Publication Date

April 1, 2000

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Jack Donald Foner, who established the first Black Studies program at a New England college, died December 10, 1999, in New York City. Born in Brooklyn in 1910, Foner attended public high school and graduated from City College in 1929. Starting in 1935 he taught history at the downtown branch of City College, now Baruch College. He became active in the era's left-wing causes, including support for the Spanish republic and for the rights of Black Americans. In 1941 he was forced out of his teaching job along with 60 other City University faculty members in the wake of an investigation of alleged communist influences in higher education by the New York state legislature's Rapp-Coudert Committee. One of the complaints against him was that his teaching devoted excessive attention to the role of Blacks in American history. He was subsequently blacklisted and unable to obtain academic employment for almost three decades. In 1979, the Board of Higher Education apologized to the Rapp-Coudert victims, terming the events of 1941 "an egregious violation of academic freedom."

Foner served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945. Possibly because of his political background he was assigned to nonessential duties—caring for horses at barracks in the Midwest, and later working in a bakery. Eventually he was assigned to teach illiterate draftees, mostly Black and White Southerners, to read and write. After the war, he supported himself as a freelance lecturer on current affairs to devoted groups of listeners in New York, Philadelphia, and Florida.

Foner received his MA in history from Columbia University in 1933. He nearly completed his doctoral dissertation in the next few years, only to see his research notes and only draft copy destroyed in a fire. In the 1960s, with academic blacklisting on the wane, he returned to Columbia and completed his PhD in American history in 1967 under the supervision of Eric L. McKitrick and James P. Shenton.

Two years later Foner was hired at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where he established the first Black Studies program in New England and became immensely popular among both Black and White students. One of his students, Bruce Abrams, recently wrote, "he brought to Colby College an extraordinary intensity and energy. . . . He was a wonderful mentor." His colleague Albert Mavrinac described the climate Foner created at Colby: "a climate of openness, civility, demanding professional standards, and hope."

Foner retired from Colby in 1976 and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the college in 1982. The official citation concluded, "Colby salutes you as a longtime opponent of racism and thanks you for your courage, your service, and your friendship." He was also honored by Colby's Student Organization for Black Unity at the time of his retirement; at the student dinner, Professor Andrea Benton Rushing of Harvard University's Afro-American Studies Program said, "we pay tribute to a serious, longtime student of Black history whose mighty scholarship antedates opportunist attempts to make it a chic intellectual fad. We honor him for his quiet sincerity and integrity."

Foner published two well-regarded books,The United States Soldier between Two Wars, 1865–1898 (1970) and Blacks and the Military in American History (1974).

In 1986 Foner received the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, along with his brothers Philip, a noted historian; Moe, a founder of Local 1199 of the Drug and Hospital Workers Union; and Henry, former president of the Fur and Leather Workers Union. The Nation declared at the time that the four brothers’ “very name evokes the progressive movements of the past half-century. . . . The Foners have persisted—through repression, Depression, hot, cold, and cultural wars—in the service of a shared social commitment. . . . They could not be silenced or bought out.”

Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University and current president of the AHA, describes his father as his "first great teacher," and recalls how, "deprived of his livelihood while I was growing up, he supported our family as a freelance lecturer. . . . 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 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. DuBois—were as central to the historical drama as presidents and captains of industry, and how a commitment to social justice could infuse one's attitudes towards the past."

In addition to his son Eric, Jack Foner is survived by his wife of 57 years, Liza, his brothers Moe and Henry, and one granddaughter.

University of California at Irvine

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