Check It Out…

“Teachers On Trial” is the title of an article I wrote for the Winter 2016 issue of New York Archives, the magazine of the New York State Archives,  published by the Archives Partnership Trust. It describes the background of the McCarthy-era teacher investigations in New York City. Drawing from archival materials, it goes into the impact the investigations had on the teachers they targeted and details the methods used by the investigators. Illustrations include photographs  and a sample of the cards and letters sent to the Board of Education and the Teachers Union. You’ll soon be able to see the full article over at the Dreamers & Fighters web site, where it will be joining the rest of the information on the site.

New York Archives is a pretty terrific magazine. You can get a look at its web site,


Two New Books On the Need for Unions

Not satisfied with beating up on Wisconsin public worker unions, organized labor nemesis Scott Walker is taking his anti-labor antics national. He made a big splash in Iowa this past week, at the Republican I- wanna-be-president confab.

Walker’s attacks on teachers and other state and city workers largely built his reputation and helped position him to make a play for national attention. So it’s especially encouraging, at a time when he and other conservatives are looking to weaken labor, to see the publication of two new pro-union books, both recently reviewed favorably in the New York Times.

Only One Thing Can Save Us; Why Our Country Need a New Kind of Labor Movement, by Chicago labor lawyer Thomas Geoghagen, defends his city’s teachers against the likes of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the education DEformers and their efforts to essentially privatize public education via more charter schools. Equally important, says Nelson Lichtenstein, a UCLA Santa Barbara history professor who wrote the Times review, he goes on to note the need to strengthen legal protections for unions in the U.S., and perhaps use Germany’s unions and their relationships with employers as a model here.

James Green, a University of Massachusetts emeritus history professor, has written The Devil Is Here in These Hills; West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom. The book recounts the control the mine owners had over the workers’ lives and the bloody early 20th-century battles in Mingo and Logan counties. Mother Jones and Eugene Debs, among other labor leaders figure in the decades-long battles, notes Times reviewer Dwight Garner. So did a song by Blind Alfred Reed, likely familiar to people who know old-timey and bluegrass music, which asks a question all too relevant today; “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”

Incestuous Relationships ?

Someone at the Board of Education, likely one of the early investigators, had a busy 2 days in Washington on January 24-25, 1951. A copy of the January 26, 1951 draft report on the visit in New York City’s Municipal Archives has a lot of detail and was “Respectfully submitted,” but there is no indication who “respectfully submitted” it or to whom it was addressed. Even so, it drops a bunch of names while describing visits to a who’s who of federal agencies and congressional committees engaged in the ever-expanding hunt for communists. It gives more than a hint of the incestuous relationships among local, state, and federal investigators as Cold War politics ginned up the New York investigations.

Saul Moskoff entered the picture a half-year later, over the summer. Records in the city’s archives make it clear that he wasted no time in building relationships with congressional committees, state troopers, New York police undercovers, and of course the FBI. I recently got almost 1,000 pages of FBI records via the National Archives some 4 or 5 years after I put in a FOIA request for them to the FBI. References to Moskoff, and working with him, are scattered through the pages.

Also in the Municipal Archives, there’s a “Dear Saul” letter from FBI agent Leo Conroy in August 1953, when he’d been assigned to FBI headquarters after working on anti-communist and security cases in New York. “I am sorry I didn’t get to see you before I left, however I do want to say it was a pleasure to work with you and John,” Conroy wrote. (“John” is likely John A. Dunne, Moskoff’s main investigator for most of his time at the Board.)

Conroy was 103 on the investigators’ Source Code list of police undercovers, FBI agents, and assorted informers, including teachers. Other specific FBI agents had source codes 101,102, 104, 105, and 106; 100 was labeled “genl,” and perhaps used to reference FBI information that didn’t come from specific agents the New York investigators worked with.(The Source Code list is in the Municipal Archives.)

Ralph Fasanella Exhibits

From the time he first started painting in the mid-1940s, Ralph Fasanella got his message across — whether the subject was working people, unions, the Rosenbergs, or anything else political. His colorful canvases draw you into the stories they tell, and they make you think.

I had a wonderful time seeing 19 of Fasanella’s best-known paintings, and several of his drawings, at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art on a recent trip to Washington D.C., where they’ll be until August 3. The museum web site has a lot of information. (  After closing in D.C., the exhibit heads for New York City’s American Folk Art Museum from September 2 to November 30, where it will commemorate Fasanella’s Labor Day birthday.  The AFL-CIO, meanwhile, is showing still more Fasanella works at its D.C. headquarters through August 1.  ( I’m planning to get there on another D.C. trip at the end of July.



Let’s Digress…

…’cause I can’t resist mentioning that in reporting on a 3-year cheating scandal  on tests in the Philadelphia schools, the New York Times  noted that investigators uncovered “statistical evidence of improbable results.” Delicious, that phrase, isn’t it?

The article ran on January 24, so apologies for not posting sooner. But better late than never….


Setting the Stage for Rapp-Coudert and the ‘50s

Heading into the 1920s and the Lusk Laws, the Board of Education’s demands for loyalty, patriotism, and adherence to democracy were matched by Teachers Union assertions that teachers were loyal, patriotic, and democratic. Some New York Times headlines in 1922 could almost provide an outline of the conflicts between the union and the board:

  • “Teachers Decry Secret Reports”
  • “Teachers Secretly Quizzed on Loyalty”
  • “Demands Justice For Two Teachers”

Those 2 teachers were Eugene Jackson and Austin M. Works, and the board was withholding the required certificates as to their loyalty and character that would enable them to continue teaching under the Lusk Laws. Both had served in the army during the war, and both were then teaching at De Witt Clinton. They were among several teachers caught up in the same bind.

Jackson, a modern languages teacher, kept his job, as did Wood. Both are mentioned in school news coverage in subsequent years. Jackson played an active and public role in the Teachers Union through the 1930s and 1940s. He was among the teachers caught in the mid-century probe, retired in 1952 soon after Saul Moskoff took over the investigation.

But the hunt for radical teachers in the schools continued through the 1920s and beyond; in effect it didn’t stop. Governor Al Smith signed the bill repealing the Lusk Laws in the spring of 1923. Even before he did, as the conflict over the repeal escalated, a Times headline proclaimed “Red Outbreak Tale Told to Governor.” And, after the repeal, in 1925: “Radicalism Taints Schools, Says Doty.” (Doty was dean of De Witt Clinton.)

With both communism and fascism ramping up overseas, the following decades saw the board and the news coverage far more concerned about the red menace, even as fascist forces grew more powerful in Germany.

The Beginning, Continued

Teacher loyalty and patriotism remained fascinating subjects for the Board of Education well after the 1917 dismissals and transfers, going into the 1920s and the post WWI Lusk Laws time frame.

In 1919, the board dismissed history teacher Benjamin Glassberg, charging he had told students that Bolshevism wasn’t so bad and that school teachers were not permitted to tell the truth about the situation in Russia. (Glassberg taught at Brooklyn’s Commercial High School, although it appears that many, if not most, of the teachers caught in this early phase of the 20th century Red Scare were at DeWitt Clinton.)

The New York Times reported Glassberg’s dismissal on May 29, 1919. On June 20, the paper carried an article on a test given to students – but in this case to evaluate their knowledge of WWI and Bolshevism: and where and from whom they learned what they knew. Not much changes, does it – except the tests here examined patriotism rather than reading and arithmetic.  The board was after anyone and anyplace, teachers included, who might be responsible for failing to instill the proper patriotism and loyalty in impressionable minds.

“We are desirous of finding out to what extent Bolshevist ideas have been impressed on the students of  our high schools,” a letter to high school principals, sent out by William L. Ettinger, the city superintendent of schools, said. No pupils would be penalized, assistant superintendent John L. Tildsley wrote in a letter to the principals. Rather than being punished, they would get “such instruction as may be necessary.” As for the teachers, Tildsley said, “the data will  be used only to indicate the measure of the teachers’ opportunity and obligation to assist pupils with reference to facts and problems of vital importance.” (As noted in the previous post, Tildsley later changed his views and came to support the Teachers Union.)

The extent of the board’s concern is also reflected in the tests given in the elementary schools. They were keyed to the board’s assessments of how radical or Bolshevik-y different districts were. “It was believed that the answers to the queries in some of these alleged radical districts would prove interesting,” the Times article reported.

The TU passed resolutions and held protest meetings against the examinations.

In the Beginning….

The more research I’ve done, the more I’ve come to see pretty much the entire 20th century as a single Red Scare, one with similar, but increasingly sophisticated investigative methods and procedures.

The charges against three suspended teachers at De Witt Clinton HS included “holding views subversive of good discipline in the schools and which undermine good citizenship.” Another six teachers from the school were transferred to six other schools for what the Board of Education called “the good of the service.”

The suspended teachers were Samuel A. Schmalhausen, Thomas Mufson, and A. Henry Schneer. All three were charged with variations on the theme of being insufficiently patriotic and too neutral in comparing American democracy with other political theories in their classrooms. Schmalhausen, for example, failed “to develop in the students under his control instinctive respect for the President, for the Governor, and other Federal, State, and municipal officers.”

Held at 3PM on a November Thursday before the High School Committee (chaired by John Whalen), the trial resulted in the dismissals of all three teachers. Associate superintendent of schools John L. Tildsley# furnished the information and evidence that assistant corporation counsel Charles McIntyre used to draw up the charges.

The Teachers Union, in turn, met to draw up charges against Tildsley, and announced plans to launch an effort to raise $10,000 to defend the three teachers. Other planned  TU activities centered on public meetings and speeches in support of the dismissed teachers, as well as those who were transferred.

All this, and much more, was reported in The New York Times – on November 20, 1917. On December 20, the Times reported that the full Board of Education had sustained the dismissals. Board actions on teachers continued well into the Lusk Law/mid-1920s, and the Times continued its reporting on the issues involved. With somewhat different phrasing of charges and issues, the parallels to later years are unmistakable.

#A 1950s article in Teacher News reported that Tildsley later rethought his role in these dismissals and suspensions and became a union supporter. Also worth noting is that in 1937, also reported in the Times, Schmalhausen filed an appeal with the Board of Education, seeking to be reinstated.  Celia Lewis Zitron discussed the post-WWI  red hunts and their impact on teachers in her book The New York City Teachers Union 1916-1964; pages 164-167 specifically cover the three techers noted in this post.

Reds at the Blackboard Now Out in Paperback

Reds At the Blackboard, Clarence Taylor’s clear-eyed, definitive political history of the New York City Teachers Union and its role in the development of social unionism, is now out in paperback from the publisher, Columbia University Press ( Amazon also has the paperback, along with a Kindle edition ( Taylor traces the TU’ s history from its 1916 founding to its disbanding in 1964, covering its ties to the Communist Party, but also, and especially important, its role in fighting for teachers’ rights, children’s rights, and for racial equality and civil rights. The TU championed the teaching of black history and campaigned for helping children living in poverty. Taylor’s study brings the TU, its leaders, and its members back to life as he tells their story.

A Slight Detour…

…because, well, Bella Dodd. And SISS counsel Jay Sourwine. And that right flank in the Republican Party back in the 1950s that looked at Republican moderates sort of the way current Tea Party types look at whoever passes for a Republican moderate these days. Back then, though, the grown-ups in the GOP were in charge of most party decisions.

That helped a lot as two icons of the moderate/liberal GOP, Clifford Case of New Jersey and Jacob Javits of New York, were preparing their first runs for the Senate. President Eisenhower – and Richard Nixon – supported Javits and Case as they dealt with the highly public attempts to smear them. While taking hits from their own party, both also found themselves targeted by Democrats all too eager to show off their own patriotism by going after communists. So, yes, just a slight detour: the New York Board of Education investigations reflect the overall political left/right splits in both parties and in the larger political environment.

Case was running to fill a vacant seat in 1954. He’d been in the House, and was president of the civil liberties group Fund for the Republic, when GOP leaders urged him to go for the open seat. His open criticisms of  Joe McCarthy drew angry responses from the senator’s supporters, and the far right within the Republican party tried to get him off the ballot. Then the Newark Star-Ledger quoted Dodd saying that his sister Adelaide Case was active in CP fronts, including efforts in 1943 to get Morris Schappes released from prison.* Turned out the Adelaide Case Dodd knew in 1943  was actually a college professor who had died in 1948 – and the Star-Ledger and other media never bothered to check the facts of a carefully prepared smear campaign. Case delivered a televised response on October 17, and was elected to the Senate in November.

Javits tumbled down the rabbit hole in 1956, courtesy of Dodd, Sourwine, the usual suspects, and assorted rumors. Then New York’s attorney general, he was on the brink of getting the GOP nod to run for Herbert Lehman’s Senate seat when not-so-whispered rumors of a 1946 meeting with Dodd (while she was still in the CP and TU), contacts with the American Labor Party, and fuzzy charges of seeking communist support in his runs for office after he left the Army in 1946 threatened his chances. Rumor suggested that Sourwine was the sole apparent public source for the rumors, although Dodd had testified before SISS in June. She had named several political figures as people she’d known in the CP, but committee chief counsel Robert Morris had refused to say whether she’d mentioned Javits. Javits testified before SISS, denying seeking communist or ALP help, and saying Dodd was one of many people he’s met with as he sought information prior to his run for office. Committee members weren’t all that convinced, but Eisenhower and the New York GOP were. Once again, as with Case, the grown-ups prevailed.

Sourwine, by the way, was also running in the Nevada Democratic Senate primary. He came in last. Herblock did a delicious cartoon on the outcome. It showed him crushed by a rockslide, with an attached labeled that said “smear candidate,” and holding a pail of liquid saying attack on attorney general Javits.


*Schappes was a New York college professor jailed for perjury after acknowledging his own CP membership but denying that there were still others at City College, where he was a tutor. He was the only person jailed in the 20 or so years of the investigations, which ran from Rapp-Coudert in 1940-42 to 1960.

Information sourced from New York Times, Time Magazine, and other news sources.