Lee Lorch (1915–2014)

Lee Lorch was a professor of mathematics at Philander Smith College in Little Rock (Pulaski County) during the second half of the 1950s. He and his wife, Grace Lorch, became involved in the black civil rights struggle in central Arkansas. As a lifelong leftwing activist, he also came to the attention of investigatory commissions at both the federal and state levels.

Lee Lorch was born to Adolph Lorch and Florence Lorch in New York City on September 20, 1915. Lorch’s grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Germany (an old town in the Rhine River Valley is named Lorch). His mother was a school teacher until she married, and his father eventually became part owner of a small factory. Lorch had three siblings: Arthur, Regina, and Judith.

Lorch graduated from Cornell University in 1935. After earning a PhD in mathematics at the University of Cincinnati in 1941, he briefly worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. He married Grace Lonergan, a Boston school teacher, in December 1943. After service in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, he became an instructor for the City College of New York in 1946.

While it is unconfirmed if or when Lorch was a member of the U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA), he was always active in leftist causes. In graduate school, he helped to organize a racially integrated union of public school teachers in Louisville, Kentucky. Because Lorch helped to organize protests by fellow white tenants in a segregated Manhattan housing project owned by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company during the late 1940s, he lost his jobs at City College and Pennsylvania State University. He taught at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1950 to 1955.

Lorch was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Dayton, Ohio, to give testimony about membership in the CPUSA in 1954. He cited the First Amendment, instead of the Fifth Amendment, as the reason for why he chose not to cooperate. HUAC charged him with contempt of Congress. His employment contract was not renewed by the Fisk Board of Trustees. Lorch had come to HUAC’s attention at least as early as 1950. Over the years, his activities were also scrutinized by the Louisiana Joint Legislative Committee on Segregation and the Special Education Committee of the Arkansas Legislative Council.

Lorch moved to Little Rock in 1955 to become the chair of the mathematics department at Philander Smith College. For nearly three years, he, Grace, and their daughter, Alice, lived comfortably among Little Rock’s black community. They were neighbors of Daisy and L. C. Bates, civil rights activists and publishers of the Arkansas State Press. Long active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Lorch served as a representative of the Little Rock branch. His official request to the Little Rock school board to have his daughter placed in a black elementary school was rejected (a similar request had been rejected by Nashville’s school board shortly before his HUAC hearing). When Alice and black friends were barred from using a public roller-skating rink, her father filed a protest with the Little Rock Parks Commission.

When the Little Rock Nine attempted to enter Central High School on September 4, 1957, Lorch was standing near the school. That same morning, his wife had helped Little Rock Nine member Elizabeth Eckford board a bus to escape the mob that was surrounding her. According to at least one account, Lee Lorch accompanied Daisy Bates and Little Rock police officers as they slipped the students through a side door of the school building three weeks later. In the tense months that followed, the Lorches had a cross burned on their front lawn and dynamite shoved under their garage door. Alice was beaten by children at her school.

During the Lorches’ time in in Little Rock, Arkansas attorney general Bruce Bennett tried to develop a case against them based on the state’s 1951 Communist Registration Act. Along with Daisy Bates and Arkansas Gazette editor Harry Ashmore, the Lorches were a subject of concern in Special Education Committee hearing in late 1958.

Although Lorch was acquitted by a federal judge of the 1954 contempt of Congress charge, the NAACP’s national office was already distancing itself from Lorch because of his reputed communist ties (though this position was not shared by local NAACP activists). The Lorches left Little Rock in the spring of 1958. Lorch resigned from Philander Smith College and spent one year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. As it had become impossible for Lorch to find secure academic work in the United States, he moved with his family to Canada in 1959. He spent the rest of a long and successful career as a mathematician at Canadian universities.

During his career, Lorch was noted for encouraging his African-American students to pursue higher studies in mathematics, and his actions at the height of the Second Red Scare were often interpreted sympathetically in the black press.

Lee Lorch died on February 28, 2014. Grace Lorch had died in 1974.

For additional information:
Alice Lorch Bartels Interview. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas. https://cdm15728.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p1532coll1/id/13228/rec/1 (accessed February 28, 2024).

Bates, Daisy. The Long Shadow of Little Rock: A Memoir. New York: David McKay Company, 1962.

Fariello, Griffin, ed. Red Scare: Memories of the American Inquisition, an Oral History. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1995.

Gilpin, Patrick J., and Marybeth Gasman. Charles S. Johnson: Leadership beyond the Veil in the Age of Jim Crow. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Iggers, Wilma, and Georg Iggers. Two Lives in Uncertain Times: Facing the Challenges of the 20th Century as Scholars and Citizens. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006.

Katagiri, Yasuhiro. Black Freedom, White Resistance, and Red Menace: Civil Rights and Anticommunism in the Jim Crow South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014.

Kenschaft, Patricia Clark. Change Is Possible: Stories of Women and Minorities in Mathematics. Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 2005.

Margolick, David. Elizabeth & Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Newkirk, Anthony B. “Lee and Grace Lorch in Little Rock, 1955–1958.” Pulaski County Historical Review 64 (Fall 2016): 96–111.

———. “‘The Long Reach of History’: The Lorches and Little Rock, 1955–1959.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 76 (Autumn 2017): 248–267.

Stockley, Grif. Daisy Bates: Civil Rights Crusader from Arkansas. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

York University: News from the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections. “Black History Month Featured Fonds: Lee and Grace Lorch.” http://deantiquate.blog.yorku.ca/2012/02/24/bhm2012_leeandgracelorch/ (accessed September 2, 2021)

Anthony B. Newkirk
Philander Smith College


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