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NY Times, Oct. 10, 2018
Marie Runyon, Tenant Who Battled a University, Dies at 103
By Sam Roberts
Marie Runyon, a relentless radical who waged a Forty Years’ War on
behalf of fellow tenants facing eviction by Columbia University, died on
Sunday in the off-campus Upper Manhattan apartment where she had lived
since 1954. She was 103.
Her daughter, Louise, confirmed the death. She said that Ms. Runyon, who
was legally blind, had been largely housebound and unable to walk since
she fell and fractured her thigh in July.
Thoroughly radicalized by her challenge to Columbia’s expansion plans in
Harlem and Morningside Heights, Ms. Runyon later campaigned against
American involvement in Vietnam, supported the Black Panthers and
nuclear disarmament, and continued to get arrested for civil
disobedience into her 90s as an indomitable leader of the Granny Peace
Brigade, which protested the war in Iraq.
The daughter of a politically conservative North Carolina father, Ms.
Runyon was working as a membership recruiter for the American Civil
Liberties Union in 1961 when she, her neighbors at 130 Morningside Drive
and residents of five nearby buildings received notices to vacate their
Columbia’s College of Pharmaceutical Sciences, which was operating from
a 19th-century building 50 blocks south of the main campus, was hoping
to demolish the six Columbia-owned apartment buildings as part of the
thriving university’s master plan to accommodate more students and
replace antiquated facilities.
Columbia’s football fight song asks “Who owns New York?” Ms. Runyon was
determined to prove that the answer, in her neighborhood anyway, was not
She mounted her own guerrilla street theater protests, as well as rent
strikes and legal action against the evictions. She won most of her
suits under rent control protections, even as most other tenants,
frightened by what she called Columbia’s bulldozer diplomacy or
mollified by modest financial incentives provided by the university,
She also aligned her tenant organizations with student groups that in
1968 seized campus buildings to protest the Vietnam War and the
university’s plans to encroach on Morningside Park with a gymnasium.
Ms. Runyon — who in 1974 parlayed her popularity briefly into political
power by winning election to the State Assembly — fought on, as Columbia
demolished five of the six buildings and warehoused hundreds of other
vacant apartments on sites reserved for future development.
She even outlasted the College of Pharmaceutical Sciences, which closed
in 1976 after being threatened with loss of accreditation for failing to
upgrade its facilities and stabilize its finances.
And while the university’s anthem is titled “Stand, Columbia,” by the
turn of the 21st century a new administration had decided to stand down.
While only five of the original 23 families, as well as Ms. Runyon,
still lived at 130 Morningside Drive, the only one of the six targeted
buildings still standing, Columbia announced in 1996 that it would no
longer seek to evict them.
In 2002, William Scott, the university’s deputy vice president of
institutional real estate, and Emily Lloyd, the executive vice president
for administration, announced that the renovated building was being
renamed Marie Runyon Court.
Marie Chisholm Morgan was born on March 20, 1915, in Brevard, N.C., on
the fringes of the Nantahala National Forest, to Ralph Morgan, himself a
pharmacist, and Louise (McIntosh) Morgan.
One of her earliest memories was of watching her mother, a college
graduate, getting dressed up to go vote for the first time in November
1920. Her great-aunt founded the Penland School, to help women in
Appalachia market handwoven goods. Her great-uncle was an environmentalist.
In 1937 she earned a degree in psychology from Berea College in
Kentucky, an interracial school founded just before the Civil War. She
pursued graduate studies in psychology at the University of Kentucky and
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After working as a
psychologist in Hartford and at a hospital in Michigan, she decided in
1946 to seek success in New York.
She was hired as a copy editor at The New York Post and married her
boss, Dick Runyon. Their marriage ended in divorce. In addition to their
daughter, she is survived by a stepdaughter, Mabry Runyon McCloud; two
grandsons; and two step-grandsons.
After plans for another marriage and a move to Chicago fell through, Ms.
Runyon and her daughter moved to public housing in South Flushing,
Queens. In 1954, she was hired by the civil liberties union at $70 a
week and rented Apartment 6C at 130 Morningside Drive, near Amsterdam
Avenue and West 122nd Street. (In recent years, she had lived in the
four-bedroom apartment with a home health aide and one or more graduate
She remained in that job until 1963, then worked as director of
development for the listener-supported FM radio station WBAI and later
raised money for the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and
Dr. Benjamin Spock’s National Conference for New Politics. In 1969, she
established Marie Runyon Associates to raise funds for progressive and
In 1974, after battling Columbia through the Morningside Tenants
Committee and the Columbia Tenants Union, she squeaked by the incumbent,
Jesse Gray, to win the Democratic nomination for the Assembly seat
representing West Harlem and Morningside Heights, and went on to win the
In Albany, one of her priorities was prisoners’ rights. In 1975 she
helped win partial clemency from Gov. Hugh L. Carey for Martin Sostre, a
Puerto Rican independence advocate who was serving a 41-year sentence on
questionable drug and riot charges. After serving one term, she was
narrowly defeated in a seven-candidate primary by Edward C. Sullivan.
Her advocacy on behalf of inmates prompted her in 1977 to found the
Harlem Restoration Project, which managed buildings and hired former
inmates to rehabilitate apartments. She served as its director for about
25 years. She also worked with the Harlem Council of Elders and Emmaus
House, a homeless shelter and social service organization.
In 2006, she and 17 other members of the Granny Peace Brigade were
acquitted of blocking access to the armed forces recruiting center in
Michael McKee, whom she inspired to become a tenant organizer, said Ms.
Runyon “had a rage for social, racial and economic justice, but was
nevertheless a kind and gentle soul.”
Ruth W. Messinger, the former Manhattan borough president, called her
“an icon for many people in standing up to the establishment.”
Ms. Runyon believed in standing up by whatever means necessary, arguing
in 1975 in a letter to The New York Times that “when oppression makes
the struggle for survival intolerable, passive acceptance is
irresponsible.” In 2002, when Columbia renamed the apartment house for
Ms. Runyon, she acknowledged that the university, at least, had learned
to consult and to listen.
“We don’t always get our way,” she said, “but neither do they.”
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