Morris U. Schappes Papers
Scope and Content Note
Subgroup I documents the Rapp-Coudert Committee’s investigations (Series 1), Schappes’s imprisonment (Series 2), and public and media reactions to the controversy (Series 3). Materials, most of which date between 1940 and 1945, include legal documents, correspondence, clippings, pamphlets, notes, and mailings.
Subgroup II consists of materials Schappes both generated and collected, primarily between 1931 and 1990, in connection with his professional work as a scholar, writer, and editor. Schappes broadly surveyed American Jewish history, including examinations of key figures, immigration trends, particular professional fields, and state-specific presence and issues. Items include manuscripts, correspondence, clippings, notes, subject files, index cards, photostats, microfilm, and photographs.
The only documentation of Schappes’s private life in this collection is his prison correspondence with his wife, family and friends in Subgroup I, as well as a few photographs of him and his wife in Subgroup II. For more complete personal documentation, audio materials and extensive coverage of Schappes’s Jewish Currents work see his papers at NYU’s Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.
- Creation: 1891-2004
- Creation: Majority of material found within 1940 - 1990
Language of Materials
The collection is in English, with some materials in Yiddish. A few items are in Russian, Hebrew, German, and French.
The collection is open to all researchers, except items that may be restricted due to their fragility, or privacy.
No permission is required to quote, reproduce or otherwise publish manuscript materials found in this collection, as long as the usage is scholarly, educational, and non-commercial. For inquiries about other usage, please contact the Director of Collections and Engagement at email@example.com.
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Morris Urman Schappes, self-taught historian of American Jewish History, author, teacher, and editor of Jewish Currents for 40 years, is also known as a victim of hearings conducted in 1941 by the Rapp-Coudert Committee, a New York legislative committee investigating Communist activities in the state educational system.
Morris Schappes was born Moise ben Haim Shapshilevich on May 3, 1907. Prior to Schappes’s birth, his father, Hyman, a wood turner and carpenter, and his mother, Ida Urman, emigrated from the Ukraine to Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. When she became pregnant with Morris, Ida returned to the Ukraine to give birth with the help of family in Kamenets−Podol’skiy.
After his birth, the family returned to Brazil, where Brazilian officials changed their last name to Schappes. In July 1914, intending to move back to the Ukraine, the family first stopped in New York to visit relatives. With the outbreak of WWI, however, they remained permanently in New York, residing on East 10th Street.
A clerk at Schappes’s first elementary school Americanized and recorded his name as Morris. His parents changed their last name to Schapiro, but Morris kept Schappes. As a college student he added the initial “U” to his name to stand for his mother’s maiden name, Urman, or alternately Ulysses, but Urman is what formally stuck.
Schappes graduated with a B.A. from City College of New York (CCNY) in 1928, and returned to teach in September of that year. He began graduate work at Columbia University in 1928, and graduated from Columbia with an M.A. in 1930. He married Sonya Laffer (1909-1992) that same year. Sonya Laffer graduated from Hunter College High School in 1925, earned her BA at Hunter College in 1929, and earned a degree in teaching English as a second language from CCNY in 1932. She worked as a teacher, and in the 1940s, as a manager of the Jefferson School of Social Science bookshop.
In 1934 Morris Schappes officially joined the Communist Party. Schappes explained his entry into the party as follows: “I joined the Communist Party in 1934 because I wished more effectively to resist the march of fascism and work for a new reorganization of our social economy in an American form of Socialism,” and “One of the features that attracted me to the Communist Party was the development of Soviet Jewish culture. Also, I supported the Soviet peace policy of collective security, which would have prevented World War II.” He was also influenced by the Depression and his in-laws’ politics.
Schappes helped found the Anti-Fascist Association of staff and faculty at CCNY in 1935. In 1936, Schappes, along with a dozen other CCNY faculty, were dismissed by the administration for their activism, but, following large student protests and trade union pressure, were reinstated. In 1941, Schappes and about 40 other CCNY instructors were investigated by the Rapp-Coudert Committee; his turned into one of the most publicized of the cases. Though he admitted to his Communist Party membership, when asked to name colleagues affiliated with the party, he said there were only four, all of whom were not on the faculty by that time. There was evidence to the contrary, so he was indicted on charges of perjury, incarcerated in December 1943 and released on parole in December 1944. The Board of Trustees of CUNY would not formally apologize to him for his unfair dismissal and treatment until 1981.
As he served time in 1943, his academic interests shifted away from American literature, to American Jewish history, politics, and culture; he even taught humself Hebrew in prison. He had distanced himself from his Jewish and Yiddish background in his early years in the U.S., but his shift back to Jewish culture began in the mid-1930s. Schappes explained, “Not only Marxism but the impact of Hitler’s anti-Semitism overcame my alienation from the culture of my people and family.”
After his year in prison, Schappes worked as an editor, writer and educator. Beginning from its inception in 1946, Schappes was on the editorial board of the Communist-Party-sponsored magazine, Jewish Life. In 1958, in tandem with growing disillusionment with Soviet Communism in Schappes’s circles and with Schappes’s entry into the position of Editor-in-Chief, the magazine shifted away from Communist politics and transformed into a broadly leftist, politically independent publication renamed Jewish Currents. Schappes served as Editor-in-Chief until 2000.
Schappes taught Jewish Studies at the Jefferson School of Social Science 1948-1957, and at the School of Jewish Knowledge 1958-1969. When, in 1972, he was offered a full professorship in the Queens College History Department, he thought it “more important to continue editing Jewish Currents than to be one of 50,000 history professors in the United States.” He did, however, take on the position of Adjunct Professor of History at Queens College 1972-1976.
Schappes was especially active in the American Jewish Historical Society and the American Historical Association. He died on June 3, 2004.
His letters written during incarceration at the Tombs in Manhattan were published as Letters from the Tombs (1941), with a foreword by Richard Wright. He edited and/or authored introductions to Emma Lazarus: Selections from her Poetry and Prose (1944; 5th edition, 1982), The Letters of Emma Lazarus (1949), A Documentary History of the Jews of the United States: 1654-1875 (1950; 1971), and An Epistle to the Hebrews (1987). He wrote The Jews in the United States: A Pictorial History, 1654 to the Present (1958; in 1965, revised and retitled as A Pictorial History of the Jews in the United States). He contributed columns and articles to Jewish Life, Jewish Currents, Morning Freiheit, The Worker and Challenge.
- Schappes, Morris. “For Genealogists: A Classic Example of How Immigrants Acquire Personal and Family Names.” Jewish Currents (Sept 1972): 7-8. Box 12; Folder 13.
- Schappes, Morris. Statement. 1971. Box 2; Folder 9.
- Godfrey, Naomi. “Discredited in the ‘40s, he’s honored in the ‘80s.” Jewish Week. January 8, 1987, p.2. Box 12; Folder 1.
- Schappes, Morris to Barbara Dunlap. Correspondence. July 19, 1987. Box 12; Folder 1.
- Goldfarb, Carl. "Jewish Currents: The Man Who Has Shaped It." The Westsider. March 14, 1985, p.6, 16. Box 12; Folder 1.
42 Linear Feet (77 manuscript boxes, 1 half manuscript boxes, 3 card boxes, 1 oversized box (OS 1), 1 Hollinger box)
Morris U. Schappes, self-taught historian of American Jewish History, author, teacher, and editor of Jewish Currents for 40 years, is also known as a victim of hearings conducted in 1941 by the Rapp-Coudert Committee, a New York legislative committee investigating Communist activities in the state educational system.
This collection is comprised of materials related to the Rapp-Coudert proceedings and Schappes' subsequent imprisonment, and of materials generated in the following decades. Topics represented include academic freedom, Communism in the U.S., the roles of Jews in U.S. history, and Emma Lazarus. The formats primarily present in the collection are research notes, manuscripts, clippings, and correspondence.
The collection is split into two subgroups: the first consists of the donation Schappes made in 1968; the second is the donation made by his estate in 2004.
- Subgroup I: Court Proceedings and Imprisonment, 1920-1967 (bulk 1940-1945)
- Series 1: Court Proceedings, 1940-1943
- Series 2: Imprisonment, 1931-1944
- Series 3: General, 1920, 1935-1946, 1957-1967
- Subgroup II: Writings and Research, 1891-2000 (bulk 1931-1990)
- Series 1: Professional, 1930-2004
- Series 2: Writings, undated, 1931-1990
- Subseries A: General, 1931-1988
- Subseries B: A Documentary History of the Jews in the United States, 1654-1875, undated, 1931-1990
- Subseries C: A Pictorial History of the Jews in the United States, undated, 1915-1988
- Series 3: Subject Files, 1901-2000
- Series 4: Index Cards, undated
- Series 5: Clippings and Printed Materials, 1924-2000
- Series 6: Book Collection, 1931-1998
- Series 7: Photographs and Microfilm, -1971
- Series 8: Oversized Materials, 1891, 1922-1932
Other Finding Aids
A box and folder list representing the previous arrangement can be found in the donor file and can be requested by permission of the archivist.
In June 1968, Morris U. Schappes donated papers related primarily to the Rapp-Coudert Committee legal proceedings and imprisonment. They were arranged by AJHS into a box and folder list shortly after that, and again in October 2009 by Marvin Rusinek. In July 2004, the Estate of Morris U. Schappes donated 28 boxes of books and 23 boxes of mixed materials (accession # 2004.007) to AJHS, and the other half of his papers went to the NYU Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. According to Tamiment archivist, Jan Hilley, when accessioning the 2004 material, AJHS and NYU archivists attempted to separate out the more politically oriented material for NYU and the more historically oriented material for AJHS, but due to significant overlap in his research, the collections are quite similar in scope and content.
A signed letter from and photograph of Hillary Clinton was transferred by Deena Schwimmer into the Autograph Collection, P-750. 27 boxes of books were likely donated to the Jewish Prisoners of America. Some periodicals, ephemera and clippings were donated to the the Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at NYU.
- Schappes, Morris U. (Morris Urman), 1907-2004 (Person)
- Schappes, Sonya Laffer, 1909-1992 (Person)
- City University of New York. City College (Organization)
- New York (State). Legislature. Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate the Educational System of the State of New York (Organization)
- Rapp-Coudert Committee (Organization)
Genre / Form
- Cards (information artifacts)
- clippings (information artifacts)
- Drafts (documents)
- Legal documents
- Notes (documents)
- Research notes
- speeches (documents)
- Morris U. Schappes Papers
- Processed by Rachel Miller as part of the Leon Levy Archival Processing Initiative, made possible by the Leon Levy Foundation.
- © 2010.
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Description is in English.
- Edition statement
- This version was derived from MorrisSchappes.xml
- April, June 2020: EHyman: post-ASpace migration cleanup.