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Subtitle Children of the Blacklist

Children of the Blacklist:  Rick Winston

Rick Winston’s parents, Leon and Julia Winston, were both dedicated members of the Teachers Union. Rick grew up in Yonkers, New York, and has lived in Adamant, Vermont since 1970. He’s been active in the cultural life of central Vermont since then as an arts presenter, teacher, and musician.

If there were such a thing as a typical childhood spent in the shadow of the Red Scare, mine was one: there were Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger 78s; a very secular Jewish atmosphere; a left-leaning summer camp; a subscription to the National Guardian (“But don’t tell anyone we get it”); my feeling of isolation in a very conventional high school; and dinner-table correctives to what I had learned in history class that day.

My parents at the 1963 March on Washington
My parents at the
1963 March on Washington

However, every family that was chilled by the fear of that era had its own particular drama. I knew the basic outlines of my parents’ stories, but not until I read their Board of Education files (thanks to discovering the Dreamers and Fighters project) could I finally fill in certain gaps, more than 50 years after the fact. When I first became curious about the Red Scare Era and asked my parents how they were affected, they painted a vivid picture of the times, and mentioned various family friends that had been teachers but were now working in other professions, such as insurance and electric repair. They were uncharacteristically reticent about themselves, keeping their own stories to a concise scenario.

One of my father’s art students in 1942 at Taft High School in the Bronx had been Harvey Matusow, who later became Joseph McCarthy’s paid informant. “I knew my goose was cooked,” said my father, “when Harvey named me at a HUAC hearing in Washington.”

My mother’s version went like this: “They finally got around to calling me before a New York City committee when the worst was over. I told them that I’d share anything about myself, but I wouldn’t name anyone else.” This past fall, my parents’ brief narratives were fleshed out – over 22 pages in my father’s case, over 60 in my mother’s.

Leon Winston (left) at Taft High School, c.1945
Leon Winston (left) at Taft High School, c.1945

There in my father’s file is the testimony of Matusow, in February of 1952. “In 1945, the correspondence to me from Mr. Winston expressed condemnation of the foreign and domestic policies of the Truman administration and generally supported the Soviet policy in connection with foreign affairs…In the early part of 1947, I solicited Mr. Winston for funds in support of the American Youth for Democracy. He declined to contribute funds on the grounds that he had already pledged himself to supply funds directly to the Communist Party.” I can just hear my father’s voice sarcastically commenting, “A likely story.”

In June of 1952, a letter appears summoning my father to an interview with the Board of Education’s own Grand Inquisitor, Saul Moskoff, followed shortly by a letter dated September 1952, accepting his resignation. A family friend, apolitical himself but nevertheless disgusted by what he observed, offered to set my father up running an art supplies store in the Cross County Shopping Center, then under construction near our home in Yonkers. I still have the edition of the Taft HS school paper announcing his leaving school to go into private business, ending with the quote, “I’m going to miss the kids.”

The letters from erstwhile colleagues (and former comrades) naming my parents as CP members do not show up in their files until December 1954 and April 1955. My father used to say, “When the dust settled, you looked around and saw who was still teaching, and you had a pretty good idea of who gave names.”

My mother’s “invitation” to an interview with Saul Moskoff was issued in December 1955, and her testimony, running to 35 pages, was taken in January 1956. After warning her that refusal to give names might result in her dismissal (an appeal to end this policy was at that time pending before the Commissioner of Education), Moskoff finally (on page 28) put the question to her. She replied, “There’s only one position I can take, and that is, I just couldn’t. It would be against my principles, my scruples, I wouldn’t be able to rest as easily as I do now, and live with myself as honestly as I do now.”

Reading her testimony evoked yet more questions: Was she coached? Was it her own idea to emphasize her activities as a parent, an artist, and a participant in the community who really didn’t have much time or mental energy for politics? Was her testimony given meekly, to throw her questioners off the scent, or defiantly, as I am certain she must have felt? Unfortunately, there are no stage directions in these pages. Her story had a favorable outcome. She was able to keep her job at Washington Irving High School, and spent the last 15 years of her teaching career at Music and Art High School, where she was reunited with her old Teachers’ Union colleagues Al Goldbaum and Bernie Kassoy.

Julia Winston (center) at Music & Art in 1965.
Julia Winston (center) at Music & Art in 1965.

My father’s outcome was a good one, too, after a fashion. He became a successful retailer, and seemed to be satisfied with this life. Late in his life, he answered all my questions about the Red Scare era, but I never did ask him about the loss of the thing he was most passionate about – teaching art and design. Julia Winston (center) at Music & Art in 1965 I heard someone say recently that although the blacklist claimed many victims, forcing them from their livelihoods, not many people talk about our own loss as a culture. There were films that were never made, songs that were never written, laughs that an audience never got to experience – and in my father’s case, generations of students whose lives were never changed by someone who cared intensely about passing on his knowledge and creativity.

Hearing my parents’ stories as a teenager played a crucial role in my life’s direction. My interest in film and film history developed in my teen years as well; I knew the names of the Hollywood Ten the way my classmates knew the Yankees’ starting lineup. Shortly after moving to central Vermont in 1970, I started a film society that eventually became the Savoy Theater in Montpelier. Over the years, the Savoy showed many political films, and has hosted Robert and Michael Meeropol, Tom Hurwitz and other “children of the blacklist” to speak with selected films. Most recently, at our annual Green Mountain Film Festival, I programmed the outstanding new documentaries on William Kunstler and Daniel Ellsberg.

In 1988, I collaborated with two local historians to organize a conference on “Vermont in the McCarthy Era;” our guests included Irving Adler and William Hinton. Now, more than twenty years later, my involvement with the Dreamers and Fighters project has rekindled my interest in what happened in my adopted state during that turbulent time.

Many thanks are due to the Dreamers and Fighters project for keeping these stories alive.

How to participate in this project:

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