Michael Nash, record-keeper of the left, dead at 66

Michael Nash.

BY GARY SHAPIRO  |  Michael Nash, a leader in preserving the history of the left, has died. As educator, archivist and historian, Nash led New York University’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.

“Mike had a profound understanding of how the history of the left fit together with all its parts. It was so alive to him, he brought it to life for others,” said Michael Stoller, director of collections and research services at N.Y.U. Libraries.

Stoller said Nash was both archivist and academic.

“He understood what scholars themselves were looking for in an archive,” he noted.

The Tamiment collection has vast holdings relating to radical history of many stripes.

The Wagner Archives have traditionally sought to preserve the historical record of the trade union movement, with a special focus on the New York labor movement.

“He sought to enrich the collection with archival material and programming on the social and cultural history of the working class,” said N.Y.U. history professor Daniel Walkowitz.

The tousle-haired Nash could be seen working long hours, introducing student classes to the collection or advising visiting fellows. He forged closer relations with such intramural institutions as Ireland House.

He landed collections of Guantanamo lawyers, Victor Navasky of The Nation, and those of Howard Zinn, whose papers are at the intersection of history of the left and the subject of writing history itself.

Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, recalled marveling as Nash dove athletically into a damp room off an underground parking garage in Brooklyn to expertly select boxes from activist lawyer William Kunstler’s papers.

Nash’s acquisition of the archive of C.I.A. apostate Philip Agee amounted to cloak-and-dagger. The flight from Havana to Montreal was met on the tarmac by the Canadian mounted police, the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. The materials were redirected to Ohio, where they were confiscated and sent to Washington, D.C. Most of it eventually arrived at the Tamiment.

“He knew it was going to be important to researchers,” said Stoller.

The Tamiment now also has Agee’s typewriter that had once been bugged.

The archivist’s most eye-opening catch came after receiving a phone call from the Communist Party U.S.A. asking if he would have their archives, due to remodeling and lack of funding.

Nash rooted around dusty filing cabinets, closets and storage areas.

“They didn’t take anything away, they didn’t know what I was looking for, they didn’t review anything,” he told NPR in 2007. “You know, I’ve been in this business for 35 years and that’s never happened.”

Under a desk, he found a box with radical union organizer Joe Hill’s last will and testament, which began, “My will is easy to decide/For I have nothing to divide.”

Nash founded and co-directed the Center for the United States and the Cold War, as well as the Frederic Ewen Center for Academic Freedom.

With these two centers and with the papers of the Communist Party at the Tamiment as the result of Nash’s efforts, more attention and programing has been paid than in previous years to topics that intersect with the Communist movement, such as the Cold War, the McCarthy period, the House Un-American Activities Committee (a.k.a. HUAC) and the Rapp-Coudert Committee.

“His great achievement was to bring a sense of liveliness to the Tamiment,” said writer/scholar Paul Berman. “His great error, in my partisan judgment, was to steer the library away from the anti-Communist left.” He added of the pre-Nash library, “Like most of the old New York socialists, it was an institution dedicated to combating the inroads of the Communist movement on the American left and the American labor movement.”

Nash was good at convincing people and organizations to donate their archives because of his sincerity and likability, Stoller said, noting, “He was a genuine optimist.”

Author Tony Hiss said the only time he ever saw anyone angry with Nash was when the pair were in a “Quiet Car” on Amtrak heading to Harvard Law School to confer about his father Alger Hiss’s defense counsel files. They were roundly “shushed” because Nash could not suppress his naturally enthusiastic voice to a scholarly whisper.

Born in the Bronx in 1946, Nash was interested in Yankee games, comics and baseball cards to the detriment of his elementary school education.

“School was not a priority,” said his wife, Jeanne Ross-Nash, adding that, in that regard, “He’s definitely not a role model here.”

He considered becoming a mathematician or an economist.

His parents’ activism was formative for Nash. In the public schools, his mother, Ruth, taught business, and his father, Julius Nash, taught science. Julius was fired in 1962 for falsifying his teacher application stating that he had never been a member of the Communist Party.

Nash’s father went on to manage a toy store and also teach at the Yeshiva of Flatbush.

His mother was a member of the Committee of Labor Union Women.

“She was very much the feminist,” Ross-Nash said.

During his induction physical for the Army, the anti-Vietnam War activist checked a box saying he was a 1930s veteran of the Spanish Civil War. An examiner said, “It’s absurd you checked that.” Nash replied, “It’s absurd you asked that.” His reward was an exemption: unfit for service.

After undergraduate study at Harpur College at Binghamton University, he earned master’s degrees in history and library science at Columbia University, and a doctorate in 1975 at Binghamton in labor history.

Melvyn Dubofsky, a professor emeritus at Binghamton University, served on Nash’s dissertation committee in the early 1970s. Dubofsky recalled that the young scholar argued that among immigrant steelworkers and coal miners, there was more radical sentiment than previously believed. The dissertation became Nash’s first book, “Conflict and Accommodation: Coal Miners, Steel Workers and Socialism, 1890-1920” (Greenwood Press).

Nash went on to co-edit “Red Activists and Black Freedom: James and Esther Jackson and the Long Civil Rights Revolution” (Routledge) and “The Good Fight Continues: World War II Letters From the Abraham Lincoln Brigade” (NYU Press). Other works by Nash covered archival subjects, such as editing, as in his “How to Keep Union Records.”

He and his wife met at a party in Park Slope. She brought clam dip, and he accidentally bumped into her, spilling it all over both of them.

Earlier in his career, he worked in archives at the New York Public Library and Cornell University, followed by a 20-year stint at the Hagley Museum and Library in Delaware.

For a labor historian, Nash certainly knew his way around the business world, handling corporate donors with aplomb. He even consulted with Bank of America about its archives. At the Hagley Museum, he broadened the collection to include the history of consumer goods. He deserves a toast for acquiring the Seagrams archive, formerly housed in a warehouse in Queens. Also for the Hagley Museum, he snapped up the Avon cosmetics archive, a company that he viewed as helping women gain an economic foothold. He also built the museum’s collection to cover early years of the computer industry.

“To sense a collection’s utility and figure out whether it will be of interest to future historians is not an everyday skill of archivists,” noted Glenn Porter, director emeritus of the Hagley Museum and Library, who hired Nash. “Some archivists never see a collection they didn’t want.

“I really can’t imagine an archivist anywhere with the range to acquire the archives of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for the Hagley Museum and the Communist Party for the Tamiment,” noted Porter.

But it was a return in 1992 to his first love — labor history — at the Tamiment that was the culmination of his career.

His collecting spanned some sectarian divides.

“There are records and papers sitting on shelves donated by people who would not want to be in the same room together,” said Chela Scott Weber, acting director of the Tamiment.

Nash succumbed to a pulmonary embolism.

In addition to his wife, Jeanne Ross-Nash, a psychotherapist in private practice, he is survived by two sons, Raphael Nash of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Gabriel Nash of Wilmington, Delaware.

Over the past year, Nash got to know Occupy Wall Street activists well enough that some attended his shiva, the Jewish mourning rite of gathering at the deceased’s home.

He enjoyed heading down to meetings of the O.W.S. “Think Tank” and the Archives Working Group with college-age provocateurs in their late teens, 20s and 30s.

“Mike felt like he was young again,” his wife said.

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7 Responses to Michael Nash, record-keeper of the left, dead at 66

  1. Diane Lebedeff

    Michael Nash was such an enthusiastic fan of West Village history … he lead to the move to add Ed Gold's papers to the NYU archive, preserving important parts of Village history. He was a wonderful fellow and will be much missed.

  2. Carol Greitzer

    I was shocked to hear the news about Michael Nash. We met when I was looking for a suitable repository for both my Greenwich Village and women's rights papers. I wanted this material to stay in the Village, and he convinced me that the Tamiment archive was the right place. His work deserves to be known by a wider audience.

  3. Good guy and those of us interested in social movements and the history of labor and the left are certainly in his debt.

  4. normanmarkowitz

    As someone who knew and was a close friend of Michael's for forty years and a fellow historian through that period, I found Gary Schapiro's article seriously flawed and insensitive on two issues. First, as someone whose partisanship is very different than Paul Berman's whom I remember before his Reagan era political changes, one might mention that while Tamiment and the Rand School before it were part of the Social Democratic rightwing of the larger socialist movement(the Communists were the most important group on the leftwing of that movement here and of course globally, the Tamiment Library since I first began to do research there in the 1970s had moved well aware from that orientation toward a broader labor and institutional history. Michael's great contribution was to focus on working class culture and its relationship to society and also to through the center for study of the cold war reach out to an international scholarship.

  5. carla caccamise ash

    Just heard of Michael's death through an NYU newsletter. I'm so sorry. I worked with him from the Seagram side on moving those archives down to the Hagley, and onward for several years, until his move to NYC. What to me was has greatest ability was to pare archives down to their essentials and not take the whole kit and kaboodle. He could focus in on what had true importance better, and more quickly, than anyone I have ever known. And his personality allowed him to work with corporate people without exhibiting frustration when he didn't get everything he wanted. He was always a pleasure to work with and I will remember those times with fondness.

  6. Jeanne Ross Nash

    As Michael’s wife I am appalled on the misinformation regarding Michael’s father and my father in law. Contrary to the information in the article, Jilius Nash was not fired from the Board of Educatiom for falsifying his loyalty oath. He,as well as many others were suspended under that charge in the early nineteen fifties, mainly because of a refusal to turn on others. When others were later reinstated jeans one other remained in limbo because the board felt they didn’t show enough remorse. Nash and Mauer in 1971 were recompensed for the years 1951-1971. Mauer went on to teach at the board of education, Nash in Yeshiva of Flatbush

    Documented by Marjorie Heins, Priests of Our Democracy, 2013

  7. Barbara T. Nash

    Jeanne, your correction is still not quite correct. My father, Julius Nash, was suspended without pay from his teaching position by the NYC Board of Education in September 1955. This followed hearings that began in 1954, during which he refused to inform on his colleagues. My father and Irving Mauer brought a case to the Supreme Court of Kings County in 1959 and were ultimately fired by the Board of Education in 1962 when four other suspended teachers were reinstated. The case was brought to the NYS Supreme Court and denied. Following a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring the Feinberg Law, under which they had been dismissed, unconstitutional, Julius and Irving's attorneys filed a new petition for reinstatement that included 31 other teachers who had been fired. The Board of Education refused to respond for years, but the case was ultimately settled in 1973. The 33 teachers were reinstated and immediately retired. They were forced to give up their right to back pay and punitive damages in exchange for a "full pension" (i.e. included the time from their date of suspension until November 1, 1973 as years of service). I would not call that being recompensed for the loss of a 20-year career. The New York Civil Liberties Union awarded my father and Irving Mauer the 1973 Florina Lasker Civil Liberties Award in "for their stamina in resisting loyalty investigations and for their collective struggle over 20 years to vindicate the principles of academic freedom".

    My information is accurate because I have the original legal documents.

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