“A Travesty Upon the Word ‘Investigation:'” Mary Knowles and the Plymouth Meeting Controversy

By 1956, the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) had ceased to be relevant. Having barely survived the intensive internal security measures implemented by the U.S. government in the early 1950s, the main blow to the CPUSA came, ironically enough, from the party’s Soviet patron. Nikita Khrushchev’s February 1956 “secret speech,” which implicated his predecessor Joseph Stalin in numerous crimes, brutally disabused many party members of their notion that Stalin’s Soviet Union represented a bright pinnacle of human progress. Most CPUSA members left the party by the end of the decade.

The demise of the CPUSA did not, however, stop the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) from continuing its relentless campaign to root out any vestige of communist influence from American society, however trivial. By the mid-1950s, the committee’s public hearings into the remnants of the CPUSA had evolved into a performative shaming ritual in which those witnesses who took the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination were then subject to a variety of social sanctions, frequently including denial of employment.

In the summer of 1956, HUAC would travel to Philadelphia to hold a hearing into a Quaker-run local library that employed a librarian who once had CPUSA ties. On this occasion, however, the library and librarian in question defied HUAC and the culture of performative shaming it represented.

Mary Knowles and the William Jeanes Memorial Library

In August 1953, the William Jeanes Memorial Library, in Plymouth Meeting, PA, found itself in need of a replacement librarian after the current librarian broke her leg. The library, run by the local Quaker community, hired Mary Knowles, a librarian who had recently moved to the area from Boston. After the previous librarian decided to retire, Knowles was hired as the new permanent librarian in September 1954.

Knowles was praised for her excellent work at Jeanes Memorial, but she had one drawback: she was very much a target of the congressional countersubversive apparatus represented by HUAC and several other committees. Mary’s former husband, Clyde Knowles, was a CPUSA activist, and from 1945-47, she worked as secretary at the CPUSA-affiliated Samuel Adams School in Boston. In May 1953, a former Boston-area CPUSA member named Herbert Philbrick identified Mary Knowles as “a member of the Communist Party, and in fact a member of my own pro-group underground cell” in testimony before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS). (Subversive Influence, Part 9, 944)

Philbrick’s certainty in identifying Knowles as a communist before SISS stood in stark contrast to his closed-door testimony before HUAC in 1951. At this earlier appearance, Philbrick had answered “Not that I recall at this time” when asked if Mary Knowles was a CPUSA member. (Expose of Communist Activities, 131) Nevertheless, Philbrick’s improved memory resulted in Knowles being fired from her job at the South Norwood (MA) Branch Library, and herself being called to testify before SISS on May 21, 1953, where she invoked the Fifth Amendment. Ironically, it was SISS’s pursuit of Knowles that made her available to take the Plymouth Meeting job.

Knowles was upfront with the Plymouth Meeting Library Committee about her issues. The committee and its chair, Lillian Tapley, decided to employ her regardless. Upon Knowles’s permanent employment in September 1954, controversy ensued. The local township withdrew its financial support from the library, and the school board instructed students not to use Jeanes Library. By early 1955, the clamor had grown more intense, as groups such as the American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution called for Knowles to be fired. The library committee, however, despite several resignations, remained firmly on Knowles’s side.

Enter the Fund for the Republic

Knowles Newspaper Headline, July 1955
Headline from the Norristown (PA) Times-Herald, July 1955. Image via Historical Society of Montgomery County. Source: https://hsmcpa.org/index.php/component/k2/item/16-the-plymouth-meeting-controversy

In the midst of this controversy, there were two events that further exacerbated the situation. First, in May 1955, a civil liberties nonprofit called the Fund for the Republic granted Plymouth Meeting a $5,000 award “in recognition of its forthright stand in defense of individual freedom” by employing Mary Knowles. The Fund’s president, former University of Chicago head Robert Maynard Hutchins, expressed the hope “that Plymouth Monthly Meeting’s example will be followed elsewhere in America, particularly when our libraries—which seem to be a special target of self-appointed censors and amateur loyalty experts—are involved.” (Quoted in Mayer, Robert Maynard Hutchins, 432)

The Fund’s award only served to enrage the countersubversives, in Congress and elsewhere, who wanted Knowles fired. This led to the second event, which was that Mary Knowles was again subpoenaed to testify before SISS. Testifying on September 15, 1955, she once again declined to cooperate with the committee. This time, however, she did so without invoking the Fifth Amendment, but rather by making the following argument:

First, that I am not a Communist; that I am not a member of the Communist Party, and that for many, many years I have had no connection, direct or indirect, with any organization on the Attorney General’s list.

Further than that I have no knowledge of any matters concerning national security; I have no knowledge of any matters concerning the Internal Security Act of 1950; I have no knowledge of any matters of subversion, sabotage, or espionage, of infiltration, of violent overthrow of the Government, of any acts concerning any foreign powers or any other illegal act.

In view of these things and the fact that I am a private citizen employed in a private institution under the care of a religious organization, I feel that I have no information that would be within the power or the jurisdiction of this duly organized committee to ask of me. (Subversive Influence, Part 14, 549)

As a result of her refusal to cooperate with SISS, the Senate voted on April 17, 1956 to hold Mary Knowles in contempt of Congress.

HUAC Enters the Picture

Francis Walter Photo
Representative Francis Walter (D-PA), Chair of HUAC from 1955-63. Walter was instrumental in inserting HUAC into the Plymouth Meeting controversy. Image via Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Source: https://bioguide.congress.gov/search/bio/W000108

In addition to supporting Plymouth Meeting for retaining Mary Knowles, the Fund for the Republic with much fanfare also produced a report critical of blacklisting in the entertainment industry, which was published in late June 1956. This drew the ire of the House Un-American Activities Committee and its chair, Rep. Francis Walter (D-PA). In May 1956, HUAC quietly began an investigation of the Fund, publicly announcing its investigation in June.

After holding six days of hearings in early July criticizing the Fund’s report on blacklisting, Walter took advantage of a subcommittee visit to Philadelphia in mid-July to hold a one-day hearing on the Plymouth Meeting controversy. Held on July 18, 1956, the hearing was officially about the Fund’s award to Plymouth Meeting. It soon became clear, however, that the hearing was little more than an attempt to shame and embarrass both Plymouth Meeting and the Fund for the Republic. Of the six witnesses called, four were local residents critical of Mary Knowles’s employment. A fifth was Maureen Black Ogden, an investigator for the Fund who recommended the Plymouth Meeting award. She was of course harshly grilled by Walter’s subcommittee. Only Lillian Tapley was allowed to make the case on behalf of the Plymouth Meeting Library Committee.

The outrageous nature of the hearing was aptly summarized in a July 24 letter written by nine Philadelphia area Quakers, and addressed to the HUAC members not present at the hearing:

It is our opinion that what took place was a travesty upon the word “investigation” and a mockery of the idea of inquiry. It appears rather to have been an organized attempt to present selected facts in the light most discreditable to the Fund for the Republic, Inc. We refer in part to the number and order in which witnesses were called; the close questioning of witnesses of one point of view, and the obvious sympathy with those of another; the repeated rejection of proffers of fact by individual witnesses; the deliberate cultivation of hearsay testimony which fitted their thesis; and like irregularities. (Quoted in The Plymouth Meeting Controversy, 30)


In January 1957, Mary Knowles was convicted of contempt of Congress for her September 1955 testimony before SISS. Her conviction would be overturned by the Supreme Court in 1961. The Plymouth Meeting Library Committee remained steadfast in its support of Mary Knowles until the controversy subsided, and Jeanes Library thrived under her leadership. Knowles remained at William Jeanes Memorial Library until her retirement in 1979.

Perhaps the final word on the Plymouth Meeting controversy belongs to Hutchins biographer Milton Mayer, in describing Mary Knowles:

Mrs. Mary Knowles did not appear to be redoubtable, but she was; more redoubtable, in the end, than the United States Congress, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the American Legion, and the most redoubtable representatives of the American press. (Mayer, Robert Maynard Hutchins, 430)

CWIS Sources Featuring Testimony by Mary Knowles:

Subversive Influence in the Educational Process, Part 10: Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Eighty-Third Congress, First Session. 1953. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.J 89/2:SU 1/10/PT. 10)

Subversive Influence in the Educational Process, Part 14: Hearing Before the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Eighty-Fourth Congress, First Session. 1955. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.J 89/2:SU 1/10/PT. 14)

CWIS Sources Featuring Testimony Referring to Mary Knowles:

Investigation of the Award by the Fund for the Republic, Inc., Plymouth Meeting, PA. Hearing before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eighty-Fourth Congress, Second Session. 1956.  (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.Un 1/2:F 96/2)

Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the U.S. Appendix, Part 9: Communist Front Organizations: First Section. Special Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Seventy-Eighth Congress, Second Session. 1944. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.UN 1/2:UN 1/944/APP./ V. 1)
-Knowles is mentioned on p. 479

Subversive Influence in the Educational Process, Part 9: Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Eighty-Third Congress, First Session. 1953. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.J 89/2:SU 1/10/PT. 9)
-Herbert Philbrick’s May 1953 testimony. Mary Knowles is referenced on pgs. 890 and 944

Testimony of Walter S. Steele Regarding Communist Activities in the United States. Hearings before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eightieth Congress, First Session. 1947.  (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.UN 1/2:ST 3)
-Knowles is mentioned on p. 52

U.S. House. Committee on Un-American Activities. Expose of Communist Activities in the State of Massachusetts. (HRG-1951-UAH-0036; Date:
Jun. 18-21, 1951). Text in: ProQuest® Unpublished Hearings Digital Collection; Accessed: September 27, 2021. (ProQuest Congressional: ECU users only)
-Knowles is referenced on p. 131

Other Sources:

Goodman, Walter. The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1968. (Joyner Stacks: E743.5 .G64)

Hepler, Allison.  McCarthyism in the Suburbs: Quakers, Communists, and the Children’s Librarian. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018. (Joyner Stacks: E743.5 .H45 2018)

Jenkins, Philip.  The Cold War at Home: The Red Scare in Pennsylvania, 1945-1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. (Joyner Stacks: F154 .J46 1999)

Mayer, Milton. Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1993 1993. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft4w10061d/

The Plymouth Meeting Controversy: A Report Prepared for the Civil Liberties Committee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. 1957. (Online via Hathi Trust)

Reeves, Thomas C.  Freedom and the Foundation: The Fund for the Republic in the Era of McCarthyism. New York: Knopf, 1969. (Joyner Stacks: AS911.F813 R4)

Sullivan, Nancy. “The Plymouth Meeting Controversy.” Historical Society of Montgomery County, March 9, 2017.

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