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Page Title:  History

Linda Cirino: The People and the Records


Linda D. Cirino: With Thanks

Thirty-plus years and a New York ago, writer/researcher Linda D. Cirino set out on an unexplored path from her college honors thesis and a dorm roommate’s family ordeal. It led from the 1940-1942 Rapp-Coudert hearings and the Teachers Union records then, as now, held at Cornell University to a collection of documents unearthed in 1975 from the depths of a Board of Education basement.
Cirino was apparently the first researcher to see and use the records now called the Anti-Communist Series after they were transferred, with many other Board of Education historical materials from that basement, to Columbia University’s Teachers College. This is the collection now housed at New York City’s Municipal Archives.

Cirino dug into the Board’s records, many of them dating from the 8 years in the 1950s when Saul Moskoff ran the investigations. Some of the files predate Moskoff’s tenure, and others continue after he left in 1958, as the anti-communist hunt finally wound down in the 1960s. Cirino first requested access in 1977, and as of early 1980 was still the only researcher to have done so.
Linda Cirino
She got a lot of information in a very short time before the Board and TC shut her down, citing privacy, pre-decisional work product, and other grounds for exemption from freedom of information law disclosure requirements. (She filed basically the same lawsuit I’m now fighting. That’s a different subject, one for a different article.)
In any case, Cirino didn’t stop with the archival materials. She looked for, and found, some of the teachers who had been caught up in New York’s drive to decimate the Teachers Union and force teachers suspected of Communist Party ties out of the schools. Her taped interviews with them, and with others involved – attorneys, a congressional staffer, CP activists, a reporter – provide an intimate look, sometimes painful, sometimes humorous, but mostly just straightforward, into their memories of the investigations and their reflections on the politics of the 1970s. She was conducting the interviews as she delved into the files and as her court case went forward.

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Linda Cirino died a few years ago, in 2007. Her family has provided us with many of her papers and audio tapes. They add a great deal to what we know of the investigations and how they were conducted. All those interested in what happened in New York’s public schools in the 1940-1960s time frame and later are indebted to her, and to her family.

The voices on the tapes are so immediate, so present, that you might catch yourself starting to respond – to Cirino, to those she interviewed – maybe to challenge some point, maybe with an “oh, wow” reaction to something unexpected.

Listen to a teacher describing how teachers guessed who’d informed on them: “You couldn’t hide being called down. ...If somebody was called down and didn’t come back for advice to the union, we could tell. You knew right away something was bad.” Feelings varied on the informants, and perhaps had shifted over the years.“He rationalized his position,” this teacher said of a man he suspected of informing on him. “They usually do. ...Some of them do it on bread and butter issues. In other words, it’s take care of me first. ...Some of them took political rationalizations, and these became ardent anti-communists, ardent anti-liberals. ...

Another teacher, called before Moskoff when he wanted to get his license reinstated after he’d been out of the city for a few years, wasn’t in the CP but was an active TU member.“I belonged to the union even though I knew the affiliations of the activists. ...They were doing a magnificent job for the teachers and the schools,” he said.

More than other school-related groups and agencies, the teachers said, the TU felt the need to ally with parents, and it mobilized them and the teachers to fight the devastating effects of poverty and prejudice on the children they taught. “The TU fought for decent schools in ethnic and minority neighborhoods – not just black, but Irish and Italian and Poles. We were defending the school system. That’s why we were called Communists,” one of the teachers said. There were plenty of opinion differences within the TU, and they were resolved through discussions, a teacher said. Some of the teachers who’d been forced out of their teaching jobs went to work at the TU office, they told Cirino, and the union helped others get jobs after their dismissals.

The teachers Cirino spoke to had sweet and sad and grateful memories of Rose Russell through her years as the TU legislative rep. “(She) stood for what was good in American life,” one said. Others remembered the near-traumatic impact they said the investigations had on her as she listened to the teachers describe what was happening to them, and as she tried to help them. Cirino also found a teacher who had worked with George Timone, the Board of Education member who pushed so hard for the anti-communist investigations, with right-wing principals, and with the far right American Education Association. “George Timone was a very brilliant lawyer and a fighter for the country,” she said. “We were opposed to teacher unionism. We were never opposed to unionism – just teacher unionism,” she told Cirino. Cirino’s papers and the taped interviews draw a sharp picture of what everyday people went through during the 1950s, and of the differences between the local and national investigations.

Victor Rabinowitz, one of the lawyers who defended teachers called before Moskoff as well as other people called before the congressional committees, perhaps best sums up the differences between the New York investigations and those on the national level: "Roy Cohn and Dick Arens working in Washington were killers. They came out ready to kill. Moskoff was not a killer. ... The brutality of the congressional committee approach was not ever present here,” he told Cirino. Cohn, he said, “had a knife out prepared to kill you. That wasn't true of Moskoff -- he had no visible knife. It all resulted in exactly the same thing. It made no difference. After a very short period everybody was aware that the interview with Moskoff would turn out to be exactly the same thing."

The teachers on Cirino’s tapes and in her manuscripts make that clear: those conducting the city’s investigations didn’t need knives. They just had to send you a letter inviting you down to the board for a chat about your politics. The fear did the rest.
-- Lisa Harbatkin

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