Ruth Goldberg on the PTA
The following is an interview with Ruth Goldberg, Myra's mother, about her experience working in the PTA in Sunnyside in the 1950s. It's been excerpted from the book, "Red Scare: memories of the American Inquisition" by Griffin Fariello.
"Short and grandmotherly, forthright. We meet in Berkeley, at her son’s home; there are children everywhere. In 1947, back in New York City, she ran as a Progressive for president of her local PTA."
"My children went to a public school in Queens. It was Sunnyside – a section of Queens that had been developed by Henry Wright. He’d built these small attached houses in an attempt to do an ideal community. Mrs. Roosevelt was interested in it. They attracted a rather interesting group of people – artists, writers, a lot of progressive people. We all knew each other and it was very pleasant. But outside of Sunnyside Gardens, it was a whole other story – that was where the conflict began. There was a good deal of anti-Semitism. My nephew went to junior high; he was older, and he was chased home by kids. The kids had their lunch money taken from them. It was a combination of a rather tough neighborhood and the protected enclave where we lived.
I was on the PTA board. Because I have literary interests, another woman and I ran the PTA newspaper. And I must say it was pretty good. But looking back at it, we did a number of rather foolish things. We’d invited outside speakers at the PTA meetings who were political, and that riled up a lot of people, and I can see why – it was ridiculous, but at the time we were caught up in that kind of thing. Anyway, there was a big struggle over who was going to run for presidency of the PTA. There was somebody who was much more radical than I was and then there was a very reactionary candidate. I was supposed to be the unity candidate of the whole thing. I didn’t want to do it. I had three small children, and it’s a lot of work. But I thought, if it’s going to mean peace in the neighborhood, I would do it.
The politics of this thing is just ridiculous. A group that considered themselves Trotskyites, I believe, decided that I was representing the Stalinist Communists. And so they decided to run another candidate, with the result that we had a microcosm of the Cold War. It really was. Nearby, there was also a very strong Catholic church, whose priest was really very conservative and very scared about anything progressive. He denounced me from the pulpit of the Catholic church during a Sunday sermon, and all the children went home from Sunday school with fliers telling their parents to go vote. The children went to parochial schools, but they were told to vote in the public school election, because I was the devil incarnate.
Some neighborhood woman that I had been quite friendly with – our kids knew enough to shut up – except for the youngest, who was not inhibited the way the older two were. And when the kids across the street, who were strong Republicans, said, “Who are you going to vote for?” – you know how kids talk – he said, “Wallace!” Our middle daughter almost killed him! She said, “Lenny, shut up!” Came back and told us, “That kid is nuts.”
You didn’t say these things. You didn’t tell anybody you were going to vote for Wallace. And of course all these women that I knew so well at that time, we didn’t discuss the election at all. It was as if there were no election going on.
The FBI were following me around. Later I sent for my file. I figured I had to have a file, and I did. They call you a “subject” – subject’s car was parked outside a house where there was presumably a meeting going on. Subject’s license plate was noted at this home. Subject was seen going into New York on the train. In fact, the day I went into New York on the train, why they followed me I don’t know – it was my birthday and I was going to have lunch with somebody. But going to New York is a subversive act, if you live in the suburbs, right?
One thing was that they were aware of what I had written. I had a story published in the California Quarterly, and in Partisan Review, and in some women’s magazine which obviously is not Left. But the FBI knew every story I had published. And they said that the California Quarterly was obviously a Left magazine. I guess it was a little bit.
They visited all my neighbors, and I found that out because next door to us there was a family of refugees from Germany. They were German Jews who had escaped from Hitler. The FBI asked them if I had meetings in my house or if they saw strange cars coming out. She said, “Look, this is a community-minded woman. She collects for the Community Chest.” Then they said, “Please don’t tell her that we were here.” She said she saw them go across the street to good neighbor of ours, whose children played with our children, all upand down and around. Nobody told me except this woman; she would have no truck with it. She invited Sam and me over there and said, “I’m telling you because this was the way it started in Germany.”