Lee Lorch died on February 28, 2013, in Toronto, Canada, at the age of 98. A well-respected mathematician as well as a dedicated civil rights activist, his activism and the effect of that activism are the focus of his obituary in the New York Times. Generally, scientists overestimate the professional risk to themselves for speaking out on political and social issues, but Lorch was treated badly at every place he worked in the USA. He moved to Canada- first to the University of Alberta in 1959 and later to York University in Toronto- when it was clear that, despite his stellar mathematic research and teaching, no American college would employ him.
Late in his life, Lorch received many honors from institutions, organizations, and fellow mathematicians, including an honorary degree from City College, a college that had blocked his promotion early in his career. In most of his activist endeavors, he was back by colleagues, but not by boards or administrators. Students protested for him, Albert Einstein protested for him, newspapers and professional organizations backed him- but he still was not allowed to keep his academic jobs.
At his first job after WWII, City College in New York City, he worked with tenants at Stuyvesant Town, a large housing complex , to eliminate the “No Negroes Allowed” policy. This initial work was vital in the eventual passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. His promotion was blocked by the appointments committee.
At Penn State University, he was denied reappointment for having invited a black family to live with them in Stuyvesant Town. That family stayed on when the Lorches (both Lorch’s wife and daughter were activists as well) were forced out, starting the integration of Stuyvesant Town.
At Fisk University, a historic black college in Nashville Tennessee, Lorch tried to enroll his daughter in an all black school, and refused to answer questions for the House Un-American Activities Committee about his interest in communism. At Fisk he taught 3 of the first blacks to get doctorates in mathematics. He was let go.
At Philander Smith College, in Little Rock, Arkansas, a small all-black institution, his prior interaction with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the activism of his wife, Grace, and daughter Alice in assisting the first black child, Elizabeth Eckford, to enter the all-white public school, and his own work in accompanying other black students to schools through angry crowds, caused Philander leadership to refuse to renew his appointment in 1957. A photograph of Elizabeth Eckford won a Pulitzer Prize, and Little Rock was a touchstone in school integration.
There are no lessons here for what he could have done “differently” that would have allowed him to keep working in academia in the USA. Considering black people to be equal to white people was considered to be subversive. Compromise would have made board members rest easy, but it would not have been effective.
A magnificent life.
Lee Lorch, Rights Activist Who Fought For Housing Desegregation, Dies at 98. David Margolick. March 3, 2014. The New York Times p A21. http://nyti.ms/1eNJA1D
See also: An appreciation to Lee Lorch. Mathematics Department of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Scott W. Williams. May 28, 1995. http://www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/special/lorch-lee.html