My Cousin Sigmund Livingston, The Founder of the Anti-Defamation League

Although traditional genealogy research tools gave me many of the bare bones details of the life of Sigmund Livingston, it wasn’t until I googled his name after reading his obituary that I learned that he had founded the Anti-Defamation League and was quite an exceptional person. He thus merits his own separate post.

We’ve already seen that Sigmund was a lawyer. According to a biography published on the McLean County Museum of History website, he graduated from the law school at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington in 1894 and was second in his class. After graduating, he and William R. Bach, who had ranked first in the class, became law partners in Bloomington. Their practice was primarily devoted to civil matters.

According to the museum’s biography:1

In numerous newspaper articles, Sigmund was described as extremely intelligent and well respected. One article claimed, “he gives promise of becoming one of the ablest as well as the most prominent attorney in the state.” However, Livingston gave a personal account in his book Must Men Hate? of how, outside of dear friends, he had a “general distrust to overcome” because locals had never known of a Jewish lawyer when he was beginning his career. Livingston recalled that after a few years, he had earned their trust.

Sigmund was involved in many civic activities in Bloomington. He was active in Republican politics and a loyal supporter of the American Red Cross and of efforts to support America and its soldiers in World War I. But he is best remembered for his efforts to support Jewish Americans and to fight anti-semitism. In 1894 he became president of the Bloomington chapter of B’nai Brith, and in 1899 he was elected vice-president of the 6th district of B’nai Brith.

The museum biography described in detail the experience that Sigmund had that motivated him to become more involved in the fight against anti-semitism:

Shortly after the turn of the century, he had an experience that impacted the trajectory of the rest of his life. When he was in Chicago on business, Livingston decided to drop into a vaudeville theater to while away a couple of hours before an appointment. The show began like many others with the usual trained dog acts, jugglers, and acrobats. However, when the show turned to a couple of comedians with a “routine of bum jokes, told in dialect and at the expense of Jews,” Livingston had enough and walked out of the theater. It was this life changing event that made him decide then and there that he would try to do something about the prejudicial caricaturing of Jews.

Livingston was most disgusted with the portrayal of Jewish people in vaudeville shows and films. ….Following the show, Livingston spoke with the managers to make them aware of their cruel and inaccurate depictions of Jews. Surprisingly, the managers were willing to make a change despite them not being aware of their offense.

Believing that publicity would help to alleviate prejudice, in 1908, Livingston established the Publicity Committee of the Publicity Bureau within the B’nai B’rith, which evolved into the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) five years later. The Publicity Committee, based in Bloomington, was created to consider the problem of the defamation of Jews and named Livingston its chairman.

The website for The Pantagraph, the local Bloomington newspaper, published an article on July 11, 2010, about Sigmund and included this description of his involvement in the fight against anti-semitism and the founding and growth of the Anti-Defamation League in 1913.2

[In 1912] Livingston embarked on a lengthy tour of Europe and the Middle East, with stops in Vienna, Jerusalem, Cairo and elsewhere. In London he delivered an address titled “The Condition of the Jew in America,” and in Berlin, at an international meeting of B’nai B’rith, he spoke on the moral necessity of intervening in the internal affairs of sovereign nations “when humanity and civilization dictate.”

The Anti-Defamation League was established in Bloomington in October 1913 as an arm of the B’nai B’rith, with Livingston as its first director.

The museum biography noted that:

The organization had a fairly humble start. The ADL was established in the First National Bank building in Chicago. Livingston started out with only a $200 budget and two desks in his law office, but the ADL quickly grew into a nationwide organization. Members, led by Livingston, planned to campaign along three lines of education, vigilance, and legislation. Livingston believed that hate and fear could be overcome through education and had faith in “the essential goodness of the American people.”

As we saw, Sigmund married his wife Hilda in 1918, and their son Richard was born in 1920. In 1929, after practicing law in Bloomington for 35 years, Sigmund and his family moved to the Chicago area, where he continued to practice law. He was still practicing law there in 1940.3 Here is a photograph of Sigmund and Hilda taken around this time.

Sigmund and Hilda (Freiler) Livingston c. 1940. Courtesy of Art Zemon, found at https://genealogy.zemon.name/gramps/ppl/0/d/b21ea1d3dd971e202d0.html

He also authored ten books as well as continuing his work with the ADL and his other civic activities. His best known book, entitled Must Men Hate, was published in 1944.

Sadly, Sigmund died just two years later on June 13, 1946, at age 73.4 According to his obituary, he was a “leading Chicago corporate counsel” and had been in failing health for the past year. He was survived by his wife Hilda and their son Richard, who was at that time studying at Duke University after serving four years in the Army Air Force.5

Richard Livingston graduated from Duke in 1947, and the following year on May 30, 1948, he married Miriam “Mimi” Spector in New York City. Mimi, the daughter of Samuel and Tessie Spector, had graduated from Wellesley College.6 Richard and Mimi settled in New York and had three children.

Richard’s mother Hilda died February 20, 1962, in Highland Park, Illinois.7

Richard became a successful business owner and moved from New York City to Scarsdale in 1959, where he and his family lived until 1986. He later moved to Larchmont, New York, and also had a home in Boca Raton, Florida. He was not only successful in business; he was active in civic affairs in many different organizations as well as numerous philanthropic endeavors. He died while vacationing in Turkey on October 5, 1994, when he was 74. He was survived by his wife Mimi, their children, and grandchildren.8

Sigmund Livingston was the third of the eight children of Dora and Meyer to be born, and he was the third to die, following his brother Maurice and sister Rosalie. He was born in Germany and came to the US as a young boy with his mother. He was a successful lawyer in Bloomington and Chicago. He definitely made a lasting mark on Bloomington, but also should be remembered by all Jews everywhere for his work with the Anti-Defamation League, which continues today its hard work of fighting not only anti-semitism but all forms of prejudice and discrimination.

 


  1. A version of the biography that provides citations to its sources can be found at https://mchistory.org/perch/resources/biographies/sigmund-and-hilda-livingston-2021.pdf 
  2. “Bloomington Lawyer Led Ant-Semitism Fight,” The Pantagraph, July 11, 2010, found at https://pantagraph.com/special-sections/news/history-and-events/bloomington-lawyer-led-anti-semitism-fight/article_19b023ee-8c8e-11df-badf-001cc4c03286.html 
  3. Sigmund Livingston and family, 1930 US census, Year: 1930; Census Place: New Trier, Cook, Illinois; Page: 24A; Enumeration District: 2220; FHL microfilm: 2340238,
    Ancestry.com. 1930 United States Federal Census; 1940 US census, Year: 1940; Census Place: Chicago, Cook, Illinois; Roll: m-t0627-00929; Page: 1B; Enumeration District: 103-257, Ancestry.com. 1940 United States Federal Census 
  4. Sigmund Livingston, Birth Date: abt 1873, Death Date: 13 Jun 1946, Death Place: Highland Park, Lake, Illinois, Death Age: 73, Gender: Male, Father Name: Mayer Livingston, Mother Name: Dora Blamenfeld, Spouse Name: Hilda F., FHL Film Number: 1991309, Ancestry.com. Illinois, U.S., Deaths and Stillbirths Index, 1916-1947 
  5. “Sigmund Livingston Dies in Highland Park,” The Pantagraph,
    Bloomington, Illinois, 15 Jun 1946, Sat • Page 3 
  6. “Bride of Former Bloomingtonian,” The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Illinois
    01 Jun 1948, Tue • Page 6 
  7. Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/9198509/hilda-v-livingston : accessed 03 November 2021), memorial page for Hilda V Freiler Livingston (25 Apr 1891–20 Feb 1962), Find a Grave Memorial ID 9198509, citing Jewish Cemetery, Bloomington, McLean County, Illinois, USA ; Maintained by Robin Farley Dixson Coon (contributor 46558224) . 
  8. “Richard M. Livingston, businessman, philanthropist,” The Daily Times
    Mamaroneck, New York, 11 Oct 1994, Tue • Page 6