Jack D. Foner, once blacklisted, dies at 88

December 16, 1999

Jack D. Foner, Historian and Pioneer in Black Studies, Dies at 88

Jack D. Foner, a professor of American history who established one of the country's first programs in black studies and later became a victim of political blacklisting, died on Friday at the Jewish Home and Hospital in Manhattan. He was 88 and lived in Manhattan.

Dr. Foner was caught up in an early, pre-McCarthy Red scare through a chain of events that began in 1935 when he started teaching history at the downtown branch of the City College of New York, now called Baruch College. It was there that he became involved in causes like support for the anti-fascist forces in Spain, the trade union movement and the campaign for civil rights for African-Americans.

Because of these associations, Dr. Foner was called in 1941 before the Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate the Educational System of the State of New York, named the Rapp-Coudert Committee after its two sponsors. Failing to answer the committee's questions, he was branded a Communist.

It is not clear whether he actually joined the Communist Party.

"If he was a member of the Communist Party, he wasn't trying to overthrow the United States Government," said Ellen Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University, who knew Dr. Foner.

She described him as a "sincere idealist."

Another complaint against Dr. Foner was that he devoted excessive attention to the role of blacks in American history.

He was among 60 faculty and staff members at City College who were dismissed for their unwillingness to testify before the committee. He was then unable to find a teaching job for almost three decades.

In 1981 the New York City Board of Higher Education apologized to Dr. Foner and his fellow victims, terming the events of 1941 an "egregious violation of academic freedom."

Dr. Foner served in the United States Army from 1942 to 1945 and was assigned mainly to menial chores like caring for horses at a barracks in the Midwest.

After the war Dr. Foner supported himself and his family as a freelance lecturer on current events. He also joined his three brothers, all of whom were blacklisted, to form the Foner Orchestra, which played swing music at Catskill resorts. Dr. Foner played the drums.

In 1969 he was hired by Colby College in Waterville, Me., where he established a black studies program.

Dr. Foner retired from Colby in 1976 and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the college in 1982.

Jack Donald Foner was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 14, 1910. He attended Eastern District High School and graduated from City College in 1929. He then earned a master's degree in 1933 and a doctorate in 1967 in American history, both from Columbia University.

His best-known book is "Blacks in the Military in American History" (1974).

He is survived by his wife, Liza; a son, Eric, a professor of history at Columbia University, of Manhattan; two brothers, Moe, of Manhattan, and Henry, of Brooklyn; and a grandaughter.


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Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:29 EDT