Henry Foner, Labor Legend
From: John Pietaro
An Arts-Activism Report from the Cultural Workers
We on the Labor-Left have had an awareness of the Foner family for many years. Activists, historians, organizers, union officials, coalition builders, teachers, artists, makers of merriment and tireless fighters for the working class. Philip, Moe, Henry and a bit later, Eric--and beyond.
In recent years, Moe Foner was posthumously honored at NYC's Town Hall for his work on behalf of all unionists, but particularly his efforts to build and lead 1199's Bread and Roses Cultural Project. This writer was proud to have been a part of that program. But what better way to honor someone than to celebrate their life while they are able to be a part of the evening? Yes, last night (3/23/04), New York University's Tamiment Library/Robert Wagner Labor Archive hosted HENRY FONER'S 85th BIRTHDAY
CELEBRATION. And, happily, no one seemed to enjoy the moment more than the honoree.
The program was put together by, among others, Tamiment's Rachel Bernstein (co-writer of "Ordinary
People, Extraordinary Lives"). The host was retired NYS Legislator and NY Supreme Court Justice Frank Barbaro. Being a Brooklyn native, I've long known of Mr Barbaro's name and reputation as "one of the people", but it was really wonderful to see him preside over a gathering one could only call downright radical. And he never missed a beat ("I would say 'God bless Henry', but it would probably be more appropriate to say 'Marx bless'," he said, accompanied by a roar of laughter). The audience included so many long-time Labor and otherwise activists. Hard to name them all, but I was happy to see Nora Guthrie, daughter of Woody and head of the Woody Guthrie Archive there, as well as Harold Leventhal, manager of so many of our folk music legends, and Esther Cohen, director of Bread and Roses.
After an address by the Archive's director, Michael Nash, Jackie Steiner, topical singer (and writer of "The
MTA Song", by the way) offered a song parody in honor of Henry. Pete Seeger, long a heroic figure in Left circles (and so many other circles from Sesame Street to Pennsylvania Avenue!) came on next. Though Pete had told the event's organizers that he would not be singing-- only speaking--he brought along both his banjo and guitar anyhow. Wonderfully, he led the crowd in a gentle but profound "Turn, Turn, Turn", his composition from the early 1960s. This deeply progressive crowd was so obviously anti-war and so far removed from the notions of the Bush administration. Pete never had to say another word; his song spoke volumes to us all, as it did several wars back.
Other speakers included Anne Foner (Moe's wife), Keri Amanda Myers (an archivist, friend and one of the
event's organizers), Sonia Bernhardt Bloom (lifelong friend of the honoree), Laura Foner (Henry's niece, who also sang a loving song parody with other family members, Eric Foner (Henry's nephew and the well-known professor and historian), Henry's daughter Rachel and grandson, assorted old friends including one of the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and Paul Robeson Jr. The latter read spoke from the heart about Henry, the director of the Paul Robeson Society, and read him an original poem. Also on hand was a delegation from the British firefighters’ union, and Ed Ott of the NYC Central Labor Counsel spoke and offered a beautiful statement as well as a Proclamation from the CLC. He made it clear that, through it all, Henry was and is one of the good guys.
This writer was quite honored to be among the musical performers, particularly Pete whom I'd performed with only once several years before. I humorously told the crowd that as a player of the 5-string banjo, it was
quite precarious to have Pete sit in the front row singing along to my performance of "Solidarity Forever".
On behalf of Henry, I dedicated my favorite verse of that anthem to the current White House inhabitant--"Is there ought we have in common with the greedy parasite/who would lash us into serfdom and crush us
with his might?/Is there anything left for us/But to organize and fight!/The union makes us strong". Ted
Casselman, Tamiment librarian, joined me as we performed several verses he wrote with Henry in mind. These included both Yiddish and Latin! I suppose that Henry's reputation as a joker brought on so much song parody.
All in all, this was a perfect evening. Henry appeared so moved, so touched by the honor the crowd brought to him. For one of the good guys--we were all so pleased to be there.
Happy Birthday, Henry!
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