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Thursday, 09 March 2017 21:39

The Plymouth Meeting Controversy

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A headline from the Norristown Times-Herald.

Lately, one of our tireless volunteers, Dick Mardi, has been processing our church collections. Among the church bulletins, anniversary booklets, and newspaper clippings, he came across a small green booklet called “The Plymouth Meeting Controversy.” I guessed it was some kind schism in the meeting house, but it was much more interesting. In 1954, McCarthyism came to Montgomery County.


First a little background. William Jeanes Memorial Library (now in Whitemarsh Township) was founded by Mrs. Mary Rich Jeanes Miller, who left $75,000 to Plymouth Monthly Meeting in her will for the founding of the library. She died in 1926. The library opened in a private home in 1933, and moved into its own building two years later. As time went on, the library committee (appointed by the Monthly Meeting) approached Plymouth and Whitemarsh Townships for support. Each township offered $500 annually, and Plymouth asked for and received two seats on the committee.


Now, in 1953, the librarian, Edith Sawyer, broke her hip and was unable to work for 3 months. So, the library board began to look for a replacement. They contacted the employment chairman was the Special Libraries Council of Philadelphia and Vicinity, and he suggested Mary Knowles who had just moved from Massachusetts to Wayne, Pa.

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Mary Knowles in a photograph published by the Times-Herald on August 2, 1955.


In her first conversation with Lillian Tapley, chair of the library committee, Mary Knowles said that she had been fired by her previous employer, Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts, because she had invoked the Fifth Amendment while being questioned by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. As she explained to Morrill Memorial Library:


“This past week I appeared under subpoena before the Senate Sub-committee on Internal Security headed by Senator [William] Jenner in Washington, in both secret and open hearings. In both instances I answered only questions as to my name, address, and employment in the Library. Al other questions I declined under the privilege granted by the Fifth Amendment, which says: “that no person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Lest this would seem not to apply, I would like to explain further. In the first place I have committed no crime… in the second place, the investigating committees no longer uphold the validity of the First Amendment, and recourse to that Amendment…could very easily lead to contempt of court citation and ensuing jail sentence. In the third place, if, under compulsion I testified concerning my religion and politics, but refused to answer questions about others, I would also be held in contempt of court…Fourth, if I refused to answer questions on moral or ethical grounds without invoking the Fifth Amendment, I would also be held in contempt of court and again face a jail sentence. Fifth, and last, I feel very strongly that these committees and their methods are highly unconstitutional; that they represent a deep threat not only to the strength of the United States, but also to the very form of government itself; that through such investigations lies indeed the path of the United States into totalitarianism and the police state.”


Why was Knowles questioned by the senate committee in the first place? She had worked at the Samuel Adams School in Boston, a school that was one of several operated by the American Communist Party.


The committee didn’t think Knowles’ past disqualified her for the position. They contacted her references and they all gave excellent reports. The committee hired her for a temporary, six month position. The two representatives from Plymouth Township were not at the meeting when the committee voted to hire her, but the booklet points out that they never voiced any opposition during that initial six month period.

blog300 Plymouth Meeting House in 1943.


At the time, loyalty oaths were a bit of a craze in America. Pennsylvania had a loyalty oath, and a Plymouth commissioner suggested Knowles take the oath, but she declined. She did sign a statement declaring her support of the United States, its founding documents, and stated that she had no connection to any left-wing groups since leaving the Samuel Adams School.


When Edith Sawyer’s hip healed, she returned to work briefly, but resigned in September of 1954. The committee looked around for a new librarian, but didn’t find one they liked as much as they had Mary Knowles. The booklet points out several times that attendance and circulation had increased when Mary Knowles took over. Since Knowles had not yet found another job, she was rehired.


This led to a standoff between the two representatives of Plymouth Township and the Monthly Meeting. The township demanded that Knowles had to sign the loyalty oath, and the Monthly Meeting decided that requiring the loyalty oath was counter to their Quaker beliefs.


Plymouth Township and its school board both withheld their annual contributions, and the local American Legion post and the Daughters of the American Revolution declared their opposition to Knowles’ employment without the oath. Plus, a new group, called Alerted Americans Group popped up to voice opposition to Knowles. According to “The Plymouth Meeting Controversy” the “group” was largely the effort of one person, Helen Payson Corson of Plymouth Meeting, Pa. A letter from the group read:


“Should we accept such a person of doubtful loyalty in a position of public trust and esteem when to do so requires us to repudiate the long, agonizing ordeal of a man like Herbert Philbrick? Should be thank God for dedicated patriots like him and vigorously support him in every way? Doesn’t he deserve our gratitude just as much as our men in uniform do? Let’s honor the F.B.I., not the F.A.U. (Fifth Amendment Users).”


Herbert Philbrick was an advertising executive who infiltrated the Communist Party in the 1940’s for the F. B. I.

blog301 Herbert Philbrick testifying about Communist recruitment in the United States.


The Monthly Meeting continued to support Knowles, stating “Should an accusation of association with the Communist Party eight years ago be disqualification for employment? We think it should not. Certainly, in a Christian and democratic nation, the individual has the right to be judged on the merits of his particular case.”


The following year, 1955, the Fund for the Republic, an organization interested in matters the concerning the Bill of Rights, awarded Plymouth Monthly Meeting $5000 for “courageous and effective defense of democratic principles.”


This more than offset what the library was losing from Plymouth Township, but it also brought even more attention to the case. Mary Knowles was again called before the Senate Internal Subcommittee. She again stated that she was not a Communist. At this hearing she did not invoke the Fifth Amendment “since any association that I had had with an organization on the Attorney General’s list was so far in the past, that I would no longer be privileged to claim the Fifth Amendment.” She still refused on answer questions about her association with both individuals and organizations. She was convicted of 58 counts of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a $500 fine and 120 days in jail.  Her conviction was overturned in 1960.


In summer of 1956, a sub-committee of the House Committee on Un-American Activities opened hearings in Philadelphia. Lillian Tapley was subpoenaed along with the minutes of the Monthly Meeting. The Monthly Meeting refused to comply, citing the First Amendment, and the sub-committee backed off on the matter of the minutes. Tapley and several people opposed to the employment of Mary Knowles testified. Letters from members of the meeting, both supporting Knowles and in opposition to her, were also sent to the committee.

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The booklet was written in 1957 and it summed up the controversy this way, “we have no black and white situation, rather gray, with sincere opinions expressed on both sides…Frequent silent periods have shown us that none of us is above censure or error, and have helped us to speak less hastily and less often.”

Mary Knowles continued to work for the William Jeanes Memorial Library until her retirement in 1979.  Today, the library's technology fund is named in her honor.

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