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 wasnt 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
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
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
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
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
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 didnt 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, wont you?” Very unexpectedly, that came
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