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Page title Children of the Blacklist

Excerpts from Eric Foner's Autobiographical Essay from his book, Who Owns History?

Published by Hill and Wang

Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and specializes in nineteenth century American History, the American Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction.

Eric is the son of TU members, historian Jack Foner and HS art teacher Liza Foner. He is also the nephew of three TU members: CCNY History professor Philip, Moe, a registrar at CCNY, and HS teacher, Henry Foner. All were dismissed from their jobs during the Rapp-Coudert period.

Eric Foner
Eric Foner

Born in New York City in 1943, I was raised in Long Beach, Long Island, to all outward appearances a typical child of America's postwar suburban boom. In one respect, however, my upbringing was unusual, although emblematic, nonetheless, of one aspect of the American experience. Shortly before I was born, my father, Jack D. Foner, and uncle, Philip S. Foner, both historians at City College in New York, were among some sixty faculty members dismissed from teaching positions at the City University after informers named them as members of the Communist party at hearings of the state legislature's notorious Rapp-Coudert Committee, a precursor of McCarthyism. A few years later, my mother was forced to resign from her job as a high school art teacher.


During my childhood and for many years afterwards, my parents were blacklisted and unable to teach. Unlike most of my generation, I did not have to wait until the upheavals of the 1960s to discover the yawning gap that separated America's professed ideals and its self-confident claim to be a land of liberty, from its social and political reality. My friend Gabor S. Boritt, who grew up in communist Hungary and now directs the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, once remarked to me, "I was raised in a country where we understood that most of what the government says is untrue." "That's funny," I replied, "I grew up in the same country."

Given the profession of my father and uncle, it seems in retrospect inevitable that I would become a historian. But, as I frequently tell my students, events are inevitable only after they happen.

Historical and political concerns suffused our household. Every child thinks his upbringing is entirely normal. Only gradually did I realize that other families did not discuss the intricacies of international relations and domestic politics over the dinner table, or follow election returns in France, India, and Guatemala as avidly as those in the United States.

Making Connections

Sophie-Louise Ullman and Eric Foner
Sophie-Louise Ullman and Eric Foner at the Commemorative Program

What was truly distinctive about my family's view of both American history and the world around us, however, was our preoccupation with the past and present condition of our black fellow countrymen. As suburbs go, Long Beach was a liberal community, whose predominantly Jewish residents regularly voted Democratic. But on issues relating to race, the prevailing sentiment was indifference. Our idyllic town had its own small ghetto, home to black domestic servants, but no one except my parents and a few like-minded friends seemed aware of its existence, or wondered why housing there was so inferior to that enjoyed by whites. In school, we did commemorate Negro History Week, mostly with lessons about George Washington Carver and his amazing feats with peanuts. But our history texts were typical of the time --slavery, they taught, was a regrettable but not particularly oppressive institution, Reconstruction a terrible mistake, and blacks played no discernible role whatever in the rest of American history. I well recall my mother (to my embarrassment), striding into school to complain about the illustrations of happy slaves playing banjos in our primary-school history text. The principal could not understand her unhappiness --"What difference does it make," he asked, "what we teach them about slavery?"

In my home, however, it made a great deal of difference. As Mark Naison and other scholars have shown, in the 1930s the Communist party was the only predominantly white organization to make fighting racism central to its political program. Communist-oriented historians like Herbert Aptheker and my uncle Philip Foner, along with black scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois had begun the process of challenging prevailing stereotypes about black history. At home, I learned ideas today taken for granted but then virtually unknown outside black and leftwing circles: slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil War and emancipation its greatest accomplishment; Reconstruction was a tragedy not because it was attempted but because it failed; the condition of blacks was the nation's foremost domestic problem. Du Bois and Paul Robeson were friends of my family. Frederick Douglass (who my uncle had rescued from historical oblivion by publishing a four-volume collection of his magnificent writings and speeches) a household name.

9th Grade: Reconstruction vs. Alien and Sedition Acts

... In my ninth grade American history class at Long Beach high school, I presented my own interpretation of Reconstruction. Our teacher was Mrs. Bertha Berryman, affectionately known among the students as Big Bertha (after a famous piece of World War I artillery). Following the then-dominant view of the era, Mrs. Berryman described the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which gave the right to vote to black men in the South, as the worst law in all of American history. I raised my hand and proposed that the Alien and Sedition Acts were "worse." Whereupon Mrs. Berryman replied, "If you don't like the way I'm teaching, Eric, why don't you come in tomorrow and give your own lesson on Reconstruction?" This I proceeded to do, admittedly with my father's help, in presentation based largely on W. E. B. Du Bois's portrait of Reconstruction as a pivotal moment in the struggle for democracy in America. At the end of the class, Mrs. Berryman, herself a true democrat, announced: "Class, you have heard me, and you have heard Eric. Now let us vote to see who was right." I wish I could report that my persuasive presentation carried the day. In fact, only one student voted for me, my intrepid friend Neil Kleinman.

Columbia College: Civil Rights

... In my home we followed with a growing sense of excitement the unfolding of the civil rights movement, and it was assumed that my younger brother and I would participate in it. Tom went on to take part in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. I not only attended the March on Washington of 1963, but also the less well-known March of 1957, and in 1960 spent a great deal of time picketing Woolworth stores in New York in support of the Southern sit-ins. By then, I was a freshman at Columbia College, where during my undergraduate years I became the first president of ACTION, a student political party that along with sponsoring folk music concerts issued newsletters on civil rights and persuaded the off-campus housing registry to drop listings from landlords who would not sign a nondiscrimination pledge. By the end of my junior year, I was not only a history major, but had developed what has become a lifelong passion for that era.

Looking back over my career, I realize that I learned from two great teachers what it is to be a historian. The first was my father. Deprived of his livelihood while I was growing up, he supported our family as a freelance lecturer on history and current affairs. Listening to his lectures, I came to appreciate how present concerns can be illuminated by the study of the past --how the repression of the McCarthy era recalled the days of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the civil rights movement needed to be viewed in light of the great struggles of black and white abolitionists, and in the brutal suppression of the Philippine insurrection at the turn of the century could be found the antecedents of American intervention in Iran, Guatemala, and Vietnam. I also imbibed a way of thinking about the past in which visionaries and underdogs --Tom Paine, Wendell Phillips, Eugene V. Debs, and W. E. B. Du Bois --were as central to the historical drama as presidents and captains of industry, and how commitment to social justice could infuse one's attitudes toward the past.

Seminar: Archival Research

... My seminar paper that year was a study of the Free Soil party of 1848, a justifiably obscure topic that led to my first excursion into archival research, in my senior thesis, supervised by Richard Hofstadter.

Senior Thesis: Hofstadter

... My senior thesis became the basis of my first two published articles, which appeared in 1965. More importantly, it introduced me to Hofstadter, the premier historian of his generation, who would soon be supervising my dissertation. One day, Hofstadter related to me how he had obtained his first full-time teaching position when a job opened in 1941 at the downtown branch of City College because of the dismissal of a victim of the Rapp-Coudert Committee. Students initially boycotted Hofstadter’s lectures as a show of support for his purged predecessor, but eventually they returned to the classroom. Ironically, Hofstadter’s first job resulted from the flourishing of the kind of political paranoia that he would later lament in his historical writings. Even more ironically, the victim of political blacklisting Hofstadter replaced was my father.

1990: Oxford to South Africa

... In the mid-1990s, I again spent the academic year in England, this time as Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford. Once again, living there seemed to expand my intellectual horizons, bringing me into contact, just as I was embarking on my study of freedom, with social historians of language and historians of political thought. But the year's highlight came not in England but five thousand miles to the south. In the summer of 1994 I was invited to lecture in South Africa, shortly after it had experienced its first democratic elections. As a historian of Reconstruction, the photographs, broadcast around the world, of men and women waiting on endless lines to cast their first ballots, brought to mind the scenes of celebration in our own country when former slaves voted for the first time after the Civil War. It was a reminder, in these days of cynicism about politics and democracy, that voting can be a deeply empowering act.

On the day before I left South Africa, I delivered the T. B. Davie Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town, named in honor of a Vice Chancellor who courageously defended academic freedom during the 1950s. Thirty-five years earlier, when the government imposed apartheid on South African universities, students had marched to the Parliament to extinguish a torch of freedom. After my lecture, the torch was relit to symbolize the birth of a new South Africa. It was a moment of genuine emotion, illustrating the interconnectedness of past, present, and future. It seemed to me fitting that a historian was chosen to speak at this occasion, and an honor to be the one, especially since I know from my own family’s experience how fragile freedom can be.

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