BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) – Before photographer Milton Rogovin began documenting the lives of the poor and working class, the U.S. government was documenting Rogovin, relying on a network of informants in an era of paranoia toward suspected communists.
“He is dangerous to the internal security because of his strong adherence to Marxist-Leninist principles,” read an internal FBI memo dated April 8, 1968.
It is one of more than 600 pages of material on Rogovin secretly compiled by the FBI from the 1940s to the 1970s. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the file with the approach of the first anniversary of Rogovin’s Jan. 18, 2011 death at the age of 101.
The file contains memos from former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, informant-provided chronologies of Rogovin’s attendance and comments at Buffalo Communist Party meetings, handwriting samples and references to surreptitiously snapped photos of the optometrist who later gained acclaim as a social documentary photographer.
Names of those reporting Rogovin’s movements to agents are blacked out in copies of material provided in response to a Freedom of Information request.
Rogovin and his wife Anne, who died in 2003, had viewed some of the heavily redacted material in the file before their deaths, according to their son, Mark.
“We as a family were horribly distressed that so many of the people that we felt were good friends turned out to be agents,” Mark Rogovin, a Chicago activist and mural artist, told The AP by phone.
Born in New York City in 1909, Rogovin moved to Buffalo in 1938 to practice as an optometrist. He quickly became politically active, organizing an optical workers union, a move that would cost him his job at the time, and attending Communist Party meetings at a Buffalo union hall.
It was nearly 20 years later, in 1957, that Rogovin realized he could accomplish the same type of awareness-raising of social and economic inequities with photography, his family said. That began when a music professor friend, William Tallmadge, invited him to photograph services at an African-American storefront church.
His subjects were everyday people in poor neighborhoods, coal miners, steel workers and Native Americans on reservations, photographed in a black and white style that seemed to underline a universal paucity. He called his subjects “the forgotten ones.”
The body of work compiled in the decades that followed earned Rogovin the New York State Governor’s Arts Award in 2000. The Library of Congress has archived the photographer’s negatives, contact sheets and 1,300 photographs.
Much of the FBI file entries, made well before those accolades, read like routine minutes from Communist Party meetings in the 1940s, referring to speakers and fundraising efforts. At a February 1946 meeting, “those present were urged to fight against discrimination against negroes and to form committees to study the history of the negro people,” according to the file.
At a September 1946 meeting, Rogovin, who was the chapter’s education director, reportedly complained of party leaders’ use of “plane or Pullman between Buffalo and New York City,” saying they should travel coach, informants told agents.
A 1949 entry has Rogovin discussing his attendance at a civil rights conference in New York City.
Rogovin and his wife, the former Anne Setters, both children of Russian-born parents, knew they were being scrutinized, the couples’ children told The AP. They described seeing agents parked outside of their home, going door-to-door to their neighbors and following them on errands or to and from work. But the couple was not deterred.
“They believed in it,” one of two daughters, Ellen Rogovin Hart, said.
In 1957, Rogovin was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, where he invoked the First and Fifth Amendments in declining to answer questions about the Communist Party.
“Rogovin, named as top red in Buffalo, balks at nearly all queries,” read the headline the next day in the hometown Buffalo Evening News.
Rogovin saw his optometry business fall by half after his testimony and longtime friends stayed away to avoid being branded Communists and blacklisted. The Cold War-era committee swept up not only their neighbors but artists and entertainers including Pete Seeger and playwright Arthur Miller.
The Rogovins opted not to re-enroll in the party in 1958, according to the file. Their children said the decision was more about protecting the family and Anne Rogovin’s job as a teacher than politics.
“They believed in humanity, they believed that people had the right to have a decent job with privileges that working people should have, like health care and wages that were decent,” said Rogovin Hart, a retired elementary school teacher living near Philadelphia.
Included in the FBI file is a March 1943 memo from Hoover to Major General George Strong at the War Department in Washington, sent after Rogovin joined the Army to serve in World War II. It referenced two special agents’ reports, from 1942 and 1943.
“In view of the information contained in the above mentioned reports,” Hoover wrote, “it would be appreciated if you would advise this bureau if he is released at some time in the future from the United States Army.”
An agent’s 1946 report noted that before Rogovin and his brother, Samuel, opened their own optometry office in Buffalo, he had lost his job at another city office after organizing a union and strike.
“We’re very proud of our parents,” Mark Rogovin said. “Whatever they did, whatever projects they worked on were really rich projects, important projects dealing with peace and justice, dealing with things like health care.”
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