Excerpts from Eric Foner's Autobiographical Essay from his book,
Who Owns History?
Published by Hill and Wang
Eric Foner is the
DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University
and specializes in nineteenth century American History, the American
Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction.
Eric is the son of TU members, historian Jack Foner and HS art teacher Liza Foner.
He is also the nephew of three TU members: CCNY History professor Philip, Moe,
a registrar at CCNY, and HS teacher,
Henry Foner. All were dismissed from their
jobs during the Rapp-Coudert period.
Born in New York City in 1943, I was raised in Long Beach, Long Island,
to all outward appearances a typical child of America's postwar suburban boom.
In one respect, however, my upbringing was unusual, although emblematic,
nonetheless, of one aspect of the American experience. Shortly
before I was born, my father, Jack D. Foner, and uncle, Philip S.
Foner, both historians at City College in New York, were among some
sixty faculty members dismissed from teaching positions at the City
University after informers named them as members of the Communist
party at hearings of the state legislature's notorious Rapp-Coudert
Committee, a precursor of McCarthyism. A few years later, my mother
was forced to resign from her job as a high school art teacher.
During my childhood and for many
years afterwards, my parents were blacklisted and unable to teach.
Unlike most of my generation, I did not have to wait until the
upheavals of the 1960s to discover the yawning gap that separated
America's professed ideals and its self-confident claim to be a land
of liberty, from its social and political reality. My friend Gabor
S. Boritt, who grew up in communist Hungary and now directs the
Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, once remarked to me, "I
was raised in a country where we understood that most of what the
government says is untrue." "That's funny," I replied, "I grew up in
the same country."
Given the profession of my father and uncle, it seems
in retrospect inevitable that I would become a historian. But, as I frequently
tell my students, events are inevitable only after they happen.
Historical and political concerns suffused our household.
Every child thinks his upbringing is entirely normal. Only gradually did
I realize that other families did not discuss the intricacies of international
relations and domestic politics over the dinner table, or follow
election returns in France, India, and Guatemala as avidly as those
in the United States.
Sophie-Louise Ullman and Eric Foner at the Commemorative Program
What was truly distinctive about my family's view of both American
history and the world around us, however, was our preoccupation with
the past and present condition of our black fellow countrymen. As
suburbs go, Long Beach was a liberal community, whose predominantly
Jewish residents regularly voted Democratic. But on issues relating
to race, the prevailing sentiment was indifference. Our idyllic town
had its own small ghetto, home to black domestic servants, but no
one except my parents and a few like-minded friends seemed aware of
its existence, or wondered why housing there was so inferior to that
enjoyed by whites. In school, we did commemorate Negro History Week,
mostly with lessons about George Washington Carver and his amazing
feats with peanuts. But our history texts were typical of the time
--slavery, they taught, was a regrettable but not particularly
oppressive institution, Reconstruction a terrible mistake, and
blacks played no discernible role whatever in the rest of American
history. I well recall my mother (to my embarrassment), striding
into school to complain about the illustrations of happy slaves
playing banjos in our primary-school history text. The principal
could not understand her unhappiness --"What difference does it
make," he asked, "what we teach them about slavery?"
In my home, however, it made a great deal of difference. As Mark
Naison and other scholars have shown, in the 1930s the Communist
party was the only predominantly white organization to make fighting
racism central to its political program. Communist-oriented
historians like Herbert Aptheker and my uncle Philip Foner, along
with black scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois had begun the process of
challenging prevailing stereotypes about black history. At home, I
learned ideas today taken for granted but then virtually unknown
outside black and leftwing circles: slavery was the fundamental
cause of the Civil War and emancipation its greatest accomplishment;
Reconstruction was a tragedy not because it was attempted but
because it failed; the condition of blacks was the nation's foremost
domestic problem. Du Bois and Paul Robeson were friends of my
family. Frederick Douglass (who my uncle had rescued from historical
oblivion by publishing a four-volume collection of his magnificent
writings and speeches) a household name.
9th Grade: Reconstruction vs. Alien and Sedition Acts
... In my ninth grade American history class at Long Beach high
school, I presented my own interpretation of Reconstruction. Our
teacher was Mrs. Bertha Berryman, affectionately known among the
students as Big Bertha (after a famous piece of World War I
artillery). Following the then-dominant view of the era, Mrs.
Berryman described the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which gave the
right to vote to black men in the South, as the worst law in all of
American history. I raised my hand and proposed that the Alien and
Sedition Acts were "worse." Whereupon Mrs. Berryman replied, "If you
don't like the way I'm teaching, Eric, why don't you come in
tomorrow and give your own lesson on Reconstruction?" This I
proceeded to do, admittedly with my father's help, in presentation
based largely on W. E. B. Du Bois's portrait of Reconstruction as a
pivotal moment in the struggle for democracy in America. At the end
of the class, Mrs. Berryman, herself a true democrat, announced:
"Class, you have heard me, and you have heard Eric. Now let us vote
to see who was right." I wish I could report that my persuasive
presentation carried the day. In fact, only one student voted for
me, my intrepid friend Neil Kleinman.
Columbia College: Civil Rights
... In my home we
followed with a growing sense of excitement the unfolding of the
civil rights movement, and it was assumed that my younger brother
and I would participate in it. Tom went on to take part in the
Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. I not only attended the March on
Washington of 1963, but also the less well-known March of 1957, and
in 1960 spent a great deal of time picketing Woolworth stores in New
York in support of the Southern sit-ins. By then, I was a freshman
at Columbia College, where during my undergraduate years I became
the first president of ACTION, a student political party that along
with sponsoring folk music concerts issued newsletters on civil
rights and persuaded the off-campus housing registry to drop
listings from landlords who would not sign a nondiscrimination
pledge. By the end of my junior year, I was not only a history
major, but had developed what has become a lifelong passion for that
Looking back over my career, I realize that
I learned from two great teachers what it is to be a historian. The
first was my father. Deprived of his livelihood while I was growing
up, he supported our family as a freelance lecturer on history and
current affairs. Listening to his lectures, I came to appreciate how
present concerns can be illuminated by the study of the past --how
the repression of the McCarthy era recalled the days of the Alien
and Sedition Acts, the civil rights movement needed to be viewed in
light of the great struggles of black and white abolitionists, and
in the brutal suppression of the Philippine insurrection at the turn
of the century could be found the antecedents of American
intervention in Iran, Guatemala, and Vietnam. I also imbibed a way
of thinking about the past in which visionaries and underdogs --Tom
Paine, Wendell Phillips, Eugene V. Debs, and W. E. B. Du Bois --were
as central to the historical drama as presidents and captains of
industry, and how commitment to social justice could infuse one's
attitudes toward the past.
Seminar: Archival Research
... My seminar paper that year was a
study of the Free Soil party of 1848, a justifiably obscure topic
that led to my first excursion into archival research, in my senior
thesis, supervised by Richard Hofstadter.
Senior Thesis: Hofstadter
... My senior thesis became the basis of my first two
published articles, which appeared in 1965. More importantly, it introduced
me to Hofstadter, the premier historian of his generation, who would
soon be supervising my dissertation. One day, Hofstadter related to me how he had
obtained his first full-time teaching position when a job opened in
1941 at the downtown branch of City College because of the dismissal
of a victim of the Rapp-Coudert Committee. Students initially
boycotted Hofstadter’s lectures as a show of support for his purged
predecessor, but eventually they returned to the classroom.
Ironically, Hofstadter’s first job resulted from the flourishing of
the kind of political paranoia that he would later lament in his
historical writings. Even more ironically, the victim of political
blacklisting Hofstadter replaced was my father.
1990: Oxford to South Africa
... In the mid-1990s, I again spent the academic year
in England, this time as Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford. Once again,
living there seemed to expand my intellectual horizons, bringing me
into contact, just as I was embarking on my study of freedom, with
social historians of language and historians of political thought.
But the year's highlight came not in England but five thousand miles
to the south. In the summer of 1994 I was invited to lecture in
South Africa, shortly after it had experienced its first democratic
elections. As a historian of Reconstruction, the photographs,
broadcast around the world, of men and women waiting on endless
lines to cast their first ballots, brought to mind the scenes of
celebration in our own country when former slaves voted for the
first time after the Civil War. It was a reminder, in these days of
cynicism about politics and democracy, that voting can be a deeply
On the day before I left South
Africa, I delivered the T. B. Davie Memorial Lecture at the
University of Cape Town, named in honor of a Vice Chancellor who
courageously defended academic freedom during the 1950s. Thirty-five
years earlier, when the government imposed apartheid on South
African universities, students had marched to the Parliament to
extinguish a torch of freedom. After my lecture, the torch was relit
to symbolize the birth of a new South Africa. It was a moment of
genuine emotion, illustrating the interconnectedness of past,
present, and future. It seemed to me fitting that a historian was
chosen to speak at this occasion, and an honor to be the one,
especially since I know from my own family’s experience how fragile
freedom can be.