Ohio’s defiant Communist, Anna Hass Morgan
Anna Haas Morgan. | People's World Archives

Anna Hass Morgan (1894-1996) was an American Communist who is best known as the defendant in a First Amendment case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1959. She was convicted as a “defiant witness” who refused to testify about her political affiliations and activities when called before the Ohio Un-American Activities Commission. She even refused to state her address or place of employment. She was hounded by the government for seven years, when the Supreme Court finally ruled in her favor, agreeing that Morgan’s First Amendment rights had been violated in the McCarthy-era hearings.

In Columbus, Ohio, today, she is also known as the namesake of the local community club of the Communist Party USA. Thanks to recordings available in the CPUSA archives housed at the Tamiment Library at New York University, we know a lot more about Morgan’s local involvement in labor organizing, electoral activity, and civil rights work, as well as her fierce fight for her First Amendment rights in the face of nationwide anti-communism.

Anna was born in Providence, R.I., in 1894, and her political life began when she saw Eugene Debs speak there. She attended Brown University for two years, then married a Cuban national and moved to Cuba for four years in the late 1910s, teaching English at the company school for the American Sugar Company. Eventually, the family, which now included two young sons, moved back to Rhode Island, then to Chicago.

Eyewitness to the Depression

Morgan first became aware of the Communist Party when she was living in Chicago and witnessing the suffering of working people during the Great Depression. The Communist Party was one of few organizations responding to the needs of workers with relief programs that the government had yet to provide.

The 1937 yearbook of the Communist Party of Ohio, celebrating the 18th Anniversary of the CPUSA. | Columbus Metropolitan Library.

The family moved to Champaign, Ill., to facilitate their two sons’ college education at the University of Illinois. She helped organize unemployed workers and led protests demanding benefits and protesting the lack of medical care for working people. She raised funds to buy ambulances for the Spanish Civil War and to provide relief to striking miners. In 1943, Anna joined the Communist Party USA in Champaign, which was a secret organization at the time. Besides the CPUSA, she was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the American League Against War and Fascism.

Morgan’s account of a demonstration in Chicago illustrates the movement against fascism before World War II, the brutality of the police, and her confrontational style:

“I went to Chicago, and there was a big demonstration there of the Nazis. It was part of building up towards the war that was coming, and the Nazis had permission to march on Division Street. I left the children with my husband, and I went to the demonstration. There, the Nazis came, they had music, and they came marching up, and that neighborhood had a lot of Jewish residents … the street was lined with people protesting the Nazis’ marching. And I thought, well, I’m going to be like the people and see what really happens. Then the police moved in and they told me to move because I was blocking the traffic, and I was only next to the sidewalk. I put my arms around a tree and I said I wouldn’t move and I wasn’t blocking the traffic because the tree had been there longer than I had, and they hadn’t moved the tree. And then the police got mad and they grabbed me and two policemen carried me down the street, to get me away.”

She wrote down the badge numbers of the police she witnessed, and went back to Champaign committed to organize protests. She found out years later, when she obtained her 800-page FBI file through a Freedom of Information Act request, that the FBI began that very day to collect information about her.

Her husband (the Cuban national named Rubio) was unhappy with his wife’s political activism, and told her she could “choose him or the Communist Party, so I chose the Communist Party.” After they divorced, she moved to Indianapolis for a time, then married an archaeologist from Columbus and moved there with him.

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She worked with a variety of mass organizations during her years in Columbus, including the Progressive Party, which she said had “a backbone of hard-working Communists” working within it. She and her husband also joined the Vanguard League, which she described as almost all African Americans. In the early 1940s, she and other Communists in Columbus worked in favor of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination in federal employment and set up the Fair Employment Practice Commission. Anna recounted distributing buttons that said simply “4th” at a Democratic Convention in Indiana, indicating support for a fourth term for Roosevelt, which he won in 1944.

Ohio State University fired her husband because he was married to a Communist, so they bought a farm and Anna worked in nursing and other jobs. The Party in Columbus was underground but under surveillance; Anna recounted having club executive committee meetings in cars parked in quiet spots near the river for privacy’s sake.

Subpoenaed by the OUAC in the early 1950s

At the time that Anna Morgan was subpoenaed by the OUAC in the early 1950s, the Columbus area Communist Party membership numbered between three to four hundred. Comrades were deeply involved in labor unions struggling for fair wages and safe working conditions. Some of the most selfless and effective union organizers were idealists motivated by the Communist Party’s vision of a better, socialist world. Big business saw that in order to break the unions, the Communists must be hounded out of labor leadership. Businessmen enlisted elected officials in the Ohio legislature to do that work for them.

The unions at the time were growing powerful and restless. Anna said in an interview, “In Dayton with refrigerator people, in Akron with rubber, in Youngstown with steel, [the bosses] felt they had to do something, and they brought in Harvey Matusow to break the union. For $300 a month, he lied and lied about what the unions were doing.”

Matusow was a professional anti-communist who worked for the OUAC and other McCarthy-era organizations of repression. He later recanted his testimony and admitted in a book, False Witness (New York: Cameron and Kahn, 1955) that he regularly fabricated stories about the number and identities of Communists in unions in Ohio, and later in public schools and higher education in New York, for the money he was able to get from businesses intent on breaking the unions.

Two of Anna Morgan’s activities caught the attention of the OUAC. In the months before she was called to testify, the Mine, Mill, and Smelters Union began a strike, not for better wages, but for better quality air. The American Zinc Oxide Plant, on the outskirts of Columbus, was emitting fumes that were causing respiratory illness and deaths in the adjacent shantytown neighborhood where the factory workers lived, called the “American Addition.” The strike went on for some time, and the white workers were able to find other work, but the African-American workers who lived in the American Addition were devastated financially. The Party asked Morgan to chair a relief committee. She arranged meetings between striking workers and sympathetic middle-class people, including professors, physicians, and college students, and was able to raise money and marshal resources for the striking workers and their families. She arranged for a pro-strike demonstration in which a dozen middle-class white people were arrested, to the gratification of the striking workers.

The second of her activities raised OUAC’s suspicious that Morgan was a member of the Communist Party. Anna and her husband bought an old house and opened a bookstore in the downstairs. They scrupulously avoided anything too radical, knowing it would not be tolerated, but specialized in liberal titles and publications of the National Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which was founded by Carter Woodson.

Subsequently, Anna’s husband and a local historian organized a Black history exhibit at the art museum and arranged for Woodson’s National Association to have its annual meeting in Columbus. This reportedly incensed A.B. Johnson, then publisher of the Columbus Dispatch and the most powerful member of the museum’s board of directors. Johnson “sent word to the museum board that the exhibit should be closed up at once. But another newspaper the Columbus Citizen, wrote about it and immediately teachers, white teachers and of course Black teachers, and some professors from the university, [visited] and said this was the best thing that happened to Columbus to have this exhibit open.”

It was under these circumstances that Morgan was called to testify before the Ohio Un-American Activities Committee. She refused to answer any questions, and was arrested and convicted for contempt of the Committee. When the authorities took her in, she prepared a statement and the United Electrical Workers printed and distributed a leaflet reprinting her statement. Morgan and three others, two African-American workers and a businessman, were cited for refusal to answer questions. The businessman paid the $500 fine, but the two African-Americans couldn’t pay, so the three decided to fight the case.

A lawyer named Thelma Furry

She had trouble at first finding a lawyer to represent her; the American Bar Association told her everyone was too busy. She found a lawyer, Thelma Furry, who had just graduated from the University of Akron School of Law and was herself a member of the Communist Party. Furry filed her defense and appealed the conviction to the Ohio Supreme Court. According to Anna, the judges in that court “were almost falling asleep, they were dozing in their chairs…. Their minds were all made up, that’s why they could afford to doze.”

The defendants didn’t give up. Seven years later, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Morgan’s conviction, upholding her right to free speech. The Supreme Court decision was unanimous, or as Anna put it in an interview, “all the nine old men decided in my favor.”

Anna Hass Morgan with her grandson Philip Rubio. | Photo courtesy of Philip Rubio.

Furry went on to defend African Americans in civil rights cases, lesbian mothers in child custody cases, and Kent State University students involved in protests against the Vietnam War. She had a long and distinguished career.

While the case was pending, throughout the 1950s in Columbus, the government harassed Morgan and her husband and their friends and allies. They lost their insurance, and, she reported, “people were afraid to be seen with us.” Agents of the government sent false statements about her to her friends and associates, some of whom let her know about it. One mailing asserted that Morgan had betrayed her friends and been abandoned by the Party; neither was true.

Likewise, someone told Morgan that the man who helped her run the bookstore was going to testify against her. To find out the truth, later that day she went to the courthouse incognito, dressed as a high-society lady and claiming to be a member of the Watch Washington group, a right-wing organization. She convinced the clerk to let her read the testimony. Sure enough, her co-worker hadn’t betrayed her.

After her exoneration by the U.S. Supreme Court, Morgan and her husband continued to work on issues of labor rights and “on the Jim Crow question, because Columbus, Ohio was extremely bad at the time.” She recounted the way that African Americans were confined to the galleries in movie theaters, couldn’t enter many restaurants, and were daily subject to hostile abuse and humiliation.

Anna Morgan’s long life of work integrated labor rights, social justice, and electoral politics. When she was interviewed in 1981, she had been in the CPUSA for nearly forty years and her life spanned many changes in the Party. Her political life was that of an underground member hounded by anti-communism, and she said it was especially during those difficult times that she understood what the word “comrade” really meant, “because we needed each other so much.”

“To have joined the party to me was the greatest thing that happened in my life because it is like opening your eyes when before you were blind, and you can never never go back. I mean, I personally could not imagine myself going back to what I thought before or felt before.”

Anna Morgan moved to Somerville, Mass., in 1968 and lived there until she was 101 years old.


CONTRIBUTOR

Anita Waters
Anita Waters

Anita Waters is Professor Emerita sociology/anthropology at Denison University, Granville, Ohio. She is a Board member at SomaliCAN, an organization providing hope and help for new Americans of the Somali community and other immigrant groups in Ohio.

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