#24 Barbara Elfbrandt – The Quaker Teacher Who Spoke Her Truth for Peace and Justice

As the wild storms of the Atlantic Ocean have swept across the islands of the Caribbean in the last two years wiping out thousands of home and leaving hundreds of families with nothing, I’ve felt such a sense of loss. What must one feel when your family’s history is wiped away by a surge of water? Where do you find your hope? In 1958, the government opened the waters of the Snake River in Eastern Oregon at the newly finished Brownlee Dam and inundated several small towns including Robinette, Oregon. Gone were the homesteads of families who had lived in that town since pioneer days. One of them was that of Rose Beeman, mother of Barbara Elfbrandt. At the time she and her husband were living in Spokane, Washington, only an infrequent visitor to Robinette or a cabin at Lake Coeur d’Alene in nearby Idaho. Barbara was 25, married and living in Tucson, Arizona with her husband Vernon, active in Pima Friends Meeting and teaching English and social studies in an area middle school. I do wonder if that wiping out of family history had any affect on Barbara’s speaking her truth on the loyalty oath.

Both Barbara and Vernon were teachers, well liked, and anxious to involve their students in the issues of the day. Barbara was a hands on instructor, taking her students outside the school to experience first hand the lives of those working for peace and justice and those making the laws to hopefully establish a legal base for that to occur. In 1960-61, she took a group of students to observe the state legislature in action, debating a post-McCarthy era law under consideration, the Arizona Communist Control Act (ACCA). She had been to some demonstrations against the act but wanted her students to hear the debate and make up their own minds about it. The Act banned the Communist Party in the state, prohibited membership in the Communist Party if one were a state employee, and prohibited membership in the NAACP, the ACLU, or any organization that sought to overthrow the federal or state governments. I don’t know what the students thought, but I do know that Barbara Elfbrandt was certain the act was a bad precedent and should not become law. Unfortunately, it passed easily with little opposition in the legislature. Barbara and her fellow teachers were presented with a new loyalty oath to sign. She had signed a simple loyalty oath when originally hired to teach. This one asked her to sign, with the threat of imprisonment for perjury, and declare that she was not a member of the Communist Party nor any of the other organizations mentioned or implied in the ACCA. This she could not do. Vernon was on a leave of absence from teaching in that year of 1961 and would not refuse to sign until his return the following year.

Barbara Elfbrandt described her Quaker membership and its long tradition of not taking oaths dating back to the 17th century. This was an important underpinning for her refusal, but she felt strongly that the law was unclear and threatened her first and fourteenth amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association. She did not return her form to her principal despite his pleas. He did not want to lose her. She was a good teacher. The law, however, did not allow dismissal for this refusal. It simply said that the person refusing to sign would not be paid. Barbara loved teaching and felt her students needed her to stand for her truth. Supported by Friends of her Quaker meeting and other activists in the city and elsewhere, she continued to teach. Vernon returned, refused to sign the oath, and continued to teach. They did not get other employment. What did they do?

Friends set up a schedule of dinner invitations for the week and made sure there was food in the refrigerator and the cupboards. Their landlady, a wealthy philanthropist, suspended their $70 a month rent. A fellow teacher, who also refused to sign the oath and taught for a year without pay, moved to teach at Shaw University in North Carolina. He, Clyde Appleton, left them a list of 2000 loyalty oath refusers from around the United States. Some of them were among the 700 donors who contributed to the Elfbrandt emergency fund. Susan Hibbs, a member of Pima MM designed a Christmas card “Peace on Earth” and sold them for $1.75 a box. At first all the proceeds went to cover Elfbrandt living expenses and court costs. The cards were so popular, she was convinced to cover her costs before donating to the fund. Teachers heard their story and donated. One teacher in California sent a $50 check each month. Another from Hawaii sent a whole month’s pay. These were sacrifices that moved Barbara. She said she learned from these donations that money was not the most important thing; it was the emotional support that mattered more.

Barbara sued in the Superior Court against the head of the School Board of Amphitheater School District Imogene Russell and others. Her lawyer, W. Edward Morgan, worked on a contingency, using all his legal expertise to push the issue. As the years moved on and the losses in the state and even in the Supreme Court increased, she felt support as she swam against the stream of injustice.

The Elfbrandts kept in touch with Clyde Appleton as he continued his work in teaching and civil rights in North Carolina in spite of the FBI surveillance that all three endured. Clyde joined the Quakers in North Carolina and found the same support that Barbara and Vernon had received from the Friends of Pima Monthly Meeting and others throughout the Pacific Yearly Meeting of Friends.

In 1966, the Supreme Court heard the case for the second time. This time, with Justice William O. Douglas writing the close 5-4 opinion, the court struck down the loyalty oath in Arizona as an unconstitutional requirement for state employees, based largely on the “membership” clause and the vagueness of the law in terms of the plaintiff’s belonging to any organization that might have an intent to harm the government whether the plaintiff knew it of not. The court also ruled for reinstatement of back pay, but it would take further lawsuits to fulfill that mandate. Many donors refused to be reimbursed for their contributions, and the back rent was not requested. Vindicated, the Elfbrandts went on with their lives. Peter Irons wrote about them in his book, Courage of Their Convictions. I discovered their story there while doing research on Gordon Hirabayashi and sought out Barbara in Tucson. Now 86, she still attends the Pima Monthly Meeting and stays involved as she is able.

What happened between 1966 and 2019? For a while Barbara worked in draft counseling at a center supported by W. Edward Morgan, her lawyer. She was involved in not only draft cases but ones involving men in the military that brought conscientious objection to their continued service. After five years she went to law school, realizing that she needed further education to serve her clients. She worked with veterans returning from the Vietnam War to get the services they needed. In 1980 she began work at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Tucson. During her eight years there she took over the leadership of the office and developed new programs to serve marginalized groups. She centered much of her work on peace issues, initiating peace studies for prison inmates and workers, developing conflict resolution curricula for teachers and students, pushed for conflict studies at the University of Arizona, and organized a peace conversion plan for Tucson industry. As the sanctuary movement began in the Southwest, the AFSC office supported where it could. Barbara was engaged; she shared that “I decided I might as well get paid for what I liked to do.”

Vernon died in 1982; her parents, Rose and Byron in 1984 and 1986. When an opportunity to work at the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) opened in New York, she felt free to take on the role of Assistant Director under Stephen Collett. Her experience in peace work and justice issues helped her prepare briefing papers for delegates on human rights, disarmament, conscientious objection, and refugees. She was a good “people” person and enjoyed the conferences where delegates from conflicting sides of an issue could come together in an unofficial way and share their views. She was invigorated by the international character of the dialogue.

Back in Tucson, Barbara taught at the Pima Community College, returned to active membership in Pima Monthly Meeting, and married W. Edward Morgan, her former lawyer. She has outlived them all. Morgan died in 2017. I have emailed briefly with her and look forward to a telephone chat soon where she can share the answers to my many questions of how she, an ordinary person, led an extraordinary life. While she has no Wikipedia page, she has a story that needs to be shared.

Questions to ponder:

  • When one loses everything in a disaster, what is it that sustains and strengths the soul?
  • Barbara Elfbrandt came to Friends through AFSC “institutes” in Spokane, Washington. What do you think she found there that led to her lifelong work in speaking her truth and supporting marginalized people?
  • When fear of the “other” causes leaders to curtail freedoms, how can people work intentionally to open dialogue and close the gaps between conflicting sides of issues?
  • Why do some ordinary people step out of their comfort zones and do extraordinary things?

Resources:

  • I Am Shaylee Seakin: Speaking My Truth by Bonnie Kelso
  • They Called Us Enemy by George Takei
  • March by John Lewis (a graphics trilogy)
  • Bunny and Bear Work It Out by Jason Anderson
  • Talk and Work It Out (Learning to Get Along) by Cheri J. Meiners
  • Conflict Resolution: When Friends Fight by Elizabeth George
  • Emotional Judo: Communication Skills to Handle Difficult Conversations and Boost Emotional Intelligence by Tim Higgs
  • youtube.com has some wonderful short videos on civil disobedience and working for change of bad laws

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