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Mon, 09.20.1915

Lee Lorch, Math Professor, and Activist born

Lee Lorch

*Lee Lorch was born on this date in 1915.  He was a white Jewish-American mathematician, American Civil Rights activist, professor, and communist. 

Lee Alexander Lorch was born in New York City to Adolph Lorch and Florence Mayer Lorch. He graduated from Cornell University in 1935 and obtained his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Cincinnati in 1941.  he married Grace Lonergran in 1942. He did mathematics-related work for the WW II effort in a "draft-exempt" job but quit in 1943 to enlist in the United States Army. He saw service in India and the Pacific Theater of World War II before being demobilized in 1946. 

Lorch obtained a teaching position at the City College of New York following the war but was soon fired because of his racial justice work for blacks.  "I had become very aware of racism through the war not just anti-Semitism, but the way the American army treated black soldiers. 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," Lorch told an interviewer in 2007.  

After working at City College, he moved into Stuyvesant Town, a development owned by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company built with financial and legal support from New York City for war veterans. Outraged at the development's "No Negroes" policy, Lorch became a vice-chair of a tenants' committee formed to eliminate this discrimination. This had two-thirds support from the other tenants. Though conceding the excellence of his work, City College dismissed Lorch, refusing to give any reason. Lorch obtained a new position at Pennsylvania State University, but rather than give up his apartment; he asked a black friend and his family to move into his dwelling as "guests," a move which circumvented the policy against accepting housing applications from Blacks, but which also resulted in his being fired from Penn State, as reported in The New York Times on April 10, 1950.

An editorial in the Times the following day called on Penn State to reconsider, recalling the suspicious nature of his dismissal from City College the previous year, to no avail.  "It's hard to imagine now, but there was no civil rights legislation back then. You could be fired without explanation. But how could you do anything else, in all good conscience?" said Lorch in 2007. After being fired by Penn State, Lorch obtained a teaching position at Fisk University in Tennessee in 1950.  In 1951, he protested when the Mathematical Association of America held a regional meeting in a "whites only" Nashville, Tennessee hotel, which would not admit Black members of the association. Due to Jim Crow southern culture.   

In 1955, Lorch was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee after he and his wife, Grace, attempted to enroll their daughter, Alice, in an all-black elementary school after the United States Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation was unconstitutional. The Committee's questioning immediately went in a political direction. Though Lorch "pointedly denied" engaging in Communist activity during his tenure at Fisk, he refused to answer questions about his party membership before 1941. He cited the right to do so under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and never used the Fifth Amendment.

His refusal to testify before HUAC resulted in his being indicted, tried, and acquitted for contempt of Congress; nevertheless, during the House of Un-American Activities Committee hearing, Fisk University's president, Charles S. Johnson, stated that Lorch's position before the HUAC was "for all practical purposes tantamount to an admission of membership in the Communist Party." Despite the appeals on Lorch's behalf from 48 out of 70 staff members, 22 student body leaders, and 150 alumni, Fisk ended his contract.  

In 1957, Lorch was working as chair of the Mathematics Department at Philander Smith College, a small Black college in Little Rock, Arkansas. That year, he and his wife, Grace, helped escort the Little Rock Nine, nine Black high school students attempting to enroll at Little Rock Central High School against white segregationist opposition that was so ferocious his wife had to save a 15-year-old Black girl from a mob. Faced with threats and sticks of dynamite left in their garage and with the school's funding at risk, Lorch resigned and was again forced to look for new employment. 

In 1959, facing a blacklist by most US universities, Lorch accepted a position with the University of Alberta, Lee and Grace Lorch moved to Canada due to McCarthyism. He moved to York University in Toronto in 1968 and taught there until his retirement in 1985. He maintained an office in York and, in 2007, was collaborating with Martin Muldoon on a paper about Bessel functions.   Lorch remained a political activist in Canada and was a member of the Communist Party of Canada, the United Jewish Peoples Order, and honorary president of the Canadian Cuban Friendship Association.   Lorch's dissertation, under Otto Szász, focused on the behavior of certain classes of the Fourier series, and his subsequent research also focused on analysis. 

He has been recognized for his academic work with a fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada, election to the councils of the Canadian Mathematical Society, the American Mathematical Society, and the Royal Society of Canada.  Fisk and City University have awarded Lorch with honorary degrees. He was also honored by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1990 and Spelman College in 1999. In 2003, the International Society for Analysis, its Applications, and Computation presented him with honorary life membership for distinguished mathematical contributions, his struggles for the disadvantaged, and world peace.  

In 2007, Lorch was awarded the Mathematical Association of America's Yueh-Gin Gung and Dr. Charles Y. Hu Distinguished Service to Mathematics Award. In 2007 he was the first Canadian, and one of only 17 non-Cubans, to be elected to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. In 2012 he became a fellow of the American Mathematical Society. 

Lorch's legacy as a teacher at Black universities was to encourage Black students, including black women, to pursue graduate study in mathematics. At Fisk, Lorch taught three of the first blacks to earn doctorates in mathematics. Of the 21 American Black women who obtained a Ph.D. in mathematics before 1980, Lorch taught three during his tenure at Fisk University.   In 2010, Lorch was asked if he would have done anything differently. "More and better of the same," he replied.  He ended his career as professor emeritus of mathematics at York University in Toronto, Ontario died on February 28, 2014, in Toronto, aged 98.  

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