Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone

Photo by Purple Slog | CC BY 2.0

On a bright, clear afternoon in July we’re finishing up lunch on the deck of a brew-pub in Colorado.  The polite and sunny demeanor of teenagers at a nearby table suggests a church outing. Elayne is dressed in a coral-colored golf ensemble.

She and I have serious catching up to do, but instead launch into a replay of the familiar . . . I’m on my third coffee, Elayne her second Coca-Cola.

Some topics are of course off-limits; my husband says please don’t mention Israel. She’s describing a chain of events leading to her acquisition of a free Coach handbag, when Charlie suddenly nudges me. He says, “Isn’t that Colin Powell sitting over there?”

“Where?” I see what looks like an overweight middle-aged man, somehow familiar. He turns his head and the profile is unmistakable. I’d been reading that he was in the area and had to be hospitalized briefly for altitude sickness.

“Charlie thinks that might be Colin Powell sitting over there behind you,” I say, but she goes right on with her Coach story. Charlie mutters hurriedly, “It’s best not to appear as if you recognize someone like that until you get up to leave, then smile or nod in a dignified manner.”

The young people at the next table leave without seeming to recognize him. We don’t stare; he gives us a friendly smile as we are leaving. . . . Elayne takes no note of it.

Back in the middle of the last century, she and I became best friends for life until gradually we both came to see we were each no longer who we were, but the fantasy carried us well into the teens.

Every day after school we take the elevator to the 10th floor apartment where she lives with her mother and aunt and run to the refrigerator and grab a Coke; Saturday we pick a movie to see; my father takes us to ball games. He’s a Communist. We both know this but don’t discuss it.

“I always knew they were Communists, but had no idea until I was 11 or so my father was a fired teacher.”

“Really?” she says. “I always knew that. My mother watched the hearings on television.”

I see him driving a cab and wonder why he doesn’t wave. The people who cross the street to avoid him are careful to be kind to me. But when we encounter my middle-aged teachers we’re often greeted with ebullient camaraderie.

Sometimes we’ll walk over to the Delancey Street apartment of Mary Foley Grossman, the former president of the Philadelphia Teachers Union—characterized at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings as a well-known Communist meeting place where the teachers may have conspired to overthrow the government. Mary’s husband, Roy, a portrait painter, has a workspace set up on one side of the living room.  Mary looks at me, coughs, and smiles as Roy molds the silver foil from Hershey’s kisses into tiny stemmed wine glasses.

In November 1953, the Philadelphia Teachers Union—purged from the CIO in 1950 as a Communist-dominated union—its membership down to only 200 teachers–is now ripe for a full-dress HUAC investigation into subversive activities in the school system— a local sideshow in the traveling hunt for Communist subversives.

In three days of hearings broadcast live from the federal courthouse–with the VFW and the American Legion on hand as loyal shock troops—33 PTU members are called to testify.

The charismatic ex-Communist turned government informant Bella Dodd–a onetime Hunter College professor and past president of the New York Teachers Union—first presents some expert testimony concerning Communist methods of duping teachers.

Then, with cameras rolling, each teacher declines to affirm for Representative Velde’s committee the names of acquaintances who may have been associated with Communist activities a decade or two back—invoking the Fifth Amendment or the First Amendment or both.

Many of these same teachers had been questioned in advance of the HUAC hearings by the superintendent of schools, Dr. Hoyer—at private meetings–on certain information in his possession (from anonymous sources) bearing on their loyalty. Most had refused to answer—or demanded lawyers.

Shortly after the HUAC hearings end, the teachers are fired. It’s not on the basis of the Pennsylvania Loyalty Act (the Pechan act)—because the public nature of the HUAC hearings would have violated the safeguards provided under this law. Instead the Board of Ed bases its authority to dismiss them upon the Teacher Tenure Act–“on the ground of incompetency because of insubordination and lack of frankness, candor, and intellectual honesty.”

My father and three other teachers had never been called before Dr. Hoyer–but are fired for insubordination anyway. At his appeal hearing before the Board of Ed, my father is questioned about using his Fifth Amendment privilege before HUAC—He says that he believed the Committee was operating under unfair rules; he was afraid he would be held in contempt if he did not name others (and he could honestly point out a thousand people back in the late thirties who had attended meetings because of their interest in the support of Loyalist Spain or the fight against racial discrimination—which were considered innocent at the time but now considered communistic because Communists or the Communist party participated in these activities). He testified he had not been a member of the Communist party for the past decade; when the Committee asked him whether he had a specific card number in 1945—he used the privilege as to that question: he did not even remember having any card, let alone a number. “I think I could very easily entrap myself if I began to talk as I am talking here—and lawyers have said this can send you to jail for a year.” He also states that he is not nor was he ever interested in the overthrow of the United States by force and violence, and that he never heard at any meeting of the Party which he attended discussion of violence with relation to anything . . .

The Philadelphia Board of Ed denies his appeal, citing his use of the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying before Representative Velde’s committee. My father (along with three others) appeal this to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and then to Philadelphia City Court–where the liberal anti-Communist justice Michael Musmanno (one of the sponsors of the Pechan Act) upholds their firing.

Harry Levitan, a prominent civil rights attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, takes their case, In 1960, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturns Musmanno’s decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court decides not to review it. So the jobs and pensions of the four are restored–a bittersweet victory: Most of the other teachers—including my father’s best friend–never get their jobs back.

When my father returns to the school system, he selects the school where his friend Mary Grossman worked as a school librarian for 25 years—but things have changed drastically from the days when he wrote for the CIO Teacher: Hired as a guidance counselor, he is regularly used to fill in for absent teachers.

Anyway, by this time Elayne and I have skipped the second half of the sixth grade and gone on to the Masterman laboratory and demonstration school, where we do 7th and 8th grades in a single year.  And from there, it’s on to Girls High, where (the better off) students are tracked into special enriched “Z” classes—a school within a school. And at the height of the civil rights movement in the South—at this elite, supposedly “feminist” institution–many African-American students are still being advised to prepare for vocations, not college. Elayne and I, now drifting apart, remain official best friends till the bitter end of high school. She is given the mayor’s scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, and that’s the last I see of her for a while.

In the early ‘70s we’re once again in touch—but it seems we now have little in common. She is putting her husband through medical school, and having a baby. I am working as an office temp and attending a socialist feminist study group (the topic is wages for housework), and on the city’s streets, seethingly hostile truckers, construction workers, and many other right-leaning men are spewing insults at any woman who appears to be a feminist or hippie. (One of the women in the socialist feminist group, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party working in construction, dies after falling off a building, and it is assumed though unproven that her coworkers pushed her—a not unheard-of practice in the trade.)

To my mother the solution for this is to spruce up my appearance. She reverts to the bromides of her Aunt Mary: “A good posture is free (you can’t buy it). . . . Its elegance can show through cutoff jeans as well as a Schiaperelli.” Mom, I have scoliosis. My father says to always have a smile on my face; it doesn’t matter what kind of smile–even if it is a goofy smile–any kind of smile.

He owns about 100 books on Zen Buddhism, and my mother is the only person I know who is reading novels written by the awful Hermann Hesse–and now I’m the one reading Marx and Lenin.

There must have been a spark there once, I think. “As a child,” she said, “I watched the strikes in my neighborhood—and always, always sided with the workers. One of my cousins from Reading, Pennsylvania, converted me to socialism—I believed in the dictatorship of the proletariat—and went out looking for the Communist party.”

She also acted at Hedgerow Theatre, one of the nation’s oldest repertory companies, where she remembers Langston Hughes “asleep on a mat on the floor with a little mouse curled up in his sleeve. Ca 1931?” Jasper Deeter, Hedgerow’s director, arranges for her to take a screen test and—seeing this as both personal betrayal and a betrayal to the theatre–she storms out, never to return. But leaves her beret, which Deeter keeps.

She serves as executive secretary of the New Theatre of Philadelphia throughout the entire “Popular Front” period of the 1930s, directing and acting in pro-labor plays and helping unions to dramatize their workplace struggles. After the Federal Theatre Project’s funding is cut off by Congress, the New Theatre picks up some of the material it has already developed. Medicine, an angry plea for socialized medicine–presented in a form of dramatic expression known as the Living Newspaper–opens at the New Theatre to rave reviews in April 1940.

(The conservative Dies Committee [HUAC], established in 1938, first set its sights on the National Theatre Project [a New Deal program sponsored by the WPA] for its left-wing tone. During the hearings, one congressman ferrets out Christopher Marlowe–the 16th century playwright and contemporary of Shakespeare–as an obvious Red.)

In the fall of 1940, the New Theatre League takes over Commonwealth College in Mena, Arkansas —trying to start a Southern New Theatre School there—with Marc Blitzstein, John Houseman, Langston Hughes, Frederick Koch, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Clifford Odets, Irwin Shaw, Lee Strasberg, and Orson Welles lending their names to the effort. But the local authorities shut down the school; its assets are seized; my mother and her associates hauled in before “a woman judge chewing gum, standing in for her husband” . . . (Here her description trails off.)

By 1935 Communists are a leading force in the American Federation of Teachers. AF of L president William Green, believing they have no place in the labor movement, demands their expulsion from the New York local. But at its 1935 national convention, the membership rejects Green’s redbaiting.

Inspired by industrial unionism, Communist teachers have been fighting since the 1920s to build an inclusive union representing not just teachers but also substitutes and all school workers. (As a tiny faction in the TU, they were the only ones consistently defending teachers from the school authorities–and going head-to-head with an entrenched union leadership that emphasized “professionalism” and collaboration with administrators.) Under their leadership in the late ‘30s, the TU becomes a social justice movement struggling to improve not only teachers’ wages and working conditions but also the lives of the children and their parents (see Clarence Taylor’s Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights and the New York City Teachers Union).

In 1938, unionized college teachers in NYC form a separate AFT local in which the Communists also win leadership (an issue in the fight is their attitude toward the Soviet Union, Stalin’s dictatorship, and the purge trials). John Dewey, an AFT member, is determined (along with Sidney Hook and many others) to break the Communists’ control, and agrees to co-found the Committee for Cultural Freedom for this purpose.

When the Soviet Union signs a mutual nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany in the summer of 1939, forces opposed to the Communists finally manage to gain control. George Counts, a conservative NY teacher (aided by Dewey and the CCF) assumes the national leadership in 1939 elections that also attempt to oust the Communists (but for now the membership votes this down five to one).

When hundreds sign a petition denouncing the CCF’s equating Stalinism to Nazism–Dewey himself resigns from the organization believing that too much of its effort is focused on opposing Communism rather than fascism. By this time Counts has already launched an investigation into the Communist-led locals.

In the fall of 1939 and throughout 1940, liberal organizations and unions adopt “Communazi” resolutions barring members of both the CP and fascist groups from belonging or holding office. Amalgamated Clothing Workers president Sidney Hillman seizes the opportunity to try to ban Communists from holding office in the CIO.

For the entire two-year duration of the pact, American Communists face violence and harassment on a scale not seen since the 1920 Palmer raids (see Maurice Isserman, Which Side Were You On).

As Peggy Dennis, wife of party leader Eugene Dennis, reflects in her The Autobiography of an American Communist, “Rightly we were seen as reacting to Moscow’s changed course, not our own. Our criticisms of Roosevelt and the New Deal and our opposition to his third-term campaign were too similar to those of the pro-Hitler, ‘America First’ reactionaries whose fascist sympathies placed them in opposition to the President’s course in foreign affairs.

“ . . . With each step-up to tie U.S. production to British war needs, the Administration nibbled away at its own New Deal social programs. Labor welcomed the opening up of jobs in war industries . . . but resented the new conservative positions of a government it had come to feel was on its side. . . .

“With his former coalition allies in disarray, the President relied now on the Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans to put through his cutbacks in social legislation and appropriations, and he gave free rein to a counteroffensive.”

He turns a blind eye as the Dies Committee goes on a “witch-hunt rampage” in Boston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, subpoenaing CP officials and throwing them in jail for refusing to turn over their membership lists, breaking into headquarters and into bookstores, and raiding files.

Little Dies committees are set up by the state legislatures. In New York City, the Rapp-Coudert Committee investigating City College results in the dismissal of 35 professors (and 11 resignations)—all based on its designation of the CP as a political “conspiracy” and not a party.

The party’s general secretary, Earl Browder, is arrested and sent to jail—where he remains for three years (on a passport violation); other Communist leaders are also jailed, a dozen charged with illegal recruitment of volunteers for the Spanish civil war.

Trying to get Browder on the ballot as a presidential candidate to run against Roosevelt in 1940, the party faces mob and vigilante violence; canvassers are charged under criminal syndicalism laws, state employees lose their jobs for signing Communists’ petitions. In many states newspapers and the American Legion publish lists of signers, who in many cases are fired.

In Pennsylvania, 74 petition canvassers are arrested and convicted on charges of conspiracy, false swearing, and pretense–and receive jail sentences of up to two years.

Congress passes the Smith Act–the first peacetime federal sedition law since 1798—followed by the Voorhis Act (growing out of proposals made to the Dies Committee by ACLU attorney Morris Ernst, it requires all organizations subject to foreign control to register with the Justice Department). In response to the Alien Registration McCarran Walters Act, the CP drops 4000 noncitizens from its membership rolls. (Browder is committed to maintaining the party as a legal and open political movement.)

The Daily Worker cuts its ties with the party; the party ends its affiliation with the Communist International and goes partially underground.

At the beginning of 1940, my father takes a yearlong sabbatical from teaching and my parents spend most of the time in Mexico. I don’t see how this can be unrelated to the political climate—although the only explanation given to me 20 years later is that he learned he could take a year off with half pay.

In 1941, the AFT, by majority vote (although without the required two-thirds of its membership), revokes the charters of its three Communist-led locals in Philadelphia and New York. The new AFT local that is formed in Philadelphia explicitly excludes Communists from membership.

The three expelled locals are reorganized by the CIO into the Public Workers of America.

On June 20, 1941 (two days before Nazi Germany attacks the Soviet Union), the American Communist party abruptly ends its antiwar picketing, its calls for a “people’s peace,” and its rallying cries against participation in an imperialist war–as if just now finding out that a people’s war (in which Communists have played a leading role in organizing opposition to the occupation) has been raging in Europe for over a year.

Temporarily overwhelmed by her assignment to stage a huge pageant for Russian War relief at the Philadelphia Convention Center, my mother ultimately succeeds in organizing a sold-out event and delivering the proceeds to the designated bankers.

When I ask her, “Why did you quit the party?” she says, “The war was over. Everyone was leaving after the war.” There are no apologies, recriminations, or further explanation; she is not chatty. She never formally resigned, nor was she expelled as a “Browderist.” (As late as June 28, 1947, she headed Philadelphia’s Stage for Action unit. Her paying job was bookkeeper at “an assumed Communist hub, the Locust Bookshop in Philadelphia.” [*Stage for Action, U.S. Social Activist Theatre in the 1940s, by Chrystyna Dail, November 2016]).

I have no idea what they think about Stalin (until, reading some of my mother’s private jottings after she died, I see the extent to which disillusionment and despair poisoned the remainder of her life). After the end of the war, everyone expounds upon the shocking parallels between the brutality of the state that (belatedly) saved Europe from Hitler (after circumstances made them feel forced into a two-year alignment) and the actual fascist state that perpetrated the war–those with the worst motives seizing the moment to reward the devastated country not with gratitude and needed aid but a resurrection of the Gehlen organization. Whatever their questions or misgivings my parents don’t reveal any of them to me. Unwilling to burden me with their problems, their mistakes, they’re determined I’m to have a normal, “happy” childhood—and maybe take this too far. . .

Browder said Communism is 20th century Americanism, which my father still actually quoted—isn’t that sappy, isn’t that social patriotism, Dad? He used to point to Yugoslavia on the map in my room, and say the man in charge there is independent and not taking orders from anybody.

Today they seem like old childhood friends who died a long time ago.

And those once the till-death-do-us-part friends? . . .

Elayne and I spent much of our childhood in each other’s company—the only children of older parents–our friendship was a source of strength.

“No one ever told us anything,” she correctly observes. And throughout that entire time there was one outstanding thing among the many other topics we never discussed—it was the mystery surrounding her (absent) father—who could he possibly be?—that was always the greatest unspoken question.

“My mother would never tell me who he was. My aunt would only say, ‘He’s really not so bad.’”

After he died she discovered he was a Holocaust survivor. She never met him. He never had any other children. His one surviving cousin also died.

“My mother hung herself after the birth of my second child. We brought her down to Florida, but she felt I was ignoring her and only paying attention to the child. Before she died she said to me, ‘I will never forgive you.’”

“Think of the place as your hotel,” she says on the day we arrive at her condo. The guest wing has two bathrooms–and daily maid service (I never see any employee come in–but later realize we may have forgotten to leave an expected tip).

When I ask Charlie for his impression of her, he says, “She’s easy company.” She still has the same winning smile that broadly displays her gums and childlike enjoyment, but also an air of standing slightly apart from events, as if observing things that don’t affect her.

Kathy Deacon can be reached at