachner, Fletcher Pratt, and other SF people.

I may have found a 1930 U.S. Census form with information about Warren Fitzgerald. (If you have trouble accessing this, and you want to see a PDF of the form, let me know.)

Footnote.com allows a search on names for the 1930 census. There was a "Warren Fitzgerald" in Manhattan, New York, New York, living at 211 West 122nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. This is the only hit in the state of New York. (Ancestry.com gives others in the state but only one in the city of New York. I didn't look behind their paywall for more info.)

Is this Fitzgerald our Fitzgerald?

He is listed as a roomer with homeowner James Jessup. Gertrude L. Fitzgerald also lived there, as did five other roomers. Warren was 30, Gertrude was 36, and they had been married for five years. He was born in Pennsylvania. His father's birthplace was listed (in accordance with Census practice) as "Canada-French," and his mother was born in New York.

His occupation is listed as "meter prover" in the "meters" industry. He was a military veteran of "WW," meaning World War. Gertrude worked as a servant for a private family.

Fitzgerald's "race or color" is coded as W, meaning White, while everyone else in the building is listed as "Neg" for Negro, as are most of the other people living on his block.

This all seems consistent with what we know from fannish and rocketry sources about Warren Fitzgerald, with one exception: the census worker listed him as white and not black.

Allen Glasser wrote: "He was a light-skinned Negro -- amiable, cultured, and a fine gentleman in every sense of that word. With his gracious, darker-hued wife, Warren made our young members welcome to use his Harlem home for our meetings -- an offer we gratefully accepted." Perhaps light skin made coding his race ambiguous.

Google Map link to 211 W. 122nd St.

Google has a Street View picture of what may be fandom's first meeting place.
From Odds & Ends

Warren Fitzgerald remains a mystery. He has attracted interest from some historians since black participants in SF fandom-- or in rocketry-- have been rare, yet here is an example right at the beginning. Fitzgerald parted company with the Scienceers, and SF fandom, after the American Interplanetary Society got started. Apparently he dropped out of AIS after its first year.

Next questions:

Do we have the right guy? Try to determine whether there were other Warren Fitzgeralds in New York at that time, and if so, rule them out.

Check with a genealogy buff; an expert may know how to find out more from census records.

Check 1940 Census, and later ones, to see what became of Fitzgerald.

Would WWI military records shed any more light on him?

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Edited to add: Frank Winter confirms, on p. 146 of Prelude to the Space Age, that according to the 1930 AIS membership list, this is indeed the right house.

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