FROSTBURG, Md. — The year 2005 was good for the George A. Meyers Collection at Frostburg State University (FSU) library, boosted by a generous cash gift and capped by a dramatic poster exhibition last October that drew a sizeable crowd of admirers.
The cash gift came from the estate of the late Thomas P. Kapantais, who had served as a hearing and appeals judge for the Social Security Administration in West Virginia until he retired in 1992. Kapantais willed $107,000 each to the George A. Meyers Collection, the People’s Weekly World and the Niebyl-Proctor Library in Oakland, Calif.
Kapantais, who had served as a public defender in Maine and a civil rights/civil liberties attorney before moving to West Virginia, donated to the Meyers Collection his enormous personal library which had to be trucked in to Frostburg from his home. Over the years, he became a close friend of Meyers, who served for many years as labor secretary of the Communist Party USA and often traveled in the Appalachian region where he was born.
Meyers founded the collection in the mid-1990s when he donated his library of labor, civil rights and Marxist literature to FSU. The college is just up Georges Creek from Lonaconing where he grew up, son of a coal miner. As a young man, Meyers served as president of the Textile Workers Union local at the Celanese plant in nearby Cumberland.
Twelve other people have given their private libraries to the Meyers Collection, which is now one of the largest left-progressive collections in the nation. It includes the complete works of CPUSA economist Victor Perlo. The collection also includes more than 10,000 pamphlets, one of the largest collections of its kind.
“We have posted 5,140 of these pamphlets online,” said Dr. David Gillespie, director of FSU’s Lewis J. Ort Library, as he led this reporter on a tour of the collection housed in the J. Glenn Beall Archives. “We send out five to 10 photocopied pamphlets from the collection each month” for use by historians and other scholars. The originals, some nearly a century old, are rare and extremely fragile and are preserved in a climate-controlled room.
Just recently, Gillespie said, a researcher at Northwestern University had requested photocopies of documents from the National Negro Congress dating from 1936.
Gillespie proudly held up original autographed sketches of a welder by Anton Refregier, a study for a massive mural the artist later completed in San Francisco. It is part of a collection of working-class art that also includes some originals and reproductions of works by Ralph Fasanella and Alice Neel, as well as hundreds of political posters.
Scores of them, now matted and framed, were put on display in the Stephanie Ann Roper Gallery on the FSU campus last October. More than a hundred guests came for the opening of the exhibition, which featured many labor, peace, civil rights and Communist Party election campaign posters. It also included posters from the Soviet Union, Cuba and many other nations. “The Palette and the Flame,” a book of Spanish Civil War posters, was on display in a case alongside many of Meyers’ personal memorabilia. Above it, matted and framed, was Joelle Fishman’s centerspread article from the PWW headlined, “In honor of George Meyers and Victor Perlo.”
Joe Uehlein, who spent 30 years as a staff worker with the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department and ran the AFL-CIO’s Strategic Campaign until he retired recently, was there with his son Justin, an incoming freshman at FSU. “We came because we happened to see it in the program,” Uehlein said, shaking his head in wonder at such a remarkable and unexpected display. “I was thrilled to see such an outstanding exhibit of labor graphic arts,” he told the World. “I see here posters signed by Ralph Fasanella. And here is a poster honoring SWOC, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. My father, Julius Uehlein, was a founder of Steelworker Local 1104 in Lorain, Ohio. He was a member of SWOC.”
Harlowe Hodges, a graphic arts teacher at FSU, echoed the excitement. “As an artist, I look at it from an artistic point of view,” he said. “Yes, the political message is very interesting but I see the quality of line, the composition, the style. This is excellent! Every piece in this room is remarkable. I am urging all my students to come here and look at these works.”
The collection continues to grow, said Al Feldstein, a local historian who had traveled to Washington Sept. 24 for the giant demonstration against the Iraq war. While there he picked up a sample of every poster he could lay his hands on. They were prominently displayed in the exhibit. “Bring the Troops Home Now! End the War in Iraq,” proclaimed one poster.
Also present was Roberta Roper, mother of Stephanie Ann Roper, an art student at FSU who died tragically at the hand of an unknown assailant in 1982. The Ropers built the gallery in their daughter’s memory. “It’s important that her legacy lives on here,” she said.