Charles Terrell ’70 was a history major from Washington, D.C., a campus leader, and part of a wave of black activism that, at Colby, included demands for more black faculty members and the end of policies that students felt discriminated against students of color.
Jack Foner portrait

Jack Foner

Change did come to Colby during Terrell’s time, but it came in the form of a new white professor in his late 50s who hadn’t taught in a college for 30 years because he’d been blacklisted as a communist sympathizer—and singlehandedly introduced African-American history to the curriculum.

“It certainly did not matter that he was not black,” Terrell said, “because he was who he was.”

Colby had hired Jack Foner, a Columbia University-educated historian who was dismissed from his teaching position at the City College of New York in 1941, refusing to name names before a state tribunal during an anti-communist purge.

In a single stroke, a then nearly all-white liberal arts college in Maine became home to one of the first African-American studies programs in the country. “This was revolutionary for Colby,” said Terrell, who went on to teach African-American studies at colleges in Massachusetts. “For higher education, this was highly unusual.”

Jack Foner was one of four brothers who were all blacklisted. His brother Henry and twin brother, Philip, were also forced out of their teaching jobs at CCNY.

His alleged infractions: supporting labor movements and civil rights for African Americans, both causes associated with communists. He would go on to support his family as a freelance lecturer, adult-education instructor, and as the drummer in the Foner family orchestra at resorts in the Catskills.

In fact, the Foner brothers (Philip Foner went on to become a respected U.S. history scholar and prolific author) were ahead of their time in teaching of what we now see as historical perspective. It would be 30 years before American culture caught up to the Foner brothers and their ilk as there was a burgeoning of African-American history programs in the late 1960s. More black students were matriculating and demanding courses that had been taught mostly at traditionally black institutions.

“Most basically white institutions like Colby had never had this,” said Jack Foner’s son, Eric, the Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. historian. “Columbia had never had a course in African-American history in until the late Sixties.” His father, Foner said, “set up at Colby the first African-American history program at any college in New England.”

“The only black person in my high school textbook was Booker T. Washington,” he said. “And yet, these scholars [his father and uncles] were teaching about black history. They were teaching about the history of labor. They were teaching about the history of people like Frederick Douglass and Eugene Debs. They were giving a much broader, more nuanced, more complicated picture of America.”

In 1960s America, these teachers were few and far between.

“Cultural erasure,” said Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he described the deliberate omission of an entire culture from history textbooks.

 

FBI document about Jack Foner

Matthew Guariglia/MuckRock

 

In fact, there was a respected textbook of African-American history (From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans by John Hope Franklin and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham) but its use was largely confined to historically black universities and college, Gilkes said. In U.S. history survey textbooks of the time, used in both white and black public schools, there was “pretty much nothing,” she said. “A picture of people picking cotton.”

But in New York State in 1940, teaching a nuanced picture of America was risky. That year, the state legislature convened a committee, known as the Rapp-Coudert Committee, to investigate communist influence in the state university system. A year earlier, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had formed an alliance, and American leftists and communists found themselves in the sights of a “Red Scare.”

“McCarthyism predates McCarthyism,” Eric Foner said, “and my father became a victim of that moment.”

Refusing to testify before the committee was a firing offense, and Jack Foner was dismissed from his position along with some 60 other instructors and administrators. Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Teaching Professor of History Robert Weisbrot notes that at the time, by purging so-called communists, investigators also were able to punish union sympathizers and Jews—and those who advocated for African Americans. “If you were a conservative, Jack Foner was just tailor-made for you,” Weisbrot said.

It would be 40 years before the New York City Board of Higher Education would issue an apology to Foner and other victims of the purge. The damage to careers was done, though, and Jack Foner turned to cobbling together a livelihood. “Obviously, my father was deeply hurt by what happened,” Eric Foner said, “but he always was an optimist.”

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters conferred upon Jack Foner, Colby College, May 30, 1982.

Jack Foner and faculty colleagues in

(Front left to right) Simon Wiesenthal, George Davis Small, Katherine Porter, I.F. Stone, and Jack D. Foner 
(Back left to right) Robert N. Anthony ’38, Julius S. Bixler, and William R. Cotter

 

Foner had been steered to Colby by someone with a Colby connection who had been impressed by his history lectures. He was hired as a sabbatical replacement in 1968, and was so impressive that he was invited to join the permanent faculty. “He was asked, ‘Well, what would you teach?’” recalled Zacamy Professor of English Emeritus Pat Brancaccio, who taught African-American literature. “He said, ‘You have all this unrest going on around the country. How ’bout if I teach African-American history?’”

By all accounts, Foner was charming, funny (telling jokes he first heard from comedians as he played in the Foner orchestra), and though he was open about why he had left college teaching, he never seemed embittered. “There was no sign that he had been wronged,” Weisbrot said. “He was just the most lovely person, very sweet and tolerant, quiet with a sly sense of humor.

“He had such strong views about being in touch with our history and building on that to build a better society. You had no clue how much he had given up to do that.”

What was clear was that he was thoroughly dedicated to history and his students.

Susan Doten Greenberg ’70, P’04, said her time in Foner’s class during his sabbatical-replacement stint gave her new appreciation for the complexity of U.S. history. “My mother was pretty perplexed when I told her that there were many causes of the Civil War,” Greenberg said. Her mother’s response: “What are they teaching you at that school?”

In Foner’s course, she learned about Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, the Industrial Revolution, that immigrants were “a disunited labor force” taken advantage of by capitalism until the advent of collective bargaining.

Foner, Greenberg said, taught the Civil War through the lenses of economics, regional cultures, diplomacy. “We didn’t go battle by battle.” The course was so influential that she kept her notes and referred to them as her sons studied U.S. history in high school.

Jacquelyn Lindsey Wynn ’75 attended black public schools in segregated Norfolk, Va., prior to coming to Colby and found that Foner’s teaching of African-American history went beyond noting the accomplishments of individuals. “You could see the culture,” Wynn said, “the reasons things evolved the way they did.”

She said Foner’s empathy for African Americans also came through in his teaching. “It wasn’t like ‘those folks.’ That made a big difference.”

Ken Melvin ’74, also from Virginia, said in an e-mail that Foner often sat with a group of African-American students at lunch at their regular table in Dana, and that students could feel his excitement about African-American history. “His main focus was making certain that African-American studies was considered a serious discipline,” Melvin wrote. “He was dedicated to that effort.”

There were no textbooks for the courses that Foner designed, so he came to class with notes and sheafs of newspaper clippings. Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, recalls his father as “a great clipper,” who taught him that the present and the past are deeply and directly connected.

“You can’t understand what’s going on in the streets without knowing the history,” Foner said.

Jack Foner continued to reinforce that lesson through his time at Colby, said Brancaccio, who team-taught a class with Foner, combining history and literature. “He would call me up literally every morning and say, ‘Pat, have your read the Times?’ I’d say, ‘No, Jack. I haven’t gotten to it.’ He’d say, ‘Go to page thirty-two. There’s an article you should clip.’”

Brancaccio said he brought Foner back to teach a month-long class after a mandatory-retirement policy in place at the time forced the African-Studies professor to leave Colby at 65.

“You never got a sense that he was slanting things ideologically,” he said. “The way he was doing it was that he was filling you with the details. This is what happened. It spoke for itself. It was the history of oppression.”

Foner taught that history without mentioning that he had once been a victim of oppression himself. Terrell, Wynn, and Greenberg said he never spoke of his own past in class, and Greenberg and Wynn only learned of Foner’s early travails after his death in 1999.

Terrell said that as a student he had heard rumors that Foner had been blacklisted for his political views. A class president who would years later become a Colby trustee, Terrell was also an activist for students of color and took part in the occupation of Lorimer Chapel in 1970. He said he graduated six weeks later and never discussed his political actions with Foner, though he’s sure his professor was aware.

“I think that’s another reason, given the times at Colby that I was involved in, that I was so impressed by him,” Terrell said. “For me, this was like an activist from another era, and he was still standing.”