Minnesota labor historian
Hy Berman dies at age 90,
worked to include the working class in the teaching of history
Hy Berman: labor historian, advisor to Governor Rudy Perpich, political commentator.
Photo courtesy of College of Liberal Arts, University of MInnesota
From the Minneapolis Labor Review, December 18, 2015
By Steve Share, Labor Review editor
MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota labor historian Hy Berman died November 29 at age 90. The longtime University of Minnesota history professor broke new ground in the teaching of American history, researching and telling the story of the working class, immigrant workers, and the labor movement — a history that largely had been ignored when he first began his academic career.
At Berman’s funeral at Temple Israel December 3, friends and colleagues shared their connections with Berman.
“We had an endless conversation about our unhappiness about the history of the United States we had been taught as undergraduates and graduate students,” said David Noble, retired University of Minnesota professor, recalling his first meeting with Berman at an academic conference 60 years ago.
The traditional approach to teaching U.S. history focused on U.S. Presidents — all white, all male, Noble said. The working class, immigrants, people of color and women were not part of the story.
When Berman joined Noble at the U of M in 1961, Noble said, “he worked to make them part of our inclusive history.” And, Noble said, “he established the history of labor for the first time in our department.”
Berman focused his early research and writing in Minnesota on the Iron Range. “He pointed out the tremendous differential of power between the men who owned the mines and their workers, who were exploited,” Noble said.
At first, Noble related, Berman was denounced by other members of the U of M History Department for teaching about class divisions.
And, Noble continued, in one of his last recent conversations with Berman the two retired professors talked about how class divisions today are increasing in the United States.
“I cherish my 60-year friendship with Hy — our shared rebellion against the status quo in the profession and the status quo outside the profession,” Noble said.
Berman was the most frequent guest on Twin Cities Public Television’s “Almanac” public affairs program, said Eric Eskola, one of the hosts of the program, who also spoke at Berman’s funeral.
Berman appeared on “Almanac’s” fourth episode in 1985, discussing labor history. Over the years, Eskola said, Berman appeared 90 times on “Almanac.”
“We at public TV in the Twin Cities feel like we have lost a family member.” Eskola said. “We in public TV are proud of our modest role in making Hy Minnesota’s historian.”
In addition to appearing on “Almanac,” Berman regularly spoke in the community and was a frequent featured speaker at labor events.
“I learned a lot from Hy,” said Dave Roe, president emeritus of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. “We sat on many panels together and exchanged views of the labor movement and what it meant, going back to the Teamsters strikes of 1934.”
“He’s going to be missed,” Roe told the Labor Review. “He was a great labor person… and provided a real service for the labor movement.”
“Those of us developing the East Side Freedom Library owe a major debt to Hy Berman,” said Peter Rachleff, retired Macalester College history professor.
“He — and we — insist that immigrant history and labor history are fundamentally intertwined. Hy’s personal experience as the child of an Eastern European Jewish immigrant and garment working family informed his brilliant work as an historian.”
“His work on the role of immigrant cultures, organizations, and communities in the development of the Iron Range’s labor movement was path-breaking,” Rachleff said. “It was so path-breaking, in fact, that he was ahead of the collection of archives. And so, with his University of Minnesota colleagues Rudy Vecoli, Clarke Chambers (who also passed this year), and David Noble, he founded a set of archives at the University which made it possible for later generations of students to dig deeper and broader, to bring to life the histories of miners, timberworkers, longshoremen, steelworkers, and more.”
“While many honor Hy for his contributions to the internal life of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in the 1970s and 1980s,” Rachleff said, “I want to call attention to his significance in the researching, writing, and sharing the histories of women and men which would otherwise have remained untold and ignored.”