2017-11-28 05:24:38 UTC
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Vera Shlakman, Professor Fired During Red Scare, Dies at 108
No one doubted Dr. Shlakman’s political leanings.
She had been named for the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich. Emma Goldman, the anarchist, was a regular guest in her family’s home. Dr. Shlakman was vice president of the college division of a Teachers Union local that was rebuked for being dominated by Communists.
But when she was summoned before a public hearing of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, led by Senator McCarran, a Nevada Democrat, Dr. Shlakman invoked her constitutional guarantees of free speech and privilege against self-incrimination when asked about her membership in the Communist Party.
“Do you believe that a member of the Communist Party can be a college teacher?” Robert J. Morris, the subcommittee counsel, asked Dr. Shlakman at the hearing, held on Sept. 24, 1952, at the United States Court House in Foley Square in Manhattan.
She replied, “I think that any teacher must be judged on the basis of his performance in the classrooms; that if a teacher follows professional standards in the classroom, and is a scholar, he is entitled to teach as any citizen.”
As an economist, Dr. Shlakman seemed to suggest that “communism” had become an overwrought term. She cited one example of what, by her reckoning, had once been branded radical but became an accepted staple of American life while leaving democratic institutions intact.
“When the United States Post Office began to carry packages,” she said, “this activity was viewed as a challenge to private enterprise’’ and “a kind of socialistic or communistic activity.”
Pressed about whether being a Communist would close a teacher’s mind to any deviation from the party line, she replied that similar speculations had been raised against devout Roman Catholics.
“We don’t condemn people now — at least I assume we don’t — on the basis of guilt by association,” she said.
As far as the committee and college administrators were concerned, though, by refusing to respond to the question about party membership, Dr. Shlakman became a “Fifth Amendment Communist.”
She was fired from her professorship 12 days after the hearing under two New York regulations. One, authorized by the Legislature in 1949, barred the school system from employing anyone who belonged to what was deemed a subversive organization.
The other, enacted to thwart corruption, provided that a city employee’s refusal to testify about his or her official conduct, because doing so might be self-incriminating, was grounds for dismissal.
Both provisions would be declared unconstitutional in the late 1960s. But they were enforced in Dr. Shlakman’s case, and as she told her fellow professors after she testified, her firing had left the academic community with a choice.
“It must either grovel and accept the standards of orthodoxy prescribed by the McCarrans and the McCarthys, and those who have capitulated to them,” she wrote, “or it must resist.”
She recalled that educators had resisted earlier congressional inquiries into reading requirements for college courses. “Is the dismissal of teachers,” she asked, “easier to accept than the burning of books?”
But profiles in courage were few and far between during the McCarthy era.
The British economist Mark Blaug, a former student of Dr. Shlakman’s, wrote in an essay in 2000 that she had been “scrupulously impartial and leaned over backward not to indoctrinate her students” — which was why, he added, as a college tutor he had endorsed a student petition demanding her reinstatement.
Less than 24 hours later, he said, the Queens College president ordered him to resign or be dismissed.
“For a day or two, I contemplated a magnificent protest,” wrote Professor Blaug, who died in 2011, “a statement that would ring down the ages as a clarion bell to individual freedom, that would be read and cited for years to come by American high school students — and then I quietly sent in my letter of resignation.”
After leaving Queens, Dr. Shlakman was unemployed for a year.
She then worked as a secretary and a bookkeeper and taught intermittently. She was placed on an F.B.I. watch list because she was, as an F.B.I. file put it, “reportedly” a member of the Communist Party from 1944 to 1946 and had invoked the Fifth Amendment before the subcommittee, according to Marjorie Heins’s “Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge” (2013).
In 1960, Dr. Shlakman finally started teaching again at Adelphi University, a private institution on Long Island, in its School of Social Work. In 1966 she was hired by the Columbia University School of Social Work, where she taught full time until she retired as professor emerita in 1978.
Dr. Shlakman was born on July 15, 1909, in Montreal, to Louis Shlakman, a tailor and shirtwaist factory foreman, and the former Lena Hendler, both Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. (Her sister, Eleanora, was named for Karl Marx’s youngest daughter; her brother, Victor, for Victor Hugo.)
Dr. Shlakman never married and leaves no immediate survivors. In her last years, when she was homebound and blind, she was looked after by several friends, including Judith Podore Ward and her husband, Bernard Tuchman, and Ms. Holahan. They said they never asked, nor did Dr. Shlakman reveal, whether she had ever been a member of the Communist Party.
Dr. Shlakman earned a bachelor’s degree in 1930 from McGill University in Montreal, and went on to receive a master’s in economics there. She earned her doctorate in economics at Columbia.
Queens College hired her as an instructor in 1938, shortly after it was established. She taught courses there in labor, social security and the concentration of wealth.
Dr. Shlakman’s doctoral dissertation, an analysis of female factory workers in 19th-century Chicopee, Mass., was the basis for her book, “Economic History of a Factory Town” (1935).
Joshua B. Freeman, a distinguished professor of labor history at Queens College and the City University Graduate Center, said by email that her book had “extended the boundaries of American working-class history” and influenced a generation of historians.
Alice Kessler-Harris, a Columbia history professor emerita, wrote in the journal International Labor and Working-Class History in 2006, “Shlakman raised the question of how a transformation in the meaning of work for female workers could, and perhaps did, alter the workplace environment and the nature of family life.”
Professor Kessler-Harris said in an email that at a time when the field was dominated “by Jeffersonian myths about the harmonious interaction of labor and capital,” Dr. Shlakman’s study of Chicopee confirmed that capital and labor were at odds with each other in fundamental ways, and that labor protests were a check on the excesses of the marketplace.
Dr. Shlakman’s firing from Queens banished her to academic obscurity. Professor Kessler-Harris said that her copy of “Economic History,” borrowed from Columbia’s library in 1951, was not taken out again until 1966. (The book was, however, reissued in 1969.)
After City University offered its apology in 1980, Dr. Shlakman and another fired colleague, Oscar Shaftel, appealed to City Comptroller Harrison J. Goldin to resolve a dispute with the state over pensions or death benefits for former professors who had been dismissed during the Red Scare.
In April 1982, the city announced a $935,098 settlement with seven living former professors and the estates of three who had died. Dr. Shlakman received $114,599 — the equivalent of almost $300,000 in 2017 money.
“Do you feel you have gained your honor back with this?” Dr. Shaftel was asked at a ceremony where he was joined by Dr. Shlakman and two other former colleagues.
“I never lost my honor,” he replied.