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Subtitle Children of the Blacklist

Children of the Blacklist:  Amy Kesselman

Amy Kesselman is the daughter of Bernie and Ethel Kesselman, active members of the Teachers Union. She is Professor of Women's Studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz where she teaches courses in women's history and feminist politics.

Piecing the fragments of memory together with information from the Dreamers and Fighters website, I can see a sketchy outline of my parents' involvement in the Teachers Union and the effect of the Board of Education investigations on our lives. I was eight when my father, who taught at James Fenimore Cooper Jr. High School in Harlem, began editing the Negro History Supplement of the Teachers News. I loved reading the Negro History Supplement and I soon devoured what ever books about African American History I could find in the tiny library down the block.

Bernie and Ethel Kesselman, around 1935
Bernie and Ethel Kesselman, around 1935

In 1953 we left Sunnyside, where we were renting an apartment in the hopes that we would be able to buy a house in the Sunnyside Gardens, whose shared courtyard evoked dreams of a collective future. In retrospect, buying a house in 1953 must have been a bold and scary move. The Dreamers and Fighters timeline indicates that 81 teachers were fired that year, including several of my parents' friends; it would not be long before Saul Moskoff's investigations targeted my father. Nevertheless, perhaps because of my older sister's irritation at having to share a room with me, and no Sunnyside Garden house had become available, my parents bought their first house in Jackson Heights Queens.

My father must have been among the teachers Moskoff forced out of the N.Y. City school system. My parents were cautious about sharing information. I wish they had told me more, but now I understand their fear. I gather that the Teachers' Union was taking a practical approach to these investigations, helping teachers leave the school system in whatever way they could. My father got a friendly doctor to exaggerate his hearing loss and he resigned with a disability before the date he was to appear for his session with Moskoff.

Then came the perfume years. The closest my father could come to using his experience as a chemistry teacher was to sell scents for a perfume company. Tiny bottles of wonderful smells replaced the homework papers of 7th graders in my father's briefcase. But even I, a self-involved ten-year-old, could tell that my normally cheerful father was not happy and longed to return to the classroom. My mother was still teaching and still a member of the teachers union; I'm sure they worried that she too would be called before Moskoff.

Some time in the late 1950's my father got a teaching job at Woodmere Academy, a private school on Long Island, which for reasons I don't fully understand, hired several teachers forced out of the public schools by the witch hunts. My father cheered up; he made new friends at Woodmere and soon was organizing a "Personnel Practices Committee," something very much like a union in this non-union school.

I must have caused my parents intense anguish while I was in high school. I'm sure they were proud that I organized a picket line in front of Woolworth's to support the students sitting in at lunch counters in the south but, when I was suspended from high school for distributing anti arms-race leaflets during a civil defense drill and got my name in the newspaper, they were less than overjoyed. They insisted that I go to the board of education and make a formal apology (a condition of being readmitted to high school), and they wouldn't let me talk to the press, which meant that only the principal's version of my suspension appeared in the paper. I don't remember what his version was but it was a lie and to my 16-year-old mind, should be challenged. My parents must have been terrified. My mother was still teaching in the New York City public schools and I see in the Dreamers and Fighters timeline that investigations of teachers continued into the 1960's. The last thing they needed was publicity about their daughter engaging in "anti- American" political activity. I didn't really understand; I sulked on the long subway ride to the Board of Education, but I made an apology I could live with to a group of sour looking middle aged men, and was readmitted to school. I didn't fully understand what was going on for my parents until I read the timeline on the Dreamers and Fighters website.

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