Insubordination and "Conduct Unbecoming" : Purging NYC's Communist Teachers at the Start of the Cold War

By Marjorie Heins

May Day parade, 1938; New York College Teachers Union contingent

May Day parade, 1938; New York College Teachers Union contingent

In March 1948, the chairman of social studies at Brooklyn's Tilden High School observed two classes by the leftwing teacher Louis Jaffe, and took issue with his discussion of the Cold War. Jaffe responded that his lessons were balanced; the chairman was displeased only because he had not slanted them in an anti-communist direction. Tilden’s principal, Abraham Lefkowitz, now entered the fray: he wrote to Jaffe that this was not an issue of academic freedom; “no point of view has ever been outlawed at Tilden. But academic freedom can’t be used by you or another teacher at Tilden to overemphasize a point of view contrary to that of America and the United Nations to favor the Soviet Union and her satellites.”

Despite his protestation, Lefkowitz obviously was disapproving a point of view -- one he perceived as “contrary to that of America” -- though Jaffe continued to insist that his lessons were fair, and a committee of assistant superintendents, after reviewing the dispute, found in Jaffe’s favor. Jaffe was thus exonerated, but the superintendents nevertheless transferred him out of Tilden because of a “strained teacher-supervisor relationship.”

Then, in December 1948, the superintendents summoned him back for further questioning. “Do you believe there is freedom in the Soviet Union?” they asked. “Do you believe Stalin is an enemy of the U.S.?”

It was the beginning of an era of loyalty investigations and political orthodoxy in the New York City schools that would last for at least the next decade. By late 1948, New York City school superintendent William Jansen had authorized investigations of other suspect teachers, among them Abraham Lederman, president of the city’s radical, activist Teachers Union (the TU); Jansen wanted to know if Lederman had ever collected funds for the Communist Party. An elementary school teacher, Minnie Gutride, was summoned from her classroom to answer questions about alleged communist meetings in 1940 and ‘41, and threatened with hints of legal action and charges of insubordination if she refused to cooperate. Gutride committed suicide two days later.

In April 1949, Jansen called seven teachers for questioning. All were TU officers and therefore responsible for criticizing Jansen and the Board on many issues, from racism in textbooks to deplorable conditions in inner city schools. The seven included Jaffe and Lederman; the new faces were Latin teacher and TU secretary Celia Zitron; English teacher and editor of the union’s paper Isadore Rubin; science teacher Mark Friedlander; math teacher Abraham Feingold; and Harlem activist and elementary school teacher Alice Citron. All refused to answer questions about their political beliefs and affiliations. An eighth suspect, David Friedman, had been interviewed in January 1949 and again in March. He was also a TU activist and the chairman of a junior high school English department; informers had placed him at Communist Party meetings. Like the others, Friedman had refused to answer Jansen’s questions about his politics.

The first eight teachers fired by the Board of Education. From left: Alice Citron, Abraham Feingold, David Friedman, Celia Zitron, Abraham Lederman, Mark Friedlander, Isadore Rubin, Louis Jaffe

The first eight teachers fired by the Board of Education. From left: Alice Citron, Abraham Feingold, David Friedman, Celia Zitron, Abraham Lederman, Mark Friedlander, Isadore Rubin, Louis Jaffe

The New York City Board of Education was hardly alone in hunting for communists in the late 1940s. Cold War anxieties were intense: Mao Zedong took power in China that year, and the Soviet Union. tested its first atomic bomb. A dramatic nine-month trial of Communist Party leaders for conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the government dominated the headlines. New York’s legislature hastily passed the Feinberg Law, which called for sweeping loyalty investigations of teachers and other public employees.

Jansen’s April 1949 interviews of Zitron, Jaffe, and the five other targeted teachers were brief. Once they refused to answer his questions about politics and Party membership, Jansen charged them with insubordination and conduct unbecoming a teacher. David Friedman, interviewed earlier, would be the only one of these eight teachers who was actually charged with communism. Thus, with the exception of Friedman, the Board of Education’s disciplinary procedures did not focus on whether an individual was a CP member, but on whether she or he cooperated with the interrogation. All eight teachers were suspended without pay in May 1950.

Parents, teachers, and community groups protested these first eight suspensions with letters and meetings. Forty-eight teachers in Alice Citron’s Harlem school wrote to Jansen that Citron had “worked tirelessly in behalf of the children”; a parade of Harlem mothers testified to the same effect during the subsequent administrative trial of Citron and the seven others.

At the same time that the Board of Education was gearing up for this first administrative trial, it was preparing a broader attack on the Teachers Union. Early in 1950, the Board’s most vigorous Red-hunter, George Timone, introduced a resolution that barred the union from representing teachers before the Board or negotiating with the Board on any issue.

The TU organized dozens of petitions opposing the Timone Resolution from teachers, parents, and civil rights groups. The anti-TU forces were equally impassioned. More than 100 people spoke at a public meeting in April 1950. The union’s legislative representative, Rose Russell, charged that “behind the smokescreen of alleged communist domination,” the attack on the union was simply a way for the city to distract attention from threatened budget cuts, larger classes, and heavier workloads.

The Board passed the Timone Resolution in June 1950 with only one dissent. Just two weeks after the resolution passed, the union published a report on racism in textbooks used in the city schools. Among the numerous examples were a text reporting that slavery was “a happy life” because it meant that slaves had “no cares except to do their work well”; another text, written by Superintendent Jansen, asserted that “the native people of Africa, who belong to the Negro race, are very backward.”

The union would continue to publish materials on African American history, and to fight for school integration, until it disbanded in 1964.

The administrative trial of the eight suspended teachers began in September 1950. It was not a propitious moment: the first six months of the year had been filled with sensational revelations about atomic espionage and accusations against American communists, culminating in the arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in July. The Board of Education’s trial examiner, Theodore Kiendl, took advantage of the situation by orchestrating a joint trial of the eight to begin with David Friedman, the only one of the suspended teachers actually accused of CP membership. The prosecution was thus able to open the trial with several days of testimony on the revolutionary tenets of international communism.

On day 12, the TU’s Rose Russell, not a lawyer but a gifted advocate, cross-examined Superintendent Jansen:

"Did you learn or receive any information to the effect that Mr. Friedman advocated the violent overthrow of the government?"
"No . . ."
"Did you learn from Mr. Friedman’s supervisors that Mr. Friedman had ever uttered any seditious words?
"I did not. . ."
"Did you learn from Mr. Friedman’s supervisors that Mr. Friedman had ever used his position to inculcate the communist doctrine into pupils in the public schools?
"I did not."
"Did you learn or receive information that Mr. Friedman had ever used his position to inculcate the communist doctrine into his pupils from any other source?"
"I did not. . ."

It was classic cross-examination: Russell knew that the answers would be negative. But trial examiner Kiendl thought this line of questioning irrelevant because the prosecutor had not technically charged Friedman with indoctrinating students but only with being a CP member. Kiendl found all eight teachers guilty, and the Board of Education officially fired them in February 1951.

Jansen, meanwhile, was prosecuting eight more teachers for insubordination and conduct unbecoming. This group included math teacher Irving Adler, already a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the Feinberg Law. In December 1951, the Board officially resolved that no CP member could continue in employment, and that past membership would be evidence of present membership unless the teacher showed it had been “terminated in good faith.” The way to demonstrate good faith was to identify others who might have been in the Party, attended a Marxist study group, or otherwise manifested leftist tendencies. “Naming names” thus became a standard interview question, and association with the Communist Party became the standard of guilt, regardless of whether one’s membership had been brief, halfhearted, or free of any revolutionary intent.

In July 1951, Jansen turned the interview process over to Saul Moskoff, an attorney in the city's law office. Moskoff began to comb police and other files for more teachers to question. He conducted hundreds of interviews, urging and finally demanding that ex-communist teachers name names of former comrades or lose their jobs. Eventually, more than 1,000 employees were interrogated; more than 200 resigned rather than face the choice of informing on others or losing their jobs. Thirty-three were officially fired.

In addition to past or present CP membership, Moskoff’s questioning covered books that the teachers had read, social friendships, and contributions to such causes as Republican Spain or the support of Spanish refugees after the fascist victory. Deeply invested in anti-communism, Moskoff engaged his frightened and sometimes indignant targets in hot debates: the questioner and nearly all his subjects were Jewish, and some cited religious reasons for their objection to informing.

During Moskoff’s interrogation of science teacher Maurice Kurzman, for example, Kurzman called the process “an attempt to impose thought control upon our school system," and noted that among Jews especially, procuring and informing were considered "the vilest, the very basest ... the most depraved, the most anti-Jewish conduct in the book."

“You had better study the Talmud,” Moskoff retorted.

"I have studied the Talmud," Kurzman replied. "You are following the same pattern which is becoming so popular now wherein the enemies of the people use willing and compliant Jews to do their hatchet work for them."

The anti-communist purges continued throughout the 1950s, encouraged by Supreme Court decisions that upheld nearly any legislative investigation, blacklist, or loyalty program that came before it. By the early '60s, though, the composition of the Court had changed and public opinion was beginning to recoil from the excesses of anti-communism. In 1967, the Supreme Court overturned a decision 15 years earlier that had upheld New York State's Feinberg Law; a narrow 5-4 majority of the Court now ruled that guilt by association was unconstitutional -— at least unless those accused were shown to be knowing, intentional supporters of an organization’s unlawful aims.

Lawyers for the teachers fired by the Board of Education in the early 1950s began petitioning for redress. Finally, in 1973, the City of New York signed a settlement agreement with 33 of them, awarding reinstatement and pensions, and lump sum payments to the estates of those who had died.

Marjorie Heins is the author of Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge (NYU Press, 2013).