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Jean Wilkinson dies at 96; one of the first Los Angeles teachers to be fired during Red Scare

During the McCarthy era, Jean Wilkinson refused to cooperate when questioned by the California Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities. She was blacklisted for 12 years.

January 06, 2011|By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times
  • Jean Wilkinson had been targeted for scrutiny because she was married to Frank Wilkinson, who had lost his L.A. city job after refusing to testify before the state Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities.
Jean Wilkinson had been targeted for scrutiny because she was married to…

Jean Benson Wilkinson, who became one of the first Los Angeles public school teachers to be fired for refusing to cooperate with McCarthy-era investigators, died Dec. 28 in Berkeley. She was 96.

Jean Wilkinson: In the Jan. 6 LATExtra section, the obituary of Jean Benson Wilkinson, a Los Angeles teacher who was fired during the Red Scare, cited a 1954 editorial by William Randolph Hearst. The year was correct but not the author; Hearst died in 1951. The editorial was unsigned and ran in the Los Angeles Herald Express, a Hearst newspaper.

Wilkinson died of natural causes a month after surgery for a broken femur, her daughter, Jo, said.

During the Red Scare of the early 1950s, Wilkinson was teaching at the East Los Angeles Girls Vocational School when she was called before the State Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities about possible connections to the Communist Party. She declined to answer the committee's questions and in 1953 was fired by the Los Angeles Board of Education, along with five other teachers.

She had been targeted for scrutiny because she was married to Frank Wilkinson, who lost his job as a director of the Housing Authority of the city of Los Angeles after refusing to testify before the same state committee. Five years later, in 1958, he became one of the last two men ordered to prison for rebuffing the House Un-American Activities Committee's questions.

Both Wilkinsons had been members of the Communist Party at one time, according to their son, Tony, but they believed it was un-American to be persecuted for their political beliefs. Frank Wilkinson later fought to abolish the House committee and co-founded the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation.

Jean Wilkinson was blacklisted from public school teaching for more than a decade. According to journalist Griffin Fariello, who interviewed her for his 1995 oral history book "Red Scare," she was one of more than 60,000 teachers throughout the country who were investigated during the McCarthy era. Of those, more than 500 were forced to resign or were fired and blacklisted. Fariello said none of the teachers were ever accused of incompetent teaching or reliably proven to have propagandized in the classroom.

Nonetheless, Wilkinson's dismissal was applauded by prominent conservatives, including newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who wrote a 1954 editorial that characterized a state appellate court's upholding of her firing as a victory "against Communist infiltration into our way of life."

The daughter of educators, Wilkinson was born on Nov. 24, 1914, in Monterey and later moved to Los Angeles with her family. A 1932 Fairfax High School graduate, she was elected student body president at UCLA, where she received a bachelor's degree in history in 1936.

In 1938, she was hired to teach in the Los Angeles city schools. She taught on several campuses over the next 14 years, including Canoga Park, North Hollywood, Lincoln and Jefferson high schools. In 1939 she married Frank, her college sweetheart, and they raised three children.

Frank Wilkinson's efforts to develop a racially integrated public housing project in Chavez Ravine in the early 1950s drew powerful critics, who smeared it as a socialist plot. He was called before the state Un-American Activities Committee, which subpoenaed his wife when it learned she was a schoolteacher.

The hearings "had nothing to do with education," she told Fariello. "These committees look for every little tie .... They make these great leaps, because you were in the vicinity at the time then you must have been part of it. So it's almost like the making of a radical. I began to feel that if that's what a radical or a Communist was, maybe I was one — because all the good things that I wanted and believed in, these people were attacking."

Banned from public school teaching, she became a private school tutor; her husband worked as a night janitor. They were subjected to constant FBI surveillance. Their house was firebombed in 1960 but, according to Wilkinson, the police refused to investigate the incident.

The Wilkinsons divorced in 1965. Frank Wilkinson died in 2006.

She is survived by their children, including another son, Jeffry, and 24 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

After the divorce, Jean Wilkinson moved to Berkeley, where she restarted her public school teaching career. She retired from the classroom in 1977 and spent the next decade developing lessons on women's history. She also co-edited an anthology of women's writing called "I'm On My Way Running" (1983).

She achieved one of her proudest moments in 1982. At age 68, she joined a massive anti-nuclear protest at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and was arrested for the first time in her long life of activism in leftist causes.

"It was like a badge of honor to get arrested in our family," daughter Jo recalled. "At 68 she said, 'I'm going, I'm doing it!'"

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