MathematicianLee Lorch

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Lorch was a mathematician — with a conscience. “I had become very aware of racism through the war; not just anti-Semitism, but the way the American army treated black soldiers,” he said later. “On the troop transport overseas, it was always the black company on board that had to clean the ship and do the dirty work, and I felt very uncomfortable with that.” Once home, the overt racism in the Land of the Free kept bothering Lorch (who was white, and Jewish). He had accepted a teaching position at City College of New York after the war, and moved into Stuyvesant Town, a huge development in Manhattan owned by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company — which had a “No Negroes Allowed” policy for the complex. Lorch petitioned for a change in that policy, but Met Life president Frederick Ecker declared that “Negroes and whites do not mix” — and got Lorch fired from his job. Lorch got a new job at the Pennsylvania State University — and got around Met Life’s racism by letting a black family move in to his apartment as “guests.” Met Life was unamused, and got him fired from his new job, too. “It’s hard to imagine now, but there was no civil rights legislation back then,” Lorch said. “You could be fired without explanation. But how could you do anything else, in all good conscience?” He took a new job teaching in Tennessee, at Fisk, a “historically black university.” He found trouble there, too, when the Mathematical Association of America held a meeting in town, and declared it “whites only.” Lorch protested, but was overruled.

Lorch was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee over his pushing for equal rights for all. He “pointedly denied” engaging in any Communist activity, and then refused to answer questions about his politics, citing the First, not Fifth, Amendment to the Constitution. As a result, he was indicted, tried, but acquitted for contempt of Congress — and fired from Fisk. He got another job at a black college in Arkansas, where he and his wife volunteered to help escort the Little Rock Nine to school, which led to his family receiving numerous death threats. Lorch fled to Canada, and taught at the University of Alberta, and then York University in Toronto, where he stayed until he retired in 1985. Both City University and Fisk apologized to Lorch, awarding him honorary degrees, and in 2007 the Mathematical Association of America gave him the Distinguished Service to Mathematics Award. He was asked in 2010 if he would have done anything any differently. “More and better of the same,” he replied. Dr. Lorch died February 28, in Toronto. He was 98.

From This is True for 2 March 2014