Category Archives: Teachers Union

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 (http://cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-15268-6/). Amazon also has the paperback, along with a Kindle edition (http://www.amazon.com/Reds-Blackboard-Communism-Rights-Teachers/dp/023115268X). 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.

Teachers Under Investigation

In early 1953, a New York City teacher called in for questioning confronted Saul Moskoff, the city lawyer who ran the anti-communist investigations from 1951 to 1958.

“Some of this information amazes me very much. I don’t know where it came from….” she told Moskoff, as she challenged his authority to question her loyalty and patriotism.*

The information in her file, “which tends to indicate your membership in the Communist Party,” as Moskoff summarized it for her, in fact came from Mildred Blauvelt, an undercover NY Police Department detective who had infiltrated several Brooklyn Communist Party clubs in the 1940s. “Blondie” and “Operator 51” on the Board’s informant code sheet, she worked with Moskoff in the 1950s. She also testified before HUAC, naming an impressive number of teachers and others, and apparently had extensive contacts with congressional investigators – as did Moskoff.

In addition to officers from NYPD’s Bureau Of Special Services and Investigations (BOSSI) and the police commissioner, the cast of characters included FBI agents and state troopers. Board of Education members, superintendent of schools William Jansen, numerous Board of Education assistant superintendents, and several corporation counsels were also deeply involved in the investigations.

Information went back and forth among these agencies and individuals, revving up along with the Cold War spin machine that set the backdrop for the New York investigations and similar ones in cities across the country. (The History tab at www.dreamersandfighters.com offers a narrative description of the New York investigations and of what drew the teachers, and the Teachers Union, to the left and the CP, along with a timeline.)

Basic procedures called for a letter to go out over Superintendent Jansen’s name, directing teachers under suspicion to report for – uh – “interviews” to determine their fitness to teach the children of New York.

School administrators, including Jansen himself on a few occasions, conducted these sessions at first. It appears that the city’s Law Department became involved as the legal issues became more complex and as the Board deemed it necessary to hold public hearings on teachers who refused to cooperate. Moskoff was assigned to the job in July 1951. He remained until mid-1958, but kept his hand in on occasion as first another assistant corporation counsel, and finally his chief investigator, took over day-to-day management of the investigations.

* File accessed at the Tamiment Library and Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. Additional source materials used in this post are in NY’s Municipal Archives and the National Archives.

Did She or Didn’t She?

Bella Dodd went from left-wing darling and Teachers Union fireball to right-wing darling and left-wing pariah in the few years after she was thrown out of the U.S. Communist Party in the late 1940s.

A friendly repeat performer in numerous congressional hearings during the McCarthy years, she made frequent appearances in the newspapers. Headlines like “100 City Teachers Listed as Commies By Dr. Bella Dodd” in the September 12, 1952 New York World Telegram, along with the suspicions of teachers who had known and worked with her, has made it easy to see her as an informer .

But it may not be that easy. I’ve read a lot of Dodd’s testimony before HUAC, SISS, and other congressional committees, both open session and executive session, at the National Archives. (Some is also available online, along with other information on Dodd, some of it downright mystical, if not outright weird.)

At least from these sessions, it’s not clear whether she named New York teachers. She did name CPUSA leaders and other people she’d known in the party. Much of her testimony consisted of her descriptions of the party’s inner workings, and she repeatedly asserted that CP teachers inevitably slanted their lessons and propagandized their students. Missing so far, though, are those 100 or so commie New York teachers the headlines said she named.

Add to this what Abraham Zitron and Celia Lewis Zitron, both strong leaders in the Teachers Union, told researcher Linda Cirino when she asked about Dodd in a 1979 interview: “It never became clear that she gave names of teachers,” Abraham Zitron said. “She gave a list of names of people in the CP. Maybe she added names of teachers who had already been named.”

At the same time, Dodd provided information, which could likely have included teachers’ names, to Saul Moskoff, the New York assistant corporation counsel who ran the Board of Education investigations for much of the 1950s. On the Board’s informer lists, she is code-named “77” and “Falcon.” Moskoff on several occasions asked congressional investigators not to call his informers and undercover agents to testify before their committees, saying that it would hamper his efforts.

In his Reds at the Blackboard, Clarence Taylor notes that Dodd testified before congress and claimed in her own School of Darkness that the CPUSA manipulated the Teachers Union and essentially turned it into a communist front.

And, possibly, Bella Dodd named teachers in other venues – she did testify at least once before a grand jury – or in congressional testimony I haven’t seen, or in private meetings with investigators. There is more to find out.

Can Teachers Catch A Break?

You have to wonder. Cities have been playing “gotcha!” with teachers for more than a century. The latest rounds use flawed tests and inaccurate evaluation scores to drive education DEform, privatization, and union-busting.

In the early 20th century, in the years surrounding the 1916 founding of the Teachers Union (TU), charges of insufficient Americanism and too much internationalism led to teacher loyalty oaths, dismissals….and union-busting.

Held behind closed doors, the 1940-1942 Rapp-Coudert hearings called in and questioned some 500 college faculty and staff members and students. The goals were to route out communists and others perceived as dangerous subversives from public schools, colleges, and universities….and union-busting.

With time out for WW II, the investigations ramped up again in the late 1940s, and continued into the early 1960s. Cold War chill set in on teachers and other civil servants who were communists, socialists, or otherwise on the left. Or none of those. In New York, and cities around the country, local officials and often police departments got help from the FBI in deeply intrusive searches for names and more names. Once again the goals centered on getting rid of people with annoying political views. …and union-busting.

The parallels to current events – in education and in the broader political world – are all too clear Teachers, and other public workers, are in the political cross-hairs again, for still having reasonably strong unions and because of the persistence of school problems. Rather than attacking the root cause of those problems – poverty and its related social conditions — public officials in both major parties these days are teaming up with for-profit private interests against the public schools. From Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida, Chris Christie in New Jersey, and other (mostly) Republican governors to the likes of Arne Duncan at the Department of Education and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, the anti-education, anti-teacher private interests continue their crusades. Once again the goals are diverting attention from the impact of poverty. …and union-busting.

The more things (don’t) change…..