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Subtitle Children of the Blacklist

Children of the Blacklist:  Ellen Bernstein Murray

Ellen Bernstein Murray is one of the three children of Selig Bernstein, a mathematics teacher and championship tennis coach at Forest Hills High School. Her father was suspended in the late 1950s and brought up on departmental charges in 1960. In college at the time, Ellen Bernstein had the unusual experience of testifying for her father at that trial. Convicted, as were the others subjected to these highly public trials, he finally won reinstatement and retired with a full pension. Her mother Juliet Bernstein taught home economics at Newtown and Flushing high schools.

I was born in 1941, and we moved to Bayside when I was 2. My family owned a nice home, and we had lots of extended family nearby. My father loved teaching math. My mother was on maternity leave, but soon returned to teaching home economics in different high schools around the city.

As a young child, I never thought much about my parents’ politics, but I now know that they had been active in the Teachers Union way before I was born. Looking back, I remember a Teachers Union fund-raising party at our home when I was probably under 5. People played guitars and sang “Union Maid” and passed the hat for a collection. We have photos of protest marches and picket lines, including a posed photo on the steps of the Albany capitol building, with my parents and other teachers carrying signs protesting cuts in the education budget.

Ellen and Selig Bernstein, about 1944.
Ellen and Selig Bernstein, about 1944.

I also remember summers at The Locust Grove House, my grandmother’s small hotel in the Catskills, where my father worked as a chauffeur, picking up guests at the bus stop and transporting them to the hotel in a classic ‘41 Chevy. My mother worked as the hotel bookkeeper and sometime camp counselor. Many of my parents’ friends and relatives were also teachers who came up for the summer or worked at the Locust Grove. Later I realized that the Locust Grove and other Borscht Belt hotels were considered “pink” because so much of the staff and so many of the guests were Teachers Union members.

Our family watched the Army-McCarthy hearings non-stop, gathered around our new TV set. I was active in high school government and loved political discussions, but I don’t remember that we discussed communism very often. The official school position was that communism was “bad.” My parents offered a balanced view of the issues, but I sensed early on that their political attitudes were different from those of the parents of many of my friends. But there was also humor. We laughed when the Cincinnati Reds changed the team name to Redlegs.

Selig Bernstein coached the Forest Hills H.S. tennis team to the city championship in 1957.
Selig Bernstein coached the Forest Hills H.S. tennis team
to the city championship in 1957.

By 1956, when I was 15, the teacher investigations were front-page news in all the city newspapers, and my family’s worries about the Board of Education investigations intensified. My parents talked constantly about other teachers who received letters calling them in for “discussions” at which they were pressured to inform and “name names.” They worried about getting that “invitation” from the Board, and the letter finally arrived. My father went in for the session, but it was not until 1960 that he was suspended and brought up on departmental charges. My father’s lawyer, David I. Shapiro, worked out a strategy that called for me to testify at the departmental trial. His idea was that since my father refused to divulge information about his fellow teachers, I would be questioned to say things that my father would not say. I wouldn’t have to “name names” (in fact I didn’t know any names). Instead, the lawyer would ask me about my father’s attitudes and feelings about the Teachers Union, the point being, I suppose, that my father was not really a “die-hard” communist.

My father’s departmental trial was delayed, in part, I think, because of the uncertainty caused by the state education commissioner’s 1956 ruling against the Board of Education’s efforts to force teachers to inform. By that time I was a junior at Bennington College. I knew that if not card-carrying communists, my parents were sympathetic to the CP’s goals: racial equality, workers’ rights, union activism. They were young and idealistic, and in the troubled times of the Depression and its aftermath, the Communist Party’s politics made sense for them and for others. However, both my parents were disillusioned with the CP after the Soviet-Nazi pact.

I was decidedly nervous about testifying, but encouraged that several of my father’s former students, as well as his colleagues and administrators from the school where he’d taught, were in the hearing room and also testified for him. I remember that when asked if my father had lied when signing the loyalty statement denying he’d been a party member, I replied emotionally that my father had never told a lie in his life, bringing the audience to tears.

He was, indeed, a beloved teacher, but despite my testimony and that of the others my father was suspended from his job After the suspension, my father took classes in the early computer programming languages, worked for an uncle who was a real estate broker, and eventually found work teaching in some small private schools which paid no attention to the blacklist. Ensuing decisions by the state education commissioner upheld the decision that suspended him, but reinstated him without back pay and he was able to return to Forest Hills High School and finish out his career – even receiving his full retirement pension.

L to R: Ellen, Juliet and Selig, Ellen’s brother Robert, her daughter Caitlin, and her brother Bruce at her mother’s 80th birthday in 1993.
L to R: Ellen, Juliet and Selig, Ellen’s brother Robert, her daughter Caitlin, and her brother Bruce at her mother’s 80th birthday in 1993. Ellen's son Chris is behind the camera.

My parents voted mostly as Democrats or Independents in their retirement years. As for me, well, I’ve never been much of a marcher or protester, though I would call myself a political progressive. Perhaps the impact of my parents’ causes was too scary for me to assimilate. Perhaps I’m content to just speak out when I hear words of prejudice or hatred, without protesting or picketing. Either way, I believe that my parents’ ideals helped me build my own thinking and ideals and become a supporter of the underdog. Communist ties and sympathies in the family may have been at one time, and perhaps even today, kind of like having a skeleton in the closet. But I take pride in my political heritage.

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