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Page Title:  Documentary

Read about the making of the documentary,
Dreamers and Fighters: The NYC Teacher Purges

Washington Irving High School Front Arch

An Introduction

By Ginny Browne

Dreamers and Fighters was the work of my mother, Sophie-Louise. She was a social worker, an artist, a brilliant story teller, and, in the last 10 years of her life, a filmmaker. What follows is her account of the origins of the Dreamers and Fighters documentary project – the story of my grandmother's union, the New York City Teacher's Union, a grassroots, rank-and-file union whose members were among the city's most committed, progressive, and visionary educators. Although my mother isn’t here to see it, we remain committed to completing this film and telling their story. —Ginny Browne



A Personal History of the NYC Teacher Purges

By Sophie-Louise Ullman

Sopie-Louise Ullman
Sophie-Louise Ullman

As a child of two New York City public school teachers, I became aware sometime during the 1950s that deep secrets surrounded a number of my mother's close friends, people who were no longer teaching. Gradually I found out what the secrets were, and why, in the climate of that time, they were not to be discussed openly.

Who knew, during the decade of Joseph McCarthy, that the New York City Board of Education, with the enthusiastic assistance of the FBI and the NYPD, maintained a stable of citizen-spies to help the board rid New York's schools of teachers who were, according to its own evaluations, among the finest the city ever had?

Who remembers today? What lessons could the teachers — several hundred here in New York, and many more in urban centers around the country — have taught about the purges, about the workings of the machinery of persecution, had their stories not been swept under the rug of history? What forces converged to silence them?

Teachers Union Commemorative Program at Wagner Labor Archives presented panel on Children of the Blacklist (Left to Right, Sophie-Louise Ullman and Eric Foner)
Teachers Union Commemorative Program at Wagner Labor Archives presented panel on Children of the Blacklist.   Sophie-Louise Ullman interviewing historian Eric Foner

I have carried these questions with me all my life. It was unlikely that telling the story of the New York City Teachers Union (not the United Federation of Teachers) would fall to the daughter of rank-and-filers untrained as a filmmaker. But it became obvious several years ago that it was way past time and almost past opportunity to tell it.

Impassioned and aged Teachers Union veterans have been eager to correct history's "master narrative" and to bring the real story into the light of public discourse. Rescuing their experiences from the archival oblivion of the past four decades has been a roller coaster we could not anticipate when our little team undertook this mission.

Swimming against the tide of institutional resistance for the last several years, we have come to understand the scope and perniciousness of McCarthyism's legacy to America. It has profoundly narrowed the spectrum of what is acceptable, not only for policy, but also for debate and even for thought and collective memory.

Sophie-Louise Ullman and Sam Wallach, Henry Foner in background
Sophie-Louise Ullman and Sam Wallach, Henry Foner in background

We are determined to bring the documentary, Dreamers and Fighers to the screen, and to give everyday citizens the chance to consider their own history and determine for themselves: who benefited and who lost by the purging of educators and the killing of a militant union? What is the cost to society when uncritical conformity is rewarded and dissent is punished? How will our answers NOW affect tomorrow's America?


Documentary in Production

Progress Report by Producer Lori Styler

May Day seemed like the right day to launch a Web site about a union that made history. Alas, this domain name was registered just days earlier on April 26th -- an equally appropriate day for its arrival -- my aunt, Doris Styler Ullman's birthday. She was a NYC Teachers Union member and this documentary came to fruition because of her.

A dedicated teacher and activist, she rarely went to bed before writing a letter about an injustice that needed to be exposed because it, “just wasn’t right.”

Her daughter, my cousin, Sophie-Louise, inherited her spirit of righting injustice and, together, we decided to co-produce this documentary to pay homage to all the Teachers Union members who stood up and fought for children's needs and rights, and, eventually, their own, when doing so was not only unpopular, but dangerous.

We always felt we were in the presence of heroes.  And it was humbling. During one interview, Ann Matlin, who had been a fifth grade teacher in Harlem, looked at the camera conspiratorially and said, “I've never told this story before.” And then she went on to reveal a “crime.” It was one of the more courageous stories told. Her video clip sets up the scenario, and her biography reveals the story.

Harold Cammer, counsel for many of the fired teachers, tells the story about taking the interrogator, Asst. Corporation Counsel Saul Moskoff, out to the theater at the height if the blacklist. He took him to see Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible.

“I thought if he saw it, he would understand what he was doing.”

They emerged from the theater and Moskoff turned and said, “It has nothing to do with us. We have nothing to do with academic freedom. We have to do with a criminal conspiracy.”

On the Web site's first full day, April 27th, Teachers Union member and renowned author/mathematician, Irving Adler, wrote to me. We had interviewed him in his Vermont home for the documentary, and while Sophie-Louise and the crew were setting up for her interview, Irving, ever the mathematics teacher, took me into his garden that fall afternoon, picked up a pine cone and noting the continuing spirals, explained Fibonacci numbers to me.

This day, he wrote, “I am now in my 97th year. Ninety-seven is a prime number. I am now in my prime.”

All the TU members we met during the production of Dreamers & Fighters were always prime champions of student causes. They fought on the front lines, picketed for better school conditions for their students in deprived areas of New York City, and campaigned for better working conditions for teachers on the front steps of the Capitol in Albany.

They dreamed of equal opportunities and imagined a world of true academic and social freedoms. They fought to create those opportunities for the children of NYC, by building new schools to replace crumbling ones despite the war-time building freeze in the city. They created shoe funds for poor kids and instituted Negro History Week which lead to other racial and ethnic heritage celebrations. They fought to reduce class size and, eventually, they had to fight for themselves.

When we first told these blacklisted teachers that we wanted to interview them, many greeted us with the same sentiment: “We have been asked so often to tell our story, but we've never seen it told. It's so painful to talk about what happened to us – are you sure you'll really do this?” With our best intentions, we assured them we would.

As we received more grants, we'd film more teachers. We had screenings along the way for the teachers who we thought might not make it till the end to see the finished product. We didn’t expect that to include one of us. On one random day, Sophie-Louise, passionate about telling this story looked at me and said, “If anything ever happens to me, you'll finish this, won’t you?” Very unexpectedly, that came to pass.

Well, I intend to do that. Sophie-Louise always spoke about producing this, not just for an audience that would have agreed or not with the politics of the TU, but for a population sure that to be a socialist or a communist meant one was alien — a dangerous and scary person.

We wanted those people to see these teachers for what they accomplished. By protesting, creating strong parent-teacher alliances, organizing community support groups and just enduring in a hostile political arena, they created and maintained services, resources and hope in communities that, without these teachers, would have been deprived a voice.

Many members were reflective when questioned about the Teachers Union coming to an end. Some acknowledged that their unyielding political approaches to acquiring better conditions for their students might have, instead, jeopardized their chances of achieving them during that era.

We have over fifty hours of interviews with over 20 teachers, their families, their legal counsel, historians, and one FBI operative. We still have much to finish, but we've had much support.

Henry Foner, a dismissed high school teacher and activist, came to be a wonderful and indispensable friend of ours. When Sophie-Louise and I started filming, we found our way to Henry. He immediately shared his extensive contact list with us, brought Sam Wallach and others in to help, and formed a group called Teachers in Support of Dreamers and Fighters: The NYC Teacher Purges. As a result, so many of the teachers themselves greatly supplemented the grants we received. Henry has returned as we've regrouped with a new support team including Irving Adler, and CUNY Professor and TU biographer Clarence Taylor, and Chair of CUNY's Academic Freedom Committee Steve Leberstein.

I have a new crew, as well. Lisa Harbatkin is a writer whose parents were also TU members. She has written an article about her parents' TU story and has been an immeasurable help in resurrecting this story. Ginny Browne, Doris Ullman's granddaughter, who, as a teenager, went along with her mother on some of the film shoots, is carrying on our family's heritage. Ginny has worked as a community organizer and is now a union activist. She is bringing her mother's voice and conscience, as well as her own, to our current work on the documentary.

We are still fundraising so we can keep our promises to Sophie-Louise whose mission it was to tell this story, and to the teachers who gradually came to feel safe sharing their stories. We continue to look for the truths in the Board of Education's archival files in the City of New York where this story is still buried treasure.

If you are part of the Teachers Union family and would like to contribute towards seeing your story told, a filmmaker who can contribute in-kind services as we film the final segments of the documentary, or a producer willing to invest in a little-known piece of history, and this compelling story, please e-mail us at info@dreamersandfighters.com.


Non-profit, tax-exempt contributions
to help complete the documentary
can be made out to our fiscal sponsor,
Women Make Movies
.
On the memo line of your check, you must include:
Dreamers and Fighters: The NYC Teacher Purges

Mail checks to:
L. Styler
c/o Dreamers and Fighters
510 East 84th St. Suite 4B
NY, NY 10028

Thank you.

Women Make Movies' nonprofit tax-exempt status explained

TU Support Group

The TU Support Group, pictured above, played an integral role in the development of Dreamers & Fighters: The NYC Teacher Purges. TU Support Group 
BOTTOM ROW: Ed Martinson and Sophie-Louise Ullman.
CENTER: Sam Wallach, Dave Weiner and Paul Becker.
TOP: Zippy Bauman, George Kapp, Larry Lane, Anne Filardo and Henry Foner.

 

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