1159 Washington Street, Norwood
On November 9, 1951, FBI agents visited the South Norwood branch of the Morrill Memorial Library to speak with Mary Knowles, a librarian. They asked about individuals she knew and their involvement in the Communist Party. Knowles declined to answer their questions.
Mary Knowles was of interest because she had worked for a time as a secretary at the Samuel Adams School for Social Studies, a Communist Party-affiliated institution in Downtown Boston. Some months after the school was forced to close in the spring of 1948, the City of Norwood’s public library hired Knowles for its South Norwood branch.
Immediately following the FBI’s visit, Knowles informed her supervisor, Edna Phillips, of what had transpired and offered to step down from her position. Phillips, however, saw no reason for Knowles to resign and encouraged her to stay on.
The issue would have likely died there had not an undercover FBI agent identified Ms. Knowles as a member of the Communist Party in testimony before the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (also known as the Jenner Committee) on May 6, 1953. This would lead to the Committee issuing a subpoena for Knowles.
When Mary Knowles went before the Jenner Committee, she invoked her Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer its questions, including one regarding whether she was or had been a member of the Communist Party. She only supplied her name and address and information about her employment at the library. In a brief statement, Knowles asserted that “attempts to impose uniformity of thought or religion by using the weapons of economic pressure or unwanted publicity … is a deep threat to our liberties and the strength of the United States.” Her appearance before the committee lasted less than five minutes.
In a context of “Red Scare” politics, Knowles became a target of anti-Communist individuals and organizations in and around Norwood. On May 9, 1953, Norwood library trustees suspended Knowles from her position pending the results of her own appearance before the Jenner Committee. On June 1, less than two weeks after her testimony, the trustees, bowing to pressure from Daughters of the American Revolution and an entity called the Community Chest, which threatened to withhold funding for the library, fired Mary Knowles from her position by a 4-0 vote. (The junior high school classmates of Ms. Knowles’s son, Jonathan, responded by electing him president of their class.)
“South Norwood was perhaps a fitting venue” for what befell Mary Knowles, according to historian Allison Hepler. “On January 2, 1920, South Norwood got swept up in the first American ‘Red Scare,’” she writes in reference to what became known as the Palmer Raids.* “Raids, generally aimed at the nation’s urban immigrant groups and led by police and Justice Department officials in twenty-three states, netted twelve men from South Norwood, who were arrested ‘on suspicion of being Reds or members of the Communist Party.’”
The South Norwood branch library, which occupied a storefront, opened in 1941, in response to the desires of area residents and the South Norwood Merchant’s Association. At the time, according to Hepler, South Norwood was “the industrial and immigrant heart of the town.” Much of the population of the area, also known as “the Flats,” was comprised of “first- and second-generation Italians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Syrians who provided the labor for the town’s paper, roofing, and building factories.”
The site on 1159 Washington Street remained the home of the South Norwood branch until 1971 when a new facility, located a few blocks south on Washington Street, took its place. Only five years later, however, the South Norwood branch closed for good for reasons of cost and the duplication of services, explains Norwood historian Patricia Fanning. Today, the building in which Mary Knowles worked as a librarian still stands. The former home of the South Norwood branch library now houses a dog grooming salon.
As for Mary Knowles, she moved to Pennsylvania where she found a job at the William Jeanes Memorial Library in what is today Whitemarsh Township. Ms. Knowles remained employed there as a librarian until her retirement in 1979.
An MBTA bus that runs between Forest Hills Station (Orange Line) and Walpole passes by the site.
To learn more:
Allison Hepler, McCarthyism in the Suburbs: Quakers, Communists, and the Children’s Librarian, Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2018.
Patricia J. Fanning, Keeping the Past: Norwood at 150, Staunton, Virginia: American History Press, 2021.
Patricia J. Fanning, Norwood: A History, Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.
E. V. McLean, “Suspended Librarian May Face Jenner Committee,” Norwood Messenger, May 12, 1953: 1-2.
Nancy Sullivan, “The Plymouth Meeting Controversy,” blog of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, March 9, 2017.
“Norwood Woman Remains Silent on Red Charges,” Norwood Messenger, May 26, 1953: 1+.
“Trustees Fire So. Norwood Librarian on 4 to 0 Vote,” Norwood Messenger, June 2, 1953: 1+.
*Regarding the Palmer Raids, see the entry for Socialist Hall (in Lowell) in A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.
Residence of Mary Knowles during her time in Norwood, 159 Cottage Street.
Thanks to the staff at the Morrill Memorial Library for rendering myriad forms of assistance and for allowing us to peruse its archives related to Mary Knowles and the South Norwood Branch.